47th Ward staffer Bill Higgins
A few weeks ago I contacted Mike Amsden, lead planner for the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Streets for Cycling initiative, to ask why CDOT chose Berteau Avenue (4200 N.), from Lincoln to Clark, to be the city’s first “neighborhood greenway” (AKA bike boulevard.) One of the main reasons he mentioned is that the project lies entirely within one ward, the 47th, and there’s enthusiastic support from local alderman Ameya Pawar. Amsden also told me he’s also gotten positive feedback from folks along Berteau who want to see cut-through traffic reduced. “We’ve heard from a few nearby residents who are really excited about it,” he said. Here’s a map of the location.
Last week at a block club meeting about the proposed greenway at a Ravenswood church, I learned firsthand how important it is that the project is slated for only a short stretch of roadway (.9 miles) and has strong aldermanic backing, because it’s turning out to be more controversial than I expected. There were over 50 people in attendance and many of the attendees said they’re afraid that the project will create chaos for drivers.
As 47th Ward transportation planner Bill Higgins, CDOT bike planner David Smith and Active Transportation Alliance bikeways campaign coordinator John Lankford explained at the start of the meeting, bike boulevards are fairly common in West Coast Cities like Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California. Speeding and cut-through traffic is discouraged on these streets through the use of speed bumps, traffic circles, pavement markings and/or traffic diverters – bump-outs, cul-de-sacs and other structures which prevent cars from driving down the entire length of the street or making certain turns. Meanwhile, contraflow bicycle lanes allow bikes to travel in both directions on one-way sections, and the traffic diverters have cut-outs that permit cyclists to continue unhindered.
Traffic diverter on a bike boulevard in Vancouver, British Columbia – photo by Dylan Passmore
Higgins outlined preliminary ideas for the Berteau greenway project, including some possible locations for traffic diverters, adding that the city is hoping to build the greenway in June or July of 2012. He stressed that the project is designed to make the street safer and more pleasant for all users, not just cyclists, and especially for people who live on Berteau.
But at last fall’s Active Trans anniversary gala, former executive director Randy Neufeld gave a speech that predicted the strong reaction that the city’s plans for protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways were likely to elicit from Chicagoans whose streets would be radically altered. He asked his audience to see things from the perspective of the locals, using the metaphor of strangers coming in to rehab your kitchen. “You’d ask, ‘Why is this happening, what are you going to do and how much is it going to cost?’ And then [the rehabbers] would say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll like the new kitchen, they have nice kitchens just like this in Europe.’ The point I’m trying to make is that change is very hard.”
Just as Neufeld predicted, when the floor was opened to questions and comments from audience members at last week’s meeting, many of the residents sounded worried about the possibility of having to change their commuting patterns due to traffic diverters.
A man who was one of the first to speak said, “I want to thank you for a great presentation. I think your goals are very admirable: greening the neighborhood and making it friendlier. It will improve the neighborhood, with tweaks of course.”
“I have one concern but it’s very key,” he said. “You’re talking about prohibiting a southbound turn onto Ashland from Berteau. I’m from the neighborhood on the east side of Ashland. All of us on the east side of Ashland need some way of going to the city on Ashland. So what we do now, from both the north and south sides of our neighborhood, we go to Berteau, we go west towards Ashland and we turn left. Without that ability we’re going to have to go to Montrose or Irving Park. Those are terrible corners and it’s going to be a snarl, and what’s going to happen, I believe, is that it’s going to divert all the traffic up and down Greenview (1500 W.) so it’s going to defeat the purpose.” Audience members murmured in agreement.
David Smith responded, “The treatments that we’re talking about are preliminary ideas. We presented them to the ward’s transportation committee last week and that was an issue that they also brought up, making a left turn onto Ashland. You would basically be diverted down Greenview to Belle Plaine (4100 N.) where you would have to make a left turn onto Ashland, but there’s no signal. That’s definitely the kind of issue we need to hear about. [To clarify: Smith is acknowledging that it would be problematic to force drivers to turn left onto Ashland from Belle Plaine, so this may prevent the city from installing a diverter that would stop drivers from turning from Berteau onto Ashland.]
“I’d like to add that we’ve done a lot of traffic analysis on the corridor,” Smith said. “We’ve collected speed data and turning movements, and we’ve done 24-hour counts and peak hour counts, so it’s not like we’re just throwing diverters in to make everyone’s life difficult.”
Another attendee from southeast Ravenswood was upset about the possibility of not being able to cross Ashland on Berteau and said he feels that traffic calming on Berteau is unnecessary. “I understand it’s a noble goal, but you’re inconveniencing a lot of neighborhoods and we feel like this is being rushed through. I would probably come out and be completely opposed to the plan, any of this plan, because all the examples you show [from other cities] are busy streets. Berteau’s not a busy street. Berteau doesn’t need markings.”
Higgins responded, “I’ve gotten at least one call about traffic issues from every single block along this project, people asking for speed humps, people saying, ‘I’m standing out here and people are blowing through stop signs.’ And that’s a major concern for both the alderman and me. If you look at the streets where there have been major traffic problems Berteau is one of them.”
Berteau and Damen – photo by Suzanne Nathan
A woman who said she has lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years commented, “When I look at this proposal your reasons sound really legitimate. You want to do some bicycle lanes and I think that really sounds good and you want to do some reduced traffic, which really sounds good. But what you’re forgetting about is the people living in the neighborhood. And for us it’s going to create havoc and unnecessary confusion and problems and an inability to get in and out of our neighborhoods. So I’m asking you to rethink what you’re doing.”
A bit later in the meeting Smith said, “At this point I would just recommend, try not to get caught up in every single turning movement. I know there are a lot of one-way streets in the neighborhood. So before we put in a traffic diverter we’re going to analyze to see where that puts you and how you will get in and out of the neighborhood. For instance, one thing that came up at the transportation committee meeting was that it’s difficult to make a left turn onto Irving Park from Ravenswood because there’s no signal. These are the kind of things that we want to hear from you guys and that we want to incorporate into this design so that you’re not forced into uncomfortable situations.”
Berteau at Ashland – photo by Steven
Near the end of the meeting another female resident argued that the project would inconvenience families in cars for the sake of a small minority of bicyclists. “I’m all for greenways,” she said. “But I’m a mom. I carpool and I drive a lot. I can’t get on a bike and take my kids to school [The crowd erupted in laughter] and take them to basketball practice and camp and soccer. I can’t do that. This will affect families. This isn’t about single people with backpacks getting on their bikes.”
“I think this project, the way it seems to be going, is wrongheaded,” she continued. “I think you need a lot of input and you need a lot of modifications, to make this work. Don’t think that because you’re going to make this a greenway that all of the sudden all of us in that area are going to be on our bikes. We’re not.”
Contraflow bike lane on Chicago’s Ardmore Avenue – photo by Alison Fayre
After the meeting, as I grabbed my helmet and sheepishly walked back to my bicycle, I overheard a few snippets of conversation from people alarmed about the possible changes, including the phrase, “We’ve got to save Berteau.” It’s clear that in order to build the greenway without a major revolt, Pawar’s office, CDOT and Active Trans will have to be very sensitive to the needs of nearby residents and make sure constituents feel that there has been an adequate community input process.
A few days after the contentious meeting, Pawar sent out a letter to residents reiterating the reasoning behind the greenway proposal and outlining the public input plan:
· We will hold meetings with block clubs, community groups and interested neighbors and solicit feedback on various design and traffic calming elements.
· After receiving feedback, plans will be adapted and/or changed to reflect community input.
· Design changes will be reviewed by transportation planners and our office.
· Final design will be presented to the community in the form of community meetings and our website.
· Alderman Pawar will make a decision based on the community input.
I predict that the city will succeed in persuading 47th Ward residents that the Berteau greenway is a good idea and the project will be completed this summer. It’s possible that traffic diverters will wind up being politically unfeasible, but simply calming the traffic and adding contraflow bike lanes would be a big improvement. With or without the diverters, in the end I think that Berteau residents will learn to love their safer, quieter, more walkable, bikeable street.
CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein’s eulogy for Apple’s Steven Jobs, also delivered at the Active Trans gala, seems fitting here. “He was able to give people what they hadn’t even envisioned that they needed yet,” Klein said. “And then once they had it they couldn’t live without it.”