The Wabash Avenue bike lanes, now classified as “buffer-protected.” Photo by John Lankford.
2012 was a banner year for bike lanes in Chicago. According to the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bikeways Tracker, by the end of the year the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) had completed or was in the process of building a total of 12.5 miles of protected bike lanes and 14.5 miles of buffered bike lanes. When Rahm Emanuel took office in last year our city had no protected or buffered bike lanes, but nineteen months later we’re now the national leader in providing enhanced on-street bikeways. That’s a huge achievement.
One issue that has come up is CDOT’s recent adoption of the terms “barrier-protected” and “buffer-protected” lanes to refer to what the department formerly called “protected” and “buffered” lanes. This change in terminology also seems to indicate a shift in goals.
Emanuel’s Chicago 2011 Transition Report, released in May of that year, announced the bold objective of building one hundred miles of protected bike lanes within the mayor’s first term. The document defined “protected lanes” as “separated from traveling cars and sit[ting] between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars that shield cyclists from street traffic.” As Grid Chicago readers know, buffered lanes are instead located to the left of the parking lane, with additional dead space striped on one or both sides of the bike lane to distance the bike lane from motorized traffic and/or opening car doors.
However, in recent months CDOT staff began using the new terminology, which redefines “protected lanes” to include buffered lanes. The press release for the terrific new two-way protected bike lane on Dearborn Street confirmed that the agency is now counting “buffer-protected” lanes towards the hundred-mile target. This means that instead of building one-hundred miles of physically separated lens by 2015, the new goal is to build a total of one hundred miles of “barrier-protected” and “buffer-protected” lanes.
I certainly don’t blame CDOT for changing their target. Building one hundred miles of physically separated lanes, plus dozens of additional miles of buffered lanes, within four years always seemed a bit unrealistic. It took a Herculean effort by the department’s small bike program staff to install the current number of protected lanes, often working far more than a nine-to five schedule. And I for one would be delighted if Chicago reaches, say, sixty-five miles of protected lanes and thirty-five miles of buffered lanes by 2015. It would make a huge difference in the city’s bike-ability.
The question is, would it have made more sense for CDOT to simply acknowledge the shift to a more realistic goal, rather than redefining buffered lanes as “protected” lanes just so that the city will be able to claim they met the hundred-mile goal? Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly graciously took time out on last Saturday to share his perspective on the issue with me.
Scott Kubly discusses Chicago’s upcoming bike share program at a public meeting last fall.
“I think the goal of 100 miles of protected lanes stays the same but the reality is we’re working with varying infrastructure,” he says. “The physical conditions vary by roadway and by block. So we’re going to put in as high a level of protection as possible.”
“Both barrier-protected and buffer-protected lanes provide protection,” Kubly adds. “Buffer-protected lanes provide protection from dooring, slow cars down and delineate space for bicycles. Our first choice is barrier-protected, then buffer-protected, then standard lanes. But if a road is fifty-one feet wide instead of fifty-two feet, or if there’s an abundance of church parking we might not be able to do a protected lane. We want to do the best we can with the situation we’ve got.”
“You look at a facility like Elston Avenue,” he says. “In some place there’s parking to the left of the bike lane, in some places it’s just bollards, and in some places it’s a protected lane. That’s determined by the width of the roadway, the geometry of the intersections and unique uses like factories, schools and churches.”
The Elston Avenue “barrier-protected” bike lane. Photo by Dave Schlabowske
My blogging partner Steven Vance and I have no problem with CDOT classifying a facility like Elston as a protected lane, even though it includes short stretches where cyclists are not separated from traffic by parked cars. But Kubly confirms that sections like Clark Street between North Avenue and Oak Street, which has buffered lanes for the entire stretch, are now being counted as “protected” lanes. I ask him whether this waters down the concept of “protection.”
“I don’t think it does,” he responds. “If it means we’re doing one hundred miles of barrier-protected lanes, that’s fantastic. If it means we’re doing sixty miles of barrier-protected and forty miles of buffer-protected lanes that’s still great. Ultimately barrier-protected and buffer-protected lanes are substantial improvements over what’s currently out there. It’s up to the individual to decide if they want to count them both as protected, but that’s what we’ve chosen to do as a department.”
I also asked Steven to provide his take on the terminology issue. “Mayor Emanuel’s transition plan said that ‘Beginning in the first year, twenty-five miles of protected bike lanes will be built each year to create bikeways that are comfortable for all ages and abilities,’” he writes. “The plan defined ‘protected bike lanes’ as being separated from traffic by a physical barrier. This is the well-defined standard, the one National Association of City Transportation Officials uses (CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein is the treasurer of this organization), the one Active Transportation Alliance uses, and the one used internationally.”
“CDOT’s redefining ‘protected bike lanes” to now include buffered lanes, which lack the protection parked cars provide, means some bikeways will be counted towards the goal of ‘100 miles of protected bike lanes’ that are not actually comfortable for all ages and abilities,” Steven adds. “The city’s Bike 2015 Plan set goals of reducing bike injuries by fifty percent, and increasing the bike mode share for short trips to five percent. This change may make it harder to achieve those goals.”