Assessing Chicago’s ‘Protected’ Bike Lanes

Background Reading


On the Chicago Urban Cyclists “Whine and Jeez” Club Forum a thread touts the upcoming inclusion of “real” protected bike lanes on Clybourn Street. One wag writes:

As a concept, I’m fine with them. As implemented to date in the City of Chicago, I don’t like them. I think the constrained infrastructure that exists in the City of Chicago is going to make it extremely difficult to come up with a design that delivers on the often cited goal of growing the number of cyclists AND making them safer.

My experience with PBLs in Chicago is principally with Kinzie and Milwaukee and to a lesser degree Elston, 18th Street, and Dearborn.

In general, Chicago’s PBLs put cyclists on the worst part of the road surface. The streets in the City of Chicago are crowned, and the bicycle travel lanes in PBLs, for the most part, are placed in the portion of the road where debris collects. Without automobile tires traveling over that area of the road, sweeping or picking up the debris, it stays in the bike lane. When it rains, this part of the road collects puddles. When it’s cold, puddles freeze. When it snows, snow and salt collects in the lane and without the aforementioned auto tire traffic, salt is less effective and snow doesn’t dissipate. Snow that used to get shoveled off sidewalks under parked cars now gets shoveled into the PBL.

In an August 22nd guest post in Streetsblog,  Kristen Maddox “counted 107 manhole covers along the two-way protected bike lanes on Dearborn Street between Polk Street and Kinzie.” On northbound Milwaukee, I counted 140+ manhole and utility service box covers in the bike lane. Our PBLs traverse too many alleys and other curb cuts. Our PBLs lack uniformity of design. Milwaukee has at least five different configurations in its 0.85 mile length-sometimes you’re on the right side of parked cars, sometimes on the left, sometimes lanes are buffered, sometimes protected. And there’s a Bus Stop IN the S/B Milwaukee bike lane. Most auto-bike collisions occur at intersections and the separation of cars and bikes with parked cars impairs sightlines and I think make conflicts at intersections more likely. The accident statistics will be interesting.

The historic data pretty consistently shows the “safety in numbers” effect; i.e. more bike riders make everyone safer. It is currently argued that PBLs will attract those “curious but timid” riders who would otherwise never take up riding, at least not on the streets for errands, commuting, etc., and while that may be true, I’m not sure to what degree Chicago PBLs make them “safer.” And I’m not sure to what degree new riders separated from automobile traffic by PBLs will affect the “safety in numbers” phenomenon.

I have been riding in the City of Chicago for a long time-since before there were bike lanes. The new advocates categorize me as “a strong and fearless” rider. I don’t think that’s a particularly accurate description, in large part because I strongly believe that a certain amount of fear is a necessary component of safe riding. I don’t want to get hit by a car, and while I wouldn’t characterize myself as timid, I am pretty comfortable riding in traffic.  Oh, and I have never been hit by a car.

To my eye, and my 30 or so years of experience riding a bike in Chicago traffic, Kinzie was always a great street to ride on. The addition of the PBL hasn’t made it worse or better, with the exception of the sightlines at intersections which I think have made it worse. Milwaukee has been made worse by the Balkanized PBL design. Elston, not much difference. 18th Street, love the PBL over the bridge. Dearborn is worse.

I posted the articles about the curb-protected PBLs because I think that design addition would be a step in the right direction, and if they’re going to spend tax increment financing, state and federal transportation dollars, and CDOT’s own general obligation funds on PBLs, they should do a better job with design.


When I read this I was reminded of the joke about the inmates in a maximum security prison who were not allowed to talk at meals. So to help pass the time they told each other jokes in the exercise yard and gave them numbers. Then at the dinner table in the mess hall they would hold out their fingers to indicate the particular joke a person wanted to tell and then each man would review in his mind the details of that particular joke. Afterwards inmates would chuckle and nod their heads knowingly as they collective remembered each job by its numbers.

One day a new inmate showed up and having also begun to memorize the jokes and their numbers he decided to “tell a joke” at dinner time using his fingers to indicate its number. He flashed the number eight and waited for the usual grins and nods to indicate that each man understood and remembered the joke. No one reacted at all. The inmate was crestfallen.

Later he asked in the exercise yard why his telling of the joke had fallen flat. His bunk mate said, “You just have to know how to tell a joke.

The ChainLink Is Like A Prison

This forum is more like a prison than one would like to think. I could and in fact would have written the very same description as seen above. But you have to be part of the “in crowd” to not have criticism of the Holy Grail of Protected Bike Lanes (as currently implemented in the City of Chicago) not result in your being banished from the table at dinner time.

If you know and understand that these are essentially very closed-minded folks (at least in terms of whom they accept into their group) you will not find yourself wondering why they react as they do. Think the Tea Party and you will not be disappointed. If you are essentially able to talk like Sarah Palin or Anne Coulter or even Rush Limbaugh you will be welcomed with open arms. Tell them the exact same thing as Sarah but be dressed in a John Boehner mask and you will be booed. And should you risk the ultimate challenge of dressing up like Governor Christie you will most surely get shown the door. For some reason the Truth has to be delivered by “Anointed Vessels” or not at all.

My guess is that the ChainLink requires that you get drunk with them at least once and only after you have managed to ride in Contra-Flow fashion three and four abreast (an illegal act) before you can be allowed to darken their doorstep. And into the bargain you will need to learn to complain about people of color who “salmon” in the bike lane. What is amazing is that riding against traffic in the lanes used by cars is just fine. Just don’t attempt that in a bike lane!?

Additional Thoughts On PBLs

First off it should become rather obvious that we Yanks are “playing house” when it comes to bike infrastructure. We haven’t got a clue what the heck we are doing but we are enthusiastic as all get out while doing it. Kinda reminds me of the quote by Carl Sandburg:

I’m an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.

If you do not put too much stock in the blather from the StreetsBlog crew you will realize that nothing we have done to date has been much other than trying to throw Jello at the wall and waiting to see what sticks. We have the really cool thing we borrowed from epidemiologists who track diseases. What we do is have a knucklehead take data (provided the city is willing to turn it over) and using it we draw a map of where folks are getting into accidents. Then will draw a nice set of graphs and pronounced that we actually know something from this exercise.

What we do know is that accidents occur here and not there. What we do not know is why. But at least the guys who are playing with themselves the data are happy and get a big hand from their peers on the ChainLink for uh, doing something meaningful.

Meanwhile the guys who do the actual planning of the streets and their lanes are busy deciding where to put the next “pile of crap” that we call bike lanes here in Chicago. Sorry, but that is essentially what we have here because we cannot effectively keep these lanes cleared of snow and ice (not even mind you on Dearborn!) One would think that the showcase of our city bicycle infrastructure would be flawless but it ain’t. As I said earlier, we are “playing house“.

Maintenance Is Key

The Door Lane © GridChicago

The Door Lane
© GridChicago

I could care less whether a lane is protected by PVC bollards or curbs. Neither will stop a runaway truck or car from plowing into riders. So the next best thing is to consider how to keep riders from having accidents which do not involve cars at all. Riders are slipping and sliding in the bike lanes because these lanes are at the curbs of the streets and not towards the center (nearest the crown of the road).

Keeping the lanes to the left of cars is vital if you want trucks that toss salt and do the plowing to get them cleared. And lo and behold you do not have to worry about such lanes getting sidewalk snow shoveled into them. And if you are smart enough to add the buffered width that appears on streets like Halsted up near the REI store you have a place for cyclists to bail if a door suddenly opens. We really need to get these so-called engineers to ride their routes before they actually build them.

Pretty Is Fine But Not Essential

The Berteau Greenway is pretty but like the Dearborn PBL is not any more effective than a well-designed street with a buffered bike lane. I like to think that at the end of the day we can leave all the green paint off the streets (it only makes them slippery during bad weather conditions) and concentrate on using stuff that we know works and saves money. The Cycling Community in turn needs to stop the whining that we need “pretty stuff” to attract women riders. To me this sounds rather “sexist“. I know that the concern is to reach parity with males on the streets but frankly I would think females these days are not taken in by “frilly” stuff. What kind of impression would you have of a male who declared that the bike lanes had to be painted a “bright pink” to make women feel safer? I’d guess that at least some of them would react to that in the same way that the ChainLink women did to the notion that dressing in a less flamboyant style while riding in neighborhoods when this idea was presented by a black female. The Lesbian group within the ChainLink literally wanted her head.

So in that spirit let me reiterate that we are not trying to paint ourselves into a condition of safety, but rather trying to provide lanes for cyclists and motorists alike which alerts everyone to the presence of cyclists, whether they (the lanes) are pretty or not.

Safety In Numbers?

I’m not buying that argument. If nothing else Bike The Drive indicates that when lots of folks are rambling around on something that is four lanes wide you still end up with more accidents than if there were fewer riders on a lane with cars. It never ceases to amaze me that an ambulance or two always has to be pressed into service during this ride. But riders tend to crash into each other or the pavement and there is nary a car in sight. So I think the “safety in numbers” idea is crap.

What is obvious is what I like to think of as the “disparity factor“. Riders are attending those invitational rides with varying levels of experience. They are sightseeing more than anything else and are not mindful of their surroundings. In fact the few cars in attendance means the greater the chance that riders will simply assume that they are free to veer across lanes and stop without warning. It takes a watchful stance to keep from plowing into someone heading northbound on “Bike The Drive” who has suddenly hit an overpass that is too steep for them and they suddenly bail right in the middle of their lane. No warning, no hand signals, nothing! They just stop and get off and never even bother to look behind them before walking to one side of the  roadway or the other. It is nuts during “Bike The Drive“.

Adding cars to this mix would be a downright fiasco!

Training Is Paramount

I don’t care if you disagree with me on this issue. It is the truth! All of those riders who really have no clue as to how to use hand signals and definitely no practice at doing it are never going to get better unless shown how. Likewise the number of folks who are both regular riders and those who are tourists who ride the sidewalks in Chicago is simply amazing. Some probably have no idea that this is illegal.

I watched in horror as a mom and dad were riding their Divvy bikes along the sidewalks of Jackson (heading westbound) with children sitting precariously on the down tubes of their bikes not a helmet in sight! Again, these folks are as clueless as you will find and would probably be happy to learn better strategies for dealing with city traffic. Pretending that this (training) is some sort of imposition is silly!

Oh well, I guess that one day when somebody gets killed while walking on the sidewalk by a Divvy rider who loses control and clips them from behind, one of the newspapers will write an exposé and of course all of the Advocacy Organization will lie and explain that they were for training all along but that the City Council dropped the ball.

The fact is that they have steadfastly tried to avoid this issue and even written letters to the editors decrying the demand that cyclists get training as part of a licensing procedure much as do motorists. But all you need to remember is that story about the inmates having dinner and flashing numbers to tell jokes.

You just have to know how to tell a joke or in this case lie to keep everyone at the table smiling.