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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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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Western & Ashland BRT: Pros and Cons - This webpage summarizes the project details and describes the pros and cons for each of the 4 bus rapid transit scenarios
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