Cyclist on Douglas Boulevard in the 24th Ward before protected lanes were installed.
Eboni Senai Hawkins, founder of the local chapter of the African-American cycling group Red Bike and Green, recently emailed me that some local residents are “up in arms” about the protected bike lanes being built along the West Side boulevards. This 4.5-mile route leads from Garfield Park to 24th Street in Little Village. 24th Ward Alderman Michael Chandler has asked the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to suspend construction of the lanes on Independence Boulevard, which runs south from Garfield Park, until these issues are resolved. I called Eboni last night for more info and her perspective on the situation.
So what are people’s concerns?
Basically they’re creating a protected bike lane on one side [of Independence] by moving the parked cars to the middle on [the southbound] side, and on the other side going north they’re just doing it as a buffered bike lane, with the bike lane to the left of the parked cars. So essentially they started implementing this particular design for these bike lanes and then there was ticketing that wasn’t supposed to happen that all of the sudden happened because people didn’t know where to park. The lanes are half constructed. So all these tickets were issued and everyone’s up in arms in this particular community, which is mostly Lawndale. [The tickets have since been dismissed.]
A special concern is the number of churches that are along this corridor. They’re concerned about their congregation and their ability to park. And there’s also this concern about safety. Basically people kept saying at the meeting, you have to get out of your car in the middle of the street.
CDOT handout outlining the West Side Boulevards route.
And then I went and biked through a bit of it before the meeting, and I saw the northbound side and the southbound side – they are two different designs. Additionally, because they had to halt construction in the middle of the project because of pressure from Alderman Chandler it kind of is really, really confusing now, for everybody, whether you’re on a bicycle or in a car. You have these half-finished bike lanes, and the stripes are not complete in certain places and it just looks a mess because it’s half-completed.
What I’ve heard from both Active Trans and CDOT is, “We’re trying to get these lanes in, but it can be difficult for people to deal with change.” And the biggest thing was that they say they’ve reached out to Chandler’s office with no response, no response, no response and now he’s responding since his constituents are complaining because there was this initial flurry of mistaken parking tickets.
CDOT, they’re trying to get things done. They have this huge push from the mayor to get these bike lanes out. You have Active Trans issuing an action alert saying that if you’re in the 24th Ward let the alderman know that you support biking. So I got a couple of calls about this issue because I live in the ward and teach bike mechanics in the ward, at the Better Boys Foundation, and obviously because of my commitment to cycling in the African-American community.
Eboni Senai Hawkins, front, with Red Bike and Green members. Image courtesy of RBG.
So I go to the ward meeting and the first thing I notice is that there are mostly elders there, and that’s because the churches have called out their community and because it’s a meeting that’s happening at twelve in the afternoon. The second thing that I notice is that it is a primarily African-American population. The third thing I notice is that I’m the only one who showed up on a bike.
And I talked to a gentleman outside who described himself as an avid cyclist and he was probably in his sixties. And he just didn’t understand why they put the lanes in the way they did. He was like, “They didn’t need the lanes here.” And the other concern was cars making right turns, because now the cars have to make right turns kind of into the cycling lane. So there are a lot of safety concerns.
So the meeting primarily was about that – concerns for children, concerns for elderly. The concerns with children are basically about the kids getting out of the cars. I don’t quite understand why they wouldn’t get out on the passenger side, but these were things that were mentioned.
Are they worried about people getting out on the passenger side getting hit by bikes? Because otherwise what’s the difference between parking your car next to the curb or one lane over?
Typical protected bike lane layout on Kinzie Street.
It’s partly an issue of what people are used to visually or maybe psychologically. The second thing people are concerned about is that the number of lanes has been decreased [by a four-to-three-lane road diet, with one travel lane swapped for the protected bike lane.] So you’ve decreased the number of lanes where, if someone sees you getting out of your car then they can merge and get into another lane. CDOT had statistics that said basically there were too few cars for all that space so they put it on a road diet.
The thinking behind doing the road diet is it’s going to make it safer for everybody because you’ll have less speeding. What did people think about that argument?
Uh-um. I mean there’s several stop signs. It’s really tricky John because you’re also laying down bike lanes in the middle of winter in a community that doesn’t have a lot of cyclists. So the need for bike lanes just isn’t there visually. People are like, “Why do you need bike lanes right now?” There isn’t a ton of biking in that area yet and the biking that is happening is happening on the side streets, mostly kids. It’s not even like Ogden, which also runs through the 24th Ward but is a major diagonal street. I see road cyclists flying down Ogden all the time. The perception that I heard is that the only time there’s a real mass of bicyclists down Independence is during [Active Trans’ Four-Star Bike Tour.]
One thing I know about that West Side boulevards is that one of the reasons they chose that route is because there were a lot of requests for something to make it safer to walk to Garfield Park and Douglas Park. People were interested in shortening the pedestrian crossing districts and slowing down traffic – people really tend to speed on the boulevards. So those were some of the reasons that they put in protected lanes on the boulevards even though there’s not much cycling on that route yet.
Street marking crew truck in buffered bike lane on Marshall Boulevard. Photo by Steven.
I think that when you’re thinking of the chicken and the egg approach, this was just too soon. It’s just the wrong timing. All the feedback that I heard was the safety concerns, you have a lot of churches involved, you have elderly people. There was a woman in a wheelchair who was like, “How am I supposed to get to the church with my wheelchair? It takes me a long time to get out of my car and into my chair.”
Do you think that it’s mostly just a perception that parking away from the curb is dangerous or do you personally think that it makes a difference?
I think that if you’re going to [change the street] this quickly then you have to introduce the alternatives right away.
Probably what happened, I’m not sure, but they probably announced some public meetings about the lanes before they were installed and people didn’t show up for the meetings or get the word that this was going on.
[CDOT] said they reached out to the alderman. So part of this is on the alderman’s plate because he signed off on this last December. He didn’t communicate this to his constituents. However, I also do think that it’s not all on the alderman. I do think that the department of transportation needed to actually get out there and talk to folks. And it really sounds like these lanes were put in without anybody talking to any of the major players along these boulevards. And it’s like, if you don’t get a response from the alderman, what is your second stream of communications? Do you just say, “Well the alderman didn’t get back to me so I’m just going to go ahead and do this?” That doesn’t make any sense.
24th Ward Alderman Michael Chandler.
Did you hear about what happened with the protected bike lanes CDOT proposed for King Drive?
They moved it over to State Street [and are currently installing a buffered lane on King.]
So it sounds like a really similar situation where the local clergy opposed the protected lanes.
But I’m really concerned about this overall because it’s not just about the lanes, it’s about what the communication is between the department of transportation and underserved communities. So if you’re completely relying on the alderman, I understand that may be a part of how Chicago politics works, but I feel like you to have a second way to get the word out, and things that are offline communications.
Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 public input meeting at the Woodson Library, 95th and Halsted.
I mean, I live in Lawndale. I teach a program in Lawndale. I’m here all the time. I never saw any public notices about exactly what the [street] design was going to be. People literally didn’t know what was going on. The reason I’m really concerned about this, I made a point of going to a couple of the Streets for Cycling meetings in Garfield Park and on the Far South Side at the Woodson Library meetings because I wanted to get to know the cycling community. But a lot of that stuff was mostly advertised online.
It’s just that the timing of things and the lack of communication concerns me. There are all these initiatives that are being pushed forward but I have a real concern about what the communications department at CDOT is doing if the alderman isn’t proactive. Because you’re going to have more Chandlers, where the alderman is reactive once the community has spoken out, as opposed to being proactive.
There is another public meeting scheduled for tomorrow, where CDOT is apparently coming back with some alternative options: Thursday, December 20, 11:30 am at Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, 1308 South Independence.
Read an interesting discussion of the West Side protected lanes on EveryBlock.