Last Tuesday evening when I first pedaled down the new Madison Street bike lane, crisp white lines on fresh, smooth asphalt, my initial emotion was exhilaration. Just like the first time I rode the Kinzie Street protected bike lane, I was experiencing something that had never been done before in Chicago, and it was a liberating sensation.
For years I’ve wished the city would stripe bike lanes within the central Loop, defined by the Chicago River, Michigan Avenue and the Congress Parkway, but until now this seemed verboten. The taboo against downtown lanes has always struck me as typical of the conservative way the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) did bike improvements under Mayor Daley. The attitude seemed to be that the Central Business District (CBD) was too congested to have bike lanes, when in reality the Loop is too congested NOT to have lanes encouraging people to bicycle instead of driving.
So I was thrilled last week when Steven forwarded a newsletter from 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly announcing that CDOT was striping lanes on Madison from Michigan to Wells. But I confess that a couple blocks into my maiden voyage down the new lane I became a little disappointed. I realized that many cyclists will not feel comfortable riding in the lane because it is marked to the left of a bus-only lane. This means cyclists will be pedaling between two lanes of moving traffic with no protection except paint on the road.
Riding in a “floating” bike lane like this is disconcerting. I’ve never liked the bike lane on Roosevelt west of Michigan for this reason. As I rode the new Madison lane, it occurred to me I’d feel safer pedaling in the bus lane, a few feet from the curb, as I did before the lane was striped. Plus I was riding at 7 pm, and I have six years of messenger experience under my belt. I’m guessing a typical cyclist traveling at rush hour would be very uneasy pedaling in the middle of the street between two lanes of moving vehicles.
Back in the mid-2000s, when I was working at the CDOT Bicycle Program, the bikeways staff approached the Chicago Transit Authority about turning downtown bus lanes into bus/bike lanes simply by installing bike symbols. The CTA balked at the idea because of liability concerns. Riding in the new “floating” lane I wished that CDOT had pushed harder for this.
Grid co-author Steven Vance doesn’t feel this way. “I disagree with the idea of a bus/bike lane on Madison because of the insane number of buses on this route,” he writes. “It would be a bad idea, unless the lane was 14 feet wide. I think bikes and buses sharing lanes is backward thinking. Let’s keep moving to an appropriate and well-designed separation, like Kinzie Street.”
Despite my misgivings about the lane placement, I view Madison as an overall victory, because it breaks the Loop bike lane ban. For a couple of reasons, Steven sees it more as a missed opportunity. Here’s a summary of other things we like and dislike about the Madison Street lane.
· The lane is yet another example of a bold bike/ped initiative under new Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, like the Kinzie protected bike lane, the on-street bike parking corral in Wicker Park, and the re-opening of the Queen’s Landing crosswalk, which probably wouldn’t have happened under the previous administration.
· As the first CBD bike lane it paves the way for more lanes in the Loop, where they’re desperately needed.
· The bike lane striping was piggy-backed onto an existing CDOT street resurfacing project, which saves money.
· To make room for the new bike lane on Madison, existing travel lanes were narrowed but none were removed. This calms traffic, but it’s a politically safe move because drivers can’t complain that lanes were taken out.
· Visitors to downtown Chicago sometimes wonder, “If this city’s so bike-friendly, why aren’t there any bike lanes?” This highly-visible lane is a good advertisement for the city’s bikeability.
· We really like that the lane continues as dashed lines through intersections. It’s really cool that CDOT is doing more of these types of continuous lanes, like on the Kinzie cycle track and at Cortland/Clybourn/Racine, where a curving, dashed lane ushers cyclists through the intersection towards lanes on Armitage. The dashed lines also remind drivers to watch out for bikes in the intersection.
· We both feel it’s a shame Madison is not a physically-separated lane like Kinzie. This is somewhat understandable due to the high-traffic location, the presence of the bus lane and the fact CDOT was already taking a risk by installing a lane downtown. But Steven would have preferred that the bikeway was at least striped as a “buffered” bike lane, with dead space painted on the asphalt on either side of the lane to help keep cars away from bikes.
· Steven is also bummed that the lane stops at Wells, a southbound street. “It doesn’t go far enough,” he writes. “What about cyclists leaving the Loop who want to go north? Must they go north on LaSalle (ugh), or Dearborn? Why not Franklin? [This could be because Franklin was recently changed to a two-way street to accommodate traffic detouring from the Wacker Drive reconstruction, so there may be less room for bikes than before.] How are cyclists going to continue west? Madison west of Wells is the trickiest part because of the Ogilvie Transportation Center (500 W Madison).”
Steven would like CDOT to create “Loop exit routes” with special signage and pavement markings leading cyclists to Randolph and Harrison, two westbound streets with bike-friendly bridges. “That would be a pretty comprehensive and sensible plan I know CDOT can accomplish,” he writes. “So why not do it? Why not create ‘above and beyond’ instead of just status quo?”
Despite these criticisms, I’m proud Chicago has finally broken the downtown bike lane barrier. And I’m optimistic the Madison Street bike lane is a sign of good things to come.