Making construction areas and detours bike-friendly

Updated June 28, 2011, to add link and photo about how citizen cyclists are accommodated in Copenhagen, New York City, and San Francisco (at end of post). Updated July 8, 2011, to add a section about “shared responsibility.”


When roads or bridges are reconstructed, bike lanes and people riding in them lose. The photo shows where a section of the bike lane has been removed and the remainder of the bike lane has been closed, without notification.

I wanted to renew my driver’s license Monday and I had two choices: downtown or northwest side. I looked at the map to find that the Illinois Secretary of State’s Drivers Services Facility called “Chicago North,” at 5401 N Elston Avenue, was only 4 miles from my house. It’s about 4 miles to downtown, but I believed going north would be easier and faster on my bike.

It was. Aside from an infrastructural design issue on Elston Avenue that makes right-hooks really easy, almost inviting, and a bike-unfriendly construction detour, I got there in great time. Going to downtown would mean more lights, more traffic.

I’m going to write about the detour because it’s representative of a situation that happens all over the city in many road construction projects that have a detour or temporary lane configuration (like lane narrowing or removal).

The detour is for a project whose limits started at Kolmar Avenue at the southeast side and ended at La Crosse Avenue, a distance of 0.25 miles (see map). The project is focused on reconstructing the Elston Avenue bridge over the Edens Expressway (I-94).

Where there’s no bike lane in these limits, there are two main lanes in each direction. The Chicago Bike Map indicates this entire stretch of 0.25 miles as a bike lane, but it is not marked or signed as such when the road has two main lanes in each direction. Where there is a bike lane in these limits, it was blocked and closed by traffic barrels.


The bike lane ends without warning.

Something’s missing

Like most, if not all, construction detours I’ve biked through in Chicago, there was…

  1. No signage or warning to alert people riding bikes that the bike lane ahead was closed.
  2. No signage or warning to indicate that people riding bikes would be merging into the main lane.
  3. No signage or warning to alert people driving that people riding bikes would be sharing the main lane with them.
  4. No signage or warning to indicate the distance people riding bikes would be sharing the main lane.
  5. Removed bike lane and shared lane pavement markings. (Based on history with bike lane removal on Roosevelt and Vincennes, it may be some time after construction before these markings are restored.)


In all, it may seem to automobile drivers that people traveling on bikes are no longer welcome here, do not belong here, or will not be seen riding on the same street as them. The only indication that this is not true that remained was a lonely “SHARED LANE – YIELD TO BIKES” sign.

The State of Illinois, the County of Cook, and the City of Chicago all have Complete Streets policies with similar language:

“The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, freight, and motor vehicle drivers shall be accommodatedand balanced in all types of transportation and development projects and through all phases of a project so that even the most vulnerable—children, elderly, and persons with disabilities—can operate safely within the public right of way.” (City of Chicago)

Note the part, “through all phases of a project” – that means construction, too.

While all street users should move cautiously through construction areas and expect the unexpected, people riding bicycles experience the road differently than those driving a car or riding in a bus. Bicycles react differently to changes in road pavement and material; without a metal cage, people riding bicycles require road designs that positively impact their safety – the Elston Avenue construction area lacks these. Safe and comfortable bicycling means features like segregated space, intact pavement markings, wide lanes, buffered areas, and informative signage. This project does not show a commitment to the Complete Streets policy the city adopted in 2006. Bicycling needs more respect from those who have the power to make it better.

On my way back home, I stopped at the red light at Cicero Avenue and Elston Avenue. I was first in the queue, making me a little nervous. As I normally do in narrow lanes, I rode down the center. I would be riding down the center, with a line of drivers behind me, for 1,000 feet. When the light turned green, and I couldn’t accelerate from 0-30 MPH, I was waiting for a harassing honk or two. To the benefit of my nerves, not a peep was made.


The view from being first in line after leaving the stop bar at a green light. Going southeast on Elston Avenue just a few feet from Cicero Avenue.

Other locations

1. Milwaukee, between Paulina Street and Ashland Avenue. Not a detour, but a road reconstruction project. Part of the street was removed, most likely for underground utility work (occurring at least in February to March 2011). Rough concrete was installed but has not yet been replaced with asphalt. It’s been over two months. People riding bikes have three options: ride on the right side of the rough concrete and very close to car doors that may open in their path; ride on the concrete and have an uncomfortable ride; ride on the left side potentially bugging car drivers and brushing against oncoming traffic. See photos.

2. Lake at Morgan, for the new Morgan Green/Pink Line CTA station. The street has been narrowed to one lane. See photos.

3. Lake at Ogden, for improvements to the intersection to remove ‘L’ track columns and build new columns outside the intersection.

4. Halsted at Division, and Halsted at Chicago, for replacing the bridge on the Chicago River North Branch Canal. “Cars” (no mention of “bikes”) are directed on a detour that is 1 mile long, 0.5 miles longer than the non-detoured route. Another detour option is available, but only “recommended” for trucks and buses, that would add 0.2 miles instead of 0.5 miles. The shorter route does not take cyclists over the slippery and now-extra narrow Chicago Avenue bridge. The bridge sidewalks have stairs at their east ends, causing several crashes for those who don’t see them in time.* Longer distance routes make bicycling a less appealing mode of transportation.

5. Damen, between Webster and Bloomingdale. Not a detour, but a construction project. Same situation as Milwaukee #1 above. Utility work, rough concrete, took months to replace with asphalt. It was replaced with asphalt in May. Milwaukee #1 hasn’t been replaced with asphalt yet. See photos.

For a city whose goal has for a long time to be the most bicycle-friendly city in the United States (which will be hard to measure), we need as many attractive, safe, and comfortable bicycling features and facilities as we can create.

Shared responsibility

The projects I mention are not always conducted by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) or the Department of Water Management (DWM). Peoples Gas and ComEd are two other players that rip up streets for gas and electricity infrastructure modifications. These two companies apply for and receive permits from CDOT. Those permits have expiration dates, which provides the companies a deadline for the work to be finished. But the permit deadlines are not published online so citizens are unaware of when the rough concrete will finally be replaced by new, smooth asphalt. I don’t know if CDOT or DWM has staff who enforce the deadlines or keep track of the construction work. Ward offices have easy access to this information. If you feel a project has taken too long, contact the Alderman for that location and ask about it – find the Alderman.

Other locales

San Francisco

Eric Fischer alerted me to the City of San Francisco’s “Regulations for Working in San Francisco Streets” (the “Blue Book”) which includes rules for city crews and contractors who work on roads with bikeways. Additionally, it mentions that “appropriate measures shall be taken to ensure the safety of bicyclists on ALL streets on which there is construction.”


My friend Mikael in Copenhagen wrote about this very topic in April 2011. But with a different angle: he was pointing out the good things for citizen cyclists in road construction projects.


New York City

The new king of American protected bike lanes, New York City has made “a tiny move in [Copenhagen’s] direction lately.”

Bike lane detour in New York City

Photo of Grand Street bike lane in New York City by Doug Gordon of Brooklyn Spoke.

*Note: If you are older than 11, it is illegal for you to ride a bicycle on a sidewalk in Chicago. Many bicyclists feel this is the safest place to ride, especially on bridges that have open-metal grate decks. Bicyclists can walk their bikes on the sidewalk over these crossings, but a construction detour such as this one could have been designed to invite bicyclists to ride slowly on the sidewalk, and down a ramp covering the stairs. That is just one option available.

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