CDOT responds to our questions about the Streets for Cycling plan

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John and Mike Amsden at a Streets for Cycling public meeting last winter. Photo by Serge Lubomudrov.

For many months now Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) project manager Mike Amsden and his team have been working hard preparing the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. The plan now calls for creating 110 miles of protected bike lanes and 40 miles of buffered lanes by 2015, and a 640-miles bikeway network by 2020. A revised map of the network, based on input received at recent public meetings, will be unveiled on Wednesday June 15 at the Bike to Work Rally, 7:30-9 am at Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington. The final map will be officially released with the rest of the bike plan at a later date. You can read more details about the plan here.

I had some of my own questions about the plan, and I’d also seen and heard comments from others in the comment sections of Grid Chicago and The Chainlink, and in conversations with other cyclists. Mike took some time out from his busy schedule to sit down with me at the CDOT offices, look at maps and respond to my inquiries, based on my own questions and concerns I’d heard from others. We discussed whether the plan is too ambitious, or not ambitious enough; whether the West and South Sides will get their fair share of facilities; whether the protected bike lanes offer enough protection; and what CDOT is doing to fix metal-grate bridges.

Our conversation will make more sense if you take a look at a map of the proposed 640-mile network – here’s a link to a PDF of the map. The current Chicago Bike Map is available here. Below is a map of the proposed locations for the first 150 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes – click on the image for a larger view.

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Chicago is an easy town to navigate because it’s a grid. If you don’t have a diagonal street you can use, you can usually just follow north-south and east-west streets to get where you’re going. But it seems like with the proposed Streets for Cycling 2020 network we’re asking cyclists to take less direct routes than motorists would take.

True.

And it seems like the proposed network is even less grid-based than the current Chicago Bike Map is. My impression is there’s a lack of continuous north-south and east-west routes, particularly east-west routes to the lake. I understand that you’re trying to attract the 8 to 80 demographic, so you want to give people the option of riding on quiet, residential streets whenever possible. But it seems like there are a lot of routes on the map where you have the person riding on the retail street only when necessary, and then as soon as possible you take them to a side street. And then the side street ends so then they might have to zigzag north or south to continue with the route. Was there any consideration to creating more direct, intuitive routes on retail streets, and making those streets more bike-friendly by adding bike facilities?

The easiest thing that we could have done for this plan was to identify every single street that we heard is a good street to ride on. There definitely are streets that we did not include for various reasons that look like they should be included, and possibly could be included. But this is only an eight-year plan. That’s not a lot of time. So we wanted to really include streets that we’re fairly confident that we can do something a little bit more innovative on than beyond marked shared lanes or [conventional] bike lanes. It’s not that those facilities won’t be considered as we move forward, but this network is really focusing on better bike facilities.

So on certain streets right now, there are segments where we think we could possibly do something, a buffered bike lane or ideally a protected bike lane. And [on the sections of the same street that aren’t included in the bike network] there may be certain issues going on that mean that in the next eight years those facilities probably won’t be feasible – parking, traffic volumes, the width of the roadway, etc. So the goal is to get as much of this network built as we can in the next eight years, and then in eight years when we revisit the network, add onto it.

Eight years isn’t a lot of time at all. When I was in Amsterdam last fall, all they talked about was that it took them forty years to get to where they’re at. So this is the start to build momentum.

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Mike, third from left, in the Netherlands on the fact-finding trip sponsored by Bikes Belong. Image courtesy of Bikes Belong.

I guess there are two opposing criticisms one could make about the network. One is, “You left off my favorite route – why isn’t that route on there?” For example, there are plenty of routes that are on the current Chicago Bike Map that are not on the Streets for Cycling network.

The opposite criticism is, “If you’re building such a large network, 640 miles, is this something that can even possibly be maintained?” You guys have done a great job of getting funding for the protected bike lanes so far. [CDOT has $40 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds that should cover most or all of the cost of installing 110 miles of protected lanes and 40 miles of buffered lanes by 2015. The agency is continuing to look for additional funding to cover the rest of the 640-mile network.]

But so far it’s been difficult to maintain the existing bike network. It’s easier to get funding to build new facilities. And there’s also more of an incentive for the city to build new stuff.

Sure.

It’s great to be able to say, “We built 20 miles of new protected bike lanes this year.” But, for example, Halsted Street is shown on the Chicago Bike Map as a continuous bike lane for most of the length of the city. In reality, there are places where the bike lane is completely invisible, like north of the new bridge near Division Street. That’s not an unusual situation.

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Halsted north of Division – the bike lane is no longer visible.

We’ve been pretty successful in the past three years with re-striping our bike lanes. Maintenance is definitely a priority and that’s what it’s all about, priorities. Throughout Chicago and throughout the country I think priorities are starting to change a little bit, especially in Chicago. We realize that the transportation status quo cannot continue. We need to start investing in non-motorized transportation and we’re doing that. It goes beyond this, it’s policy, it’s funding. But we can’t sit back and say we’re not going to do anything because we don’t know if we’ll be able to maintain it.

Would it make more sense to do a less ambitious network that would be easier to maintain? Could we do a great network that would only be 320 miles instead of 640 and just keep it in great shape? Making sure that there’s good pavement where cyclist are riding, make sure the lines are striped, covering all the metal-grate bridges – that a big issue for a lot of people.

Yeah, this is an ambitious plan. And as I’ve been saying all along, eight years from now what this plan says right here will not be out on the streets. I’d like to say that the vast majority of it will, but funding needs to be obtained in order to do that, and if not it’s going to be a different story. If we did not do this plan we would not have reached our goal of building bike facilities within a half-mile of all Chicagoans and providing a connected network for getting people places.

I think the big difference between what I hear from you and a lot of people who ride bikes right now compared to what we’ve heard throughout this process is… You know these long, continuous routes are great. You use them, I use them. But some many trips in this country are one-to-three miles long. And people just want to get on a bike to go to the park. Striping a bike facility for ten miles to get you ten miles, you’re not going to have a lot of people riding that far on a bike, no matter how great the bike facility is.

You know, 65 percent of trips under a mile are made by car right now. That’s really our opportunity to start making a dent in the mode share and get people on bikes. That’s how you start building the momentum to have people start making the three-mile trips by bike. Those are very capturable trips by bike.

So we heard that a lot. Some people love the [Four Star Bike Routes] because they’re commuters and they want to ride a long ways. Or they love Lawrence Avenue being a continuous route or Damen or Halsted. But a lot of people don’t want that. They want the local routes to get them to their neighborhood destinations, to parks, to school, to transit, etc. So it’s a really a balance between the different kinds of trips we’re trying to capture, and moving away from just trying to accommodate those folks who are using bikes for long trips.

There’s so many different reasons to use a bike and there’s so many different users and so many different trip types that it’s a balance. I’d like to say it would be possible to please everyone. If we wanted to please everyone we would have to put every single street that people recommended on the network and that’s not feasible in my opinion.

A lot of people have said they’d like to see more direct east-west routes to the lakefront. So just to give a selfish example, as a microcosm of what the issues are, I live in Logan Square, near Fullerton and Kedzie. I’d like to be able to get to the lake safely and conveniently. I’d like to be able to ride straight down Fullerton to the lakefront but right now it’s pretty unpleasant, except for the stretch with bike lanes between Ashland and Halsted.

Right now, according to the Streets for Cycling map, my options would be pretty circuitous. [I show him a northern route (Kedzie, Logan, Diversey, Damen and Wellington to the underpass at Briar) and a southern route (Fullerton, Milwaukee, Armitage, Leavitt, Webster, Lakewood, Belden and Lincoln Park West to Fullerton.)]

Now, looking at Armitage between Western and Damen, a bike lane exists there but it’s only shown in gray on the Streets for Cycling map. Why isn’t it part of the new network?

[That section of Armitage is a] 42-44’ roadway, metered on-street parking. We have bike lanes there. I can’t say that we can do much more than bike lanes over the next eight years.

OK, so if a street exists as a bike lane street or a recommended route on the current Chicago Bike Map but there was nothing you could do to improve it, it does not appear as a blue line on the Streets for Cycling network.

Correct. It will always be shown as a bike lane and we’ll maintain it as a bike lane. But like I said we’re really trying to do more than just bike lanes.

Back to my own selfish question, would it have been possible to create a route on Fullerton to the lake or maybe [create a route on] Diversey all the way to the lake? If there were bike lanes for the whole length of Fullerton and maybe you did a four-to-three conversion road diet, I think it would be a good route to the lakefront. What were the limitations that prevented that?

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Part of the bike-friendly segment of Fullerton between Greenview and Halsted. Photo by Chicajoan.

When you do a four-to-three conversion it usually gives you room to put in at least bike lanes, sometime buffered lanes, and even protected bike lanes if it’s wide enough. Road diets are hopefully something that we’ll be seeing all over the place in Chicago because it really gives you an opportunity to do a lot for bikes and peds. We’re doing a road diet on 55th Street and we’re doing one on Wabash soon to put in some buffered lines shortly.

But traffic volumes on Fullerton are very high, over 20,000 cars a day out there. Typical road diets don’t work if you have over 20,000 cars a day unless you do a lot with traffic signals, which can turn it into a very costly project. So 20,000 is usually the number we look at for road diets.

In our current environment and with current engineering standards and cultural preferences and the political environment that we’re in, if we did a road diet on Fullerton motor vehicle would most likely be at absolute congestion. Bus traffic would be slowed down incredibly because you’d only have one lane with a ton of traffic, and we definitely do not want to impede bus traffic. So with where we’re at as a society, it’s probably not feasible to do a road diet on Fullerton over the next eight years.

That makes sense. How about Diversey? Although it’s shown on the current bike map as a recommended route for almost the entire width of the city, east of Damen, it doesn’t appear on the new bike network, even as a gray line.

The gray lines only represent existing bike lanes or marked shared lanes, not recommended routes. So Diversey west of Damen is a two-to-four-lane roadway. As you get east of Elston up towards the bowling alley and over the bridge [over the Chicago River] it’s a four-lane roadway with high speeds. We think we can kind of streamline that roadway and possibly make it just two lanes there and put in better bike facilities.

Once you get east of Damen in goes down to 38 to 40 feet, tops, the entire way, all the way to the lakefront. A lot of that has metered parking which is very well used. With 40’ we could do our bare-minimum-width marked shared lanes, but that’s not really going to get any more riders out there, it’s not an 8 to 80 facility.

If we took out a parking lane, which would be not easy to do at all, with 40 feet you could do two standard bike lanes. Is that worth the pain and the effort, both design-wise and politically, to take out an entire lane of parking to put in just standard bike lanes? Even if we took out both parking lanes, which I would say is absolutely not feasible, we could get in protected bike lanes, but then bus travel would be terrible and traffic wouldn’t move. It’s a really narrow roadway.

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400 block of West Diversey. Photo by Edward Kwiatkowski.

So basically, the goal is that everything that’s shown in blue on the new bike network is going to get some kind of treatment, whether it’s marked shared lanes, route signs, neighborhood greenways, bike lanes, buffered lanes or protected lanes.

This is a planning document, so it’s not feasible to say at this point exactly what’s going to happen here, but yes, the goal is put in some sort of facility wherever there’s a blue line on this map.

Moving on to the issue of geographic equity. The North Side has some inherent things that make it more bikeable than the South Side. It’s denser, northeast of the Kennedy it’s not carved up by expressways, and there are just a lot of small, leafy residential streets that are great to bike on. And you guys made a real effort to make the community input process cover every section of the city. You divided the city into nine different sections and had a community advisory group for each one.

But the neighborhoods that traditionally have a lot of bicycling in them tend to be the more middle-class or affluent neighborhoods on the North and Northwest Sides. So you have a lot a lot of interest in bike advocacy, and also people who are in better economic shape might have more free time to attend meetings. So those are some reasons why you might not have gotten as much input from lower-income communities on the South and West Sides. Did that seem to you like that was an issue, that you were getting less input from underserved neighborhoods?

Definitely. That’s fair to say, and I think we’d all expected that, unfortunately. Of course we had the community advisory group leaders who were amazing throughout all parts of the city,

So, looking at the Streets for Cycling network map, and judging from some I’ve seen some comments on our blog and other local websites like the Chainlink, it appears that underserved neighborhoods might be continuing to be underserved by the bike plan. It seems like there’s a higher density of protected bike lanes and bike routes downtown, northwest and northeast than there is in other parts of the city.

I would disagree. Obviously, the South Side is huge compared to the North Side. It goes down to 138th Street as opposed to 7600 North. If we added up mileage of [proposed] protected and buffered bike lanes, it is much higher on the South Side. The North Side, while traditionally having more bike lanes and marked shared lanes, your Lincoln Park , Lakeview, Wicker Park, Uptown, Edgewater, your traditional biking neighborhoods, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to put in protected bike lanes in those neighborhood because we have these great streets that are narrow and dense and tree-lined, but they don’t have a lot of width.

If you look east of the river on the North Side there are only a handful of streets shown on the network as protected of buffered bike lanes. On Elston, some stretches will be protected but most of it’s going to be buffered. We thing we can do a lot on the boulevard system. But really you don’t see much in terms of protected and buffered bike lanes until you get to the West Side, Near Southwest Side, definitely the Near South Side down to Hyde Park and then the Far South and the Southwest Sides. I’d say we have a lot more opportunities than we do on the North Side.

Did you get any comments about the equity issue at [last week’s] South Side community input meeting?

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Far South Side community advisory group co-leader Peter Taylor points out a route at a community input meeting at the Woodson Library, 95th and Halsted, last February.

Yeah, we had one person ask about it. There were several criteria that we looked at. One, there was the half-mile goal, and we got there. The only areas that don’t come within a half-mile of the network are Lake Calumet and the forest preserves up by O’Hare and nobody lives there. Two, we looked at population density. I’ve looked at the [Chicago] population density map several times and it matches up fairly well, not 100 percent but fairly well.

The other thing we looked at was areas that we know we have strong ridership. There are going to be more facilities in those areas. If you look at cities like New York, that’s what they do, they do things in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But we don’t want to follow that model. Yes, we want to do things where we have high ridership but I think we’ve done a really good job, for an eight-year plan, of building a network in areas where ridership may not be as high right now. And the goal is, eight years from now, by providing a backbone and some good, safe facilities, we’ll be able to hopeful to have more people riding and really be able to justify internally, and also have the external demand from the users and support from the various approval bodies, to do even more.

Now the issue that we discussed, that most of the bike advocates live in more affluent neighborhoods, seems to be reflected on the map that there were a lot more people to give you suggestions for residential street routes on the North Side.

There were definitely a lot more people involved on the North Side, but I don’t want to say that anyone from our community advisory groups was better than anyone else because they were all absolutely amazing. But the folks on the South Side, they know the entire South Side of the city. It’s a big area and you really do have to travel the entire area to get places, unfortunately. You don’t have grocery stores every quarter mile or half mile. So the area you travel is much greater.

So the folks on the South Side, they really did a great job of covering their entire areas. Whereas on the North Side we had more people, but they tended to know their neighborhoods more as opposed to the region. So I think the community advisory group co-leaders did a really good job of covering their entire areas and making sure that they reached out to people in areas they didn’t know, even if was just one person, to get that information.

But you’ll acknowledge that there’s a whole lot more light blue [neighborhood routes] on the North Side than the South Side, that there were a lot more people to provide their favorite neighborhood routes?

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Draft network for Lincoln Park / Lakeview.

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Draft network for parts of Englewood and Back of the Yards.

That may have something to do with it. Again, it goes to ridership, so there’s going to be a little bit more. It goes to population density, where we have higher densities. It goes to the fact that, like I said, on the North Side it’s going to be a lot more difficult to do protected or buffered bike lanes, so we did have to look at those residential streets. On the South Side I think we have opportunities for protected lanes in longer stretches.

What do you think about the complaint that I’ve heard that people feel that the protected or buffered lanes really aren’t providing enough protection to make people who are currently afraid to bike or families with small kids feel comfortable using them? People want a line of parked cars at all times or they want permanent bollards. They don’t think the flexible posts or painted buffers constitute protected facilities. Therefore they’re predicting that this is not going to get the 8 to 80 contingent that you’re looking for.

I agree a little bit. Again, I think it goes to the fact that every single rider and every single family has a different threshold as to what they consider safe or protected. But right now we haven’t done much. We’re under construction for about 6.5 miles of protected bike lanes which, believe it or not, the second most number of protected bike lanes in the entire country. So this is brand new, not just to Chicago but to the United States. So yeah, it’s not going to get people out when you half a half-mile stretch here or a mile stretch there.

And as far as the level of protection, again, this is brand new. We’re confident in our designs but we’re tweaking our designs. We can’t go out and construct permanent construction at this point and we also don’t have the funding to do so. But if this program is going to be sustainable and permanent, it has to be permanent construction. If you look at any country in Europe that’s doing this, it’s permanent and it’s completely protected. I think that’s everyone’s long-term goal and I’d love to see the city get there.

Just one more thing. Lorena Caiazzo recently told us, “I would much rather see every grated bridge covered than another inch of protected bike lane go in. I just think it’s a higher priority.” Steven also hates the bridges. He’s asked, could we swap 25 miles of protected bike lanes for getting 25 bridges fixed?

I agree that the bridges are dangerous, but it’s not my call, I can’t speak to that.

What are the issues that have slowed down getting the bridges fixed, and what’s going on with that?

First of all, there’re a lot of bridges in Chicago. I think we’re doing a much better job than we’ve ever done before at fixing our bridges. A lot of our bridges are ending their useful life so they’re going to be reconstructed over the next few years and they will be made bike-friendly. But we can’t do everything at once. We can’t go out and fix every single bridge. It comes down to funding and a lot of other things. But it’s not realistic to think that.

We just reconstructed both Halsted Street bridges – those are now bike-friendly. The Division Street bridges will be reconstructed and made bike-friendly. The Wells Street Bridge is being reconstructed this year – that will be made even more bike-friendly. The Chicago Avenue Bridge is going to be reconstructed – that will be made bike-friendly. Kinzie Street has plates on it. 18th Street will be getting plates, hopefully the week of June 11th. Harrison Street Bridge was recently made bike-friendly. Randolph Street Bridge was recently made bike-friendly. This was all in the last two years.

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Bike-friendly bridge plates on Kinzie Street. Photo by Steven.

I agree, we can never do enough, and the bridges should be bike-friendly. But we realize that and it’s a priority to make them bike-friendly whenever we can. I think a lot of our bridges are so old, and because they’re [counter-weighted] bascule bridges we really can’t do much with them. But as they’re reconstructed, I think CDOT’s done a great job of making them bike-friendly whenever we can.

Are there things you wish could be included that are beyond the scope of the plan or are just too hard to tackle right now?

There are so many great streets to ride in and there are so many streets that we heard should be included, and I would have loved to include more. But like I said, that would have been the easiest thing to do but I don’t think it would have been very prudent on our part. So there are streets that aren’t on there, and this will change. I guarantee as soon as this is released there will be streets where we’ll say, for whatever reason we didn’t know at the time, we should not have included that street. We received so much good input that we weren’t able to accommodate everyone, and everyone has their favorite routes. Hopefully a lot of them are on here but a lot of them aren’t. It would have been great to do more but we really had to make sure we were doing something that was feasible.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs,
from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation’s
bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes
regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines
and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

9 thoughts on “CDOT responds to our questions about the Streets for Cycling plan”

  1. Great article.  I can definitely appreciate where Mike is coming from, I take much heart when he says “Eight years isn’t a lot of time at all. When I was in Amsterdam last
    fall, all they talked about was that it took them forty years to get to
    where they’re at. So this is the start to build momentum.”

  2. I really appreciate the work Mike and his team have been doing, and I appreciate the coverage coming from Grid Chicago!

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