The Garfield Park fieldhouse, along the upcoming West Side Boulevards bike route
After attending the West Side and South Side meetings for the Streets for Cycling plan to install hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes and other innovative bikeways, I confess I was a little concerned about the city’s initial plans.
At the meetings, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) staffers announced that a 4.1-mile network of protected bike lanes (PBLs) will be built along the West Side segment of the Boulevard System. Another 1.5-mile segment will be built along Garfield Boulevard (5500 S.) from King to Halsted. CDOT also announced that the city’s first neighborhood greenway (AKA bike boulevard), a traffic-calmed, bike-and-ped-prioritized side street, will be created on a .9-mile stretch of Berteau Avenue (4200 N.) from Lincoln to Clark.
CDOT handout outlining the West Side Boulevard PBL route
I became more nervous about these locations after I learned that the West Side route and the Berteau greenway were first proposed by aldermen, and that one of the main motivations for putting PBLs on the boulevards is traffic calming. It reminded me of how, when I used to work for the city getting bike racks installed, aldermen would sometimes ask us to install racks at the end of a cul-de-sac to keep cars from driving over the curb, not because anyone would actually want to park a bike there.
I e-mailed CDOT the following lists of my initial concerns:
West Side Boulevards
- This would be a nice recreational route connecting Douglas Park and Garfield Park, but not particularly useful as a transportation route because it is roundabout.
- Most of the city’s boulevards already have low-volume, low-speed service drives which function as de facto bike boulevards, so adding protected bike lanes might be redundant.
- Traffic calming on the boulevards is a worthy goal, but if adding PBLs here would be redundant, it would be a shame to waste miles of PBLs.
- This route dead-ends at Graceland Cemetery, forcing the cyclist to detour two blocks north or south to Montrose (4400 N.) or Irving Park (4000 N.), neither of which is particularly pleasant to ride on, in order to reach the lakefront.
- A connection from Lincoln to Clark is not particularly useful since both streets are bikeable diagonal routes to/from downtown – there’s no need to transfer between them.
- Grace (3800 N.) or Leland (4700 N.) seem like better choices for a neighborhood greenway in this part of town – they continue for miles all the way to Lake Shore Drive, at which point one could jog a bit north or south to access the Lakefront Trail.
In my e-mail I wrote, “I’m guessing you can give me some additional info that might help me understand why these locations were chosen.” Lo and behold, after discussing my concerns on the phone yesterday with Mike Amsden, CDOT’s project leader for Streets for Cycling, as well as riding the West Side route yesterday afternoon, I feel a lot more confident that these are good locations for the city’s first large-scale PBL route and neighborhood greenway. Here’s a transcript of our phone conversation.
Mike and me at Wednesday’s North Side Streets for Cycling meeting at the Sulzer Library in Lincoln Square – photo by Serge Lubomudrov
[On the phone I congratulated Mike for the great turnout at Wednesday's North Side meeting, about 120 people compared to roughly 35 people each for the South Side and West Side meetings, then brought up the subject of the upcoming projects.]
So you told me the other day that the idea for the West Side Boulevard route was first brought up by aldermen.
Yes. When we’re trying to figure out what to do in this initial push [to have 25 miles of protected bike lanes installed by May], we have to take into account time, budget and also demand, who wants it. About a year and a half ago [12th Ward] Alderman [George] Cardenas met with CDOT and really stressed that Douglas Park is largely inaccessible to bikes and peds, and he really wanted something done there.
After the new administration came in we reached out to Alderman Cardenas again and he was definitely interested. We didn’t want to just do something in the park. We also wanted to help people get to the park. And that’s really the most important thing. It may not be a transportation route for a lot of people, although it very well could be for some. But most importantly [the PBLs will be] connections that give people who live near the boulevards an option to ride their bikes to the parks, which are the major destinations in the area. People want to go to the parks, and they don’t always want to drive there but right now they feel like they have to.
Sacramento Boulevard in Douglas Park
So it was just Alderman Cardenas asking for this?
He was really the impetus for this, and then we reached out to [28th Ward] Alderman [Jason] Ervin, who’s on the city’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety. I did a presentation for the committee about our Netherlands trip. At the meeting Alderman Ervin expressed a definite interest in doing things like this because of the traffic speeds in his ward, so we knew we had a partner. [24th Ward Alderman] Michael Chandler is also involved.
Why is there a gap in the West Side route on Central Park Boulevard?
Right now there’s a bike lane there, and the roadway’s tighter there – it’s just a two-lane road with bike lanes and parking lanes. Not to say that something couldn’t happen in the longer term but we’d probably have to take out parking. It’s not as easy to implement protected bike lanes there.
Looking at the route on the Chicago Bike Map, it appears that just about all of the route except Sacramento is on boulevards that have service drives.
Actually, the only section with true service drives is Franklin Boulevard, at the north end of the route. There are no service drives on the rest of the route. Douglas Boulevard and Independence Boulevard are shown with double orange lines on the bike map, but they have a parkway in the middle and then travel lanes on either side of the parkway. [Riding the route confirmed this.]
OK. How about on Garfield Boulevard – are there service drives on that?
No, it’s the same thing. There are three or four lanes in each direction with a parkway in the middle.
Independence Boulevard – similar configuration as Garfield Boulevard
Will there be a protected bike lane on the stretch of Franklin that does have service drives?
Yes. The protected bike lane on Franklin will be in the main drive. The service drives are good to ride on, but a lot of them are controlled with stop signs and they don’t always match up with the intersections – sometimes it’s tricky to cross. When you get to the ends of each they don’t always provide good connections to get back to the main road. It will come down to a case-by-case basis. On the North Side, where most of the boulevards do have service drives, who knows what could happen up there. Just because we’re doing something here doesn’t mean the same thing will be applied to other roadways.
The other thing with Franklin is that while protected bike lanes are great bike routes, they’re also really good traffic calming and safety improvement projects, especially for pedestrians. You’ve got Westinghouse High School on the south side of Franklin there, and the students have a four-lane road to cross. We did traffic counts on the boulevards and found that on Independence Boulevard, for example, during a 24-hour period there more than a thousand cars speeding at over 45 miles per hour.
Franklin and Homan
Franklin’s an example where by getting rid of the four lanes – motorists definitely don’t need the four lanes – it calms traffic, it provides bicyclists with a safe, protected route that’s a through route, and also it’s a heck of a lot easier for pedestrians to cross that street.
OK, anything else I should know about the boulevard routes?
I appreciate your questions and concerns, but going forward with our locations, not everyone’s going to like them and people may think there are things wrong with them. But we’ve heard, especially at the West Side meeting, from the people who live out there, how great it is that we’re doing something. So we’re really trying to make sure we’re pleasing the people who live out there.
For people who have been riding a long time it may not always make the most sense because it’s not the most direct, straight, fastest route. But the people that we’re trying to reach are not always concerned with the fastest route, they’re concerned with the safest route that gets them to where them to where they want to go, and that’s really what we think we’re doing here.
So you think the West Side route will mainly be used by people who want to access the parks?
It’s neighborhood use, the parks and also there’s the Pink Line [California station] a quarter mile east of Marshall Boulevard, there’s the Blue Line [Pulaski stop] a quarter mile west of Independence. We’re trying to get neighborhood residents to use their bikes for a variety of different purposes.
Moving on to the neighborhood greenway (AKA bike boulevard) on Berteau, what’s the history behind that – who’s idea was it?
We got an e-mail from [47th Ward] Alderman [Ameya] Pawar’s office asking us to do a bike boulevard on Berteau if it was feasible. We were thrilled to get an e-mail like that, so we looked at Berteau and we looked at several other streets in the ward. You had mentioned Grace and Leland as alternatives [Here's a Google map comparing Leland, Berteau and Grace]. I admit those are great routes as well but they really wanted to do Berteau because it provides access under the Metra viaduct and they say that they’ve received a lot of complaints about motorists using it as a shortcut.
Of the three streets we’re talking about, Berteau has the least amount of one-way stretches, which present unique challenges. It also connects to four really good bike routes: Lincoln, Damen, Clark and Southport. It is a short stretch but in our opinion and the alderman’s opinion it’s a good location for the first time doing this. It’s not a huge corridor, it gets you from one bike route to another, and it connects to schools and thriving retail districts.
It’s going to be a two-way bikeway, and there are some sections of Berteau that are one-way, so is there going to be a contra-flow bike lane on some stretches?
Most likely. We haven’t finalized a design yet but it will be two-way the whole way for bikes. I’m not sure how that will be handled – there could be other options. It’s currently one-way on the block from Damen to Lincoln, and also on the two blocks west of Clark.
Looking at Grace, it goes back and forth, there’s like a half-mile stretch that’s one way. I love Grace, it’s one of my favorite routes, but when you get to Wrigley Field there’s a whole different traffic pattern going on during Cubs games, so that would take a lot of coordination. Grace would work as a neighborhood greenway for most of its length, but when you get to Wrigley we might have to do something else because of the weird traffic patterns and a lot of different interests right there. With Leland it’s the same thing – it’s a good route but there are a lot of one-way stretches.
And the other really good thing about doing a neighborhood greenway on Berteau is it’s one alderman and he really wants to do this. We’re supposed to be focusing on protected bike lanes right now. We do want to do other things but we want to make sure that we’re not stretching ourselves too thin. Berteau is a good pilot location because it’s one alderman and it’s a short distance. It’s not a ton of work but it’s still a meaningful section.
Those sound like good reasons, but it appears that a drawback of this route is that it dead-ends at Graceland Cemetery. It seems like if you’re doing an east-west route on the east side of town it would be a big advantage to have it go all the way to the Lakefront. This route isn’t very useful for that, because from Clark you’d have to go north to Montrose or south to Irving Park to get to the lake, and neither is very bike-friendly.
Like I said, Berteau ties into Clark, and that is the first piece of what will hopefully be a network we’ll develop that will get you to the lakefront. These neighborhood greenways may not always be a three-mile direct shot because of all the challenges we face.
What I’d love to see in the long term would be a route where you can take the North Shore Channel Trail south to Leland, take Leland over to Lincoln, cut down Lincoln where there’s a great retail district and slow traffic, head over on Berteau, get to Clark and you’ll be near Wrigley and all the Clark Street craziness. And then if you want to continue to the lake you have Grace right there. So, in a vacuum Berteau doesn’t look like much, but in the long term it will fit into a network of neighborhood greenways, protected bike lanes, bike lanes and marked shared lanes – that’s what it’s really about.
Who do you think is going to be using the Berteau neighborhood greenway off the bat?
We’ve heard from a few nearby residents who are really excited about it, so it’s going to be a localized thing. And due to the two diagonals on each end I think it will be popular for northwest to southeast travel or vice versa. Instead of taking Lincoln down to Montrose or Addison, people may switch over to Berteau and head down Clark to get where they’re going. And that’s really the benefit of calling these streets neighborhood greenways: Berteau’s there right now – anybody can ride on it, but a lot of people aren’t aware it’s a good bike route.
OK, I guess that’s about all I need to know about those routes. Anything else you want to tell me?
I think that’s it. Like I said, we’re trying to do things we can do quickly, but that also make sense. I think we’re doing a good job.
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011. We switched to writing at Streetsblog Chicago in January 2013.
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