John O’Neill

Highway 41 and Lisbon Is a Mess

An ugly area with long lines of traffic getting off the freeway, it needs a serious fix.

By - Jan 27th, 2016 12:30 pm

Highway 41 is the freeway that travels north from I-94 and was recently renamed Wisconsin Highway 175. It runs only to W. Lisbon Ave., marking the end of a thankfully never completed freeway through the core of the city that was supposed to connect to the unbuilt Park West expressway. Milwaukee was largely spared the inner-city interstate overbuild that amputated and devastated Detroit, but in its wake left dozens of square blocks of barren land, hundreds of uprooted families and several ugly intersections. That includes this one.

I will describe the intersection as a driver going north on Highway 41 (from I-94) and reaching Lisbon to make a left turn. Highway 41 gradually diverges from a being a divided highway set in a trench to quickly reincorporating at grade into the city’s street grid. The incorporation is complete at the meeting with Lisbon Avenue (this is one block south of North Avenue – a direct east-west street). On the east side of N. 46th St. stands a line of duplexes and single family homes, and a small triangular parcel that is the home of Dave’s Gas. The northeast corner of the intersection is a handsome building that is home to Ralph’s Coffee which I recently discovered is not a coffee house at all, so if you want a good cup of coffee make a right and go to Bus Stop Coffee Shop. The north side of the intersection is an uninspiring, redevelopment-discouraging fast food chain – Wendy’s. Between N. 46th and N. 47th streets — a small undefined area that was probably filled in once planners realized the Park West was never to happen — is a former bank and an overgrown parking lot. The west side of 47th is much like the east side of 46th, pre-war frame duplexes, single family homes and brown brick retail buildings.

What works?

47th and Lisbon has the pleasure of being set in a neighborhood of retail activity, historic architecture and naturally heavy traffic and visibility. It’s a major urban gateway on Milwaukee’s West Side and one that holds a lot potential to redefine the way people enter it. Highway 41 is currently a convenient conduit into West Side neighborhoods and on into anywhere in the region thanks to the relative accessibility of our regional interstate highway network. You have relatively narrow lanes, existing sidewalk infrastructure, street trees, and harp lights already present in the area as well. It’s not the easiest place to walk around, but you can get through here without a car. That said, I would highly discourage going anywhere near here while on a bike. We should keep in mind we have an existing street grid and good urban fabric except where Highway 41 meets the city. These are all good traits for us to work with and should guide us to some design solutions.

What doesn’t?

The easiest part of every article – what doesn’t work! This intersection, like many in Milwaukee, is in a poor state of repair – creating unfortunately unpleasant travel. This condition is exacerbated by a convoluted, under signaled and confusing layout. Highway traffic entering this area comes to a relatively abrupt end from highway speeds to suggested city speeds. Lisbon is also a place where we see frequent backups of traffic, particularly during any rush hour. A good deal of our congestion stems from people attempting to make left turns on Lisbon, causing backups for blocks and blocks. If you are heading east on Lisbon and want to get onto Highway 41 south, you better have turned at Lloyd because you’re out of luck if you were expecting to make an easy left. The frustration of those backups leaves me with a memory of people blowing through recently turned red lights in an attempt to escape this jumble of streets faster. 47th and Lisbon in particular is just the byproduct of a familiar formula of impractical layout, unregulated speed, and lack of proper signage.

What can we do to improve it?

N. 47th St/ and W. Lisbon Ave. improvements.

N. 47th St/ and W. Lisbon Ave. improvements.

I always advocate simplifying the intersection, reducing speeds, improving walkability and relieving pressure from over-trafficked areas. While there are longer-term improvements I’d like to see. Let’s start with some quick remedies: I would reconnect Garfield between 46th and 47th, demolish the old bank building and turn that block into a small public square with minimal visual impairments for drivers. It could be a simple design of prairie grass, trees, natural plantings and bioswales. I would install a traffic light at Garfield and Lisbon with an exclusive left turn signal and signage directing drivers to Highway 41 by taking Garfield to 47th and making a left to enter the highway. Additional signage at 47th and Garfield would give instructions onto the highway as well. Traffic signals would be placed at 46th and 47th and Garfield. Two lanes of traffic would both enter and exit Highway 41 at Garfield. 46th and 47th streets would remain one way streets, and 46th would merge with the end of 41 with separate traffic signals for each (giving right of way to one or the other but not both at the same time).

47th and Lisbon would remain largely the same although 47th would be widened to three lanes and combined with the current highway entrance, reintegrating the homes on that block to the urban grid. Two lanes would be for drivers intending to enter Highway 41 and one would be for those to continue south onto 47th into Washington Heights. 46th would become a three-lane street between Garfield and Lisbon, with one lane devoted to turning left, a middle lane to go left or straight and a right lane to go straight. Highway 41 at Garfield and 46th would have two lanes allowing drivers to turn left, right or to go straight. It would be controlled by a different signal than 46th street which would also have the left, right or straight option. Right-turning traffic would be directed towards Garfield and Lisbon in order to take pressure off of 46th and Lisbon. I would use colored pavement at all pedestrian crossings and install crosswalk signage. I am refraining from insisting on any bike lanes or bump outs as this is an inherently tight space and it would be a better choice for bicyclists to take Lloyd or North (one block in either direction north-south of this junction).

Long-term, my ultimate vision is to see Highway 41 between Lisbon and Vliet converted into an at-grade boulevard with two lanes of traffic going in either direction lined with saplings and harp lights. Rather than being an underused asphalt trench, fill in the trench and reconnect Washington Heights to Olmstead’s masterful Washington Park with a street much like Lincoln Memorial Drive. Place traffic signals at Vliet, Washington and Lloyd and allow for the same traffic flow but in a far more scenic and controlled setting. I think this would drastically improve home prices in Washington Heights, bring more people into beautiful Washington Park and erase one of our physical legacies of segregation. There’s so much potential in our great city, if we pare back our roads, plant trees, and slow down a bit to enjoy it. Re-knitting this part of the city with Washington Park is among many steps we can make to create a more beautiful and integrated urban fabric.

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24 thoughts on “Intersection: Highway 41 and Lisbon Is a Mess”

  1. Eric S says:

    Probably worth noting that this is no longer US Highway 41. With the changeover to Interstate 41, this highway is now state Highway 175.

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @Eric S Thanks… Added.

  3. Richard says:

    Please elaborate on, “I would highly discourage going anywhere near here while on a bike.”

  4. AG says:

    I’d concur because of: Narrow streets, extremely busy traffic, non-existent shoulders, and blind corners.

  5. John O'Neill says:

    @Richard – I mean to say if you are going to bike through this area, take Lloyd or North. Lisbon is a terribly busy block that is as wide as I would advise it being – there does not appear to be room to add a bike lane and I would not advise the addition of one as it stands today.

  6. T says:

    I agree the intersection is a jumbled mess, but your analysis (and ideas) would seem more credible if you would at least consider the benefit that may have occurred if that freeway was actually completed as planned. There are many good arguments for why the Stadium Freeway North should have been completed as planned–at least to its connection point with the Fond du Lac Freeway. Notably, the entire north-central part of the city is wholly without freeway access. Ever wonder if that’s one of the reasons companies with good paying jobs (including companies that needed good trucking access) left the area? Now, without that freeway, many residents in that area (particularly those spots a bit north & east of that freeway stub–i.e., farther away from freeway access) have a terribly difficult time getting around the metro (and to good jobs) in a timely fashion.

    Entirely separate point. This article could have been edited WAY better. Typo in the very first sentence; bouncing back and forth between using and not using the oxford comma; pronoun confusion; punctuation issues (some typos, some other issues); etc. I probably blew right past some of the ideas mentioned just because of this…

  7. Ed Szopinski says:

    The Hwy 175 and Lisbon intersection is dangerous to pedestrians and bicyclists, is an eyesore for the neighborhood and effectively killed the former retail area on the south side of North Ave and Lisbon near the uncontrolled on ramp at 47th & Lisbon. I think the solution lies more in straightening the on and off ramps to they meet Lisbon straight on at a light controlled intersection. As a Washington Heights resident, I am totally against any solution that routes Hwy 175 traffic along any of our residential streets.

  8. mike says:

    ; is a semi colon, not an oxford comma.

  9. Frank Galvan says:

    Hey T; some Preparation H might help with that itch (you know where) that’s making you so cranky!

  10. Devin says:

    The long term vision is the best solution. 175 is pretty much useless beyond Vliet (and the only reason it gets a pass up to that point is the topography of the valley).

    For anyone concerned about the lack of freeway access to the NW side, Lisbon, Appleton, and Fond du Lac provide surprisingly fast access to the NW parts of the city. Getting to Timmerman Airport from Washington Heights is only 15 minutes. I have to take those routes fairly often for work but that’s during the day, admittedly. I don’t know if they become a gridlocked mess during rush hour.

  11. AG says:

    Those streets are unholy messes during rush hour… but what they say about businesses are true. often they do consider direct freeway access when relocating. This is especially true for manufacturers and distributors. Unfortunately those are also probably the businesses that could have the most direct and immediate impacts on employment on the north and NW sides.

  12. Paul says:

    I live a few blocks north of where 41/175 ends and it takes me just under 20 min to get to Bayshore or downtown on side streets (like Sherman/Lisbon). The freeway takes just as long in rush hour so I don’t think ramming the freeway up further through the neighborhood would have been a good thing. If the concern is linking businesses to jobs, then the freeway should have been built about 15 blocks east to where those businesses actually are/were. This intersection is a mess & I prefer to get off on Lloyd & wind up Sherman instead. The intersections of Lisbon & North as well as Lisbon/Lloyd/Sherman should be reexamined as well. I think those could benefit from roundabouts to “calm” the traffic a bit. Judging by the car debris and knocked down streetlights, there is a part of the population that thinks running the red is fine and going 55 in a 35 is acceptable.

  13. Edward Susterich says:

    I lived some of my childhood years at what is now “Ralph’s Coffee” at the corner of 46th and Lisbon.

    Back then, in the 1950’s, it was a vibrant, healthy neighborhood with a multitude of successful small businesses– bakeries, restaurants, food stores, paint/hardware, pharmacies, record/music, banks, law offices, variety, jewelry… and well-kept homes in an almost ideal neighborhood to live in.

    Washington High School, nearby, was the gold-standard for quality education (then).

    It’s almost all gone now, and in its place we have vacant land, closed businesses, boarded over windows on abandoned, neglected properties. Crime, drugs, gangs, and guns have taken over with parasitic store-front “churches” further victimizing the neighborhood. Pockets of extreme poverty and high unemployment with no hope for a good future in in store for the young.

    “White” flight, racism, slum lords, inept politicians and other “leaders” have all contributed to this complex problem of urban decay. The destruction of the neighorhood began with massive removal of homes and businesses in the abandoned expressway expansion. Decades later, the problems remain unsolved and basically ignored by City of Milwaukee “leaders”.

    So– improving traffic flow at the intersection of 46th and Lisbon has merit, but it does too little for the “Big Problem”. The people at City Hall and politicians in Madison– including the Governor– are all looking the other way. Let’s build an arena for the Bucks instead.

  14. Patrick says:

    How can you possibly call for a reintegration between Washington Heights and Washington Park neighborhoods. As a resident of Washington Heights, I fully support as many barriers as possible between my neighborhood and the higher crime area of Washington Park. It would certainly hurt, not help my property value. IT would raise values in Wash park. In addition, the area of that intersection is not a good area and never will be a good area. The city should save the absurd amount of money you recommend. You are right about the highway being way underused. It was a mistake to build for sure.

  15. Casey says:

    Yeah! I agree with Patrick. Let’s make sure we keep “those people” away from Washington Heights!

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    What other barriers are possible Patrick? A tall, electrified fence around “your” neighborhood? Maybe armed guards at checkpoints around the neighborhood keeping out residents of a certain hue? I love your mindset though. In 2016, it’s so refreshing to hear people talk as if it’s 1950.

  17. Casey says:

    We were going to move in to Washington Highlands but when we realized that people from the heights enter our neighborhood on a regular basis some even doing day labor type jobs, we just didn’t feel comfortable. It’s all the best because soon the Highlands home values will plummet because of the Heights. Decided on Shorewood.

  18. AG says:

    Dang it, I just realized why crime has spiked in my neighborhood recently… no freeway to divide it from the higher crime areas!

    How do I go about getting one of these built around my neighborhood too?

  19. Vincent Hanna says:


  20. Milwaukeean says:

    I grew up on the South Side, but my parents grew up in this area off of Lisbon. I have been told many, many times by my parents that the area began going down hill because welfare became so easy for folks to receive in Milwaukee. Most of those recipients came from the South Side of Chicago. I would be interested in knowing if any of that information is actually true, and if so, where were the pioneers of that neighborhood when it began deteriorating in the 70’s and 80’s? Did they sit back and just watch their neighborhood decline? The “Urban Decay” didn’t happen all by itself. And it certainly was not prevented by it’s neighborhood residents, either.

  21. Vincent Hanna says:

    So the neighborhood went to hell because welfare became too easy to receive, and as a result all the people became lazy unemployed bums mooching off welfare who allowed their own neighborhood to deteriorate? That sounds like something someone’s racist uncle says.

  22. Casey says:

    Ah…we all have “that” uncle. It’s not a bad question though.
    The story from the black side of my family (which came to MKE in the 1890s) is this:
    Most of the blacks that came here stopped in other cities like Memphis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago before they finally made it to Milwaukee. They were late comers who either couldn’t find a job in the other towns or couldn’t keep a job in the other towns. Blacks weren’t a substantial part of the population until the early 60s. By the late 70s (only 15 years later) lots of companies started closing and the new blacks were the first to loose their jobs. Another aspect of the story I’m told is that Milwaukee or Wisconsin had a strange residency law that required that you had to live her for at least a year before you could apply for welfare. This kept broke people from coming here with nothing that were just looking to mooch off of the system.
    There was also bock busting and the resulting massive white flight and disinvestment. My family was the first black family on this block when they bought their home in the yearly 70’s. Within 10 years the neighborhood almost all black. The businesses soon followed suit.
    From what I understand though is the area that we’re talking about in the article the neighbors fought back against block busting and is/was relatively integrated when compared to other parts of town.

  23. James says:

    @ John O”Neil Thanks for taking a look at this issue, and spending some time creating a detailed solution. My thought is that all off-bound and on-bound traffic be routed through Lloyd/Lisbon/Sherman, and that all of 175 north of Lloyd be torn out. There is no need to have so many access points in that small area. This would also give northbound drivers the option to proceed down Sherman, which right now is difficult to access. This would also take the pressure of off 51st Street which has a high rate of speeding vehicles flying to an from 175, and heavy truck traffic, all running past three elementary schools and a hospital.

  24. Tim says:

    Frankly, just for the sake of argument, I wonder what the impact would be if the “Stadium Freeway” between 94 and Lisbon were to be converted to a Boulevard or Parkway level with the intersecting streets. It would definitely make it easier to rebuild the interchange with 94 in a more compact form, emphasizing access to and from Miller Park. Likewise, the Fond Du Lac Freeway is as obsolete if not more. Having driven on it, even during rush hour, it has never been busy and is in awful shape and not any better for getting to the Northwest Suburbs or across town than Capitol Drive or Silver Spring.

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