Redefining “protected”: A look at CDOT’s new bike lane terminology


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.

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Jackson Boulevard bike lane downgraded to buffered, to possibly be installed in spring 2013


The street has lacked lane markings and a bike lane (a conventional bike lane existed prior to repaving) since it was repaved in October 2011.

A year and a half after one segment was completed, the Jackson Boulevard bike lane project may be finished, but with a lesser bike lane. Short of submitting a Freedom of Information Act for communications between the Chicago and Illinois Departments of Transportation and other recipients, here’s what I’ve been able to gather so far.

The Jackson Boulevard bike lane between Ogden Avenue and Halsted Street “will likely be extended to Halsted in Spring 2013 as a buffer protected bike lane”, CDOT public information officer Pete Scales emailed me yesterday.

He means a buffered bike lane.

Only CDOT views a buffered bike lane as protected. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), of which Chicago is a member and Gabe Klein its treasurer, defines a buffered bike lane:

Buffered bike lanes are conventional bicycle lanes paired with a designated buffer space separating the bicycle lane from the adjacent motor vehicle travel lane and/or parking lane.

Klein told me in an email after I questioned the labeling practice, “The City of Chicago views ‘protected bike lanes’ as the master category, and within that there are ‘buffer protected’ and ‘barrier protected’ bike facilities. On some streets we will be going back and forth depending on the right of way, and potentially multiple times in a block as we get into more complicated installations.”

Conversely, a “protected bike lane”, or “cycle track”, is defined by NACTO as:

One-way protected cycle tracks are bikeways that are at street level and use a variety of methods for physical protection from passing traffic. A one-way protected cycle track may be combined with a parking lane or other barrier between the cycle track and the motor vehicle travel lane.

The second part of Klein’s statement is understandable: a project like Elston Avenue is considered a “protected bike lane” even though parts of it have no protection (between North and LeMoyne and between Augusta and Milwaukee). This new definition isn’t in line with the publications and communications so far published by the department or with NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Any street to receive only a “buffered bike lane” has strictly been labeled as such, and not with “buffer protected bike lane”. There’s nothing protective about 2-feet wider bike lane when riding between moving traffic and parked cars.

IDOT’s response to my inquiry was ambiguous: “That is certainly one of the issues we have discussed with CDOT and are working with them on, in terms of gathering data about safety impacts, traffic impacts and other operational issues.”

Active Transportation Alliance’s design guide follows NACTO’s definition. I recommend being as clear as possible and describing each project as a “bikeway” with certain various bikeway types within that project having names that are easily distinguishable (see page 103 in this PDF from the Active Transportation Alliance design guide). “Buffered protected” and “barrier protected” are unnecessary classifications for bikeway types already well-defined.

The federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) doesn’t define different bikeway types nor restricts the use of “buffered bike lanes” or “protected cycle tracks”.

Updated December 3 to fix tags and add link to MUTCD reference. 

Desplaines boss, Desplaines! A new protected bike lane takes shape


Cars are currently being parked in the Desplaines bike lane, but probably not for long. Photo taken just south of Madison Street. 

This is an exciting moment for cycling in Chicago as the department of transportation races to meet its goal of reaching a total of thirty miles of protected and buffered bike lanes before it gets too cold to lay thermoplastic. As Steven wrote yesterday, CDOT began installing new traffic signals last weekend for the eagerly awaited, two-way protected lane slated for a 1.2-mile stretch of Dearborn Street between Polk and Kinzie streets.

Since Mayor Emanuel himself declared the lane would be built this fall, if the weather holds up it’s likely this “game-changing” facility will soon be completed. As the first protected lane in the central Loop and the first two-way protected lane, Dearborn will probably draw some criticism from the anti-bike crowd. But the 4,500 signatures the Active Transportation Alliance recently collected in support of the lane prove that plenty of Chicagoans are looking forward to getting a first-class downtown bike commuting route.

Grid Chicago readers alerted us that CDOT also began striping new protected bike lanes on Desplaines Street in the West Loop last weekend, so yesterday afternoon I pedaled downtown for a look-see. From Kinzie to Fulton Street, a two-way section, the department is putting in “enhanced” shared lane markings, the same type that were recently installed on Wells Street south of the river. These markings encourage cyclists to ride in the middle of the lane; presumably “Bikes may use full lane” signs will be installed, as they were on Wells.

Continue reading Desplaines boss, Desplaines! A new protected bike lane takes shape

Wells Street buffered bike lane construction began today (photos)

Several #bikeCHI tweeters noticed in the past few days that existing bike lane stripes on Wells Street had been ground out (probably last Friday). Today, new bike lane striping was installed south of Chicago Avenue, to at least Ohio Street, in the River North neighborhood.

Photos are from Adam Herstein. They start at the north end of the project and move south (in the direction of travel). Wells Street is one-way south of Erie Street (until Congress Parkway) and two-way north of Erie Street.


Wells and Superior Streets. 

Continue reading Wells Street buffered bike lane construction began today (photos)

CDOT responds to our questions about the Streets for Cycling plan


John and Mike Amsden at a Streets for Cycling public meeting last winter. Photo by Serge Lubomudrov.

For many months now Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) project manager Mike Amsden and his team have been working hard preparing the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. The plan now calls for creating 110 miles of protected bike lanes and 40 miles of buffered lanes by 2015, and a 640-miles bikeway network by 2020. A revised map of the network, based on input received at recent public meetings, will be unveiled on Wednesday June 15 at the Bike to Work Rally, 7:30-9 am at Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington. The final map will be officially released with the rest of the bike plan at a later date. You can read more details about the plan here.

I had some of my own questions about the plan, and I’d also seen and heard comments from others in the comment sections of Grid Chicago and The Chainlink, and in conversations with other cyclists. Mike took some time out from his busy schedule to sit down with me at the CDOT offices, look at maps and respond to my inquiries, based on my own questions and concerns I’d heard from others. We discussed whether the plan is too ambitious, or not ambitious enough; whether the West and South Sides will get their fair share of facilities; whether the protected bike lanes offer enough protection; and what CDOT is doing to fix metal-grate bridges.

Our conversation will make more sense if you take a look at a map of the proposed 640-mile network – here’s a link to a PDF of the map. The current Chicago Bike Map is available here. Below is a map of the proposed locations for the first 150 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes – click on the image for a larger view.


Continue reading CDOT responds to our questions about the Streets for Cycling plan

CDOT unveils draft Streets for Cycling plan, but there’s still time for input


On Tuesday at the first of several community input meetings before the Streets for Cycling 2020 plan is finalized, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) unveiled a draft map of locations for the 110 miles of protected bike lanes (PBLs) and 40 miles of buffered lanes to be built during Rahm Emanuel’s first term.

However, the meeting focused on a new concept, the Citywide 2020 Network, a comprehensive plan for 640 miles of bikeways to be created over the next eight years – more details on this in a minute. CDOT also unveiled a draft map of this larger network at the event, held at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence in Jefferson Park.

Although the Streets for Cycling community input process is nearly complete, there’s still time to provide feedback before the final plan is unveiled at the Bike to Work rally on Friday, June 15. After you finish reading this post, take some time to study the two maps. If you have suggested edits to the proposed bikeway locations, see the bottom of the post for several ways you can make your voice heard.

Continue reading CDOT unveils draft Streets for Cycling plan, but there’s still time for input