downtown Madison is over hyped. the city suffers.

By the time you’ve read this, the city of Madison will have survived yet another Iron Man competition. I say “survive” because going through downtown Madison is a nightmare every time Iron Man comes to town. The same goes for other lovely events that tie up traffic and making walking and driving through the area a giant game of chicken for everyone. Accordingly, I think it’s time for city planners to finally recognize that downtown Madison is over hyped, and consider better ways to plan spaces and events in this growing city.

A tight squeeze through downtown

Downtown areas of all cities will usually be an unusual pain in the butt. That’s life, but there are several geographical factors and planning blunders that make Madison’s downtown especially onerous:

1. The downtown area of the city is an isthmus that varies in width from three-quarters of a mile to a little over a mile, and is about three miles long.

2. This narrow Isthmus is just one of only two corridors connecting the east and west sides of the city, with the other being the Beltline. Each corridor has one main road and one to two other arterial streets running parallel. There is NO OTHER WAY to get from east to west in Madison unless you want to go north over Lake Mendota or south to Oregon and Stoughton. The lakes block you.

3. The brilliant city planners thought that this tiny, tight area would be the perfect place to put the seat of state government, county and city government, its downtown business section and the eastern edge of a Big Ten University.

4. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, there was a textbook “sustainable development” playbook that the city followed. But they just implemented the “high density” part and then threw out the textbook when it came to actually making transportation improvements that would keep the high density development from creating problems. This was partially due to the efforts of a Madison mayor that won an election by promising “sustainable development” and then proceeded instead to try to turn downtown Madison into a Wisconsin Dells for professionals and hipsters. Thankfully, the trolley he wanted—which would have only served downtown—never got built.

Even without all of these events downtown, this creates a dangerous situation. I once talked to a student in emergency planning who said that the geography of the Isthmus would present an unusual nightmare situation in the event of an emergency.

I learned some interesting things while attending community meetings about new developments. For example, the water table is just eighteen feet below the surface at the corner of Johnson and Bassett Streets. There were a number of tall buildings with built with underground garages, and some of them flooded. The Kohl Center is essentially placed in a giant cement tub to prevent flooding in that area. Indeed, the recent collapse of a pier at the Memorial Union (which actually was the second such incident in the last 20 years) seems like a perfect metaphor for Isthmus development.

Shop! Dine! Play! Help!

But then, on top of all this, the city planners want to showcase beautiful downtown Madison for everyone to see and gawk at. Come check out our lovely giant farmer’s market! Come enjoy a beer at the lovely Memorial Union Patio! Walk down our lovely State Street! Check out our iconic downtown restaurants! Take in a view of our lovely Capitol and Lakes Mendota and Monona. Shop! Dine! Play! Yes, downtown Madison is over hyped and this creates problems for the city.

When I drove for Union Cab, we had a contract with Epic Data Systems, and they regularly flew in recent graduates of top high-tech universities to show off the city before interviewing with the company. Epic would have them stay at select downtown hotels overnight. They would be wined and dined at fancy downtown restaurants and the next day Union Cab would be dispatched to take said students to the Epic Campus, which is a 12-mile drive from downtown, and then take them to the airport after they’ve completed their interviews.

(As a cab driver, I often got a lot of questions about Madison from these visitors. It would, of course, have been highly unethical of me to “pre-pre-screen” such individuals for Epic and Madison by deciding for myself whether I would like to have this person live in my city or not, and then, while chatting with them, influencing their decision to move here by choosing what aspects of Wisconsin weather to highlight—especially Wisconsin winters to a Floridian, Texan, or Californian. I can neither confirm nor deny that I engaged in such behavior. And if you are an Epic executive reading this, I am absolutely, positively joking.)

The boosterism I’ve described up to his point isn’t beyond what I would expect a normal city to do to promote itself, and I have no real objections to it (although it’s honestly quite annoying). But where the city has crossed the line is in trying to create downtown Madison as Ground Zero for all of the city’s fun life. This is the real danger when downtown Madison is over hyped.

Why so many downtown Madison events suck

Iron Man has been one of the worst offenders. This triathlon event makes it next to impossible to get through downtown Madison. My first encounter with it was on my way home from Chicago and discovering barriers blocking the street three blocks from home. I went from block to block trying to find a way through but it seemed like someone had drawn an arbitrary line between the north and south sides of the city and no one I asked knew where I could cross. Finally, one cop told me he’d heard a rumor that they were letting cars through one by one at Charter Street—a side street that was a solid 1½ miles west of where I was. This maze added a solid 30 minutes in my efforts to get home.

Another time I was trying to ride the bike path only to find it blocked at Monona Terrace. It was impossible to even walk the bicycle through the crowds that had gathered. I would not have minded the blockage so much but it required me to backtrack three-quarters of a mile, and this debacle could have been easily been avoided by a simple sign saying that the path ahead was closed. I wasn’t bicycling just for exercise—I was using the bike path because there was someplace I needed to be at 11 am and the bike path was the fastest way there. Yet another time the bus I was taking to meet some friends at a coffee shop was delayed 30 minutes by the Iron Man.

When I lived in the Marquette neighborhood just northeast of downtown, we would hear the loudspeakers of the announcers at Iron Man traveling echoing through our streets even at night, even though we didn’t live on the lake and this event was a mile down shore. Lake Monona was the site of the first leg of the Iron Man—a half-mile swim. (I don’t know who in their right mind would swim in that lake—it has a rather sordid history).

But Iron Man isn’t the only offender. As a cab driver I saw Concerts on the Square (on Capitol Square) backing traffic up University from downtown to the UW Hospital area three miles away. One brilliant planner thought it would be a great idea to close a number of downtown streets and John Nolen Drive for “Ride The Drive” on the same day that tens of thousands of UW students and others were moving out and in to their apartments. (Sometimes traffic wasn’t even diverted from the closed street a block away. A student driving a U-Haul would reach the barrier and suddenly be confronted with how to turn their big rig around on a heavily parked side street.) And nearly every weekend between May and November, I see traffic backups even on the side streets of downtown Madison.

A smarter option

Which begs the question: wouldn’t it be smarter to have some of these events in places OTHER than downtown Madison? There used to be an enormous fireworks display at Warner Park, on the far north side of Madison looking over Lake Mendota from the northeast. They moved it for good reason—people came from all over the area and attendance sometimes exceeded that of the city’s population, but that might be a perfect place for the start and finish line of a triathlon. It has an enormous parking lot and lots and lots of space. Olin-Turville Park might not have as much parking and space, but at least it’s not blocking one of two of Madison’s east-west corridors. There are many other parks in Madison which, with a little modification, could be great places to hold large events.

Like many other people who moved here, I was entranced by the unique geographical features –including the Isthmus—that made Madison very attractive. But a hard look at the history of how the Isthmus came to be should be enough to give anyone pause. What is now considered the Isthmus was much marshier than it used to be, and urban development on it only became possible with the addition of landfill—much of which was dug up from a large 70 foot high Indian mound on what now Park Street. That mound—and tens of thousands of others in the Four Lakes Area—are now gone. James Doty, the judge who pushed for Madison as the capital of the new state of Wisconsin, also made tons of money off of its development. And yeah, having a state capitol and a land grant university just a mile apart downtown seemed like a nice idea at the beginning, when the city’s population was only 1,525 people in 1850, but it has created a lot of problems with a city that now has 270,000 people and will probably exceed 300,000 by the end of the decade.

After two decades of twiddling its thumbs, Madison seems to be finally on the road to what can truly be called sustainable development. In recent years, our current Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and the new management at Madison Metro seem to finally understand that the role of mass transit is to actually get cars off the road, not provide a transportation option of last resort for the most desperate. The BRT system under development and the recent changes in the bus system are finally making it so that public transit is something people genuinely want to use. As long as the management of Madison Metro stays clear on its mission and listens to rider input, Madison’s public transportation will finally take some of the pressure off the gridlock of downtown Madison and the Beltline.

But the city’s planners would be well advised to rethink the role of downtown Madison and the Isthmus in boosting the city. Downtown Madison is over hyped. Understanding that there’s so much more to Madison than just these two areas will do a lot for all corners of Madison, and relieve the headache of walking through and driving through downtown.

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