Turns : Achille’s Heel of ‘Protected Bike Lanes’

Background Reading


The Wabash Avenue bike lanes, now classified as “buffer-protected.” Photo by John Lankford.

The Wabash Avenue bike lanes, now classified as “buffer-protected.” Photo by John Lankford.

Protect Bike Lanes definitions have undergone a bit of an “Alice In Wonderland” adjustment over the past few months. This is no doubt what you do your promises exceed your ability to produce. The lapdogs over at StreetsBlog have a sister site which is called GridChicago. John Greenfield tries to explain away the redefinitions with this bit of lame rhetoric:

Emanuel’s Chicago 2011 Transition Report, released in May of that year, announced the bold objective of building one hundred miles of protected bike lanes within the mayor’s first term. The document defined “protected lanes” as “separated from traveling cars and sit[ting] between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars that shield cyclists from street traffic.” As Grid Chicago readers know, buffered lanes are instead located to the left of the parking lane, with additional dead space striped on one or both sides of the bike lane to distance the bike lane from motorized traffic and/or opening car doors.

However, in recent months CDOT staff began using the new terminology, which redefines “protected lanes” to include buffered lanes. The press release for the terrific new two-way protected bike lane on Dearborn Street confirmed that the agency is now counting “buffer-protected” lanes towards the hundred-mile target. This means that instead of building one-hundred miles of physically separated lens by 2015, the new goal is to build a total of one hundred miles of “barrier-protected” and “buffer-protected” lanes.

I certainly don’t blame CDOT for changing their target. Building one hundred miles of physically separated lanes, plus dozens of additional miles of buffered lanes, within four years always seemed a bit unrealistic. It took a Herculean effort by the department’s small bike program staff to install the current number of protected lanes, often working far more than a nine-to five schedule. And I for one would be delighted if Chicago reaches, say, sixty-five miles of protected lanes and thirty-five miles of buffered lanes by 2015. It would make a huge difference in the city’s bike-ability.

So now they tell us that like the toxic drivel being released into the atmosphere by Ron Burke on how with the advent of protected bike lanes cyclists will suddenly become lawful in their behavior. You know, “no more running of red lights and blowing through stop signs“. My excursion along Milwaukee and Kedzie this weekend tell me otherwise. Pretty green paint and bellicose rhetoric in defiance of the critics like John Kass do not alter reality. Chicago’s Urban Cycling Community will continue to do what it has always done. If the rider is accustomed to ignore traffic controls, he will continue to do this because it has become an instinctual habit.

In fact watching the fellows operating their bikes this weekend has shown me that this “scofflaw attitude” isn’t malicious so much as it is an unconscious reflex. After many months and perhaps years of riding without regard to traffic controls you no longer even realize that you are breaking the law. All you are doing is getting home or to work as quickly as possible. Cycling in urban areas is first and foremost all about speed. I do not mean what number of miles per hour but rather about how long it takes to get from one side of town to the other. On a bicycle you can cut minutes off your travel time by simply ignoring traffic controls and maintaining a 12-15 mph pace.

In addition to ignoring traffic controls, sliding on the right past cars stuck in traffic or darting around them on the left to return to the “Door Zone” on Milwaukee is quite an effective maneuver. Folks who are acting as tourists or first time commuters are overly sensitive to this behavior. They either try to emulate the “scofflaw strategies” or they “dig in their heels” and promise themselves to do what is “safest“. It becomes a matter of choice.

What is alarming however is that this fracturing of the Urban Cycling Community population has the potential for both danger to the riders who ignore traffic controls, and resentments on the part of the “law abiding” riders to resist the pleadings of the Cycling Advocates who are basing their appeals upon the misguided notion that what cyclists do stems from a lack of adequate bicycle infrastructure and has little to do with personal choices.

Everything we cyclists do is driven by a simple urge to be safe. Sometimes however our need to be quick overcomes our better instincts. Having our cycling gurus line up on both side of the argument only creates doubt and uncertainty in the minds of cyclists who are looking for simple truth. The fact that all cyclists seem to agree that motorists should never disobey traffic controls or violate bike lane usage tells me that we have not gone so far afoul of legal behavior that we have become truly lawless. Instead we have become arrogant and self-centered. We try and explain away our misdeeds as not having the weight of those behind the wheels of cars. And we show more than a bit of disdain for those beneath us in the vulnerable users pecking order (namely pedestrians) because they “get in our way” far too often. Pedestrians can be another impediment to “quickness”.

Dearborn and Jackson Have Much In Common

Okay, back down off the soapbox and on to discussing some of the issues that make me uncertain as to the aims of Protected Bike Lanes. I am going to go on record as favoring “buffer protected” lanes. My feeling is that these lane types offer the isolation I desire from the rush of traffic on my left while giving me a clear set of sight lines of traffic conditions ahead. And more importantly they allow me to easily merge left for turns in that direction or to keep right for turns in that direction. It’s the best of both worlds.

Now for me the question of Protected Bike Lanes and bicycling infrastructure in general is whether it can deliver on its promise. The principal thrust of PBLs and their variants is that you can dispense with Vehicular Cycling Strategies (as taught by John Forester) in favor of “user-friendly” lane designs which are supposed to make it possible for newbies to navigate around cities in a safe and stress-free manner.

What is becoming increasingly clear to me is that PBLs are not going to satisfy riders for whom “quickness” is of paramount importance nor newbies who are either unfamiliar with the city streets and locations or simply struggling against the fear that grips newbies when in busy traffic.

If a rider is all about “quickness” then he will never use “bike boxes“. The very concept has a hidden subtext, “delay“. To make a simple left turn from a right-hand protected bike lane requires two traffic light cycles. The first gets you into the intersection to reach the bike box. The second light cycle then frees you up to continue along the same trajectory as the traffic waiting at the light. This “wastes time”. It is even more onerous to a “scofflaw cyclist” than what they have to deal with already. For such a cyclist taking even more time to “safely” navigate an intersection is silly. It is as if in return for this supposed “safety” it is going to take me twice as long to get across town. “No way” is the rejoinder from such cyclists. And frankly I would have to agree were I willing to see the world from their point of view.

But the situation is really not much better for law abiding cyclists. They are often left with no clue as to how to do the simplest things when dealing with protected bike lanes. I lay the blame for this state of affairs onto the shoulders of CDOT and its Commissioner Gabe Klein. These folks have spent a great deal of time and much of our money putting up pretty eye candy that is supposed to be “safer“. But for the life of me there seem to be some missing steps in their designs.

Jackson-Morgan Intersection (Showing Missing Bike Box)

Jackson-Morgan Intersection (Showing Missing Bike Box)

Take for instance the steps to make a simple “right-hand” onto Morgan turn while riding east on Jackson. There are no “guides” on the ground to make this a “no brainer“. Not even a “bike box“. As a tourist or a newbie you arrive at the intersection intending to head into the campus are of UIC and you suddenly realize that you are on the wrong side of the street. Where a “bike box” might have been situation is taken up by a left-hand turning lane for automobiles (and presumably cyclists, too).

Your safest alternative in this instance is to cross the intersection and make three successive left-hand turns to come back to Morgan and proceed across the Eisenhower Highway into the UIC Campus. (See the illustration to the right.) You could of course follow the cars turning left and wait on the corner and use the crosswalk to launch yourself back into traffic when the light changes. But what happens if hundreds of cyclists are all attempting the same maneuver at the same time? Clearly even a “bike box” cannot handle that kind of capacity.

To me what we are developing here in the City of Chicago is which (with some corrections) might manage the flow of a handful of patient cyclists, but hundreds entering an intersection at once would be chaotic where “bike boxes” are concerned. Under those conditions it would be “safer” to be a “scofflaw rider” and avoid the entire mess by running red lights and blowing through stop signs.

Dearborn “Up Close and Critical”

Now that we have had a chance to puff up our chests and listen to boastful speeches about how many jobs we are aiming to “steal” from Portland the reality of dealing with our $450,000 boondoggle is staring us in the face. And once again the question of how simple this infrastructure is to navigate comes front and center.

Dearborn Street's Missing Right Turn Bike Boxes

Dearborn Street’s Missing Right Turn Bike Boxes

Bike Box Along Dearborn Street PBL

Bike Box Along Dearborn Street PBL

When we rode Dearborn Street this Saturday it looked much like the diagram above. I went back today and discovered that indeed there were “bike boxes” positioned roughly as indicated on east-bound one-way streets all along Dearborn Street’s PBL. These “bike boxes” are clearly oriented for the benefit of south-bound riders. But both they and north-bound riders can use them. But these boxes will hold a very limited number of riders. If the group were in the hundreds you would have a line of folks waiting for several light changes in order to actually use the box with its limit of riders.

So how exactly do you navigate Dearborn? If you are in a hurry then merge into the right-most of the “auto lanes” (keeping in mind that Chicago Cyclists are free to use any lanes they choose). Then make your right turn with the autos. Otherwise you will need to wait two cycles before the “bike box” riders are released. The first cycle is when your light turns green and you enter the “bike box” to wait. Then your light turns red and the east-bound lane is released and you can then proceed along that trajectory. This is clumsy at best and would probably be avoided at all costs by riders interested in “quickness“.

Before PBLs riders simply found their way along the route of traffic “took the lane” and drove their bikes as would any self-respecting car driver. Now along comes this new “user-friendly” bicycle infrastructure strategy and suddenly what used to be simple is now either very complex or not possible without some modifications. And it is something that CDOT is going to possibly need to address in one of two ways:

  • Add “bike boxes” (on Morgan so that riders along Jackson can turn right) or better yet add/update the bicycle specific stop lights to include left and right turn signals that precede the timing of the ones for automobiles, or…
  • Offer a simple explanation of strategies to use when you suddenly find yourself unable to make a turn in the direction you need to go. This could be a set of pamphlets or PSA videos. It however needs to be explained.

Again the Protected Bike Lane approach is supposed to be if nothing else “user-friendly“. Or to put it in different terms “safer“. This is infrastructure that is supposed to guide its ridership through intersections and allow them to negotiate turns and travel with minimal interaction with automobile traffic. It does not help to suddenly offer up the notion that if you want to make a right-hand turn along Jackson when riding in the easterly direction you should leave the bike lane and merge over to the right-hand automobile lane. That is to admit that your bike lane design does not work under the current conditions.

As they say in the movies “That is Unacceptable“. At present the “safest” thing I could suggest to a newbie is to make three left-hand turns beginning  at the next intersection to get back onto the street where they can then continue south on Morgan towards the UIC Campus.