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.


The thirty-mile landmark means that Chicago is well on its way towards the city’s stated goal of building 110 miles of protected bike lanes and forty miles of buffered lanes by the end of Emanuel’s first term in 2015. The Streets for Cycling Plan details the Chicago’s strategy to create a 645-mile network of on-street bike routes by the end of this decade, with the goal of providing a bikeway within a half-mile of every resident.

“When Mayor Emanuel took office there were no protected bike lanes in Chicago,” said transportation commissioner Gabe Klein at the ribbon cutting. “Now we’re setting a new standard for cycling facilities for other cities to follow and are now a national leader in that effort.”


Klein provided numbers explaining why Dearborn was an ideal street to get the protected lanes, as well as a “road diet” lane reduction. “Frankly Dearborn had too much capacity for a relatively low amount of vehicle traffic,” he said. “With all of those travel lanes there was capacity for about 40,000 vehicles each day, but in reality there were only about 13,000. Too much space and not enough cars caused it to feel more like a highway rather than an urban street, which led to speeding and [crashes].”

“Between 2006 and 2010 there were more than 1,000 crashes on this stretch of Dearborn,” Klein added. “Pedestrians and bicyclists were involved in nearly two-thirds of the crashes that involved serious injuries, even though they were participants in only fourteen percent of all crashes. By reducing the number of travel lanes we’ll slow down vehicles to the speed limit.”


Rahm Emanuel; Gabe Klein is behind him in dark suit.

When the mayor took the mic he touted the economic benefits of protected bike lanes, which he argues will attract technology companies to the city. “Two facts in the last year,” he said. “Coincidence? I think not. One, the city of Chicago moved from tenth to fifth of most bike-friendly cities in the country [according to Bicycling magazine] in one year… In the same year the city of Chicago moved from fifteenth to tenth worldwide in startup economy… You cannot be for a startup, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”

“Now I think it’s self-evident that I am a competitive, let alone an impatient person,” Emanuel quipped. “So when my staff gave me this headline from Portland, it did bring a smile. The editorial from a magazine in Portland [the blog BikePortland.org] read, ‘Talk in Portland, Action in Chicago,’ as it reflected on Dearborn Street. The Seattle Bike Blog wrote, ‘Seattle can’t wait longer. We’re suddenly in a place where we’re envious of Chicago bike lanes.’ So I want them to be envious because I expect not only to take all of their bikers but I also want all the jobs that come with this.”


“I want you to know, over the next two-and-a-half years we will complete the mission we set,” the mayor concluded. “Gabe knows that because every week I go to Gabe, ‘What’s our next project?’ And we’re already mapping out next year’s miles… Because it’s part of making this a city that’s on the move, willing to shape its future rather than be shaped by it. And having these protected bike lanes improves the quality of life in our city.”

Afterwards Olympic racers John and Christian Vande Velde led the dozens of cyclists on the maiden voyage north. Just like the first time I rode the Kinzie Street bicycle lanes, Chicago’s first protected bikeway, cycling on the new Dearborn Street was a liberating feeling. And when I reached the end of the route and turned around, it was exciting to now be able to safely pedal south on a northbound street.


The bike lanes, four-foot-wide northbound and five-foot southbound, look narrow, but actually they’re surprisingly comfortable. Bicycle Ambassadors in orange safety vest and yellow caps were stationed at every intersection all afternoon handing out flyers to pedestrians explaining how the lanes work and reminding them to watch for southbound bike traffic. There’s bound to be a learning curve as peds, cyclists and motorists get used to the new facility, but if all users follow their respective signals I predict we’re going to see a lot fewer crashes than when Dearborn was a three-lane speedway.

A nice surprise about the new lanes is how they encourage you to be friendly to other bicyclists. As you cross paths with a cyclist going the other direction, it feels totally natural to say hello, or at least smile. Not everyone is going to be a fan of the Dearborn protected lanes, but most people will get used to them soon enough, and lots of people are going to eventually love them, if not as cycling facilities then for their civilizing effect on the street. They’re a key milestone on Chicago’s journey to becoming a world-class bike town.

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

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

56 thoughts on “A great day in Chicago: protected lanes open in the heart of the Loop”

  1. “The thirty-mile landmark means that Chicago is well on its way towards the city’s stated goal of building 110 miles of protected bike lanes and forty miles of buffered lanes by the end of Emanuel’s first term in 2015.”

    Apparently that’s no longer the case. The Streets for Cycling Plan states that Chicago will build 100 miles of protected lanes, but CDOT now considers buffered lanes to be protected. I guess they realized it’s not possible to install 100 miles of protected lanes in four years, so they just changed the definition to one that’s inconsistent with NACTO and virtually every other city.

      1. As much as I commend the City for boldly pushing forward with these lanes, I REALLY wish they wouldn’t call buffered lanes “protected”. It cheapens the meaning of the concept of protected lanes. Luckily, most people aren’t idiots and can see right through this wordbending.

        1. Agreed. Thermoplastic and flexposts are not protection. Leading is not just about achieving your goals, it’s about defining the goals we should all be striving for. It’s too early and they’ve been too successful to start aiming lower now.

    1. I’m going to double check with CDOT about this, since they were using the 110/40 figure a few months ago. But, hey, if they changed their terminology to make it easier to reach the 100-mile goal by 2015, I’m not going to be too upset. Getting *only* getting 65 miles of “barrier protected” lanes and 35 miles of “buffer protected” lanes in four year would still be pretty awesome.

  2. I posted on chainlink too, but I wish the ambitious goals for protected lanes were matched by ambitious goals for sweeping the lanes. I think the city is making a weak effort at keeping the Elston bike lanes swept. I’ve switched mostly to Milwaukee ave. to avoid the penned in glass on Elston.

  3. “four-foot-wide northbound and five-foot southbound” Fantastic that they took the gutter into account and arent counting it as part of the lane (ie, 4 feet each way).

  4. Awesome stuff. Hopefully, future plans will include pedestrian refuges, as is done in NYC. These shorten crossing distances for pedestrians and provide space for greenery. They also make the lanes much more permanent.

    1. That’s a great idea. I’m really looking forward to lanes that use permanent concrete infrastructure to protect the lanes, rather than the flexible posts. I hear that CDOT is considering using permanent barriers in the future, perhaps concrete bollards instead of the posts.

  5. I think the key words here are that “even novice cyclists will feel comfortable on” them. If we want to build bicycling mode share, then facilities like this will go a long way towards helping the public make the switch over to bicyling. This is a great facility and one that we can all feel proud to have. But let’s not stop here. A lot more work to be done throughout the neighborhoods.

  6. Dear Rahm,

    I live in Seattle. I am a techie guy (Apple, Mozilla, Microsoft, etc) who gets 3X/week recruiting phone calls/e-mails about other jobs. I turn them all down.

    If you successfully implement a comprehensive cycletrack network that gives me the freedom of mobility of Amsterdam without needing to move to Europe, I will give my employer notice and relocate for a tech job in Chicago despite your crappy weather and higher taxes. No question. I am sure your weather is no worse than Copenhagen, and your taxes are lower than The Netherlands.

    With love,


    1. Am I the only one who’s a little uncomfortable with this bike lanes-tech jobs connection Rahm’s been hawking? It’s kind of a non-sequitur. Sure, techies like to ride bikes. So do architects, artists, lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. That’s not even getting into the social aspects – the bike lanes are a facility for everyone, regardless of income level or career choice.

      I’m glad that Gabe Klein hasn’t adopted Rahm’s attitude – protected lanes have gone in in several places on the South and West Sides outside of wealthy, global-city Chicago. I’m just concerned that this rhetoric may discourage low-income and minority Chicagoans from using this great system we’re building.

      1. I’m also glad that the city’s doing a good job distributing the protected lanes equitably. In fact, it’s easier to fit in protected lanes on the South and West sides because there’s less density and wider roads than in the more gentrified parts of town.

        I think the reason Rahm’s been pushing the tech jobs argument (it’s safe to assume the same argument can be applied to other so-called “creative class” professions) is that he wants to promote the idea that the lanes will help all Chicagoans, even those who will never bike. More tech business means more tax revenue for the city and more demand for the goods and services these “creatives” need and want, which creates jobs for Chicagoans from all walks of life.

      2. In New York, I and others often advise advocates from framing the bike lane debate in terms of young people or tech professionals or anyone who could be perceived as an outsider or newcomer. The fact of the matter is that bike lane opponents don’t *want* their city to turn into some transplant’s dream.

        Old timers don’t make the connection between tech jobs, bike lanes, and a vibrant economy perhaps because this new economy often makes the city unaffordable for “real” New Yorkers, displacing mom and pop shops and other neighborhood institutions with chain stores or hipster coffee joints in the process. Many native Brooklynites want to preserve a past that never really existed when the city was affordable, parking abundant, and traffic-free flowing. They see these kids with their bikes riding to jobs they don’t understand — How can anyone not have to wear a suit to work? — as forcing change down their throats. Bike lanes are the most visible manifestation of a changing city that no longer includes them.

        However, I’m okay with a mayor making a business case for bike lanes and felt that Emanuel spoke forcibly on the issue. I’d just caution advocates from using the same line of reasoning in a community workshop or meeting with local civic groups or BIDs. Let the mayor be your economic cheerleader. Everyone else should focus on safety.

    2. I was in Copenhagen in the winter. They have way shorter sunlight hours, but their winter isn’t as “severe” as ours: higher low temps, slower wind. Probably the same amount of snow.

      If we get some snow this winter, though, then we’ll get to see the full extent of CDOT’s bike lane-snow clearing job.

  7. In your opening paragraph you call Dearborn a greenway, but I thought a “greenway”, in Chicago, refers to what nationally is known as a “bike boulevard,” which is a completely different animal from the amazing protected bike lane on Dearborn.

    Also, I thought the mayor’s transition plan called for 100 miles of protected lanes, not 150 miles.

    Thanks for the nice writeup.

    1. Thanks for reading. There are many different definitions of the term “greenway.” I’m using it very broadly to mean a separate route set aside for bikes. I suppose I could change it to “green lane” which is gaining popularity as a blanket term for innovative bike lanes like protected and buffered lanes.

      The transition plan called for 100 miles of protected lanes but at public meetings for the bike plan earlier this year CDOT said they were increasing that to 110 miles of protected lanes and 40 miles of buffered lanes. However t looks like they’ve redefined their goals recently. We’ll provide an update on this issue next week.

      1. I think “greenway” is more often used to refer to projects that also have a landscape component, like plantings or bioswales.

        “Cycle track” is another blanket term for innovative bike lanes.

  8. “city’s stated goal of building 110 miles of protected bike lanes and forty miles of buffered lanes”

    Source? I’ve always heard 100 miles of PBLs and no set goal for BBLs.

  9. Rode to work this morning! A pretty cool feeling to be riding south on Dearborn in a protected lane. Assuming the metal plates get put in on the bridge, I think my biggest concern is the puddles. There were a few places where the southbound lane was completely blocked by a pretty deep-looking puddle. Not a problem as there wasn’t much bike traffic at 7:30 but it could be unpleasant with bikes coming at you northbound and no other option but to splash through the puddle and get your shoes wet. Not sure how avoidable this is, though. Would be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

    1. The bridge plates are under construction, which CDOT reported at Wednesday’s MBAC meeting.

      I noticed the puddle issue on my first ride down the southbound lane, towards the press conference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *