Updated: Jackson Boulevard “Green” Lane Fail

Background Reading

The Problem

Green Lanes

Despite the visibility and encouragement factor of green lanes, I remain suspicious of separation as the primary goal of infrastructure. In the glowing review of green lanes by Mr. Walljasper in the September-October issue of American Bicyclist, I was especially disturbed by the following two statements: that the green lanes provide “a defined space for people on bikes,” and that “drivers appreciate the clear delineation about where and how bikes and cars share the street.” Mandatory use laws notwithstanding, the entire street is already a legally defined “space for people on bikes,” as well as for people driving cars. It is a public space, which we all pay for, and should all be entitled to use. In my opinion, to say that a green lane provides a defined space for cyclists makes it all too easy to conclude that the rest of the road is not for people on bikes.Untrue. As to the second statement, I’m sure the (motor vehicle) drivers DO appreciate the clear delineation about where and how cars and bikes “share the street.” Prior to the green lanes, many of them just expected us to “share the road” by sticking and staying out of their way all the time, even though the law allows otherwise. Now with the “defined space” of green lanes, conveniently located just where the public always thought cyclists should be anyway — on the margins — motorists can feel even more justified in their frustration with bicyclists who aren’t staying “where they belong.” Personally, I don’t trust paint to tell me how to share the street. Bicycle advocates need to not frame the conversation in ways that weaken the road rights that our predecessors in the League of American Wheelmen fought for. The language we use is important. Please speak thoughtfully.

— John Brooking, Westbrook, Maine

Jackson Street Bike Lane

Jackson Street Bike Lane

My wife Connie pointed me to this response from a reader of the American Bicyclist magazine. My response is Bravo! John Brooking says exactly what should be said about “pretty green lanes.” In fact it was my frustration with just such a lane in Chicago on Jackson Street that made me consider writing this response to his response.

Jackson Street runs east-west in Chicago’s downtown area. We often refer to this as the Loop since it is the place where once elevated mass transit trains dominated the landscape as they loop around the business district.

At Ogden Avenue, where the bike lane ended but continues 1.5 years later.

At Ogden Avenue, where the bike lane ended but continues 1.5 years later.

Along with streets like Kinzie and Milwaukee Avenue to the north and Martin Luther King Drive to the south you have large thoroughfares leading into the downtown business district now designated as bike lanes.

Jackson Street took on this designation after a 1.5 year delay. You can read more about this here. The lane however is not really green. At least not for its entire length.

Just before you reach Malcolm X College the lane is on the south side of the street. It crosses from the south side as you enter the intersection at Damen and Jackson and from there on the lane runs along the north side of the street.

Jackson And Morgan Streets

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

— Frederick Douglass

In the downtown areas just east of the River this is a model stretch along Dearborn Street. It has special stoplights specifically for bicyclists that control the two lanes along the west side of the street. But Jackson has not bicycle specific lights. And what becomes a problem is that at a street like Morgan where you can cross the highway to the south of Jackson making a right turn really means leaving the bike lane and crossing to the south side of the street.
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Jackson-Morgan Intersection (Showing Missing Bike Box)

Jackson-Morgan Intersection (Showing Missing Bike Box)

Now if you know the area you can easily cross back to the south side of the street as you approach Morgan and make your right turn. But if you were new to the area you would reach that intersection and find two things glaringly problematic:

  1. The auto lane just to the right of the bike lane is given a diagonal crossing section just before the intersection to accommodate left turns by automobiles…
  2. And because of that crossing pattern there is no place for a Bike Box in front of the south bound traffic lane to allow a cyclist waiting for the light to change to make a right turn.

There are lots of places like this in Chicago. Places where a bit of “real world testing” on a bike might have made all the difference in deciding how to structure the street. But evidently little of that sort of thing is being done and places like this crop up. Jackson is currently at least three lanes wide and has parking along both sides. Motorists who as John Brooking points out are getting accustomed to seeing bike lanes are going to assume that any bikes not using those lanes are in violation of some sort of law. But they are not. Yet the lane designation appears to imply just that.

But regardless the cyclist who is approaching that intersection is given no clue whatsoever as to the fact that no Bike Box exists. There are bike boxes on streets like Kinzie so it is not out of the question to find them in Chicago. But here in an ideal place for one to allow a right turn but the left turning lane for automobiles which is now to the left of the bike lane as it enters the intersection makes a Bike Box impractical.

Help! We desperately need to have someone with an ounce of cycling intelligence help in the planning of these lanes. I am more than surprised that this problem did not come up in the article cited above. We seem all to eager to “say the right things” so as to encourage the development of additional cycling infrastructure while being afraid to offer much in the way of constructive criticism. This is not helpful nor a good use of one’s creative efforts.

Urban Cycling is not a religion! You will not be excommunicated from some Church of Urban Cycling if you fail to genuflect at every “station of the spoke crossing.” Man up and speak truth to power.

Europeans Are No Smarter Than Americans

Trust But Verify - Ronald Reagan

Trust But Verify – Ronald Reagan

Part of the problem with offering a critique of what is being done to American Cyclists in the name of being more European is that while they have greater numbers of riders than do we, they are just as thick headed as we are. They despise helmets. We do not. They think of bikes as appliances we have bike porn and love it. Europeans think that Critical Mass Rides are bunkum as so do I. But most American Cyclists relish their monthly visit to their Daley Plaza sites for a law breaking trip around their cities. Why on earth would we Americans give over our design of roadways to the Europeans without at least scanning a critical eye over the confused mess that some of these lanes represent.

We are not duplicating what they have in Amsterdam. Far from it. What we are getting is a bastardized version of that pristine system. And for that reason we should be circumspect when a politician and his bicycle advocate lackeys come-a-callin’ for our votes and activist support. The lanes are going to be a “work in progress” for quite some time. Some of that is because the condition of the streets will undo the good things that are intended.

But at the end of the day someone desperately needs to actually test out the workings of these lanes. You cannot create meaningful bicycle infrastructure on a computer screen and have it translate into real world safety without verification.