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The Grand Avenue bike lane is less than 2 years old and came with destroyed pavement. This photo was taken between Clark and LaSalle Streets. 

The addition of a bike lane on any given street is not necessarily a victory for citizen cyclists. In order to to be a worthy expansion of the cycling network, bike lanes should be installed (with appropriate contextual modifications) on streets where such an addition makes the roadway more conducive to comfortable cycling. Grand Avenue isn’t one of these streets. The addition of a bike lane between Orleans Street and Navy Pier in 2010, when no other changes were made to the street environment and design, did not make the street better to cycle on. There were preexisting issues that have remained long after the lane was striped.

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A right-turn lane would likely have fit at LaSalle Street, but instead drivers use the bike lane to prepare for their turn. 

Here’s why cycling here now is no better than it was before:

  • The street is very wide, which encourages higher speed traffic. But when this traffic is jammed, it’s highly common to see drivers drift into the bike lane to see ahead.
  • Grand goes under Upper Michigan Avenue for a block, creating a dark space where cyclists ride beside a high curb, offering no exit strategy.
  • The street has insane undulations and cracks in the pavement, both parallel and perpendicular to traffic flow. The city should not build new or upgraded bike lanes on extremely poor pavement, as as it did with the Grand Avenue bike lane, and the Franklin Boulevard cycle track.
  • The street is used heavily by taxi drivers, and other people who want to pick up and drop off passengers in the bike lane.
  • The bike lane merges with right-turn lanes at many intersections, putting cyclists in a situation where their options are to wait behind right-turning cars until the pedestrians crossing clear and the cars can turn, or move to the left of the right-turning cars, risking being squeezed between cars in the right-turn lane and the through lane. At State Street, the bike lane ends 100 feet before the intersection. Intersections are where cyclists need the most visibility and the lack of a bike lane here takes away whatever visibility the bike lane provided. And to top it off, this right-turn lane doubles as a bus stop!
  • The bike lane is poorly designed at LaSalle Street. It reaches the stop bar at the intersection, but there’s no right-turn lane and the curb lane is hashed. Yet the bike lane, in combination with this hashed area on the curb lane, makes for an impromptu right-turn lane.
  • At intersections without right-turn lanes, and where the intersecting street is northbound, the level of right-turning traffic is still high.
  • The street has exposed streetcar tracks and utility covers with “moats” (wide depressions) around them presenting a grave danger to cyclists.
  • There are many driveways to parking garages on the side of the bike lane (but fewer on the opposite side of the street).

All of these issues make bicycling so frustrating that they discourage people from cycling. At the very least they encourage people to choose a different route, vacating this bike lane and reducing its positive impact on the “safety in numbers” phenomenon where an increase in cycling is linked to a decrease in crashes and injuries.

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This photo shows the shared bike lane/bus stop/right-turn lane. It’s not a pleasant combination.

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has proposed a protected bike lane on Grand Avenue from Orleans Street to Navy Pier in the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan. Such an upgrade, along with a pavement resurfacing, would likely mitigate all of these issues. This would likely mean a reduction in the number of non-bike lanes on the stretch (there are 4 east of Columbus Drive and 3 lanes west of Columbus Drive). A buffered bike lane is proposed for the segment between Halsted and Orleans Street (which includes a river crossing). The design will be tricky in the segment between Desplaines Street and the Chicago River because a concrete median reduces the width to only two lanes in each direction, so the addition of a bike lane (of any kind) will require a different configuration*.

The Berteau Avenue bike boulevard (or neighborhood greenway) between Lincoln Avenue and Clark Street should be the first community-designed bikeway in the city; there have already been several meetings in that neighborhood (we’re not aware of any upcoming meetings for the project). Bike lanes in New York City are proposed to “Community Boards” in public meetings by the city transportation department. Sometimes the Community Board (CB) sends the staff back to the drawing board. If a similar planning process was conducted in Chicago, the Grand Avenue bike lane would have been sent back to the drawing board.

The CB planning process isn’t perfect – the boards sometimes delay excellent projects – but it allows interested parties to voice their concerns about a particular project directly to City staff, which doesn’t normally occur in Chicago. There are occasionally situations where this does happen: when CDOT originally proposed bike lanes for Division Street on the Paseo Boricua, project was shut down by the community, but not due to design issues but because the lanes were viewed as a symbol of gentrification.

Other examples of streets where a bike lane didn’t improve much, if anything, include:

1. Taylor Street between Morgan Street and Ashland Avenue. The dense restaurant district has a lot of valet parking, motorists waiting for others to leave parking spaces, double parking for “quick” runs into restaurants, delivery vehicles, and so on. All of these mean that a cyclist will spend less time in the bike lane, and more time in the “way” of drivers whose lanes aren’t being blocked by the above. This brings up an interesting phenomenon: the majority of restaurant-dense neighborhoods I frequent are also two lane streets with bike lanes: 18th Street on Pilsen, Division Street in Wicker Park, and Milwaukee Avenue through Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square. These are the streets where you will find a lot of people cycling, during all times of the day. These streets also have the least amount of space for cyclists to maneuver around people looking for a place to park their car.

2. Clark Street between Diversey Parkway and Belden Avenue. This is a shared bus-bike lane during morning rush hour, but a shared parking-bike lane at all other times. It’s a terrible combination: when bicyclists aren’t sharing the lane with 60-feet long buses, they are sharing it with constantly open parked car doors in a space that isn’t wide enough for the two uses. The measured width of the lane is 12 feet, plenty wide for a large bus. But add in a 6 feet wide car that’s not parked within 12 inches of the curb (as the law requires), and there’s not much room left over for bicycling. Without a guiding parking lane stripe to the left of cars, people park at various distances from the curb, so the effective “bike lane” width changes along the 0.7 mile route.

Some of these issues can be mitigated with increased and constant enforcement, but many of them will require design changes. The protected bike lane that CDOT has proposed for Grand Avenue in the questionable segment will probably solve many of these problems. CDOT has also proposed a buffered bike lane for the section of Clark Street discussed above, and then some. There’s been no proposal for a change on Taylor Street; however, CDOT is proposing a protected bike lane for Harrison Street along the same stretch. This would improve through traffic, especially for students and staff at UIC traveling between campuses. (See the map of proposed bike lanes here; a better map hasn’t yet been published by CDOT.)

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This photo of the bikeway draft network shows in blue the locations where CDOT is proposing a protected bike lane (most of which are in pre-design planning stages). Wide gray lines show proposed buffered bike lanes. 

There have been some shining examples of bikeway changes in 2011 and 2012:

1. The new Elston Avenue protected bike lane between North Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue is a joy to ride and through. There were tons of hiccups during construction, which became an active topic on The Chainlink and on Twitter. Those seem to be over now. The bike lane was built on brand new pavement and positively deals with some of the more hairy situations on the route: the wide curve south of Division Street, going under the Metra viaduct at Augusta Boulevard, the enormous intersection at Division Street, and the wide, fast turns at Magnolia Avenue.

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The new bike lanes on Elston Avenue will lead to more predictable behavior from all transportation modes, especially at previous tricky situations, like this narrow opening under a Metra viaduct between Chestnut Street and Augusta Boulevard.

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New pavement markings, of a new design, make the intersection of Division Street and Elston Avenue “saner”, advising each person where they should go. 

2. The 55th Street road diet, with protected and buffered bike lanes, between Cottage Grove Avenue and Lake Park Avenue is another example. It should reduce vehicle speeds in the entire stretch, including where most needed, around “Monoxide Manor”, the building that splits the street at Blackstone Avenue. The narrow width of the vehicle lanes should also make crossing the street safer for the diverse population of Hyde Park. Many churches and schools line the street and families are constantly crossing the street; this was a major issue at the public meeting in April that CDOT held to announce the project.

3. 18th Street, in two parts: the extension of the conventional bike lane west of Ashland Avenue, and the creation of the cycle track over the Chicago River (with newly installed plates on the bridge) between Clark Street and Canal Street. 18th Street, through Pilsen, lacks the parking and driving craziness present in the other restaurant and retail-dense districts mentioned above so the bike lane design, which is quite typical, operates well in its environment. The cycle track converted one seldom used non-bike lane to a bike-only lane in an area that sees very high automobile speeds on a route with a metal grated bridge. This section was also constructed on new pavement, which makes it a smooth ride.

* It seems to me that the concrete median is there because of the railroad crossing at Canal Street, perhaps to prevent motorists from passing other cars stopped for a moving train.

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  • Quityerbitchin

    This post comes across as very whiny. It seems you think you are entitled to a smooth pavement, never having to stop and wait behind turning traffic, and never having to merge left out of the bike lane. This is a large urban area. Not every street will be smooth. There is traffic. Sometimes people double-park. Slow down, look behind you, merge, and proceed with caution. It’s not that hard for an adult such as yourself.

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

      By building bike lanes on streets that are difficult to use, Chicago will fail to achieve the goals of the Bike 2015 Plan, which are 1) to increase the number of trips on bikes to 5% of all trips under 5 miles, and 2) to reduce injuries by 50%. The starting year for this plan was 2006.

    • Kevin M

      Q, I think you are confusing Steven’s well-constructed, provocative tone with “whiney”. Allow me to correct you here. “Whiney” is born in small-mindedness and often includes unnecessary barbed remarks meant to condescend, such as reminding the other person that he is an adult and is capable of whatever it is you are wanting him to do.

  • Lisa Curcio

    It seems that the point is that IF there are going to be bike lanes they should be constructed in a manner that makes things predictable and safe for motorists AND cyclists. Such bike lanes are of benefit to all users of the roadway. Bike lanes like the current Grand Avenue lane cause confusion for all users of the road, therefore, increase danger to all users of the road.

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

      That is the point. Streets with bike lanes should be encouraging more people to ride on them, not discouraging.

  • Carter

    I agree they could have been a lot smarter and thought more holistically, but as a long-time rider (15 years) on Grand from the lakefront to Milwaukee>Elston, I saw an immediate improvement in driver behavior when these were added.

    Getting bike lanes in this neighborhood was a pretty bold move in that regard, as it is such a tourist trap and so congested – it does send the message that space for bikes is to be respected, even if the space itself needs a considerable amount of TLC.

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

      I don’t agree that it was a bold move. Politicians snd residents seem mostly concerned about removing parking and travel lanes, neither of which occurred: the lanes were each simply narrowed to provide the 5-6 feet needed for the bike lane.

      • Carter

        I mean bold as bikers were persona non grata on the stretch specifically from Columbus to Welles – by motorists & pedestrians alike – I imagine someone took some heat for having any space here formally designated for bikes.

        • John Greenfield

          It’s worth mentioning that Grand was one of the first bike lanes in the city paid for by aldermanic menu funds, so that was a minor risk on the part of Alderman Reilly.

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

          The alderman paid for it.

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

    That stretch on Clark between Diversey and Belden is awful. I can’t tell you how many times I’v been wedged in between the curb and the back of an articulated bus. Those bus drivers don’t seem to pay any attention to where their bus is going. It gets much worse south of Belden where the shared lane ends and the dreaded sharrow appears.

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

      I didn’t point out other sections of Clark because they don’t have bike lanes. The presence of sharrows make the stretch as typical as any other street with buses and sharrows. Essentially, every street is a shared lane and sharrows could be installed, but only some are marked in that way.

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

        It’s nice that the sharrows are there to remind drivers to watch out for cyclists, but in my experience, they are typically ignored anyway.

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

          It’s that experience that forms the rationale for the exclusion of that “bikeway” from the Chicago Offline Bike Map. http://offlinebikemap.com

  • Mike

    I’m glad this was highlighted – I think Illinois eastbound to Navy Pier shares a lot of the issues as Grand too, especially the really rough pavement you cross as you go under Lake Shore Drive. Not only is it rough, but the underpass darkens your view so you can’t see the road patches until you’re practically on top of them. If you don’t ride that way regularly, it’s an unpleasant surprise.

    However, I think the lanes are better than having no lanes at all. At least with lanes, a biker feels somewhat justified riding on a street. I know that of there is no lane, bikes can technically take a car lane, like on North Ave between Damen and the lake or Division St between Ashland and Clark, but that’s pretty intimidating.

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

      Every lane in the state is a “shared lane” where people can ride bikes, so there is no “car lane”. (except where signed that cycling isn’t allowed, like on the expressways and Lake Shore Drive.
      I like your point about feeling “justified”. I get this feeling, too, but I don’t think this is enough to gain the new riders and trips that the Mayor, CDOT, activists, advocates, and the Bike 2015 Plan desire.

  • Elizabeth

    Roosevelt is another example. Biking on it is very difficult, and gives me heart palpitations, particularly with kids. The bike lane is between the turn lane / bus lane and general traffic, and the lines are fading, and it is very difficult for motorists to predict where cyclists will be, or for cyclists to feel confident that cars won’t cross the bike lane. There are lots of big box stores along Roosevelt — Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Home Depot, etc, etc — and occasionally we need to get there. But it is just horrible to bike on.

    • Elizabeth

      A related point — if there’s a bike lane, I feel obligated to use it, even if it is really horribly placed. Do I follow common sense? Or the city planner? Where will cars look for me? Bad bike lanes are worse than no bike lane at all.

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

        Legally a cyclist must ride in the bike lane if there is one, or as close to the right as is reasonably safe. You are allowed to move outside the bike lane to avoid hazards.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Great article Steve.

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

    Elston Ave. is by far the best bike lane in the city. All new protected bike lanes should use Elston as the benchmark.

    • Gopher Biker

      Elston is awful at least until they start cleaning the lanes, there is so much debris they are almost unusable.

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

        I haven’t yet encountered the debris problem on Elston Avenue in the new bike lane section. Adam has posted at least one photo showing a flooded bike lane under the viaduct at Augusta.
        If you have photos, you can send them my way, or upload them to Flickr and leave a link.

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

          I’ve seen some broken glass on Elston before, including yesterday. Most of it was on the sidewalk, though. I’ll try to get a picture on my ride home.

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8432336@N08/ BlueFairlane

          I see a lot of glass in the lane heading outbound along the line of cars just south of Division, where that line of parking is next to that club. I’ve seen a lot of bits of stuff inbound around Morton Salt and in that long, bare stretch across from the club. The dip beneath the railroad tracks just before Milwukee acts as a basin collecting all sorts of junk. Just after the rains last week, I was having to edge real close to the bollards. I got two flats last week after riding that stretch.

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

          Broken glass in the Elston northbound lane. http://flic.kr/p/cJf6jG

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Donohue/100001683191319 James Donohue

    The photo of the pothole makes clear a pertinent point: It’s more important to fill the potholes than to paint lines on the road. The money would be better spent filling potholes.
    Another argument against Bike-Lanes: Most drivers pass my bike with seven to ten feet of clearance, but the painted line only shows the bare minimum of three feet.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8432336@N08/ BlueFairlane

    I think Madison in the Loop is an example of a bad bike lane. I used to ride Madison with some frequency. Typically, I’d stay to the left side of the street, because of all the buses darting back and forth on the right. But since they put the bike lane on the right, I’m forced to fight with the buses, and all the backed up traffic that squeezes between them. Now I just don’t ride Madison.
    Elson turned out okay (which you’d hope, after a year in the making), except for two things. One, parts of it are already showing pavement wear, especially in dips that collect water and places where there are drains. Two, it collects a lot of debris. There are a couple of places full of glass, for instance. (That club must be really sketchy.) This leads to more flat tires, which will frustrate the new bikers you want out there.

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

      I prefer Adams and Randolph over Madison. With Central Loop BRT, Madison may even be “off limits” to cycling – not really banned, but no bikeway will be provided because most room will be taken up by bus lanes. No word from CDOT or CTA on how people who are bicycling to destinations on the BRT portions of Madison Street will access them.

    • Madison

      I like Madison

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8432336@N08/ BlueFairlane

        You’re so vain. You probably think this post is about you.

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