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Approaching the new bridge from the south. Here there are two travel lanes, bike lanes and parking lanes.

When new bridges are built in Chicago, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) generally requires that they be built to accommodate projected traffic demands. The assumption is that in the future there will be more people driving than ever before, although most of us hope this won’t be the case.

So when the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) rebuilt the North Damen Avenue bridge over the Chicago River in 2002, IDOT insisted that the old two-lane bridge be replaced with a four-lane, although Damen is generally only a two-lane street. But as a rule, if you give Chicago drivers the opportunity to speed, they will.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that as soon as the new bridge opened, motorists took advantage of the new half mile of wide open space between stoplights at Fullerton and Diversey to put the pedal to the metal. The speeding cars, plus the fact that bike lanes weren’t included in the project, turned a formerly bikeable bridge on a recommended bike route into a hostile environment for cyclists.

Fortunately CDOT soon recognized the problem and in 2004 it retrofitted the bridge with a road diet. In this four-to-two conversion, the extra travel lanes were taken out and replaced with bike lanes and painted medians. This calmed traffic and provided dedicated space for cycles, making the bridge bikeable once again. This was one of Chicago’s first road diets, and it was a very progressive move at the time.

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The bike-friendly Damen bridge, after the road diet. Photo by Serge Lubomudrov.

Nowadays road diets are common here. For example, Kinze Street underwent a four-to-two conversion last year to accommodate the city’s first protected bike lane, and CDOT’s plan to install 150 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes by 2015 will likely involve dozens more road diets.

However, the new “tied arch” bridge on the 1100 block of North Halsted Avenue, near Divison Street, seems to be another example of the Illinois transportation department having its way, a “road binge” if you will, to the detriment of Chicago cyclists. CDOT recently completed this $13.7 million project, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, along with rehabbing the bascule bridge on Halsted just north of Chicago Avenue, 800 North, paid for with local Tax Increment Financing money.

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As you continue towards the new bridge from the south, the bike lane becomes dashed, permitting cars to cross into the right-turn lane which has replaced the parking lane.

There’s a lot to like about the tied-arch bridge. Unlike Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, I think this bow-shaped span, painted a cheerful cobalt blue, is a beautiful addition to our skyline. The old metal-grate decking has been replaced by a solid concrete surface that’s much safer to bike on. The rehab to the bascule bridge near Chicago Avenue also included adding bike-friendly concrete infill on the sides.

Both bridges include bike lanes plus wider sidewalks with guardrails to protect pedestrians from cars. These accommodations seem to reflect CDOT’s recent trend towards creating facilities that serve all road users, not just drivers, which has blossomed under forward-thinking Commissioner Gabe Klein.

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Klein speaks at the press confrence to mark the reopening of the bridges. 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett is to his left; Deputy Commissioner Dan Burke is wearing the safety vest.

On the other hand, it seems IDOT mandated that the new tied-arch bridge be expanded from two to four lanes. So, despite the bike improvements, I feel the net result is a bridge that’s less comfortable to bike on than it was before. I’ve ridden over the new bridge on several different occasions and it’s clear to me that drivers are using the extra lanes as an opportunity to speed.

Also, to accommodate right- and left-turn lanes at the Halsted/Division intersection, the northbound bike lane over the tied-arch bridge is sandwiched between travel lanes. As we’ve written before, cycling between two lanes of moving cars, trucks and buses is not a relaxing feeling. Bottom line: as a two-lane, this would have been a very bikeable bridge, but as a four-lane it’s a structure that seems likely to intimidate inexperienced cyclists. It seems like a missed opportunity.

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This seems like a scary situation for newbie cyclists.

If CDOT eventually finds that speeding is an issue on the tied-arch bridge, maybe it will eventually retrofit the bridge with a Damen Avenue-style four-to-two conversion. The roadway width would allow the agency to include two travel lanes, a left-turn lane and protected bike lanes, which would be a huge improvement over the current situation.

But last week after a press conference to mark the reopening of the bridges, I spoke with CDOT Deputy Commissioner Dan Burke, who oversaw the project, and he didn’t seem to think the new design encourages speeding. Burke wasn’t aware of the Damen Avenue Bridge road diet, so after telling him that story I asked for more info about the tied-arch bridge:

Can you tell me why this bridge was converted from a two-lane to a four lane when the rest of Halsted is generally a two-lane?

Well, the new bridge accommodates all users. We have eight-foot-wide sidewalks, we have bike lanes and we also have capacity for motorized vehicles to move through the corridor as well. We took a balanced approach to all the users of this corridor and I think we’ve been able to provide a solution for everyone.

What was the reasoning behind putting four travel lanes on the bridge when the rest of Halsted is two lanes?

If you look at the traffic study, at the volumes of traffic that come through here, the right-turn movements, the left turn movements, at the time it was found it was warranted. And we were able to keep vehicles moving through here and also incorporate a bike lane, so it was a win-win for everyone.

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Approaching the Division Street intersection from the south.

Would there have been problems if there had only been two travel lanes. Do you think that traffic would have backed up?

The intersection at Division is a very high-volume intersection. So what we were able to do was provide the capacity to move vehicles efficiently through there. Moving vehicles efficiently does not equate to speeding. People going faster than the speed limit is a separate and distinct issue. We’re just providing for a flow through the area.

Steven adds:

The design that exists now is not the only design that CDOT could have come up with. There are several design elements they could have used that allows for 2 travel lanes (1 in each direction) + 2 bike lanes without excluding future widening, should that be deemed necessary. To achieve the desired flow (whatever flow this design is intended to accomplish), it might not have been necessary to have the lane configuration on the bridge match the lane configuration closes to the intersection.

Was it really necessary to have a 500 feet long right turn lane on the right side of a centered bike lane? We’ve discussed here and here that centered bike lanes are not comfortable for people who bike. Chicargobike’s post today about how the Streets for Cycling Plan draft network does not meet the “8 to 80″ designation is recommended reading.

Read the discussion about this bridge on The Chainlink.

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  • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

    Any time you have cars crossing over a bike lane to get to the turning lane, you’re going to have issues. This is why the Madison St. bike lane is utterly useless.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      With the buffered and protected bike lanes, CDOT painted the turning areas (conflict areas) green. They didn’t do that here. I wonder if in their evaluation of green painted bike lanes they ever settled on an observation of their effectiveness in reducing collisions.

      • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

        There is a conflict area in the bike lane on Dearborn that is painted green (albeit, peeling) that drivers typically ignore anyway. I am always extra cautious when riding down that section.

  • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

    I’ll be curious to try this one, but I share your concerns.  The current configuration seems ripe for abuse by leadfoot drivers.

  • http://www.yourgamercards.net/profile/AdaJacks Jackson Adams

    Thanks for the very informative article.  The four lanes are a disappointment.  I’m not looking forward to being sandwiched between two automobile lanes.  What a weird design.

    • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

      I rode down this bridge today and can definitely see how there will be conflicts between cyclists and drivers. Honestly though, the completed bridge is not as bad as the bridge directly south of it. That bridge drops down to two lanes, creating a pinch point with obnoxious drivers driving on the wrong side of the street — AGAINST traffic — to pass me, only to be passed again at the next light. It’s also an open grate, as the concrete portion is blocked off by jersey barriers. Hopefully CDOT completes whatever they are doing to that bridge and adds a bike lane.

      • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

        CDOT’s press conference greatly confused me.

        I thought the press conference was to mark the completion of construction (which they said earlier this year would end in May). I mistakenly reported yesterday that bike lanes were open in both directions, but a reader pointed out to me that this wasn’t the case.

  • John Osborn

    The point at which the bike lane becomes centered and the right hand traffic lane appears is just before the bridge and still a long way from the intersection with Division. From this point, the hump of the bridge blocks the view of the intersection and the lack of lane markings does not make it clear that the right hand lane is a right hand turn only lane.
     
    This evening traffic was backed up with a long line of cars in the left hand car lane and an empty right hand car lane. As drivers were coming up to the traffic they were weaving into the bike lane, presumably to scope out if they could take the right hand car lane.
     
    I can see why the drivers were doing this – the lane arrangment just doesn’t seem intuitive for drivers or cyclists.
     
     

  • http://www.facebook.com/ctaredline Red Line

    Wow, what the hell was CDOT thinking? Does anyone there have clue? Serious question.

    Anyway, I’d immediately put in a curb-style buffer on the north side of Halsted at Division to prevent the “right-lane stoplight passers” from crushing cyclists.

    The cycling community should start a letter-writing campaign… this is dangerous.

  • Kevin M

    Could it be that they built this bridge extra wide in order to be prepared for bus rapid transit?

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      That would be a good argument for building a bridge that’s larger than it needs to be. So big bridges aren’t necessarily bad – the Damen bridge works just fine now. But CDOT could do a lot to make the Halsted tied-arch bridge more bike-friendly by re-striping it with only two travel lanes instead of four.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      The bridge width is not as much an issue. The bigger issue is how it’s currently striped and how the lanes are allocated and where they’re positioned. The space isn’t currently needed, or the way it’s allocated makes comfortable cycling impossible. The space could be re-allocated to have painted or curbed medians, or protected bike lanes. 

  • Edgewater roadie

    Why does there need to be 2 southbound lanes coming southbound away from the intersection?  Eliminating one of those lanes would at least provide room for buffered bike lanes.  This configuration will encourage impatient motorists to swing out into the right lane to avoid backed up traffic at the light – without looking in their mirrors for the faster moving bikes that are coming up on their right.

  • http://www.bikewalklincolnpark.com Michelle Stenzel

    This is a terrible design. “Floating” bike lanes are WORSE than the regular old stripe-of-paint-along-parked-cars-or-curb that we’ve had all these years. I ride the Madison floating bike lane in the Loop every day and pretty much hate every second of it, with gigantic buses on my right, speeding cabs on my left, and all kinds of vehicles criss-crossing the lane right in front of me and right behind me.

     

    This Halsted bridge design does NOT meet our city’s Complete Streets Policy, as quoted in CDOT’s recently published Chicago Forward plan:

    “The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motor vehicle drivers, shall be accommodated and balanced in all types of transportation and development projects and through all phases of a project, so that even the most vulnerable – children, elderly, and persons with disabilities – can travel safely within the public right of way.”

    The floating-lane design may “accommodate” a person on a bike, but it does so in the quickest, cheapest, and least creative way possible, and it certainly doesn’t BALANCE the safety of all streets users. It should be mandatory for all engineers on an infrastructure project to experience it in a car, on a bicycle, in a wheelchair, and on foot while pushing a baby in a stroller, before they hold the ribbon-cutting ceremony and start the celebration.

    The Chicago Forward plan states resolutions to: “Train all design engineers in Complete Streets approaches” and “…potentially include the use of a Complete Streets checklist during the first phase of the design”. To me, this indicates that there is a recognition that there were deficiencies in these areas in the past, during the design phase of some projects that are now coming to fruition.

     

    Fortunately, Halsted Street (the entire stretch from 8700 South to 4000 North) is designated on the draft of the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan as a Crosstown Bike Route. This means that it will receive the highest treatment of bike facilities (protected lanes) whenever feasible. From what I’ve seen and I understand, feasibility is largely driven by roadway width and parking concerns. On this bridge, there’s plenty of width, and no parking to deal with. Therefore, it would be a perfect candidate to retrofit with protected lanes during the conversion of Halsted to a Crosstown Bike Route. 

  • Bmbcgo-chat

    Kudos to CDOT for actually trying to move traffic! You nut jobs don’t understand economics. Our country is prosperous because of its ability to move goods and people. Every minute lost to
    People and trucks stuck in traffic is a drain on the economy. People who spend more time stuck in traffic don’t have time to do things like shop, stop and grab a bite to eat, etc. So while I understand most of the people here want to be able to ride a bike in protected lanes everywhere, it isn’t practical for 99% of the people on the road. So stop your constant bitching about not having enough space to ride. If you don’t like, move to Europe, and let the United States prosper and let drivers get where they need to go in reasonable amount of time. You’re a bunch of cry babies. Boo hoo, I don’t have enough space, wah. Poor me.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Um, was there a big problem with car traffic backing up back when this was a bike-friendly (except for the metal grate decking) two-lane bridge?

      And we all agree that people wasting time sitting in traffic is a bad thing. But it’s pretty clear that the answer isn’t making bigger roads – they quickly fill up with more cars. The answer is giving people more transportation options so their are less car clogging up the existing roads. Fortunately CDOT knows this, and their priorities are starting to shift towards encouraging walking, biking and transit use, instead of just trying to move cars quickly through the city.

    • http://twitter.com/AdamHerstein Adam Herstein

      Don’t feed the trolls.