A Ride Across the Berteau Avenue Greenway

Renee Patten
Posted: 10/28/2013 4:42 pm

Source: Huffington Post

Looking east at the "cute" bicycle-specific traffic signal

Looking east at the “cute” bicycle-specific traffic signal

With the completion of the Berteau Avenue Greenway project comes contention from the Chicago cycling community on the city’s first designated greenway. The corridor is a one-mile stretch from Clark to Lincoln along Berteau Ave. Passing through Lakeview, Ravenswood, and North Center while connecting four designated bike paths — Clark, Southport, Damen, and Lincoln — as well as my favorite unofficial route, Ravenswood.

A more appropriate policy and design name is the “Berteau Bike Boulevard” or “Berteau Bikeway,” as greenways are most commonly associated with off-street trails, comparable to the lakefront trail, the Hudson River Greenway in New York, or the Midway Greenway in Minneapolis. In Chicago we titled it the Berteau Greenway, as our officials love to greenwash for marketing and political gain.

Although most similar in design to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) definition of a bike boulevard, the street doesn’t fully meet the requirements of one. The defining component of greenways or bike boulevards is prioritizing bicycle travel with low motorized traffic volumes and speeds. This is accomplished by using “signs, pavement markings, and speed and volume management measures to discourage through trips by motor vehicles and create safe, convenient bicycle crossings of busy arterial streets.” On Berteau cut thru traffic is not prevented or discouraged with the new measures; therefore not meeting the greenway requirement of providing non-motorized traffic priority on the street.

Entering the roundabout

Entering the roundabout

The use of traffic diverters is one of best design examples preventing cut thus. Other cities, most notably Berkeley, have done this to great regard with physical street barriers. Traffic diverting was part of the original plan, but car-centric local homeowners rejected the idea and the planning team changed designs based on their complaints, as reported at the time by Streetsblog Chicago.

Instead of prioritizing Berteau equalizes, recreated as an equal space for bicycles and cars. That being said, the street does incorporate a majority of the design elements of a bicycle boulevard. This conflict from the greenways defining goal while lacking a bike priority design has led to “good intentions but bad execution,” “half-assed,” and overall underwhelmed feedback from The Chainlink’s bike community.

Specific components from the bike boulevard design featured on Berteau that enhance the streetscape for cycling and pedestrians include (with pictures below):

  • A newly paved surface; no potholes
  • Sharrows in the center of lanes
  • Street greenery with bioswales to capture street water run-off & enhance the environment
  • Bump outs that tighten up the turning radius, forcing drivers to turn at slower speeds
  • Two contra-flow bike lanes with bike lane signage & street markings
  • Two bike signal traffic lights at contra-flow intersections
  • Green bike lane markings at contra-flow intersections
  • Circle barrier traffic calmer
  • Narrowed pedestrian intersections
  • Increased signage for “one way – except bikes” “do not enter – except bikes”
Contraflow Bike Lane

Contraflow Bike Lane

These design elements force drivers to operate and turn their vehicles at lower speeds. The goal of this to increase pedestrian safety at intersections and bicyclist’s visibility and safety at intersections and on the road.

Riding down the street with these enhancements I now feel an more significant presence on the street. I have the infrastructure support to take the lane, far enough away from parked cars to avoid doorings. Drivers will have to deal with it and slow down or find another route, both goals of the project, because I am not moving aside. It is a case study for using design to force sharing of the road while connecting together the bikeway grid and routes.

As to the driver that honked at me the other morning; per the Municipal Code of Chicago, 9-36-010 drivers must pass bicycles with at least 3 feet of clearance when passing & section 11-1505 of the Illinois Vehicle Code, provides me with the space to ride a safe distance from parked cars.

Clark Street Eastern Terminus

Clark Street Eastern Terminus

The new pedestrian island and left turn lane at Clark onto Berteau is understandably the standout disagreeable new feature. On one hand, the pedestrian island, hopefully and eventually, will reduce vehicle speeds on Clark where a significant amount of drivers speed. On the other hand, it created a pinch conflict zone. For a rider to feel safe, they would most likely have to take the full lane and block drivers from passing, but this is a hostile assumption and dangerous situation for citizen cyclists. Other riders report stopping before the pinch point and waiting for traffic to stop before riding through or modifying their routes to avoid it.

The island has led to a stressful and intimidating route on Clark while creating the appearance that the greenway is a path for cut thru vehicles with a left turn lane from Clark northbound onto Berteau. In my experience and photo review, the space is sufficient for a biker and driver if the car is small, going the speed limit, and at the far left side of the lane with the bicyclist as far right as possible. The width does not meet the minimum legal space to pass a bicyclist or allow any sharing the lane with a bicyclist plus a bus, truck, or van. This creates an unsafe space for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Pedestrian Island

Pedestrian Island

Currently drivers haven’t seemed to have slowed but prefer to approach the island speeding and oblivious, seemingly not comprehending how to handle the change. Riders have witnessed drivers running over the barrier and the signage on the barrier has been flattened. The flattened sign had reflectors at eye level; how a driver could hit this is beyond me. I witnessed a southbound delivery van use its’ turn signal to go around the island and continue on Clark.

Based on the NATCO defined bike boulevard and case studies from other cities, Chicago almost made it on to the same level. Where the project is lacking the community’s critiques are understandable and legitimate. Using the Berteau Greenway as an example, by collecting data and feedback from this experience, my hope is that our officials and communities will advocate on future projects for a model truly prioritizing bicycling; that the importance of the bike boulevard design, with benefits to a local street and community, will be understood as more valuable to our neighborhoods than caving to allowing cars in control of another street.


One of the things that bicyclists are going to have to learn to deal with is the notion that not everyone likes the idea of “prioritization” of infrastructure for the purpose of appeasing bicyclists. Never forget that Chicago is part of the Midwest and probably more so than many other cities. We are indeed unabashedly “car-centric“. I suspect that as smaller more efficient vehicles produced by car companies to compete with bicycles arrive, we will be among the first to adopt them.

If you think about bicycles they are fairly primitive in their design. They do not offer the kind of climate control features of an automobile and more than saving gasoline and the quality of the air, Chicagoans are all about avoiding “The Hawk“. Unlike San Diego this is not a place that supports much in the way of hospitable climate activities. Even in winter we are hardly a place that supports outdoor sports. Yes, we do ice skate and have cross country skiing but not much beyond those two. Commuting in this climate is both dangerous and not very pleasant.

Intended Auto Behavior Changes

When we went in search of the Berteau Greenway we entered just behind Portage Park itself. If you drive that stretch up to the point where it intersects with a shopping mall and some train tracks you get to see what it looked like before it was modified to look the way it does now.

Frankly the entire length of this street is lined with cars on both side. It makes for a street where car traffic could never have been very rapid. And in the section just mentioned  there are plenty of speed bumps designed to slow traffic down even further. The changes introduced really had little hope of doing much more than serving as features in the showcase and not anything of actual value in terms of alteration of human behavior.

Clearly the cute bicycle specific lights do not force bicyclists to do anything they already intend to do. And adding the contraflow lanes actually are admissions that there was not hope of preventing cyclists from traveling down these short stretches to points where they would no longer be riding against traffic. To claim otherwise is perhaps a bit disingenuous. It is a nice showcase of what the city knows how to build but really is not a proof of what changes could be forced on drivers or cyclists. They have to be willing to allow themselves to slow down or obey the signage or the traffic controls.

Still Not Enough Space To Be Safe from the “Door Zone”

If you are riding the Berteau Greenway you immediately notice its coziness. Was there room to ride out of the “door zone“, only if no cars were present. Where cars are present you and they will have to coexist until they can safely ride around you. It is tight on this street and it certainly looks and feels that way. But frankly on a lazy Sunday afternoon that was just the feeling I wanted.

Pedestrian Island On Clark

When I saw this island upon my initial approach I wondered how it was to be used. Its use frankly does not seem obvious. But more importantly you would need some sort of “warning” or “training” to use it successfully in winter because turning left into the two grooves cut into it would be difficult if not dangerous.

As a tool for pedestrians it might work. But are there really many people walking alongside the graveyard who then decide to cross the street to enter the Berteau Greenway? I was not there long enough on last Sunday to judge its usefulness for pedestrians but certainly it seems odd to a cyclist. But like so much of bicycle infrastructure it will need to be vetted by careful managing of data over time. Lots of these things like “bump outs” have supposed value but only time will tell.

In winter when there is snow on the ground even things like bump outs may prove useless. I can see cars hitting them unaware of their presence and literally causing the driver to steer wildly. Trucks with plows are more than likely to tear corners off simply because the lane is tight.