This afternoon when Mayor Rahm Emanuel opened the new two-way protected bicycle lanes on Dearborn Street, it was the exclamation point to a memorable year of bike improvements. Dozens of advocates gathered at the south end of the 1.2-mile greenway for the event, which also celebrated Chicago’s reaching a total of thirty miles of protected and buffered lanes citywide, plus the release of the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020.
The “game-changing” lanes on Dearborn, running the length of the Loop central business district, create a car-free route that even novice cyclists will feel comfortable on. They also make a statement that the city is serious about getting more Chicagoans on bikes. Building the lanes involved converting one of the three car travel lanes on the northbound street, which has the additional benefits of reducing speeding and shortening pedestrian crossing distances. Car parking was moved to the right side of the bike lanes, providing protection from moving vehicles, and dedicated bike stoplights, a first in Chicago, guide southbound cyclists and prevent conflicts between cycles and left-turning autos.
The thirty-mile landmark means that Chicago is well on its way towards the city’s stated goal of building 110 miles of protected bike lanes and forty miles of buffered lanes by the end of Emanuel’s first term in 2015. The Streets for Cycling Plan details the Chicago’s strategy to create a 645-mile network of on-street bike routes by the end of this decade, with the goal of providing a bikeway within a half-mile of every resident.
“When Mayor Emanuel took office there were no protected bike lanes in Chicago,” said transportation commissioner Gabe Klein at the ribbon cutting. “Now we’re setting a new standard for cycling facilities for other cities to follow and are now a national leader in that effort.”
Klein provided numbers explaining why Dearborn was an ideal street to get the protected lanes, as well as a “road diet” lane reduction. “Frankly Dearborn had too much capacity for a relatively low amount of vehicle traffic,” he said. “With all of those travel lanes there was capacity for about 40,000 vehicles each day, but in reality there were only about 13,000. Too much space and not enough cars caused it to feel more like a highway rather than an urban street, which led to speeding and [crashes].”
“Between 2006 and 2010 there were more than 1,000 crashes on this stretch of Dearborn,” Klein added. “Pedestrians and bicyclists were involved in nearly two-thirds of the crashes that involved serious injuries, even though they were participants in only fourteen percent of all crashes. By reducing the number of travel lanes we’ll slow down vehicles to the speed limit.”
Rahm Emanuel; Gabe Klein is behind him in dark suit.
When the mayor took the mic he touted the economic benefits of protected bike lanes, which he argues will attract technology companies to the city. “Two facts in the last year,” he said. “Coincidence? I think not. One, the city of Chicago moved from tenth to fifth of most bike-friendly cities in the country [according to Bicycling magazine] in one year… In the same year the city of Chicago moved from fifteenth to tenth worldwide in startup economy… You cannot be for a startup, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”
“Now I think it’s self-evident that I am a competitive, let alone an impatient person,” Emanuel quipped. “So when my staff gave me this headline from Portland, it did bring a smile. The editorial from a magazine in Portland [the blog BikePortland.org] read, ‘Talk in Portland, Action in Chicago,’ as it reflected on Dearborn Street. The Seattle Bike Blog wrote, ‘Seattle can’t wait longer. We’re suddenly in a place where we’re envious of Chicago bike lanes.’ So I want them to be envious because I expect not only to take all of their bikers but I also want all the jobs that come with this.”
“I want you to know, over the next two-and-a-half years we will complete the mission we set,” the mayor concluded. “Gabe knows that because every week I go to Gabe, ‘What’s our next project?’ And we’re already mapping out next year’s miles… Because it’s part of making this a city that’s on the move, willing to shape its future rather than be shaped by it. And having these protected bike lanes improves the quality of life in our city.”
Afterwards Olympic racers John and Christian Vande Velde led the dozens of cyclists on the maiden voyage north. Just like the first time I rode the Kinzie Street bicycle lanes, Chicago’s first protected bikeway, cycling on the new Dearborn Street was a liberating feeling. And when I reached the end of the route and turned around, it was exciting to now be able to safely pedal south on a northbound street.
The bike lanes, four-foot-wide northbound and five-foot southbound, look narrow, but actually they’re surprisingly comfortable. Bicycle Ambassadors in orange safety vest and yellow caps were stationed at every intersection all afternoon handing out flyers to pedestrians explaining how the lanes work and reminding them to watch for southbound bike traffic. There’s bound to be a learning curve as peds, cyclists and motorists get used to the new facility, but if all users follow their respective signals I predict we’re going to see a lot fewer crashes than when Dearborn was a three-lane speedway.
A nice surprise about the new lanes is how they encourage you to be friendly to other bicyclists. As you cross paths with a cyclist going the other direction, it feels totally natural to say hello, or at least smile. Not everyone is going to be a fan of the Dearborn protected lanes, but most people will get used to them soon enough, and lots of people are going to eventually love them, if not as cycling facilities then for their civilizing effect on the street. They’re a key milestone on Chicago’s journey to becoming a world-class bike town.