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Friday, February 26, 2021

Why isn’t Lakeshore Path lit?

Walking the Lakeshore Path after nightfall is not for the faint of heart. Not only does the trail suffer from non-existent lighting, aside from the streaks of moonlight through the trees, but it lacks access points for police or escape routes for walkers. This renders the path unusable at night — except for those walking in groups, keys clenched between their knuckles with their phones out and ready to call 911. 

“I have had to walk the path past dark many times,” said Katie Zewiske, a UW-Madison student and former Lakeshore resident. “I try not to be by myself, but if I am, I definitely have the flashlight on my phone on and I usually call a friend or a family member to talk to.”

Will Rhodes, another former resident of the Lakeshore neighborhood, echoed this feeling of unease. “I told myself I was paranoid and kept walking,” he said. “That’s a privilege I have as a male student though, because while I think about ghosts and movie monsters hiding behind the trees, there are other students who have to deal with much more real safety concerns.”

These safety concerns have never been resolved.

Three candidates for the District 8 alder seat have proposed lighting the Lakeshore Path in just the past three years. The measure, while widely supported among students that live in the dorms along Mendota, has never come to fruition despite petitions, op-eds and complaints. In 2016, following a string of sexual assaults, students even protested on campus for better lighting along the path. Ald. Max Prestigiacomo approached administration at the beginning of his term to discuss additional lighting with no success. 

In the end, only two of UW-Madison’s 140 blue emergency phone lights dot the trail’s four-mile span. “Rapeshore Path” remains dark.

The University of Wisconsin Police Department has long opposed adding additional safety precautions to the trail. After a 2019 petition gathered over 1,000 signatures to advocate for additional blue light phones, UWPD responded, calling the emergency phones outdated and costly. 

The fact is, the university benefits from the path remaining unlit. While the Lakeshore Path is generally safe, the darkened nature of the trail can discourage students from walking it at night, which helps prevent possible incidents from occurring in a place without an escape route for troubled pedestrians or access point for officers. UWPD spokesman Marc Lovicott recommended that students use this secluded path less, noting that there are “other routes on campus that are safer for our community.”

The department promotes this message, which may seem contradictory: “Stay in lit places,” but there will be no lighting on the Lakeshore path, one of the quickest ways for students to get from Memorial Union and College Library to their housing in Lakeshore. 

“Their message to survivors is that you and your experience are not as important as the university's desires,” Juliana Bennett said. 

Bennett, UW BIPOC co-founder and Dis. 8 alder candidate, doesn’t buy into the UWPD’s argument that lighting the path is unnecessary. Instead, she holds that lighting the path is worth the effort if students feel safer for it. 

“I was talking to a district resident the other day, and she said, ‘I live on Lakeshore and I'm tired of feeling scared to walk home at night. I'm just tired of clutching my keys and having to decide if I'm going to go to a club meeting, or if I'm going to stay home to feel safe,’” Bennett stated. “We need to work within our city to light the Lakeshore path and meet those basic needs so that people feel safe, welcomed and included.”

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In 2015, UW-Madison reported that 27.6% of female undergraduates have experienced sexual assault, slightly above the national average of about 25%. However, exact data on the number of incidents along the four-mile path are murky, as many sexual assaults may go unreported. 

The few documented incidents along the path paint a bleak picture. In February 2017, a man was detained near Lakeshore path after grabbing and physically attacking pedestrians. In September 2016, Brian Campbell was arrested after choking a woman on Lakeshore near Memorial Union. Both occurrences took place past sunset. 

So, the big question remains: Why isn’t the path lit? 

“I don't think funding is an issue,” ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick said. “I think it's partly the precedent of not lighting it, laziness and then the UWPD intervening, so [that] they can maintain their control of the area.” 

Mitnick, now a member of the city’s Public Safety Review Committee, ran for the Dis. 8 alder seat in 2019 on a platform centered around student issues including public safety, advocating for additional lighting on the Lakeshore path and emergency phones. While his campaign was unsuccessful, Mitnick is sure that lighting Lakeshore isn’t an impossible task. 

According to Mitnick, if an alder were to introduce legislation to light the path, the Common Council would likely refer it to the Joint Campus Area Committee, which can either pass the legislation or make necessary amendments. The committee would then send a recommendation to the Common Council to adopt, and the council could vote to adopt it with the aim of forcing the University’s hand. 

“I think that's the best way you can do it — at the city level,” Mitnick determined. 

But as history has shown, even with political pressure, lighting the Lakeshore path may be more difficult than it seems. 

“We have electricity, we have lights. We can even put up poles!” former Dis. 8 Ald. Scott Resnick exclaimed. “But for a myriad of reasons, it doesn’t get done.”

Resnick represented campus and the Spring St. neighborhood from 2011 to 2015, and he dealt with the same problems student representatives face today in his struggle to light the trail. He worked with Gary Brown, Director of Planning & Landscape Architecture and the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, to develop a plan to light the path. But between environmental and geographic concerns, the proposal never came to fruition.

“This is indeed a perennial topic but I wouldn’t say it has been controversial in any way,” Brown said. “This comment comes up every couple of years, especially from our newer student leaders on campus.”

Brown has now dealt with generations of student representatives seeking to light the Lakeshore Path, and the issue has remained the same. More physical space exits to the west of the path, allowing for some lighting that is already installed. To the east, any development would be restricted by the steeply sloped wooded areas on one side of the trail and the Lake Mendota shoreline on the other. Installing lights there, Brown stated, is not possible.

“When I talk to new students, ASM leaders and alders about lighting the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path and the reasons for not lighting the path, they more fully understand that this complicated issue is not easily solved by just adding lights to a pathway,” Brown reflected.

Through a partnership with Sustainable Madison, Bennet still hopes to implement environmentally-friendly, motion sensor LED outdoor lighting along the Lakeshore path. Mitnick concurred with this plan, noting that motion-activated lights would limit the negative impacts of light on the Lakeshore ecosystem and subsequently reduce the energy costs associated with lighting the lengthy trail. 

Brown spoke on Bennet’s plan, stating that it was “interesting” but potentially problematic, as it could be triggered off and on all night long, disrupting the bats, owls and other wildlife that live along the path. Lighting the Lakeshore path would also promote the utilization of the trail, conflicting with the university and UWPD’s preference to deter nighttime use of the path and potentially causing a false sense of security among pedestrians.

He holds that students should continue keeping to lit paths, or the "LightWay," that are also supported at night by the campus bus, SAFE Nighttime services and UWPD patrols.

Regardless of university pushback, Bennett plans to first introduce a resolution from Common Council encouraging UW-Madison to light the path. She also intends to co-sponsor any legislation that ASM puts forward to accomplish the task. 

“Down by Memorial Union, that used to be the most unsafe place on campus,” Bennett pointed out. “A past Dis. 8 alder decided to put lighting around the Memorial Union area, and now it's one of the safest places on campus.”

Bennett believes that now is time to finally light dangerous areas on and off campus, especially the Lakeshore path, to ensure that all students feel safer. It’s a crucial part of an array of public safety initiatives that she promises to put forward if elected.

“If not now, then when? If not us, then who? The time is now. It's long overdue,” she concluded.

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