Highways and Neighborhoods Don't Mix

Among people who commute regularly between New York and Los Angeles, there is a small clique who refer to the rest of us as “fly-over people.” I think of this every time I cross West Avenue, when I have to face down aggressive suburban traffic charging through our city. Too many of these drivers show the same arrogant disdain on those of us who live here as their jet-setting counterparts.

Not long ago, the city paid for a traffic study that produced an idea applauded by local residents: Make West Avenue one lane in each direction, with a bike lane on each side and a center turn lane. The result would be calmer and more orderly traffic, and safer pedestrian crossings.

It was encouraging to see such a sensible attitude from city-paid consultants. Unfortunately, the DOT’s heavy-handed approach to highway building is the polar opposite of such sensibility. Their vision of urban highways is completely incompatible with livable urban neighborhoods.

Under the DOT’s latest proposal, every tree now shading West Avenue will disappear into a widening chasm of concrete. Traffic that’s already moving too fast will go even faster. A street that already divides our neighborhoods will divide them even more. By the time I’m old enough to use the senior center, I’ll have to cross a much wider and busier street to get there.

When this plan was first presented, it drew an understandably angry reception from city residents. So a committee was formed, meetings were held, and four months later, the city is about to get a “revised” plan. Expect to see little tweaks here and there as a gesture of compromise, but expect the overall plan to look pretty much the same. Unless the new plan exhibits an inconceivable reversal in the DOT’s overall vision, the city should reject it.

By the way, no one in the city should kid themselves into thinking that the chain saws and bulldozers will retire once they’re finished with West Avenue. They’ll move on to George Street, Jackson Street/State Road, and any other “state highway” until La Crosse is little more than a collection of enclaves walled off by highways.

It’s interesting how urbanites and suburbanites want the same qualities in our neighborhoods. We want peace and quiet and clean air. We’d like to walk around and chat with our neighbors. We enjoy the birds and squirrels; and we want to feel safe when we cross the street. When we drive through other people’s neighborhoods, we should be sensitive to the impact that our driving is having on those neighborhoods, and treat them as kindly as we would our own.

Years ago, my wife and I made a conscious decision to move into the city to free ourselves from car-dependence. That turned out to be the smartest decision we ever made. All the money we used to spend on gas, maintenance, insurance, and registration is now extra money in our checkbook. The time that others spend in traffic jams is time we spend bicycling on the back streets and enjoying life at home.

So my message to frustrated commuters: There are bargains to be had in the La Crosse housing market, and moving from the “country” to the city can relieve a lot of economic and emotional stress.

La Crosse was a busy and prosperous city in the days of walking, streetcars, and horses and buggies. With the right vision and enough wisdom, we are fully capable of designing a city where driving is a luxury, not a necessity. Our physical, emotional and economic well-being will thrive, and we can be a shining example for other cities to follow.

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