Dearborn Street PBL Weaknesses Are Waiting To Emerge


Dearborn Street’s PBL has been getting thumb’s up signals from many of the ChainLink Forum faithful. But it seems that there might not have been enough thought put into the left turn protocol for southbound riders. Here is a graphic that shows how the street looks right now:



Like a good deal of the Colville-Andersen work on “turns” it is “clunky” or at best “clumsy“. The problem is that being new to this bicycle infrastructure stuff we Yanks have a very difficult time visualizing what a street design will “look like” with thousands of riders in play.

Southbound riders in this situation have to make a two-stage left turn by pulling into the “bike box” to await the impending light change that will release them to proceed eastbound at this intersection. At present you can wait virtually an entire day before seeing perhaps 100 or fewer riders along this street at any given intersection. You might get lucky and see perhaps three riders meet at an intersection waiting for a light to change. And that would not mean that an additional three would be waiting to cross from the opposite side. Things are very sparse here just now in terms of activity.

But First Let’s Re-Examine What The PBL Design Is Supposed To Do

Think first of your encounter (if you are old enough) with IBM PC DOS. This was the state of the art operating system for personal computers “back in the day“. Along comes an icon based system like Apple’s Macintosh OS and suddenly you have a crying need to be able to produce your work product using icons rather than command line interpreter instructions.

The PBL is if you will an “icon-stylebicycle infrastructure design intended to provide designed to allow even a newbie to navigate tricky situations without having to learn the “command line interpreter-style” strategies taught in Vehicular Cycling classes. But does this design actually do what was intended? I think not. It has the same issues that I talked about when examining the lack of a “bike box” for right-hand turns off of Jackson Avenue at intersections like the one with Morgan Street.

Neither design makes it possible for a “newbie” to navigate easily and most importantly “safely” without benefit of something as essential as the strategies taught in Vehicular Cycling.

Back To the Dearborn Southbound Left Turn

So when the light changes for the bike lanes to continue forward riders from each side will cross into the intersection. Riders from the north heading south are expected to pick a moment when they can cross over to the “bike box” to make their lefthand turn once the light for drivers from the west has turned green.

The first thing I notice is that if there are hundreds of riders or even thousands crossing this intersection even as few as 25 riders wishing to turn left would quickly crowd out the riders following the first few over to the “bike box“. Where indeed do that many riders wait? And if you think about it there would be no time to anticipate this problem. You would simply move over to the waiting area. But since both sides are proceeding into the intersection simultaneously it means that left turning riders might have to wait to allow northbound riders a chance to continue on.

The problem is actually one of riders getting in one another’s way. Even if you provide a lefthand turn sign just for southbound riders with hundreds waiting it means that those needing to turn left would have to work their way around fellow cyclists to reach the “bike box“. A slow moving set of riders who are tourists and have never seen this intersection is likely to realize that they need to move around those up front too late to make their move. And suddenly you have riders stalled in what is obviously a rather narrow southbound lane waiting to move forward to reach the “bike box” at the next opportunity.

This is a coordination nightmare waiting to piss off a huge number of drivers and cyclists alike. Why indeed did anyone dream up this design? Well that is easy to answer. Like chairs that are designed more for “eye appeal” than actual comfort it is easy to forget that someone plans to sit in such chairs. And suddenly what is an aesthetically please chair when the room is empty becomes a nightmare when someone has to use it.

In fact the larger and less agile folks that stumble into a room with such furniture are going to find that seat bases too narrow and the back too short and the forethought that went into the design truly puzzling. I find a great deal of the “Colville-Andersen-style” bicycle infrastructure design to be lacking in anything resembling “real world” use. It is visually appealing but it would take a world of green paint to fix the problems related to turns on most of his designs. They simply do not work “come the day of the revolution” when hundreds if not thousands of riders are trying to use them.

Fix The Problem Before You Build It

Apparently the folks at CDOT have very little bicycle experience. Which is odd given the fact that they have the knuckleheads at Active Transportation Alliance to kick back and drink lattes with any day of the week. But apparently everyone is concentrating on the number of miles of infrastructure to churn out without giving much thought to whether or not it works well in practical terms.

From my personal experience I think that the average Chicago Urban Cyclist is going to have a very nasty experience one the number of riders using all of this newly minted infrastructure reaches a Critical Mass. There are not going to be “corkers” and such to effect mass changes in bicycle flow once things get truly popular. Anybody who is a newbie is going to find themselves stumped just long enough to be “in the way” of the regulars.

Visual entering your favorite Starbucks of a Monday AM when you are running late and need the caffeine more than ever to counteract some late night carousing on Sunday PM. Unfortunately a gaggle of tourists have just debarked from a tour bus to get coffee and it seems that of the 100 or so folks not a single one has their money out and ready to pay for their coffee. And only 25% of the group even knows what particular drink they wish to order. And to make matters worse all of these folks are from a foreign country which makes reading the English coffee orders nearly impossible. In fact they came here because where they are from they have only heard of Starbucks and now they are getting the chance to actually experience it.

You best bet on a morning like this is to “suck it up” and move on down the street to the next place you can find. What is important to know about this situation however is that every Starbuck coffee place on Earth has a practical limit to how many people can be handled efficiently at any given moment. There are usually only a couple of people making coffee at any one time. They have to get and keep straight all the orders coming from the folks bellying up to the cash register. Meanwhile there is a line of folks outside in their cars whose orders are being listened to by each member of the store’s team of servers while at the same time trying to take your order.

This is at its best a situation of controlled chaos. Colville-Andersen is designing eye appealing “street furniture” with a capacity to handle the traffic flow equivalent of a slow day at Starbucks. The moment the pretty green lanes get clogged with tourists and out-of-towners who are not year round riders all bets are off whether these designs are going to handle the load.

Someone at CDOT including the knuckleheads in Copenhagen needs to do some stress testing of these designs. I’m all for everyone getting a good payday. What I am against is doing this at the expense of the poor schlubs who have to deal with them on rainy wet days when visibility is minimal and road conditions horrible and tempers flaring and horns honking and hundreds of folks are pissed off because their favorite Starbucks was inundated by that tour bus of visitors I spoke about earlier.

To add insult to injury that same group of tourists is going to drive into the Loop and rent a boatload of heavy clunker Bike Share bikes and cruise the Chicago Lakefront Trail before descending on the local Subway or whatever at lunch time. And our intrepid commuter who missed his coffee that morning is now going to be dealing with the same crowd of indecisive folks at lunch time.

The worst case scenario is that Illinois will have passed a conceal carry law and our frustrated cyclist is going to be packing heat and too angry to realize that he has just unholstered his weapon and decided to clear the way to the cash register to grab his order and get the heck out of Dodge. Trust me something like this will eventually happen when you have designs that are pretty to look at but less than functional when stressed by the numbers of riders everyone is hoping to see.

Stay tuned!