Southwest Bike Path Lighting Proposal Update

Project Stirs Emotions and Creativity

Lighting Proposal Illuminates Bike Path’s Civic Value

A joint proposal from the City of Madison Engineering and Traffic Engineering Divisions in December, 2011 to provide lighting on the Southwest Bike Path Commuter Trail from Breeze Terrace near Camp Randall Stadium to the Beltline Highway has generated community-wide interest from path users and neighborhoods abutting the path, and ignited a grassroots backlash of sorts, complete with hand-made signs, satirical educational flyers, and a Facebook page.

The City of Madison proposal calls for installation of 20-foot tall black anodized poles with LED light fixtures at a varying spacing of 190 to 240 feet. The purpose of the lighting is to increase both safety and usability of the path for both the recreational and transportation users during hours of darkness. To test the new fixtures, the City has installed two LED fixtures on the path at its intersection with Council Crest as it passes through the Westmorland Neighborhood to the north and the Nakoma Neighborhood to the south of the path.

The City, in its project presentation to the neighborhood states that the lighting is needed to:

• Improve path usefulness

• Provide improved visibility along the path

• Improve visibility of walkers, as pedestrians are not required (by law) to provide a light.

The City further states that because Wisconsin State law only requires that bicyclists (not pedestrians) have a visible light—and not that the light illuminate the pathway for other users—that there is a perceived user conflict, and potential for accidents, between “lighted” bicyclists and “unlighted pedestrians.

What is the Southwest Bike Path?

The Southwest Bike Path is so-called because it runs southwest from Camp Randall Stadium along an abandoned rail corridor, through residential neighborhoods to the Beltline Highway where it connects to the Capitol City Bike Path on the southwest side of Madison—a distance of about 6 miles. ( route map).

What’s So Important About the Path?

The SW Bike Path has value for the Lake Wingra Watershed community for several reasons.

For one, it is a major commuter corridor used by an average of 1,100 bicyclists a day in 2011 (low of 200/day in December and high of 2,200 in August) based on City of Madison Traffic Engineering figures. (found in SW bike path proposal, insert link.). The path provides a viable alternative to vehicle transportation, thus taking pressure off of City streets.  (Map of SW Bike Path)

Secondly, the path is a recreational corridor, providing opportunities for runners, baby-strollers, walkers, and recreational bicyclists of all ages and abilities. Users include commuters, recreational users, and neighborhood residents. On a typical spring day the path is a constant two-way flow of people on foot or bike. The City’s survey figures do not include walkers/runners because such users can’t be detected by the monitoring equipment. However, the City estimates pedestrian numbers to be about 20% of bicyclist numbers, putting the average daily use at about 1,320 on an annual basis.

Thirdly, the SW bike path is a major environmental corridor for birds and animals and this role is enhanced by its proximity to the UW-Madison Arboretum. Portions of the path are a hotspot for neo-tropical spring migrants. Great horned and barred owls nest along the path and sand hill cranes regularly fly overhead on their way to and from nesting and feeding grounds in the Arboretum’s West Wingra Marsh and other spots in the watershed.

Fourthly, the path plays another environmental role as a major corridor for the movement of storm water and pest plants through the watershed and into Lake Wingra. Most of the invasive plant species in the watershed are also found along the path. There are a number of storm water erosion gullies intersecting the bike path that carry sediment and seeds of pest species to Lake Wingra, although the City has recently made some attempts to remediate these problems. The Friends of Lake Wingra (FOLW) has help persuade the City that storm water improvements are necessary. FOLW has also led the way in promoting civic involvement along the path and elsewhere in the watershed.

Finally, in addition to the bike path’s biological importance, it is primarily a social and cultural corridor—a community even. The bike path connects most of the neighborhoods in the Lake Wingra watershed with the UW Campus and City to the east and Dane County open areas to the west and south. This community spirit and involvement is evident in the number of neighborhood-sponsored, and civic-based restoration programs along the path and in the nearby Arboretum.

The lighting project was first revealed and presented to the neighborhoods at a December 12, 2011 public informational meeting. But, this was after the project planning was well under way and after the City has installed a test light at Council Crest/Bike Path on August 8, 2011. This unfortunate sequencing was viewed by some in the neighborhoods as evidence that the City has already made up its mind and that public input was not going to be meaningful. The City had previously set up a web page and public comment section which since the public information meeting, has received (as of March 19, 2011), 101 comments since it went up December 6, 2011.

Public Comment

Public comment on the lighting proposal has several outlets and  taken different forms. The City provides comment opportunities on its project page.  The DMNA Hornblower newsletter has published at least two articles.

Some have posted handmade signs along the path and erected an alternative “test light” to the City’s test light at Council Crest.

A resident along the SW Bike Path has erected this alternative "test light", using corn stalks from their vegetable garden as decoration. Photo by Stephen B. Glass.

A group calling itself Outdoors Without Light Pollution Adulterating The Heavens or OWLPATH has a Facebook page ( and is circulating the imaginative “Famous Crime Cases” flyers pictured below.

A creative, grassroots protest flyer. Photo by Stephen B. Glass.

On the reverse side of the above Crime Cases flyer. An effective combination of print and social media. Photo by Stephen B. Glass

Opponents argue against the City spending $250,000 on a project that many in the community do not want. Opponents also argue that the lights will impede reaching the goals of the local Dark Skies initiatives. They also claim that path lighting, as designed, will impair the vision of nighttime users and will devalue the path itself, impairing views of sunsets, the night sky, and will be an unnecessary intrusion of light into the bedrooms of neighbors whose backyards abut the bike path.

To comment: Alderpersons:

City project page:

Owlpath Facebook group:


About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Community-based restoration, invasive plants, Lake Wingra, Neighborhood restoration projects and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Southwest Bike Path Lighting Proposal Update

  1. Alan says:

    I travel on the southwest path daily and have seen the “alternative” test light in use. It’s much worse than those the city would install and has been quite a while since I’ve seen this light lit. So perhaps the owner received lots of complaints from his neighbors?!

  2. Pingback: SW Bike Path Lighting Proposal Will Be Introduced to City Council on 10.30.12 | WingraSprings

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