From Bill Sell

OffRamp: Why Not the Hoan

Author’s note: These are questions many of us are still being asked about the Hoan bicycle path. The story begins in 1988 when the City studied the route. In 1997 WisDOT picked up the idea, bolstered by federal money. I was a member of WisDOT’s Citizens Advisory Committee to design a bicycle commuting path from Bay View to Downtown (1997–2002). Bill Sell.

Q…Are bicycles allowed on the Hoan Bridge?

A…No, they are not. It is still considered a limited access highway or “freeway” where bicycles are not allowed.

Q…But there are exceptions to that rule.

A…Yes, there are many states that allow bicycles on Interstate Highways because the Interstate offers the only reasonable route for bicyclists or pedestrians between two points. A good example of that in Wisconsin is the I94 Highway bridge from Hudson over the St. Croix river to Minnesota. That Interstate highway bridge is currently being reconstructed and it will have a separated bike/pedestrian path.

Q…Isn’t it more dangerous to ride on freeways since the speeds are so high?

A…Not necessarily, true interstate highways generally have high speeds and heavy traffic volumes, but they also have 10′ wide shoulders. Many roads we are allowed to ride on have similar speeds and traffic counts, but NO shoulder. Here is a sampling of Wisconsin roads much more dangerous than the Hoan on which cyclists are allowed to ride:

  1. . Highway 164 in Waukesha
  2. . Highway 175 in Washington County
  3. . Highway 83 in Waukesha County
  4. . South 27th St. in Oak Creek, Milwaukee County
  5. . Bluemound Ave. (Highway 18) in Waukesha
  6. . Or way more dangerous than the Hoan, even the on and off ramps highways M and B between Boulder Junction and Presque Isle, two of the scariest roads to ride on in the state in the opinion of experienced bicyclists.

Q…So, why not the Hoan?

A…In August 2002 the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) issued a decision against building a Hoan bike path. They said there were “concerns” about traffic congestion.

Q…Well, congestion is no one’s friend. We don’t want that.

A…No, we don’t. In fact WisDOT spent thousands of dollars to project future congestion on the Hoan, with a bicycle path, and found that a bicycle path would have almost no impact on traffic times. The “concerns” they announced in the decision were bogus. They did the study because, yes, we had concerns; then they denied the results they found by spending thousands of tax dollars.

Q…How would bicycles cause congestion?

A…WisDOT’s plan would dedicate a full traffic lane to bicycles and pedestrians only.

Q…Well, that I understand. You subtract lanes and cars bunch up.

A…Sometimes, yes. But WisDOT studies could not establish that kind of significant congestion on the Hoan with a dedicated bicycle lane. Northbound the Lake Parkway feeds only 2 lanes at 40 mph into 3 lanes of the Hoan at 50 mph; traffic opens up when it accelerates. Traffic density on the Hoan will always be less than what drivers will tolerate on the Parkway, where there are no bicycles. WisDOT’s plan affected only Northbound lanes.

Q…Could there be another design?

A…Yes, indeed, there are several other designs to allow bicycles on the Hoan.

Q…I understand a bicycle path would be expensive. Is that true?

A…Only one design was expensive; the 2-lane WisDOT solution was the Cadillac option. But since the shoulder on the Hoan in its present form is already safer than riding on many roads where cyclists are permitted, WisDOT could simply allow us to ride there now at nearly no cost. And while not the ideal solution that creates a great bike facility, it would be available to bicyclists in a way that has no technical or financial impact on motorized traffic.

Q…I’m confused. The Hoan has three lanes, one way. Are you taking away one lane for bicycles or not?

A…WisDOT’s plan would make one lane exclusively for bicycles and pedestrians, leaving two lanes for motorized vehicles. Other designs would leave 3 lanes for motor vehicles.

Q…If congestion wasn’t the problem, then why not give one lane to bicycles?

A…WisDOT over-designed this project and came up with a $3 million dollar estimate.


A…WisDOT culture encourages over planning; yet bicycles are a foreign language in that department. Three million could be justified if they wanted to do so. Look, WisDOT added $1 million to the cost rather than extend the 40 mph Parkway speed for 300 more feet at the proposed bicycle entrance. A million dollars versus moving a sign! They drove up the price by avoiding advice and then walked away from their own project. The Federal government established a policy in 1991 (ISTEA) to encourage bicycle access wherever possible - about $2.2 million set aside for the Hoan. But the local governments balked.

Q…Sounds like a cakewalk. You could raise the rest with a good fund raising effort. What went wrong?

A…WisDOT’s planning method was flawed. The Citizens Advisory Committee was managed so that it would come up with only one Hoan bicycle path design and two other “street” plans. No less than five Hoan designs have been discussed, but WisDOT wanted only one recommendation from its Citizens Advisory Committee.

Q…Like, give it your best shot?

A…Well yes and no, WisDOT stipulated that we could not ask questions about cost until ONE Hoan alternative was actually selected.

Q…That’s not how normal people shop for something. Why didn’t the citizens protest?

A…Here I fault myself as well as WisDOT. The “Citizens” Advisory Committee (CAC) was made up of only 7 citizens, and over 14 government officials (city, county, state, federal, the port). We citizens were outflanked, but docile, because we believed playing along was how to win the Hoan path. It was a “citizen” panel in name, but I was allowed on the panel as my State Assembly Rep’s personal representative, not as a bicyclist or interested citizen.

Q…So you played along.

A…Yes, of course. We had all those honchos in one room, once or twice a year. Sometimes we were giddy with the illusion we were being listened to.

Q…What went wrong?

A…Throughout the five years(!) of meetings, conducted by a consultant, WisDOT often met quietly with individual government people to arrange the parameters of the discussion. Most of the government officials at the CAC meetings were hostile to bicycles on the Hoan.

Q…I thought the Mayor supported the Hoan bike path.

A…Yes, Mayor Norquist did, emphatically. But during this time, City government paid two(!) men to come and pan every single step of the discussion. As policy novices we learned how a bureaucrat can avoid the wishes of the elected official.

Q…So you came up with the best plan anyway, didn’t you?

A…In a way that is true. The original goal bicycle commuting was dropped along the way; the WisDOT-CAC design became a recreational trail for pedestrians as well.

Q…How did that make it more expensive?

A…We believed that to make the lane safe for walkers there had to be a concrete barrier for the benefit of walkers. This meant rebuilding the lane that fed northbound traffic from the Parkway to the Hoan, driving the price. Because we could not ask about price, we did not know that during the design phase. Like good democratic citizens we were committed to making a path that would be for all the people.

Q…Did they roll you?

A…Yes, as good citizens we should have argued Planning Philosophy (budget along with goals) as well as road design. We asked about the cost of the safety features and we were told we can’t get to costs until we come up with design. Major mistake; government needs to bring costs into plans early.

Q…And so why not come up with several designs?

A…We should have, but looking back, this was during the stock market bubble, 1997–2000 when the Hoan bike path design was narrowed to one. Governments were running surpluses and bicycles were getting cheaper, and we were going to pedal our way out of any future energy crisis.

Q…What are the other designs? Are they really less costly?

A…Paint. Bicycles could be on the shoulder by adding a few signs, paint, perhaps widening the southbound (Broadway) on ramp. The northbound shoulder is adequate as it stands. A painted stripe allows the bicycle path to be shared by motor vehicles that are in distress, like any highway. Motorized traffic will still use all three lanes.

Q…What highways are you talking about?

A…The Hoan has a 10 foot shoulder, which is far larger than most highways allow. Locally, the Wisconsin Avenue bridge has 6 feet for the bicyclist. Kinnickinnic Avenue, a main arterial, squeezes down to 58 inches. The 16th, 27th and 35th Street viaducts are not notably wide. Highway 32 between Milwaukee and Kenosha has a sometimes narrow bicycle right of way, with speeds higher than the Hoan.

Q…So how will all this happen?

A…Efforts are being made to use the Hoan, in off hours, as a tool for fund raising bicycle rides. Many of us believe the Miller Ride for the Arts would enjoy a boom in participation if the Hoan northbound were made available for a few hours on a Sunday morning. This is an excellent idea for using (not selling) County assets to raise money. Other groups have been talking about it, but have been stymied not by elected officials, but by lower ranking civil servants who are risk-adverse. As more people experience the Hoan on a bicycle the myths will dissolve.


A…Well, people are always talking about wind, or the steep incline. Those objections are unfounded. The incline is long (which is why it looks steep viewed north or south), but it is not steep. The CAC bicycled on the Hoan in 1997 with children and they took the incline easily, sitting down on their small bicycles. If you follow the logic of ignorance and fear, you will close swimming pools because a few folks are afraid of the water.

Q…Aren’t the winds really bad up there?

A…Of course winds up high are faster than ground winds. Wisconsin Electric Power Company studied and measured the wind on the Hoan. Like the Golden Gate Bridge in California, which allows foot and bicycle traffic, winds are not a significant issue. [In terms of bicycling, statistically we can expect that one bicycle trip out of ten might have winds too strong. This is a year-round statistic less of a problem in the summer, more of a problem in the winter. But the winds on the Hoan are not significantly stronger than ground winds. The Golden Gate Bridge has comparable exposure to the ocean, but it is open to walkers and bicyclists. On a windy day, most bicyclists take wind speed into consideration in planning and timing an errand. Using the Hoan to bicycle would become a routine decision, much as we check the weather before using a golf course or a lake. A bicycle path is more of a year-round utility than a beach or park.]

Q…Would you allow children up there?

A…Parents should be arbiter of their children’s safety. A parent may take a child on a bike ride to the park and ride on the sidewalk. Another may ride in the street. A Bay View high school student may need to ride downtown to get to work or the library to research a school project. They should be allowed to do so if their parents feel they are skilled enough. If cyclists are allowed to ride on a road, the parents should decide at what age. To keep children off, the State would use a simple criterion that is practical for the sheriff.

Q…Sure, like carry a birth certificate?

A…You joke. What does a bar bouncer look for? Have a driver’s license, unless you have wrinkles or gray hair. Or, maybe, being with an adult.

Q…What’s next?

A…Getting people up there on bicycles. The good news is that government resistance is softening in some respects, as bicycling becomes more popular, more necessary. Some 3000 people have signed the paper petition to bicycle on the Hoan. Over 300 have submitted comments to the web site. The path is supported by over 100 businesses and community groups.

Q…But is it really safe?

A…Are the alternatives safe? WisDOT prefers a path on Kinnickinnic Avenue that narrows to 58 inches and a bicyclist was killed there in May, 2004. Trucks turn right there at 15–20 mph, over the bike lane. Even WisDOT’s plan to put bicycles on that sidewalk will not prevent that kind of accident. A wide bicycle lane is the best way to build auto-bicycle compatibility, and the Hoan offers that.

Q…What’s in it for the non-bicyclists? Why should motor vehicle drivers give up anything for a bicycle?

A…Congestion is reduced every time there is one less car. Chicago has nothing like this bridge. A tourist industry could flourish bringing Chicago, the Twin Cities, and Muskegon folks to Milwaukee. Take it from the few who have been up there, the view from the Hoan Bridge is spectacular. During Harley Fest 2003, visiting motorcyclists were stopping all along the bridge to take photographs. It’s time to slow down and enjoy one of Milwaukee’s great views.

See also: where you can write your comments, and print the paper petition. Please do both!! How should the Hoan be used for maximum benefit of our city?

You can reach Bill Sell at the author’s eMailbox .

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Page last modified on October 12, 2009, at 12:26 PM