The case of the disappearing bike lane

Updated June 22, 2011: Added “Note” section about Vincennes and Roosevelt bike lane removals.

Have you been riding on a Chicago street in the bike lane and noticed how part of the bike lane striping disappears in certain stretches or doesn’t seem to exist at all? The bike map shows it, as do the BIKE LANE signs on the sidewalk.


This is a photo of the Elston Avenue bike lane, at North Avenue. Or is it? Can you see the bike lane striping or bike symbol on the pavement?

What happened to them?

First let’s quickly learn how bike lanes are built and paid for. Bike lanes in Chicago are built using strips of thermoplastic. Think of tape being rolled across the roadway. They last much longer than paint – about five years. As many automobile tires roll across them, thermoplastic wears away.

Most bike lanes in Chicago are majority paid for by the federal government, using Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds (available only to air quality non-attainment and maintenance areas). The City or State of Illinois pays the remaining 20% of the project cost to install bike lanes. This situation has lasted a decade or more.

You may now be thinking, “Why don’t we fix the bike lanes that are five years old with the same funding arrangement?” The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) knows where the deficiencies are based on a survey of the bikeway network in 2008.

Unfortunately, knowing the locations to fix is half the battle. The city will have to identify an alternate funding source for fixing, repairing, and restriping bike lanes.


CMAQ rules state that the funds can only be used to pay for new facilities and fixtures.

CMAQ funds may be used to establish new or expanded transportation projects or programs that reduce emissions, including capital investments in transportation infrastructure, congestion relief efforts, diesel engine retrofits, or other capital projects.

Routine maintenance and rehabilitation projects are ineligible for CMAQ funding as they only maintain existing levels of highway and transit service, and therefore do not reduce emissions.

One source of funding is the part of the city budget given to each ward’s alderman. CDOT has worked with many alderman, including 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly and 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack, to have a portion of their $1.3 million Menu money pay for restriping bike lanes and marked shared lanes.

Reilly’s allocation paid for the striping or restriping of about 4.7 miles of bike lanes, including 2.2 miles of brand new bike lanes on Illinois and Grand Streets – it only cost $90,000.

At the June 8, 2011, MBAC meeting, CDOT Bicycle Program Coordinator Ben Gomberg and consultant to CDOT Mark de Lavergne (Sam Schwartz Engineering) announced the next Streets for Cycling Plan. The plan will start with an inventory of existing bikeways and their conditions (a repeat of the 2008 survey), then continue with 3-6 public meetings to collect input from cyclists on where certain kinds of bikeways should be installed.

Mark said at the meeting, “Maintenance is a problem. We have to figure out how to maintain them.” He later mentioned that how to pay for maintenance would be discussed in the plan.

New administration

With a new mayor, new commissioner, and new energy at CDOT and City Hall, I expect that maintaining existing bikeways will become a higher priority. Grinding away old stripes and applying new ones is the easy part, finding a way to pay for it, on a broader scale than work being done in select wards, has either been difficult or ignored.

Here are Grid’s ideas on how to keep bicyclists’ version of the red carpet in great condition:

  • CDOT staff may have to pursue Menu money from more and more alderman (especially with the bike lanes that are divided into multiple wards).
  • The commissioner and the mayor prioritize the City’s budget to be able to fund its own bikeways (directly, like it did for the Kinzie Street protected bike lane).
  • TIF money could be a possible source for maintaining bikeways. This avenue brings its own problems. The connection between bikeways and economic development would have to be made; TIF money can only be spent in that district which have boundaries as odd as Congress; the way TIF districts are funded causes a lot of controversy amongst city council members, taxpayers, and the Chicago Public Schools.
  • The mayor and state representatives can lobby the State of Illinois to use its capital project funding sources for bikeway maintenance.
  • The mayor and state representatives can lobby Congress to create a new surface transportation bill that changes the CMAQ rules.

One more idea

The CDOT Bicycle Program has been piggybacking new bike lane installations as well as maintaining existing bikeways onto CDOT’s Arterial Streets Resurfacing Program (AR). When there’s good coordination between the division at CDOT responsible for AR and the Bicycle Program, staff can quickly put together pavement marking plans that tell where bike lanes (and marked shared lanes) should be installed or reinstalled once the street is resurfaced. The cost to install the symbols and striping will come from the AR budget and not the Bicycle Program’s regular funding mechanism, CMAQ.

The AR program guidelines should be updated to place a higher priority on those streets selected for resurfacing that have deficient bikeways. Deficient bikeways should also be a criterion for resurfacing a street under AR. This is related to Objective 2.1 in the Bike 2015 Plan:

Accommodate bicycling in every city, county, and state road construction, resurfacing, streetscape, and traffic calming project. [Page 14, PDF]

Get involved

Interested citizen cyclists can contact their aldermen and ask for Menu money to pay for bikeway network maintenance (and expansion!). The Active Transportation Alliance launched this month the Neighborhood Bikeways Campaign that will help citizen cyclists start conversations with their aldermen about this exact issue!


This article does not address when bike lanes are purposefully removed and not replaced. Such is the case with the Vincennes Avenue bike lane that was removed to increase automobile capacity on the street during reconstruction of the Dan Ryan highway from 2006-2008. The Roosevelt Road bike lane that was removed for the same reason was replaced in August 2008.

18 thoughts on “The case of the disappearing bike lane”

  1. It’s unfortunate that the federal government makes it relatively easy to get funds for new projects, but not for maintaining existing infrastructure. The CMAQ explanation that maintenance funds “do not reduce emissions” is weak. Lack of maintenance for existing infrastructure can very well lead to increased emissions. How many people have opted to drive rather than use the Red Line because its crumbling infrastructure means trains must crawl at 15 mph in some sections?

    1. Some people on Capitol Hill are aware of this and are working on changing transportation funding to better respect our existing infrastructure. You’ll often hear the phrase, “state of good repair,” tossed around.

      We can’t have that until we have money for maintenance.

      More to read:

  2. What happens to the federal money when a bike lane is deliberately removed?

    The bike lane on the north side of Kedzie, between Foster and Bryn Mawr was removed at the request of business on Kedzie. The lane was removed, but the sign on the northbound side of Kedzie still exists.

    Does the city have to give the money back it used to install it?

    1. Probably not, but only because the federal government would most likely never find out.

      Good question, though. This happens for other reasons, but mostly for publicized ones. Like, the Governor of Florida doesn’t want to build high-speed rail but wants to use it to build highways. Sorry, you can’t.

  3. The federal government seems to have a problem with prioritizing new vs. old systems in general. It’s great that the money exists for expansion, but not if it can’t be sustained, obviously. The same applies to transit funding. I lived in Portland, Ore., and it’s well-run system was always expanding the light rail network with new federal money. Meanwhile the CTA putts along with a dilapidated 120-year-old system it mostly inherited, and the federal money just isn’t there to maintain or operate the way it is for transit expansions. I’m not surprised to read that this applies to bike networks, too. It’s definitely something that needs awareness and an active tinkering to the transportation bureaucracy.

    1. The federal government stopped assisting transit operators with “operating funds” over a decade ago.

      I don’t know if transit operators can get assistance from federal funds for maintenance.

      See my comment to Kevin Zolkiewicz about this discussion in Congress. More to read:

  4. Probably a big hurdle, but could the city earmark a part of every road rebuild for bicycling infrastructure maintenance? Some small fraction of every road project (less than 1%) could be used to maintain the lanes on the streets that have them.

  5. What if the old bike lanes get upgraded to protected bike lanes (like the new on on Kinzie) as they fade out? Then argue to federal regulators that since they’re a newer, better kind of bike lane that should encourage more bicycle traffic, they should qualify for new funding?

    1. From my limited experience, I think this would be true. Bike lanes cannot be upgraded in-place to protected bike lanes. All pavement materials must be removed prior to installation.

      Good tip.

      FYI, Kinzie Street protected bike lane involved $0 from the federal government.

    2. From my limited experience, I think this would be true. Bike lanes cannot be upgraded in-place to protected bike lanes. All pavement materials must be removed prior to installation.

      Good tip.

      FYI, Kinzie Street protected bike lane involved $0 from the federal government.

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