Madison, Wisconsin residents who live in the neighborhoods that hug the City’s SW Commuter Bike Path are accustomed to City-sponsored projects that go awry, that yield negative impacts from maintenance activities, or that simply produce the opposite of intended outcomes.
To illustrate this point, the SW Bike Path night lighting proposal comes to mind. The stated purpose of this unfortunate and regrettable project was to address an ill-defined and poorly documented safety issue involving supposed conflicts between pedestrians and bicyclists. The lights were installed this summer (2013), against the wishes of neighbors who overwhelmingly opposed the lights–at least as designed.
Now, it turns out, the lights may have actually increased safety concerns and noise levels–to the great annoyance of neighbors whose backyards and windows are just yards from the path–because the lighted path attracts packs of teenagers who socialize and play on the path. According to those who live along the path these teen users not only yell, chatter, and squeal but also increase path congestion thus raising the likelihood of conflicts with other users. But more about this issue at another time.
Mud Puddles Are More Than Just Mud Puddles
Today people we are talking about a different unintended negative impact along the SW Bike Path: mud puddles. That’s right, mud puddles and their larger symbolic significance that speaks to how the City manages our urban infrastructure (for example, streets, bike paths, sanitary and storm sewers). This may seem like a stretch but stick with me.
Persistent mud puddles–and other minor urban irritations like erosion runoff from public construction projects–are signs of neglect. Whether because of an overall in attention to detail, lack of concern, or lax managerial oversight, we do not know. However, the issue is important because we are talking about a major City Division, whose inability to prevent a bit of rain from creating mud puddles or to fix them quickly, seems ironic and raises questions about whether this same agency is up to the larger task of managing the City’s vast storm sewer system. A storm sewer system which each year deals with millions of gallons of storm water runoff in the Lake Wingra Watershed alone.
The Mud Puddle In Question
The popular SW Commuter Bike Path that connects downtown with the far west side is often crammed with walkers, runners, baby strollers, dog walkers, and bicyclists. In order to handle increased bike and pedestrian traffic along this popular neighborhood gathering place, a hard packed gravel border was installed in the summer of 2013 on either side of the path to encourage runners and walkers to get off the narrow and crowded paved path. This approximately two-foot wide addition is the brain child of the City of Madison Engineering Division, the agency in charge of the bike path.
After the shoulder was in place City engineers and planners disrupted it when they ordered workers to install the traffic counter (pictured above) in the summer of 2013. Although just off the shoulder, installation required digging up the shoulder to connect with buried cables. The excavation, though minor, required fill soil which has since settled. The result: a mud puddle pictured above.
The Larger Concern
If you say that a mud puddle is a small thing you are right, a mud puddle is a small thing; it’s a small annoyance in the scheme of things. But a mud puddle is not just a mud puddle–it is an indicator and symbol. If we shift our thinking from the real mud puddle to the mud puddle as symbolic of any persistent breakdown in urban infrastructure, then we see that “mud puddles” are really a signal that managers are not paying attention. As we said above, the mud puddle suggests neglect and deterioration.
The question is: If a City division can’t take care of the small things, how in the world can it take care of the big things?