UPDATED: Chicagoans Are Getting “Screwed”

Background Reading


Say Hello to Bike Tracks!

You had to know that after spending some $35 millions of dollars to put in bike lanes at least one American town would discover that the really good stuff is what the Europeans have been touting all along, bike tracks. Some of the recent studies which indicate a reduction in the injury rates for cyclists when using bike lanes have been used to both offset the bad news from New York following its recent move to install bike lanes as well as to attach John Forester and his Vehicular Cycling teachings.

But the Europeans like neither our propensity for Critical Mass Rides nor our penchant for Vehicular Cycling. They think both are merely wrong headed. What they do like are bike tracks and that is not what bike lanes represent.

You can get a very good idea of what a cycle track in Holland looks like here. The closest thing to one that we have in Chicago is the Chicago Lakefront Trail. It is most complete in its revamped format if you visit the areas near the University of Chicago. There the underpasses are much like the ones being used at the Museum Campus area.

John Forester was and still is against the use of trails that intersection with street traffic. What he would have no difficulty with are cycle tracks. At least not in terms of their safety. What he would criticize are trails that “go nowhere”. Or to be more precise go nowhere that anyone wishing to do some serious commuting or errand running would need to go.

The video I referenced above takes riders from the University to the Center of Utrecht. This is essentially an express route for bicycles (with minimal interaction with cars) that allows university students and faculty to go somewhere useful.

Bike Tracks are expensive. You can slap down a few miles of green paint and white lines and give the appearance of doing something to promote cycling and while it really does not help as much as a bike track a buffered bike lane is better than nothing. It still leaves the riders to deal with turning automobile traffic and cyclist right and left turns by means of artificial constructs like bike boxes.

The upcoming creation of a bike corridor from an abandoned rail track is just exactly what the doctor ordered. And out in the suburban areas there are plans to link up the existing paved and unpaved trails between forest preserve districts to begin the process of allowing cyclists to get somewhere serious with a minimum of traffic interaction with motorists.

No amount of blathering from the cycling advocates can erase the fact that we need bike tracks and not bike lanes. I fear however that in tough times we will see more green paint laid down on streets in the name of the “me too” approach to cycling infrastructure. It will create its own problems and will be expensive. And in not too many years if we are lucky we will be trading these stupid lanes for bike tracks.

Meanwhile I will be keeping an eye on what is going on in Seattle. Good for them!

Additional Thoughts

What about maintenance? If you have managed to see the Kinizie Street or the 55th Street installations of buffered lanes you notice something almost immediately. Those little white PVC pipes being used to outline the edges of the lanes are a “joke” The very first snow fall and plowing cycle will remove them one-by-one. In fact it is not just the pipes that are at risk, so are the little adapters that hold them upright on the pavement.

I mean really who thought up this design? Are they planning to remove these two things during the Winter and replacing them in the Spring? It kind of reminds me of the way in which people connect knick-knacks for their cabinets and shelves only to realize afterwards that dusting is going to be tiresome. Each little piece has to be lifted and cleaned and before long you decide to just skip that step.

In Amsterdam the bike lanes are cleared of snow using special smaller and narrower plows. What are the plans here in Chicago? If they do use something smaller and narrower that will certainly mean it will take longer to clear the snow and that will be more costly. Imagine this scenario spread across the entire city. That will be a financial disaster if the cleaning rate is too very long.

One of the other things that really bothers me about the south side buffered lane is how narrow the turning areas are. We parked on Ellis (?) for the South Side History Bike Tour a few weeks ago. On the way back from the tour we rode along 55th to get the full experience of this new setup. At Ellis you have to do some pretty fancy maneuvering on a bike to get from the bike lane over to the lefthand turning lane. A bike box would make this easier.

But there is a pathway cleared from the car lane into the bike lane to allow for righthand turns. It is really a pretty stupid setup because it requires precise handling by the car drivers. In winter when snow and ice are on the ground I can just see the skidding that is going to be occurring at intersections like this.

We really need to get serious about what kinds of looks our buffered lanes are going to have. I would prefer to stop tinkering with all the fancy “pretty” green paint and pipes and see some real cycle tracks created. But that would mean delaying the building of infrastructure and people in the cycle community are frankly stupid enough to be willing to accept something that is going to create its own set of problems in favor of having something, anything to show that here in Chicago we are keeping up with the rest of the world. But at what costs?

Come Spring I will be anxious to see what the state of the 55th Street roadway is in and whether I will have been proved wrong on this. But having been in Chicago all of my life and actually born at the now defunct Provident Hospital I cannot imagine the little white pipes will last a single season here in the Windy City. The entire design idea just does not seem at first glance to fit with the reality of the nasty, icy and cruel winters we usually have.

Time will tell.

What I fear most is the eventually and predictable pushback motorists are going to be giving these sorts of street designs. They frankly will only work if traffic is slowed down to something on the order of 15 to 20 MPH. That number will drop when the roads get icy. Being on a bike in narrow restricted bike lanes when a car comes lumbering over to make a right turn is not my idea of feeling safe.

Once the motorists have had a chance to weigh the costs to themselves to satisfy a handful of cycling hipsters who could care less about them as people I think things will change and not for the better. Chicagoans are not pioneers in the field of exercise and I doubt they ever will be.

When the Midwest palette changes from greasy hamburgers or fried chicken with waffles to more healthy eating I will know that the average commuter from the south side is willing to brave the wind and cold. Even the knuckleheads who claim to be “real cyclists” are not all that hardy. Gale force winds are about to descend on Chicago this week. Already ChainLinkers are trying to assuage their feelings of guilt at not wanting to be out on the Lakefront Trail by using talk therapy.

How on earth do we plan to encourage anywhere from three to five times the number of additional cyclists to take the plunge? Certainly green paint and plastic pipes are not going to make the difference. Fighting the Chicago “Hawk” (what we call the wind on the south side) is not a matter of pretty bike lanes. It is a matter of dressing warmly and frankly waiting for the bus seems a superior idea.

The very notion that a south sider is going to be proud of having ditched their automobile to ride around in sub-zero temperatures is laughable. For one thing having the clothing needed to stay both warm and dry in sub-zero temperatures costs a good deal more than a pair of blue jeans. It means finding clothing at places like REI that is designed for exercising out-of-doors in the dead of winter. You are talking about a Midwest culture where designer knock-offs are more valued than winter coats.

The more I think about this the less encouraged I am that we will ever really see much shift in the number of “real” (i.e. committed) riders of bikes. At present this has proved to be effective for those in the urban cycling brotherhood but I doubt will expand much beyond that cliche.

Again time will tell. And of course if this current crop of hipsters ages to the point where they have to make a choice between getting the kids to school in a cargo bike bin or taking the family auto out on the streets they may well begin to choose the latter. Fracking has made gasoline availability the hot topic in the news. America is about to become the replacement for Saudi Arabia in terms of oil availability.

That will certainly mean that with decreased need of foreign oil automobiles will look even better to those considering transportation alternatives. And as very small cars are developed the thought of taking them onto city streets is more appealing. Nothing speaks to the aging body so loudly as convenience and comfort.

Who in their right minds would willing choose riding to work in sub-zero weather and then having to take a shower before entering the office over using a safe warm car and getting there without having to shower afterwards? The only people who would even think to consider this sort of thing are those who are forced to for financial reasons and those who are young enough and willing enough to make a social or political statement. But if oil is available here without having to invade foreign countries to get it, where is the impetus to keep up the activism?