A tale of five bridges

An alternate title I thought of using: Three steps forward, five steps back?

Both Chicago’s Complete Streets policy and the Bike 2015 Plan talk about the need to “ensure that roadway construction zones are bicycle-friendly”, but this is not being practiced. Here are five examples. I previously discussed this problem, at length, in June 2011, in Making construction areas and detours bike-friendly. It included a short mention of the second bridge project in this post.

Harrison Street

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No more jersey barriers. See what this used to look like

Conditions have improved slightly since I pointed them out in September. While cycling east, the bike friendly concrete deck on the side has always been accessible, but when cycling west, the concrete deck on the side here was not accessible. The improvement? Most of the concrete deck on the westbound is now accessible, right after a short jog on the open metal grate. I noticed this change on November 13, 2011. Step forward.

Halsted over the North Branch Canal

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Photo of the new, blue bridge, days before opening.

I’m glad that the Halsted Street bridge over the North Branch Canal (just south of Division Street) opened Friday and has a 100% concrete deck – meaning no more open metal grates. Unfortunately the terrible detour over Chicago Avenue isn’t over (see Chicago Avenue below). That’s because construction will immediately begin on the Halsted Street bridge over the North Branch (just north of Chicago Avenue). I’m not pleased about the plan for 4-feet wide or centered bike lanes. Step forward, step back.

The pavement marking plans I requested from the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) last week show a 6-feet wide northbound bike lane over the bridge that narrows to 4 feet as it approaches Division Street, seemingly to accommodate an 11-feet wide right-turn lane and 10-feet wide left-turn lane. (The 6-feet bike lane is currently striped, but not the 4-feet bike lane – maybe the plans I have are wrong.) The 4-feet wide bike lane continues north of Division Street, where currently a 6-feet wide bike lane runs. The centered bike lane is about 770 feet long.

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This is location #2 in the list below (Milwaukee/Augusta, Street View), showing the centered bike lane design just described that I think needs review as well as some alternatives implemented in Chicago. The centered bike lane design might be acceptable if it was twice as wide and always colored, like this bike lane in Denmark.

The bridge is not completely open and the project not finished: only one lane in each direction is open and there are no permanent lane markings. Signage discourages crossing it going northbound. See what it looks like now. It definitely removes the feeling of claustrophobia the previous bridge had.

If you want to know what it’s like to ride in a 4-feet wide centered bike lane, go to Roosevelt Road between Clark Street and Wabash Avenue, in both directions. It’s not a comfortable place. Other examples of centered bike lanes include:

  1. Northbound Milwaukee Avenue at Elston Avenue – drivers constantly merge across the bike lane in order to turn right at Elston Avenue. This behavior is precisely why CDOT experimented with creating green bike lanes at right-turn lanes (and one left-turn lane). However, they have not published the results of their analysis on this project, conducted in 2009. See this intersection on Google Street View.
  2. Southbound Milwaukee Avenue at Augusta Boulevard/Kennedy Expressway – drivers merge from the left-most lane to the right-most lane in order to go down the on-ramp to the Kennedy Expressway, but not as often as they cross the bike lane at Location 1. This is a green bike lane location, but the most merges happen in the intersection, not before it. This intersection is ripe for through striping like this on Clybourn. See a car in the bike lane on Street View.
  3. Madison Street, from Michigan Avenue to Wacker Drive – a brand new bike lane, the Loop’s first, has you riding between traffic on both sides. (Street View is outdated.)
  4. Northbound Elston at Division Street – a green bike lane location that has the bike lane crossing over the right-turn lane. Street View.
  5. Southbound Milwaukee at Kinzie – a left-turn bike lane is extremely useful and I appreciate the space dedicated to people on bikes, but it can be difficult to get to: you must merge left while cycling uphill. (Street View is outdated.)
  6. Southbound Halsted at Roosevelt – drivers constantly merge across the bike lane in order to turn right at Roosevelt Road. From the start of the right turn lane to the stop bar is 325 feet, but the green section of the bike lane is 100 feet long. See it on Street View.

There are alternatives to the centered bike lane design. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), of which Chicago is a sponsor, presents four alternatives. I prefer the Dutch design, which keeps bike lanes somewhat protected even within intersections. Watch the video below that animates the conversion of an intersection like #4 above to a Dutch intersection, in the same space.

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In the Netherlands, and much of Europe, the default rule at intersections is that you cannot turn right on red. Instituting this rule here we could help eliminate a lot of “right hook” crashes.

Halsted over the North Branch

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Photo of the Halsted Street bridge near Chicago Avenue by Eric Rogers. 

This is a good thing and I’m glad it’s happening. I don’t like how it continues the poorly designed detour route that doesn’t accommodate bicycling (see Chicago Avenue below). One way to get around this bad detour was to continue north on Halsted, over this bridge, and north on North Branch Street or Hooker Street, then east on Division to Halsted. This bridge is now closed and it’s not possible to access Goose Island from Halsted Street at Chicago Avenue, nor get to Division Street from Chicago Avenue. Step forward, step back.

Chicago Avenue + detour

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Photo of an empty Chicago Avenue, taken in 2008, showing the original lane striping, by Wil Taubert

Prior to the detour route from the Halsted Street bridge construction, there was one lane in each direction, each at least 16 feet wide. Disregarding the metal grate deck, that’s a fair width to share side-by-side with automobiles. Because of the detour, I presume, there is now one lane going west and two lanes going east, forcing each to be narrower than the two that previously existed. People cycling east can be passed without concern, but people cycling west may feel uncomfortable to “take the lane” – even though they have the legal capacity to do so. If you bicycle on the sidewalk (I’ve seen a few), keep in mind there’s a staircase at the end of your eastbound crossing and beginning of westbound crossing. Lastly, there’s no recommended detour route for people cycling: signs indicate that detours are for buses, cars, and trucks, only. Step back.

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The driver of this car is passing me, westbound, with part of their car on the other side of the separating yellow curb, and too closely, at within 3 feet. View the full photo gallery.

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I demonstrated by detour idea back in January 2011 on my personal blog, Steven Can Plan (the detour started in November 2010).

Washington Street

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The second metal grate you encounter riding eastbound on Washington Street. 

On my way to the Streets for Cycling Open House, a friend I rode in with told me about some new metal grates on Washington Street. Eek! I didn’t check them out for a couple weeks, but lo and behold, six new grates await people cycling into the Loop on Washington Street. Sections of the formerly 100% concrete deck on the bridge over the Chicago River were removed and replaced with four open metal grates, while two sections of the roadway on both sides of Wacker Drive were replaced with open metal grates. The bridge grates are unavoidable, but one can go around the ones at Wacker Drive. I contacted the CDOT spokesperson but he is on vacation until Tuesday. The Loop now has one fewer inbound, bike-friendly bridge. (Remaining include: Wells, State, Harrison, Lake.) Step back.

Complete Streets

Ignoring Complete Streets policies is a problem that affects pedestrian access equally (or perhaps worse). If these issues concern you, we urge you to contact your aldermen and the Department of Transportation and ask that street projects respect the provisions of the Bike 2015 Plan and Complete Streets policy and ensure that people walking and cycling are accommodated safely and comfortably. I recommend that project managers receive advice from the Mayor’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Councils when it comes to designing the construction detours. Read all of our coverage of Complete Streets, including a recent ordinance that Cook County passed.

Updated 20:04 to embed the photo of Milwaukee/Augusta; added Halsted/Roosevelt intersection.

14 thoughts on “A tale of five bridges”

  1. Well said.  I’ve been frustrated with the handling of the Harrison construction since it started, as I regularly use that bridge to go between LaSalle St. station and points SW.  Today I’ll get to check out current conditions.

    I definitely agree with the points you made in examples 1 and 2 of centered bike lanes.  Those can be a nightmare to ride, even for confident, experienced riders.  The Madison lane doesn’t bother me as much, probably because I’d been in the habit of using the bus lane, and it’s not that different.  Haven’t used the new Elston lanes yet, so I haven’t experienced that example.  The Milwaukee approach to Des Plaines/Kinzie can be a little tricky, but my riding experience on that approach isn’t terribly different from how it was before.  I think these would be a lot less comfortable for riders who are less confident in heavy traffic.

    While I’m glad that the Division St. bridge is getting fixed up, having to use Chicago as a detour really isn’t an acceptable alternative.  Your photo illustrates its limitations well.  I’m glad I won’t have to ride that way often before summer. 

    BTW, I didn’t fully appreciate how deteriorated the Halsted and Division bridges had gotten until a couple of kayak trips underneath them.  Looking up at trucks passing overhead and seeing a surprising amount of daylight coming through rusted-out holes in the support structure was a bit alarming.

    1. I think the two Division Street bridges are going to be replaced in a few years, along with a roadway resurfacing/reconstruction on Goose Island. 

      What do you mean by “Haven’t used the new Elston lanes yet…”?

      Out of the 4 places with centered bike lanes, I’d say 1 is where merging across the bike lane happens most often, partially because there’s not enough queue/storage space in the right turn lane; it’s mostly a parking lane. But 2 bothers me the most as I think it’s the easiest to fix. There’re clear markings on the approach to the intersection, and a sign that has two right turn arrows (one indicating a right turn onto Augusta and the other indicating a right turn onto the highway ramp). 

      Did you watch the video on the Dutch alternative to the typical Chicago design? It would be made even easier with bike only signals, which New York City uses. 

      1. I think it’s been at least 2 years since I’ve ridden on Elston near Division.

        I’d agree with you about #1 and 2.

        The Dutch alternative looks great.  I’d love to see an example of that here to try it.

        1. Harrison: May 2012. From the Illinois Department of Transportation website: “The tentative completion date for the entire Congress Parkway bridge project is mid-May 2012”. Ugh. 

          The Bike 2015 Plan recommends a lot of things that haven’t been tried. The Dutch or NACTO-style intersection treatments are not included (even though those ideas and designs aren’t new). One that I asked about, in response to a citizen’s question, was implementing a raised bike lane. 

          The new design for the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection redesign has a curb-protected bike lane on New Elston Avenue. This could be an opportunity for a raised bike lane. I’ve seen that curbs are not much better than not having curbs in stopping cars from damaging stuff. 

          See my exit the roadway slideshow.

          1. If we have a mild winter, perhaps Harrison and Congress will actually be done in 5/12.  We can hope.  Seems like that construction has been going on forever.

            About curbs vs. no curbs, I’ve seen plenty of examples where curbs haven’t stopped cars from exiting the roadway.  Some of the most impressive examples involved cars going over the curb and being stopped in various ways by large trees. 

            I wish I had a picture of the craziest one – a driver who hit the curb at an angle in front of a strip mall late at night.  Apparently the car was briefly airborne, and it landed on end, up against the trunk of a medium sized tree, breaking the tree and bending it over.  The final angles were very strange.

  2. Have you reached out to Gabe Klein on any of these issues (e.g., when you interviewed him)? I would think he would be more supportive of some of the no-brainer solutions (like the Halsted St. bike lane, filling in the grates on Washington with some concrete or plates, etc.).

    Just thinking that it might be best to go straight to him instead of through the CDOT bureaucracy. 

  3. I nearly got squished riding West over the Chicago bridge.  A large construction truck rode past me leaving me with maybe 6″ clearance between my handlebars and the truck.  I actually was riding slightly within the depth of the bridges structure.  If he had to swerve or I had fallen you’d be talking about another dead cyclist.  I have just given up riding over that bridge any more.  I take a longer route to work that takes me over the Grand St Bridge. 

    I followed the truck and made my displeasure known, but I didn’t write down his license because I didn’t think I had any recourse.  Could I have reported him for something?

    1. A few ideas (none of which are great or “standout”):
      1. The truck may have had a “how’s my driving” number to call. I presume these are mandated by the truck driver’s employer’s insurance company to “correct expensive driving behaviors”. You could call and report it. 
      2. You could file a police report for reckless driving or passing within the 3 feet minimum. Although I’m not sure the police report would even accept this report as no crash happened. 
      3. You could call 911 and report the driver for reckless driving. Since no one was hurt, this call would probably be placed low on the dispatch priority scale and no one would ever spot the driver in the vicinity you reported them in. 

      I think you did the right thing by taking a different route, but CDOT and its contractors can do the right thing and build a better detour. 

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