June 9, 2014
But some cyclists question choice of a few protected routes in blighted areas
Chicago is hustling to reach the finish line next spring on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promise to complete 100 miles of bicycle lanes that are shielded from traffic, and city officials hope the public doesn’t judge the project strictly by the number of bike riders seen — very few in some locations — using the lanes.
Separate from providing an alternate, pro-environment transportation option, a major thrust of the bike lane program involves redesigning roads to reduce speeding and lane weaving by drivers, which are the leading causes of accidents, officials said.
And the sprint toward the goal of building 100 miles of protected bike lanes is a mere warm-up to Emanuel’s marathon plan to offer a total of 645 miles of regular and protected bikeways by 2020, when a bike lane would be within a half-mile of every city residence, according to the mayor’s office.
The administration is about halfway toward the 100-mile goal and about one-third of the way toward completing the 645 miles, records show. The city spent about $2.7 million last year designing and building bike lanes, at a cost averaging $67,000 per mile, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.
But some of the city’s most avid bicyclists are questioning the selection process that goes into the creation of the network consisting of neighborhood bike routes on residential streets, crosstown routes that use collector and arterial roads, and spoke routes that connect all areas of the city to downtown.
Lake Street on the West Side presents perhaps the most challenging proving ground. The existing bike route and a 3-mile extension planned for this year pass through blighted areas where cycling is not well-established, broken glass and garbage litter the bike lanes and illegally parked vehicles often block cyclists’ path.
Add to that, the Lake Street elevated structure partially blocks out the sun at street level and CTA Green Line trains passing overhead create a thunderous noise.
“I love the bike lanes in the Loop because they push bike traffic onto just a few streets where cars then expect the bikes to be. But the protected bike lanes on Lake Street seem ill-advised or at least the implementation has been difficult,” said Jim Hutchinson, an Oak Park resident who said he commutes to work downtown by bike about 100 days a year.
The protected bike lanes, which are separated from moving traffic by a parking lane, are always strewn with glass and during winter impassable because of snow and ice, Hutchinson, 61, and other cyclists say.
“The good news is that we have a protected lane. The bad news is we have a protected lane,” said Elizabeth Raleigh, also of Oak Park.
Raleigh said it’s assuring to have parked cars serving as a barrier to moving traffic, but between the poor maintenance of the bike lanes and the failure of drivers and bicyclists to “figure out a way to travel together and respect each other’s space,” she has abandoned the protected bike lanes in favor of alternate routes that are “just as comforting without the buffers in place.”
A number of members in the West Side bike commuting group have stopped using Lake because of too many flat tires and bent rims caused by debris in the lanes, and they say CDOT’s plan to extend the bike route this year from Central Park Avenue to Austin Boulevard won’t benefit regular bike commuters or casual riders.
“Their hearts are in the right place, but their heads” are not, said Steve Tyma, 64, who has been bicycling downtown from Oak Park for about 17 years.
CDOT officials said they are listening to the complaints, and the city will increase the use of a street-sweeping machine that fits into the protected and buffered bike lanes, which are as narrow as 6 feet wide. CDOT began renting the machine last year and will increase its use this year, to two times a month on average along all bike lanes where regular street sweepers are too large, officials said.
Additional snow-removal equipment will also be purchased to clear the protected bike lanes, officials said.
“It is still a brand-new experience and we are constantly learning,” said Mike Amsden, assistant director of transportation planning at CDOT. “Our intent is to continue to improve upon snow-plowing and street-cleaning.”
About 50 miles of barrier-protected and buffered bicycle lanes have been built so far in Chicago, with another 40 miles planned this year, according to CDOT.
Barrier-protected bike lanes are typically next to the curb and rely on parking lanes and plastic bollards to separate bicycles from traffic, while buffer-protected lanes are located between parked vehicles and traffic lanes and use extra space and street markings rather than a solid physical barrier. Most of the protected lanes being built this year — 15 out of 20 miles — are the buffer-style, officials said.
Amsden said barrier-protected bike lanes are the most popular, based on community outreach that has been conducted.
“A barrier-protected bike lane is not preferred by everyone, but it is preferred by a lot of people of different ages and different ability levels,” Amsden said. “And people who bike on the Lake Street corridor like having the connection to the Green Line.”
Bike lanes in Chicago are somewhat of a chameleon, serving different purposes depending on the location, officials said.
Yes, the lanes provide a designated and arguably safer place for cyclists to share the roadway with motor vehicles.
But in many areas, including on Vincennes Avenue between 84th and 103rd streets, bike lanes were added to wide-open arterial streets mainly to slow down speeding vehicles by reducing the number of regular traffic lanes, transportation officials said.
“If the criteria for success was the number of bike riders on Vincennes, it would be a failure to some people,” Amsden said. “But it’s not just about making it great for bicyclists.”
He said the city’s goal in installing barrier-protected and buffered bike lanes on Vincennes last year was to achieve a reduction in the more than 1,000 crashes and half-dozen fatalities that have occurred since 2006.
In traffic-engineering terms, the strategy is called a “road diet,” and it’s aimed at “calming traffic.” It’s the reason why frustrated drivers often find themselves crawling in heavy traffic on 31st Street between the lakefront and just past the Dan Ryan Expressway, amid little-used bike lanes.
But bike lanes also are used for the opposite purpose. On some streets where congestion regularly bogs down traffic, the addition of bike lanes in combination with traffic signal improvements to better handle left turns at intersections are helping to speed up traffic flow and shorten average travel times, according to CDOT.
Yet another scenario is focused on people who don’t ride bikes on streets, Amsden said. The idea is that building more bike lanes that are protected from vehicles will encourage new riders, whether for commuting, running errands or venturing out on leisure excursions, he said.
“It is important that people understand the bike lane projects are not done in a silo,” said Chicago Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. She said traffic flow for all users and pedestrian safety are all part of the equation to allocate space appropriately in each roadway design.
Chicago has set a goal of increasing the citywide bicycle commute-to-work rate to 5 percent, up from about 1.6 percent currently, or about 26,300 average daily bicycling trips, according to U.S. census and other data.
The daily total in Chicago increases to more than 124,000 if recreational trips and bicycling by school-age and college students are added, according to a new study commissioned by the Active Transportation Alliance.
The study, which was based in part on monthly bike counts conducted by the city, showed that “the scope of cycling in Chicago is quite significant and in some cases surprising,” said Ron Burke, executive director of the alliance. The study found that bike commuting ridership during the winter equals almost 40 percent of average summer volumes, Burke said.
Chicago’s investment in bicycle lanes and in Divvy, which is the city’s bicycle-sharing program, will help accelerate the growth in cycling, which for bike-to-work trips has increased from 0.5 percent in 2000, Burke said.
Divvy, which marks its first anniversary this month, recorded its 3 millionth ride last week, according to CDOT.
And Chicago Bike Week, which celebrates the city’s commitment to become more bicycle-friendly and environmentally conscious, kicks off Friday and runs through June 20 with the annual Bike to Work rally at Daley Plaza.
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