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.
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.
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.”
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.”