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The city has placed barricades in the protected bike lanes on Independence Boulevard to discourage cycling in them until they are converted to buffered lanes. 

View more photos of the Independence Boulevard bike lanes here.

In December Red Bike and Green’s Eboni Senai Hawkins notified me that residents of Lawndale, an underserved community on Chicago’s West Side, were “up in arms” about the new protected bike lanes on Independence Boulevard. This roughly mile-long stretch connects the Garfield Park green space with Douglas Boulevard and is part of a new 4.5-mile network of protected and buffered lanes leading from the park to Little Village. I interviewed Hawkins for her perspective on the situation.

Hawkins, a Lawndale resident, told me the locals had a number of complaints. After the new lanes, which move the parking lane from the curb to the left of the bike lane, were striped but not yet signed, dozens of motorists who parked curbside were ticketed. Those tickets, and all subsequent tickets were eventually dismissed. Independence is home to several churches and the pastors felt that the new lanes made it difficult for members of their congregations to park.

Although the lanes are designed to reduce speeding and shorten pedestrian crossing distances on the wide boulevard by narrowing the travel lanes, drivers said they felt uncomfortable parking in the new “floating” parking lanes. They said the new configuration made them feel more exposed to the still-speeding traffic as they exited their cars. They found the new street configuration, which incorporates sections of protected as well buffered lanes, to be confusing. And they objected to the removal of some parking spaces as part of the design.

Residents complained to 24th Ward Alderman Michael Chandler. Although Chandler had signed off on the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) plans for the lanes a year earlier, at a couple of recent community meetings the alderman blasted the new design and asked CDOT to bring back curbside parking. The department has agreed to use paint to convert the protected lanes to buffered lanes later this winter at an estimated cost in the low $10,000s, according to deputy commissioner Scott Kubly.

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Where would Jesus park? A car is parked in the protected bike lane instead of the floating parking lane by the Greater Rock Baptist Church, 718 South Independence.

I pedaled out to Independence a few days before Christmas to check out the protected bike lanes, which were blocked off to cyclists with construction barriers. As I straddled my bike snapping photos, an elderly lady came out of her apartment to ask if I was writing tickets. She said there had recently been a second round of ticketing, and told me she too feels the floating parking lane is unsafe for motorists leaving their cars.

We looked at the floating lane together and I asked her why she felt it made a difference whether there was a curb or a bike lane to the right of her parked car. She was friendly and repeatedly said that she has no problem with bike lanes or bicyclists, but she insisted the new configuration was dangerous. And while there was still plenty of parking available on the street, she said that the loss of parking spaces makes it less certain she’ll be able to park directly in front of her home, which is a dealbreaker.

I called Kubly for his take on what happened with Independence. “We had talked to the alderman about the lanes a year ago and discussed them at several public meetings for the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, including meetings at Garfield Park and Douglas Park,” he says. “But there were folks who hadn’t been tracking the project who had a number of concerns. I think we will definitely try to engage the local alderman more in the future. All parties could have done a better job of communicating.” He adds that the premature ticketing, likely done by a combination of police and Department of Revenue staff, was also due to crossed wires.

“This has been a good learning experience for us,” Kubly says. “In the future we’ll make sure there’s no ticketing until the lanes are completed. And we’re learning how to better communicate what the changes to the roadway are. We might have temporary signage and put flyers on windshields explaining how to use the floating parking lanes. When we installed the new [two-way protected] bikes lanes on Dearborn it was a reaction to what happened on Independence. We spraypainted ‘parking’ on those parking lanes to make it obvious where to park.”

Is there any merit to the residents’ claims that the lanes are dangerous? “There’s a learning curve, but if you look at the data, protected bike lanes make the roadways safer for all users,” he says. “The speed limit on Independence is 30 MPH. We found that before the protected lanes were installed two-thirds of the cars were speeding and 15% of them were going over 42 MPH. When you go from a twelve-foot travel lane to ten or eleven feet that slows people down significantly.”

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On the east side of Independence the lane curves to accommodate a single handicapped parking space.

What about complaints over the loss of parking? “We looked at the parking supply and utilization on Independence and found ample parking on most days,” Kubly replies. “I think everywhere there’s a church there’s a shortage of parking on Sundays. I think the density of churches on Independence is a legitimate concern.”

Noting that the Lawndale residents seemed to view the new configuration as a hassle with no upside for them because they see little demand for bike lanes in the neighborhood, I asked Kubly how CDOT plans to avoid this scenario in the future. “We need to communicate that this is actually a benefit for all users,” he says. “People perceive protected lanes as bike projects but, pure and simple, they’re safety projects. We’re trying to find alternative uses for excess right-of way so we can slow cars and make it safer for everyone.”

Kubly says CDOT plans to make more of an effort to get the word out to community stakeholders about its bike lane proposals, pay more attention to special uses like church parking in the design process, and work harder to educate the public about the function and benefits of the new street layout. “You can turn this into a bad experience or a good experience. We’re choosing to do the latter.”

For another perspective I contacted Ben Fried, editor-in-chief of the transportation news website Streetsblog, which has documented the famous battle over protected bike lanes on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West, as well as opposition to protected lanes in low-income communities. He argues that protected lanes are a safety win for all neighborhoods, and says it’s important that underserved areas like Lawndale get their share.

Last year proposed bike lanes on King Drive in Bronzeville were changed to buffered lanes after local clergy voiced concerns about parking. “You really don’t want this to create a precedent where neighborhoods without much bike infrastructure continue to be left behind on street redesigns that make everyone safer,” he says. “That’s not fair to anyone. Church parking can’t take precedence over public safety.”

He adds that it’s key to build local support for the lanes before they are built. “If you have no public process to speak of where people said yes, we want this, then you can just end up with a situation where people are [angry] and will never come around,” he says. “Then there’s no constituency who can stand up for the redesign.”

On the plus side, Fried predicts CDOT will soon have stats to back up its argument that protected bike lanes can make everybody safer. “Chicago hasn’t been building protected lanes very long, but pretty soon they should start to have a decent data set about how the redesigns are affecting safety outcomes,” he says. “They need to incorporate that into their communications ASAP. The reduction in traffic injuries on protected bike lanes is a universal benefit to the public, and that’s the number one selling point in New York City.”

View more photos of the Independence Boulevard bike lanes here.

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  • Mcass777

    Does the city count bike pedestrian accidents in the safety totals?

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

      Yes, CDOT has been reporting pedestrian-automobile crashes in the “project fact sheets” for these bike lane/safety projects. For example, here’s the fact sheet for the 55th Street road diet that included a protected bike lane.

      • Mcass777

        I meant to say bike vs. pedestrian

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

          As far as I know, this data is not collected by the city. I know for sure that the data is not collected in the IDOT traffic crash database that takes data from the Chicago Police Department. This is the same database that I use for analysis on this blog. The Chicago Department of Transportation has access to the same database, but also access to CPD police reports.

  • Mark Twain

    “Local clergy”. Trivia: what does local clergy know about pedestrian safety?

    • Adam Herstein

      The clergy is just using the same excuse that businesses use: that loss of parking with hurt business (church attendance).

      • Mark Twain

        But of course. You can’t argue with a reverend, they’ve got god behind them.

        • Jennifer

          God knows we need safer streets.

          • matt

            god is almighhty, so if he wanted people to die, they would die. If he wanted them to live, they’d live. duh. (this is not a serious post)

  • Adam Herstein

    There’s a very simple solution to the “floating parking lane” concerns: build a curb barrier instead of bollards. Then motorists will still be parking against a curb, and cyclists will be more protected.

    • Marcus de la fleur

      I understand that that is the long term plan. Once the streets with protected bike lanes are up for resurfacing or other major repair like that, they might start putting in the curbs…

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

        It’s what CDOT has alluded to, but hasn’t publicized any “concrete” plans for.

  • madopal

    It’s a real shame that safety improvements are being seen more as anti-car/parking, which wind up being a defacto pro-bike improvement. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in many of these posts. These improvements need to have corresponding communications that do a better job of selling the changes. Otherwise, the city risks a definite perception war over cyclists vs. drivers.

  • joejoejoe

    Did CDOT work with CPD and the Department of Revenue to void the tickets that they say were premature or is this “learning experience” from transportation professionals a lesson paid for out of the pockets of confused residents?

    • John Greenfield

      Yes, and all the tickets were thrown out.

      • joejoejoe

        That is a good thing. Thanks for following up John.

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  • J

    Wow. This project was botched in so many ways: poor coordination with parking enforcement, poor outreach to the community, a bizzare design around handicapped parking spaces, and an incredibly expensive backpedaling. The worst thing, though, is the precedent this sets of resident parking comfort and parking supply trumping street safety. Hopefully something this amateurish never happens again.

  • http://profiles.google.com/focus503 Focus 503

    Too many people ignore the lines and drive/park by braille.

  • Brian

    I never thought I’d be against protected bike lanes. But the condition of the Elston lane is appalling. I’ve actually been riding in the car lane, which is quite dangerous, to avoid the glass flats. I’ve got great tires, but after flats and riding in those enclosed fields of glass, I’ll take there traffic lane any day. They need to get their act together with sweeping. I’m glad this one didn’t work out for that reason.

  • http://opusthepoet.wordpress.com/ Opus the Poet

    I think the people concerned about the new parking being dangerous should be forced to ride a bike and see why the protected lanes are going in. Also as was pointed out in more than one place in the article, moving the parked cars away from the curbs reduces the exposure time for pedestrians crossing the street making them safer as well.

  • Adam Herstein

    What sucks about this situation is that the city made an effort to build bike lanes all over the city, and not just in mostly-white north and northwest side neighborhoods. But when the city builds lanes in underserved communities on the south and west sides, church-goers complain about them and they get taken out or not built at all.

    Why should the city bother to build lanes in these areas at all? I’m willing to bet that if focus on building lanes on the south and west sides was shifted to the north and northwest side, that these same neighborhoods would claim that the city was discriminating against them by building in only white neighborhoods.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Installing protected bike lanes and other bike facilities is definitely more complicated in communities where A) the city government has historically neglected the needs of the neighborhood B) there isn’t much bicycling going on yet. As Scott and Ben discuss in the post, outreach, community input and education will be key for ensuring that community members feel that their concerns are being addressed, and for winning their support for the lanes as something that benefits pedestrians and motorists, as well as encouraging cycling.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Valerie-F-Leonard/587348023 Valerie F. Leonard

      The City’s own literature indicates that the City negotiated with residents and businesses in one of the communities near the Loop, and the local businesses and residents decided against having bike lanes. This is clearly not an issue of under-served versus adequately served communities, but one of perceived safety, communication and respect. This debacle could have been avoided with better communication and cooperation with community based organizations and elected officials.

      • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

        Valerie, I hadn’t heard about the situation you’re referring to. The closest thing that comes to mind is the decision to install buffered lanes instead of protected lanes on King Drive in Bronzeville after opposition to protected lanes from the local clergy. Do you know what street or community near the Loop that happened in, and can you please send a link or a quote from the city literature you’re talking about? Thanks.

  • Matt

    It’s funny that motorists complain that parking in the street is ‘dangerous,’ because it’s now ‘dangerous’ to them as they see their car might get damaged, but it was more dangerous to cyclists who had to ride between parked cars and speeding traffic. Essentially they are saying that potentially scratching their car is dangerous but putting cyclists in the line of fire isn’t?

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