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.

flattr this!