By Jon Hilkevitch, Chicago Tribune reporter
10:04 p.m. CST, December 13, 2012
Chicago opens protected bike lanes on Dearborn Street, the city’s first two-way bike route with dedicated bicycle traffic signals. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)
Chicago’s campaign to broker an orderly coexistence, if not complete harmony, among motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians will begin to face its biggest test so far Friday.
That’s when two-way protected bike lanes — outfitted with traffic signals for bike riders to obey — will open in the heart of the central business district, on Dearborn Street between Kinzie and Polk streets, the Chicago Department of Transportation said.
The $450,000 project covering about 12 blocks is a high-profile component of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to make Chicago one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world and to socially re-engineer how city dwellers choose to commute to work or just get around in a heavily congested urban area.
The mayor has vowed to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes in neighborhoods across the city by May 2015. The Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 calls for completion of a 645-mile network of bike lanes in eight years.
Only time, and warmer weather come spring when more people are bicycling, will tell how well the experiment works on Dearborn. The street remains one-way northbound for vehicles, but on Friday it will also have a northbound bike lane and a southbound bike contra-flow lane, both on the west side of the street.
During the busy noon hour Thursday as cars and trucks rolled by on Dearborn, passers-by on foot stopped to look at fresh pavement markings; newly unwrapped bike signals displaying the international symbol for cyclists in red, yellow and green lights; and metal signs posted above sidewalks instructing pedestrians to “look both ways” for bicyclists coming from the north and south before stepping off the curb.
“I predict this is going to be like a particle collider,” Lane Scott, a 37-year-old clothing salesman, said as he stood in the closed bike lanes on Dearborn near Monroe Street waiting his turn to buy lunch at a food truck. The city’s new food truck ordinance prohibits food trucks from parking next to protected bike lanes, officials said.
“I don’t know who to feel sorry for — turning cars or pedestrians or bikers bumping into each other,” Scott said as crews nearby conducted final tests on control devices that synchronize vehicle traffic signals with bicycle traffic signals and pedestrian walk signs.
From 2006 to 2010 there were 986 reported crashes on this part of Dearborn, city records show. Pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for 57 percent of accidents that involved injuries.
Tony Romano, a deliveryman, said he is resigned to bike lanes in the city and bicyclists “blowing lights left and right,” but he would object if truck loading zones were removed.
“We need to get in, get out,” Romano said. “I wish I had time to pedal around, but I have kids at home to feed.”
Along the Dearborn stretch, CDOT has installed 38 bike traffic signals and 18 new left-turn arrow signals for vehicles, department spokesman Pete Scales said.
Detectors also were installed in left-turn lanes to sense when a vehicle is present. Signals are programmed to give bicyclists approaching intersections a red light and pedestrians a “don’t walk” signal when vehicles are turning left, he said.
Asked whether bicyclists will be held to the same standard as drivers in terms of obeying the new traffic lights, city transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein wouldn’t say exactly.
“It will be real clear what behavior should be for cars, pedestrians and cyclists,” Klein said. “Having said that, there always is a learning curve. As more people are out there (bicycling on Dearborn), the more you are going to have peer pressure to obey the laws.”
Cyclists who are caught running the bike signals, much like normal traffic lights, could receive tickets, Chicago police Sgt. David Villalobos said. He said he was unsure whether traffic police or local beat cops would enforce the new lights.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t stop at every stoplight or stop sign,” said Greg Heck, general manager at Trek Bicycles on Michigan Avenue. He said bike stoplights would make cyclists “obey the rules of the road a little bit better” and benefit motorists and cyclists by better integrating bikes into the regular traffic flow.
Under the new design, the section of Dearborn is separated into six sections, as opposed to the current three.
The 18-foot-wide northbound vehicle and parking lanes closest to the curb on the east side of Dearborn and the 10-foot-wide northbound vehicle lane will remain the same.
But the 20-foot-wide northbound shared vehicle-parking lane on the west side of Dearborn has been sliced up, creating next to the curb a 5-foot-wide southbound bike lane; a 4-foot-wide northbound bike lane; a 3-foot-wide buffer protected by plastic posts; and an 8-foot-wide parking lane.
The buffer is intended to protect bicyclists from moving traffic and from being “doored” by drivers exiting their vehicles, officials said.
Eliminating a vehicle lane will force drivers to slow down, said John Greenfield, a regular bike commuter and co-creator of the sustainable transportation blog Grid Chicago.
“People shouldn’t be driving 40 or 50 (mph) in the heart of the city,” Greenfield said. “It’s not a speedway.”
The new layout will require parkers to cross the bike lanes on foot to get to the pay boxes and then return to their vehicles to insert their parking stickers.
The major goals of the redesign include slowing down the approximately 13,100 vehicles a day that use the 1.15-mile Dearborn corridor and enhancing pedestrian safety, yet also improving traffic flow, said Commissioner Klein, who often bikes to work.
“It’s becoming more and more evident that it’s important to separate the different (travel) modes on high-traffic-flow streets, including in the downtown, while on local neighborhood streets we are trying to lower speeds and merge all users into one space,” Klein said.
Nationwide, it has been demonstrated that bicycle lanes that are separated from traffic are safer, resulting in fewer vehicle-bike crashes, and therefore more likely to be used by large numbers of people.
Bicycling accounts for only 1 percent of commuting trips to work in Chicago, CDOT surveys indicate. About 50 percent of trips to work and home in the city are lone motorists, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Transit accounts for about 27 percent and carpooling about 10 percent.
“A lot of people want to get out and bike. But they’re basically just too afraid,” said Lee Crandell, campaigns director for the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago-area group that promotes bicycle and public transit use. “When you make streets safe, more people will come out.”
Tribune reporter Michael Holtz contributed.