Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Do We Really Need Ravine Road?

And did Olmsted really want cars motoring through Lake Park?

By - Aug 21st, 2023 05:58 pm
Ravine Road in 2016. Photo by Dave Reid.

Ravine Road in 2016. Photo by Dave Reid.

I live on the city’s East Side. And I regularly used Ravine Road to get to or from Lake Drive. Then the road was shut down, in 2014, due to problems and falling debris from the overhead pedestrian walk.

That was nine ago and I’ve now gotten used to using Kenwood Boulevard to connect to Lake Drive. It probably lengthens the trip by about one minute, if that. It’s not a big deal.

I’m apparently not alone in that feeling. County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, whose district includes Ravine Road, has surveyed his constituents several times about whether to bring back Ravine Road, now that the overhead pedestrian bridge has been replaced, and most people don’t favor that.

“At least 60% don’t want it open to vehicles only anymore. And the percent is growing,” he told Urban Milwaukee. “They want it to turned into a trail for bicycles and walking.”

Only about 17% of respondents want a road for vehicles only and the rest want a hybrid solution with a street for cars and a lane for bikes, Wasserman added.

As for those coming to the lakefront from the rest of the city, they would be taking Locust Ave., which is two blocks from Kenwood or one block from the old Ravine Road. The difference is minimal.

Then there is the issue of the cost for Ravine Road. As Urban Milwaukee reporter Graham Kilmer has reported, Milwaukee County Parks technical staff estimated that reconstructing the deteriorating 12-foot-wide road, would cost $660,000, but as the road never had sidewalks, that would leave no access for pedestrians or bicyclists. Expanding the road to 14 feet in width, with a concrete barrier and shared use-path for walkers and bikers would cost $1,382,000. Whereas converting it to a 10-foot wide path for pedestrians and bicyclists would cost just $515,000.

And that doesn’t take into account future maintenance costs. Roadways in parks are “incredibly expensive” as Urban Milwaukee has reported. “Over half of our capital requests are for parking lots and roads,” Parks deputy director James Tarantino has noted. “We’re trying to build out a future park system for people, not only for cars. We’re trying to prioritize our investment away from paved assets.”

Then there is the question of equity for all citizens. The parks system has “a massive backlog of maintenance and infrastructure projects with an estimated price tag of half a billion dollars,” as Urban Milwaukee has reported. The backlog has built up over a period of 30 years or more and even with the infusion of dollars from the sale tax hike, it could take decades to fund all the maintenance and improvements needed in the system. That has left the county doing triage, picking the highest priority items to fund.

Yet the county spent $3.4 million to rebuild the Lake Park bridge over Ravine Road, including a $2 million federal grant (which might have been solicited for a different parks project) and $1 million in direct county funding.

Some $300,000 came from a donation by the Lake Park Friends. This helped elevate the bridge above parks projects in less well-do-do neighborhoods that can’t raise this kind of support.

Now the group is the key advocate pushing to restore the road for cars. It released a pro bono analysis by Tim Anheuser of Kapur & Associates, described as a “visual inspection” by Lake Park Friends’ board president Anne Hamilton. It concluded that “With tree trimming and minor maintenance I believe that the roadway could be quickly reopened.” Yet Anheuser also suggested the road could end up needing “extensive rehabilitation.”

The friends group has some 1,000 member households, according to Hamilton, but did not poll its members, she noted in an interview today with Urban Milwaukee. Rather the group decided its position back in 2019 and then posted a petition at asking for support for auto traffic, and got signatures from 3,819 people. But the signatories were not given any other options for the road.

The group’s 2019 decision to bring back auto traffic was based on the advice of three historic preservation experts, who concluded that a roadway open to vehicles was part of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted vision for Lake Park, which he designed.

But that was back in the 1890s when the roadways were used by slow-moving horse-drawn carriages and even then Olmsted designed them to discourage a fast pace. The goal, he said, was “to provide for a constant mild enjoyment of simply pleasing rural scenery while in easy movement.”

Writer and architect Witold Rybcznski, author of a book on Olmsted, rejects that notion that Olmsted would have wanted cars driving through his parks. A comparison can’t be drawn horse-drawn carriages, “whose average speed was 5 to 8 miles per hour, and automobiles, which travel at considerably higher speeds,” he wrote. “Nor can one compare the clip-clop of a carriage to the noise of an internal combustion engine.”

As Hamilton conceded, “the fastest vehicle back then wasn’t going very fast.”

My experience back when Ravine Road was open was that vehicles typically drove fast on it. East Side residents Pam and John Stilp wrote a letter to Lake Park Friends which they shared with Urban Milwaukee noting that back when the road was open they saw “cars going much faster than the posted speed limit [that] careened around blind curves and into the opposite lane. Also, at the top of Ravine Road, the stop sign is sometimes not observed, causing dangerous conditions…. And in today’s world the danger has been increased with more reckless driving.”

Paul Marriott, a landscape architect professor at Penn State University, an expert on Olmsted and former board member of the Olmsted Network foundation, is familiar with Lake Park. In an interview with Urban Milwaukee he noted that Ravine Road was meant for “scenic driving” for people who can’t walk, and “not for commercial traffic or commuters coming home from work.”

But he stressed that the issue needn’t be an “all or nothing proposition” for either cars or bicyclists and pedestrians. He suggests such compromises as a 15 MPH speed limit, closing the road to cars during rush hours or designating some days for auto traffic and others for bicyclists or pedestrians only.

That’s a very nuanced view, and far different from that of Lake Park Friends or for that matter, the uncompromising opinion of Tim Askin, senior planner for the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission, who released an opinion declaring that the roadway can’t be closed to auto traffic, nor can “the shape, width, or path of the roadway” be modified. Their reductive view of Olmsted’s vision might have the old boy spinning in his grave.

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14 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Do We Really Need Ravine Road?”

  1. dmkrueger2 says:

    Drives me crazy that Milwaukee (which just instituted a sales tax to balance a fiscal shortfall) can’t find the common sense to open the road (cheapest option) and when the road needs to be fixed (maybe in a few years), then figure out what solution makes the most sense (and what we can afford). For god’s sake, enough already – quit solving problems that don’t need to be solved; when it was open, the problems with Ravine Road were really far down on the list of problems in our city.

    NIMBY at it’s best, just like moving next to a race track and complaining about the noise.

  2. JMcD says:

    Amen dmkrueger2! That beautiful little road was never a problem. Put the road back the way it was designed. Especially considering that it is the most cost effective solution. Plus, how many more footpaths do we need along the park/Lincoln Memorial Drive??? I think there are at least 8 already. And, by the way, all of the handwringing locals who want another footpath…where are those people going to park?…in front of their homes.

  3. Curiously, there is strong support for automobiles in the park when automobile use does not match the park’s establishment, Olmstead’s life work, Olmstead’s design principles, costs going forward, or today’s needs.

    The Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission’s insistence on automobile traffic also seems incongruous. The Commission wants to preserve mid-to-late 20th-century automobile-centric design rather than the original design of Olmstead, done in the late 19th century before widespread automobile use.

    The Web site helpfully includes Olmstead’s “Six Principles of Landscape Design” and the 15 elements of Olmstead’s design concepts. The elements of vistas, variety, recreation, topography, scenery, liberal plantings, and the subordination of features to the overall design show the “genius of the place” in Lake Park. How is automobile access speeding along Ravine Road part of this?

    British researchers Ian Walker, Alan Tapp, and Adrian Davis studied the “unconscious biases due to cultural assumptions about the role of private cars.” They found that people will form opinions differently based on if the topic is related to driving automobiles or not driving automobiles. They found that driving automobiles received favorable “systematically biased treatment.” They report this in their journal article, available as a preprint, “Motonormativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard,” to be published in the International Journal of Environment and Health. They conclude that important sustainability and public health issues are being “neglected by policymakers” out of this unexamined bias and cultural assumption.

    Of course, Olmstead and the city in the 19th century envisioned the park’s indefinite future use, including by people with 21st-century practices. However, the park’s structure, the “bones” of it, are Olmstead’s design which should be respected, not the bias toward automobile access as an absolute requirement, mainly when adding it back is more expensive (it would be cheaper to have a bicycle and footpath) and dangerous (speeding, traffic violations).

  4. JMcD says:

    JD. Please cite the speeding/traffic violations you allude to. I drove there with my parents and by myself for decades and never encountered either behavior. Appreciate the historical lessen, but I think all the fear mongering about letting cars go up and down is both wrong and not a little silly.

  5. says:

    “At least 60% don’t want it open to vehicles only anymore. And the percent is growing,” he told Urban Milwaukee.

    60% of the less than 1% of the residents in his district. No poll was done.

    Should the park and its neighborhoods be open to all Milwaukeeans or should we move people around the park and get them out of our neighborhood as fast as they can.

    Open the road so all can enter the park.

  6. Mzalewski says:

    Former East sider — I often used Ravine Road. But frankly – its not really needed Turn it into a bike/hike path
    You are correct that Kenwood works just fine for cars. just fix the dips and cracks The upper park road is already closed to cars. Lafayette hill is nearby. Parks are for people – not cars.

    Now I am Southwestsider I would like to see the roads in Whitnall park and Root River repaired. They are turning into gravel they are so bad And some of them can be turned into bike/hike only also.

  7. Thomas Sepllman says:

    What is the ravine drive A neat place A place to experience The Bridge above the roadway below How many people even know it is there or care. How many other places in the county are like the drive in that local folks know about but the rest of us do not. If the Road is safe to reopen at little cost then reopen it and when it needs to be fixed figure out how to do it either way. More people will experience the topography and nature by car than by foot The rise is at least 300 or more feet. 30 story office building.

  8. John Horgan says:

    Here are the cost estimates conducted by the Parks in 2019:

    Cost assessments were provided at the time for a number of different options being considered for Ravine Road (figures are not inflation adjusted):

    • In-kind road replacement – $1,040,000
    • Convert roadway to path – $515,000
    • One-way road with a bike/pedestrian path separated by barrier – $1,382,000
    • One-way road with a bike/pedestrian path separated by curb/vegetation clearing – $1,387,000
    • Close roadway, remove pavement, and restore native vegetation – $193,000

  9. says:

    As with all roads, whether to allow cars on Ravine Road or not really comes down to safety. Cars on Ravine Road would be disastrous for walkers, parents with strollers and bicyclists. There simply is not room. Nor is there room to turn it into a regular city street with curbs, sidewalks, shoulders, lights, etc. With the problem of reckless driving in Milwaukee, I can’t imagine why anyone would think it a good idea to add cars to this little road going through a park.

  10. JMcD says:

    That road was never used by walkers with strollers!!! And I don’t ever recall car/bicycle issues. Stop trying to come up with solutions for something that is not and has not been, a problem. Jeez

  11. BigRed81 says:

    I’ve changed my mind on Ravine Rd. I don’t believe motorized vehicles should use it. Limit it to Pedestrians & Bicyclists.

  12. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Besides providing congestion relief to park users’ and park service
    staff, the road is an alternate conduit for police fire and rescue.
    When something is burning, someone is bleeding or about to be burned or attacked, the 1 minute (approx) trip difference estimated
    in paragraph 2 becomes huge.

    No one said walks have to border the road.
    The most enjoyable paths in the park don’t.

    All of the options mentioned have low-to-no
    visual impact outside their tree-hidden vicinity.

    The park belongs to Milwaukee and History.
    No one is proposing destroying or diminishing what
    Olmstead-era taxpayers built, but changes in technologies,
    transportation, and society itself, change the nature of
    people’s needs for and access to recreation.
    Today’s taxpayers have different or additional needs.

    The ‘cost’ numbers provided are just prices for the tasks.
    Actual costs (and benefits) are the negative and positive
    ripple effects on all aspects of the park.

    BTW –
    Where are all the park’s hitching posts?

  13. John Horgan says:

    Watch this excellent PBS video about Olmsted and his visions for urban parks:

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