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.

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

A great day in Chicago: protected lanes open in the heart of the Loop


See more of John’s photos from the ribbon cutting and inaugural bike ride, as well as Steven’s photos from the event.

This afternoon when Mayor Rahm Emanuel opened the new two-way protected bicycle lanes on Dearborn Street, it was the exclamation point to a memorable year of bike improvements. Dozens of advocates gathered at the south end of the 1.2-mile greenway for the event, which also celebrated Chicago’s reaching a total of thirty miles of protected and buffered lanes citywide, plus the release of the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020.

The “game-changing” lanes on Dearborn, running the length of the Loop central business district, create a car-free route that even novice cyclists will feel comfortable on. They also make a statement that the city is serious about getting more Chicagoans on bikes. Building the lanes involved converting one of the three car travel lanes on the northbound street, which has the additional benefits of reducing speeding and shortening pedestrian crossing distances. Car parking was moved to the right side of the bike lanes, providing protection from moving vehicles, and dedicated bike stoplights, a first in Chicago, guide southbound cyclists and prevent conflicts between cycles and left-turning autos.

Continue reading A great day in Chicago: protected lanes open in the heart of the Loop

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. 

Why Clark Street in Lakeview wasn’t a protected bike lane: it’s 1 foot too narrow


Clark Street buffered bike lane just north of Diversey Avenue. Photo by Adam Herstein. 

CDOT responded today to my inquiry asking why Clark Street between Diversey Avenue and Addison Avenue received a buffered bike lane and not a protected bike lane. Bikeways planner Mike Amsden writes:

Clark Street (Diversey to Addison) was striped as a buffer protected bike lane, and not a parking protected bike lane, because it is a 51′ roadway throughout the project limits. As you might know, the minimum roadway width for installing barrier protected bike lanes on roadways with one travel lane and one parking lane in each direction is 52′, and the preferred minimum width is 58′. A 52′ roadway allows for a 5′ bike lane, a 3′ buffer zone, an 8′ parking lane and a 10′ travel lane in each direction. However, even when a roadway is 52′, other roadway characteristics and operational considerations must be assessed before installing parking protected bike lanes. These characteristics include the amount of bus, truck and bicycle traffic, loading and delivery needs of local businesses, emergency vehicle access and maintenance requirements.

These standards come from the NACTO* Urban Bikeway Design Guide. If you have not read this guide I recommend doing so as it will likely answer many other questions you may have. The guide can be found here.

To answer your final question, if we were to recommend a parking protected bike lane on a 51′ roadway, all curbside uses (parking, standing, loading, valet, etc.) would have to be eliminated on one side of the roadway for the entire stretch in order to do so.

1 foot is all it takes, it seems. You can see the relevant NACTO standard in this image. Notice items 4, 5, and 6, that describe the minimum widths for the bike lane, buffer area, and parking lane, respectively.

One-Way Protected Cycle Tracks
Design guidance for One-Way Protected Cycle Tracks in the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide.

Update: Why can’t certain lanes be narrower?

Someone asked in the comments this question, which Amsden anticipated: “We can’t go with a 7′ parking lane because then you’d have a 7′ parking lane next to a 10′ travel lane. People wouldn’t be able to get out of their cars, buses/trucks wouldn’t be able to maneuver, emergency vehicle access would be restricted, etc. That’s why even a 52′ roadway (with a 8′ parking lane next to a 10′ travel lane) is considered really tight.”

* National Association of City Transportation Officials, the yin to American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials yang (AASHTO).