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Growth without traffic? Madison traffic management plan aims to curb congestion, pollution

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Beltline traffic

Cars clog Madison's Beltline. The city is proposing a new ordinance to require developers to promote other forms of transportation. 

In an effort to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while supporting growth, the city of Madison is exploring policies to make it easier to get around without driving a car.

The city transportation department is introducing a “transportation demand management” program that would require developers of large residential, commercial and institutional buildings to come up with plans to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.

Plans could include lockers and showers for bike commuters, free bus passes for residents or employees, or organized carpool programs.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway says the measures are essential to alleviating congestion and addressing climate change in a rapidly-growing city where transportation accounts for more than 40% of climate warming gases.

“Madison continues to be one of the most attractive cities in the nation, and our population continues to grow,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We need to find a way to accommodate that growth without worsening traffic congestion and air pollution.”

Madison resident Gregg May, who serves as transportation policy director for the environmental group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, said the policy is the most important immediate step the city can take toward sustainability.

“How we design and build our city now is going to have ramifications for decades,” May said. “If we don’t address all this growth we’ll be completely clogged with cars and congestion. We need to get it right now.”

Explosive growth

Over the past 50 years, the total number of miles driven each year in the United States has grown three times faster than the population.

As workers return to the office, city transportation officials expect major roadways — including the Beltline, East Washington Avenue and University Avenue — will soon revert to pre-pandemic congestion levels, with little capacity for additional growth.

City transportation director Tom Lynch said transportation demand management upends the long-dominant philosophy of building wider and wider roads in hopes of alleviating congestion.

“We’ve subsidized motor vehicle travel, and so we’ve gotten exactly what we’ve subsidized,” he said. “We can’t add another lane on East Washington. We can’t add another lane on University. ... We have to find another way to do these trips differently.”

Within Madison, two thirds of all work trips are made in single-occupancy vehicles.

“That doesn’t have to be that way,” Lynch said, pointing to communities like Arlington, Virginia, which used demand management to reduce vehicle miles by 38% in just six years. “We’re basically asking developers in our community to put the same investment in all of our modes as we currently put into our auto-dominated mode.”

The proposal

Under a proposal to be submitted to the Plan Commission Thursday, developments would be assigned points based on land use, size and the number of parking stalls. Developers would have to offset those points from a menu of more than 35 options.

Options include measures to promote active transportation — walking or biking — mass transit, and carpooling as well as providing on-site food, child care or other services that would eliminate the need for some trips. The proposal also offers an option for developers to pay a fee.

The requirements would not apply to residential developments with fewer than 10 units or commercial developments with fewer than 10 parking stalls. There are also exemptions for some schools, day cares and places of worship.

The city has promoted transportation demand management for two decades, but requirements have been applied on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of city officials.

Lynch said the new proposal, modeled after programs used in cities such as Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle, is an attempt to provide clarity and flexibility for developers through a unified approach.


“In theory that would be an improvement,” said Bill Connors, executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison. But Connors said the developers’ group hadn’t had time to study the proposal, which was released Thursday.

Connors warned that added costs could lead to higher rent or stall new development.

“Costs get passed on to tenants,” he said. “At some point you may not be able to pass those on. If it gets to that, projects won’t go forward.”

Lynch said the plan is a “rough draft” that will be revised before an ordinance is introduced this summer.

“We want to partner with the development community to make this workable. We want Madison to continue to be an attractive place to build,” he said. “The city also owns property. We’ll be subject to this ordinance too.”

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