Bicycling on 76th Street, a recommended bike route under the Skyway and several railroad viaducts, and some of the poor conditions described below. Photo by Eric Rogers.
Editor’s note: Anne Alt writes about cycling on the south side of Chicago, in two parts. -SV
Five years ago, I moved from Rogers Park to Beverly when my husband and I bought a house. I’d spent a fair amount of time riding on the south side, but didn’t fully appreciate how much more difficult it would be to ride to other south side destinations until I started doing it from here on a regular basis.
What’s different about riding on the south side?
We have many bike friendly areas within neighborhoods. The south side also has dozens of major interruptions to the street grid: expressways, rail lines, intermodal freight yards, industrial parks and waterways. The growth of cheap imports in freight containers has led to an increase in truck traffic on local roads. Traveling safely from one bike friendly area to the next can be difficult, especially south of Hyde Park or west of Western Avenue, because the few streets that connect them may be anything but safe for bikes.
South side viaducts are often much longer than those on the north side, due to large rail yards. They create a special set of hazards for cyclists, as illustrated by pair of viaducts at 83rd and Vincennes (previously mentioned on The Chainlink). One of the viaducts is long enough to be very dark, even in the brightest sunlight. Artificial lighting is inadequate. The picture below, taken around noon, shows how it looks while riding through on a bright day, when my eyes haven’t yet adjusted to the dark conditions.
The sidewalks are usually full of broken glass, so few people consider them a workable alternative. On the street, it’s difficult for drivers to see cyclists unless their tail lights are on. Pavement conditions are rough, and our eyes may not adjust quickly enough to see potholes before we hit them. There may be standing water or black ice.
A friend from my neighborhood took a bad fall under this viaduct a few years ago, when he hit a patch of black ice that he could not see. He was lucky that there was no approaching traffic so he was not run over, otherwise it could have been a fatal fall. He is a strong, experienced rider who rides all over the south side. Many similarly experienced riders who are used to north side conditions refuse to go through this viaduct, because the conditions scare the hell out of them. The viaduct at 89th Street & Vincennes Avenue has been under construction for several months and was just completed, so Vincennes Avenue has been unusable as a through route from 83rd Street to 91st Street for most of this year.
This selection of viaducts further illustrates what we face (using Google Street View): 76th Street at Wallace Street, 37th Street at Canal Street (two blocks north is a longer viaduct at 35th Street), 28th Street at Stewart Avenue (two blocks north is a viaduct with a bike lane), Colfax at 94th Street, 79th Street at Wallace Street, and Union Avenue at 75th Street. This section of 71st Street at the Skyway, with its smooth pavement, bike lanes, good lighting conditions and clear sightlines, looks beautiful in comparison. This long viaduct on 51st Street is better than most, because the builders created light wells, which keeps the underside from being a pitch-black tunnel. I wish that the builders of this monster on Damen Avenue between 16th and 14th Streets (just over 1/4 mile long; see video) and 83rd Street & Vincennes Avenue could have followed a similar example and provided more light and ventilation.
Viaducts that are long enough to be dark tend to have standing water longer than adjacent areas. In winter, that water turns to ice. It’s not just a slip-and-fall risk. It also breaks up pavement, creating killer potholes. Once potholes form, standing water hides those holes from unsuspecting cyclists.
From a recent conversation with Gabe Klein, I learned that viaducts are now on the Chicago Department of Transportation‘s radar. That’s a good start. Many of our viaducts are owned by freight railroads, so getting their cooperation will be essential in developing long-term solutions. I hope that CDOT will be able to do a full assessment of the city’s viaducts soon, and that they’ll be able to get funding allocated to deal with all the viaduct-related issues. I suspect that getting railroads to deal with long-neglected maintenance issues may be the most difficult part of the process.
How do we get around?
The further south you go in the city, the more difficult it is to safely ride between neighborhoods. There is only ONE street south of 67th Street/Marquette Road that is totally uninterrupted from Cicero Avenue (4800W) to the lakefront: 95th Street – the biggest east-west commercial street on the south side. Most of it is unsafe for cycling, due to its combination of traffic volume and speed, lane width, and heavy truck and bus traffic. To put this into perspective, we’ve got about 8.5 miles of city south of 67th Street, going all the way to 135th Street. At 95th Street, the lakefront is at approximately 4000E on the city grid – 8 miles east of Western Avenue (2400W). That section of the south side is over 64 square miles, equal to most of the north side, with a fraction of the north side’s rideable streets.
(I use 135th St. as an approximation of the southern border, which varies from 119th St. at the southwest corner of the city to 138th St. at the southeast corner.)
In my explorations, I learned that 83rd Street is rideable all the way across the city – from Cicero Avenue to the lake – with a few minor interruptions. It connects with many north-south routes, offering bike access between residential areas, schools, shopping, jobs, transit and recreation.
One of those connections is Vincennes Avenue* where fast traffic scares some cyclists. Some ask: “Why ride there at all?” From 71st Street to 87th Street, Vincennes Avenue and Loomis Avenue are the only north-south streets between King Druve (400E) and Damen Avenue (2000W) that are rideable, uninterrupted and have stoplights or all-way stops at all major streets. That’s right – only TWO north-south routes in 3 miles. State Street and Ashland Avenue have a scary combination of fast traffic, lots of cross traffic and frequent bus traffic.
This section of Halsted (view on map) is actually designated as a recommended bike route on the City bike map. I don’t feel safe riding it because it’s a busy commercial street with too many opportunities for collisions due to cross traffic. Other streets are interrupted, or do not offer safe crossings at all major streets. From the northeast (Woodlawn, Hyde Park, South Shore, etc.), Vincennes is much more direct and allows for faster riding than any alternative streets because it has fewer intersections and much less cross traffic.
These sections of the city bike map illustrate the some of the gaps in our south side bike route network.
Morgan Park, Roseland, West Pullman. No bike lanes or marked-shared lanes, but one multi-use trail (Major Taylor Trail).
Pullman, South Deering. No striped bikeways.
Marquette Park, Scottsdale, Ashburn. A single bike lane, on Marquette (67th Street).
McKinley Park, Canaryville, Bridgeport. A few bike lanes and a marked-shared lane.
Compare to Hyde Park (below).
Hyde Park, Kenwood, South Shore. Many bike lanes, one marked-shared lane, and a multi-use trail (Lakefront Trail).
Then compare to this section of the north side.
Lincoln Park, Lakeview. Many bike lanes, many marked-shared lanes, and a multi-use trail (Lakefront Trail).
From 83rd Street to 130th Street, we have only a few east-west routes that are rideable from Halsted (800W) to Lake Michigan or the Indiana border. Most of them are partial routes where we have to improvise to get across the gaps. The City bike map shows only one – a very indirect route using 111th – Doty – Stony Island, 122nd – Torrence – 126th. Portions of it are hazardous enough, due to heavy truck traffic and poor pavement conditions, that very few cyclists would ride it alone, or at rush hour. On a weekend morning, it can be a great route for fast, confident cyclists, but it’s daunting for more casual riders. Right now there are gaps in that route, due to extremely poor pavement conditions on Doty Avenue and bridge reconstruction on Torrence Avenue.
Construction, bad pavement or a major crash in a critical location can make a through-route unrideable. Reconstruction of railroad crossings and bridges is as likely as street construction to interrupt our bike route network. The nearest detour may add 3-5 miles or more to our trips. Sometimes interruptions to those few routes can make getting to our destinations by bike impossible, unsafe, or just make the trip ridiculously long. If those destinations aren’t served by public transit, a car may be the only option. It’s not easy to get a cab down here – if you can even afford the fare for the distance you need to travel. Car sharing is available at three I-Go locations south of 59th Street. Those who don’t have cars may be out of luck.
Railroads: up close and personal
Viaducts are not the only way that railroads impact cycling on the south side. We have dozens of grade crossings, especially in far south and southwest neighborhoods. If I want to ride from Beverly to Pullman to visit friends (a distance of less than 5 miles), I have to cross 3 railroad grade crossings and I-57. One grade crossing has only Metra trains (Rock Island District), one has limited rush hour Metra service (same line) and heavy freight traffic, and the third has freight at all hours. Following the route mapped below, I have an easy crossing of I-57 on the Major Taylor Trail. If I’m lucky and don’t encounter any trains, I can easily make the trip in less than half an hour. If I am unlucky enough to find trains at all three crossings, that can add half an hour or more to my trip. I have to allow extra time if I need to arrive by a specific time, in case I have to wait for trains. Over the last five years, I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with people doing yard work at homes next to the tracks and with people in cars waiting next to me, while trains rumbled by.
A bike route from Beverly to Pullman. At-grade train crossings are identified by green and red markings.
The combination of expressways and rail lines makes this area of the city very tricky for cyclists. To travel north-south, there are only a couple of bridges across I-57 or I-94 that an average cyclist may find rideable: Parnell Avenue (600W) and King Drive (400E). Aside from major streets, only 97th Street offers a crossing over the rail line that runs parallel to Eggleston Avenue (400W). I’ve spent more time waiting at crossings on that line than all the others combined.
If you want to go all the way to Lake Michigan or the Indiana state line, there are a total of 4 bridges south of 95th Street that cross the Little Calumet River. Three of those bridges have voluminous traffic, including many trucks. 100th Street is the easiest of those bridges, and it offers a cool view of the Skyway.
In spite of all these challenges, cyclists in neighborhoods across the south side are determined to keep working for better conditions and promoting cycling for transportation and recreation. In Part 2, I’ll discuss who’s riding now, other issues we face, and ideas for overcoming some of our obstacles and getting more south siders riding bikes.
*Editor’s note: A bike lane on Vincennes Avenue from 89th Street to 107th Street was removed in 2006 to accommodate an automobile detour related to Dan Ryan expressway construction. The bike lane was never reinstalled. A bike lane on Vincennes Avenue from 70th Street to 76th Street was installed in 2011. -SV