Business as usual: Wells Street bridge closure detour falls short of “8 to 80” bike planning


A variable message sign on Wells Street at Hubbard directs traffic to LaSalle Street. There was no sign directing bicyclists, which is odd because this route on June 26, 2012, saw 679 riders from 7-9 AM at Chicago Avenue. 

The Wells Street bridge closed on Monday, November 5, to all traffic (the sidewalks were open in the morning) so that the bridge can be rebuilt; a new concrete deck will be constructed providing a safer surface for bicycling. The Chicago Department of Transportation estimates construction will finish by December 1, 2013. To reroute traffic, CDOT posted a map and plan showing different detour routes for different transportation modes: one each for pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, and bus operators.

Information on the street, however, doesn’t match the plan. People on bikes are directed by the map to turn left from Wells Street onto Kinzie Street and then use Clark Street to cross the river. Yet a variable message sign on Wells Street directs Wells Street traffic to use Illinois Street. One Grid Chicago reader told us that changing lanes on his bicycle, during morning rush hour, from the bike lane on Wells Street to make a left onto Kinzie Street was difficult because many drivers were not turning left onto Illinois Street; in the subsequent days he took Clark Street from the north but found traffic to be worse.

Once a bicyclist is on Kinzie Street, a sign before LaSalle street tells them to use Clark Street, but this sign seems more directed to cyclists who came from eastbound Kinzie Street west of Wells Street where a variable message sign says to use LaSalle Street.

The road traits on Clark Street have changed. I thank CDOT for its tactful response to our request to repair the pavement north of the Clark Street bridge. I specifically asked that it be repaved instead of patched, and it was repaired well (see photo below). CDOT has also added 4-feet wide plates on the open metal grate bridge, to better match the conditions on the Wells Street bridge. This essentially creates a narrow bike lane on the bridge, but leaves bicyclists in the lurch at the intersection of Clark Street and Wacker Drive (see photo below).

Last week, CDOT striped the words “BIKE LANE” before sharrows of atypical dimensions but this was quickly removed (the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, MUTCD, requires a longitudinal striping to create a bike lane). In its place are now disproportionately sized bike symbols. They appear to be painted which likely means they’ll wear soon.


Before: Poor quality pavement in an area where hundreds of cyclists are expected to ride from north Wells Street to downtown.


After, showing the new pavement. The odd marked shared lane symbols of an atypical dimension is visible. I am positioned very high on a bike, where my eye level is at about the height of a small SUV: from this point of view the bike symbol is incomprehensible. 

I left a voicemail for CDOT’s spokesperson on Tuesday asking for a comment about the discrepancy between what road users on Wells Street are advised and what their plan states; I’ve yet to hear back. However, we were advised via a user on Twitter that “Construction signs around Wells St bridge are starting to show separate bike detour via Clark vs auto detour via LaSalle/Clark.” Preparations for the detour were not made for an emergency so appropriate accommodations from day one are expected.


The variable message sign at Franklin Street and Kinzie Street was updated Thursday morning to include messaging for bicyclists. CDOT emailed this photo to me, citing an “engineer’s oversight”. 

This detour plan is somewhat “enhanced” over other detours I’ve written about, but its design is lacking the attention to details that creates streets in the “8 to 80” vein the department has been proposing; the many guidelines and plans CDOT has published over the years (several in the past year) call for bike and pedestrian-friendly construction detours. Instead of business as usual, this detour, here for the next 13 months, could better represent Commissioner Gabe Klein’s and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goals and aspirations for Chicago to be the most bicycle friendly city in the United States.


No room or visibility for cyclists at Wacker Drive and Clark Street who take the path marked by plates on the bridge.  This was mentioned by one of the Twitter users below. 

#bikeCHI speaks

Chicagoans who’ve used the detour are talking about it on Twitter with the #bikeCHI hashtag (in order by recency):

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[tweet_embed id=265823123713175553]

[tweet_embed id=265819787291140096]

[tweet_embed id=265491349623681026]

Updated 16:05 to add a photo of the variable message sign at Kinzie/Franklin. 

24 thoughts on “Business as usual: Wells Street bridge closure detour falls short of “8 to 80” bike planning”

  1. Turning left onto Kinzie from Wells there is only one lane, leaving motorists and cyclists fighting for space.

    The main problem with the bridge is that a bike lane wasn’t striped. The metal plates were installed, but since there is no visual indication that it’s for bikes, car drivers are just occupying the whole lane and not leaving much room for bikes.

    The pinch point at Clark/Wacker is also a huge issue – I almost got right-hooked my first time using the detour by someone who wasn’t looking. By the time he passed me, I had already entered the intersection and the light had turned red – the car turning in front of me had blocked my view of the signal.

    If this was a short project of a few weeks or even a month, this would be tolerable. But to have to deal with this for a whole year is unacceptable. I personally feel that cyclists were thrown on the back-burner in this project. Yes, the resurfacing and metal plates are nice, but I feel like the bike detour is incomplete. There is so much more CDOT could have done to make this route safe for cyclists – especially given the popularity of Wells as a bike route into the Loop. The Mayor and CDOT claim to be bike friendly, but after getting half-assed detours like this one, I’m not so sure we are getting their full attention.

    Again, I can only hope that work starts on the Dearborn Street cycle track soon. That’s the detour we should have gotten in the first place, instead of this current debacle.

  2. I am switching to State Street. Unmarked though it is, it is wider and has less traffic. Yesterday on Clark just before 8:00 a.m. cars–particularly cabs–were driving on the bike plates. There is no clear marking to tell drivers that it is a shared lane. The right lane is a typical width and there is no place for a car to move over to pass. My experience was before the worst of the morning rush. I doubt it got any better as the traffic increased.

    1. I will also be taking State Street tomorrow. I’m planning on taking the Lake Front Trail to North Ave (technically it’s Blvd in that area), then taking State all the way into the Loop. State looks favorable through River North and the Loop because it is one of the few two-way, two lane streets in that area. Compare this to the one-way streets with three lanes where motorists speed down at ridiculous speeds. Having cars coming at you from the other direction seems to slow traffic down quite a bit.

      1. State Street perplexes me. Between Kinzie and Wacker it has at least 3 lanes in each direction. I liked the Kinzie to the Chicago River section a few weeks ago when it was just repaved and had absolutely no pavement striping. It was like a free for all, yet no one was treating that badly (i.e. no increase in bad driving or riding). It also showed how much space goes unused. Maybe a great place for a NYC-style road diet with planters, patio chairs and patio umbrellas, and food trucks.

        Like in this photo:

        1. It still has absolutely no pavement striping on the new pavement, and the section from Kinzie to Randolph was all that I rode. Adam might be correct that the two way traffic has an impact. I believe that the lower traffic count also has an impact. Finally–and this is not the least bit scientific–I think the traffic on State is more “local” whereas the drivers on Clark and LaSalle are in large part folks coming from the expressway from the suburbs.

          1. I think the fact that State is sandwiched between two six lane, two-way streets (Michigan and La Salle) has an impact on traffic volume as well.

        2. Probably bridge made wider than needed (much like some of the new bridges you’ve discussed previously). Kinzie to Wacker would be the approaches in both directions

  3. I think a small improvement they could make would be posting those “Bikes make use full lane” signs at car-level on Clark St (currently these are on southbound Wells just south of Wacker). I’ve followed the detour route 3 times this week, and while I usually don’t get the 3 foot buffer that cars are supposed to allow, going SB on Clark I’ve had cars pass way too close for comfort.

  4. This detour situation is untenable and I’m very much hoping there are people working to address it. It would have been much, much better to have the Dearborn protected bike lane in place before the Wells bridge was closed. However, Mayor Emanuel stated in his August press conference that the Dearborn PBL will be in place by the end of 2012, and he’s all about accountability, so I look forward to seeing that happen over the next month, and then the detour issue will be moot.

    I’m in the 5% “Enthused and Confident” bicycle riders who are used to riding alongside and even within motor vehicle traffic. (To be clear: I don’t enjoy it, but I’m used to it.) To get into the Loop this week, I first took Clark, then tried State another day, and today I gave LaSalle a whirl. (WHY did I think that LaSalle might be a good idea??) All of them are unacceptable, and in comparison to the Wells St route to and through the Loop, they’re a big ratchet upwards in stress and danger levels, due to multiple factors that include but are not limited to: lack of lanes/signs/stripes for bicyclists, increased number of moving lanes for motor vehicles, long lines of turning cars turning onto Wacker that force me to move over yet another lane, and reduced number of fellow bicyclists on the street (since they’ve been dispersed on multiple streets and I saw at least one taking the sidewalk). It’s chaotic. When I’m in a car and it’s chaotic, it’s just an inconvenience. When I’m on a bike and it’s chaotic, it’s a threat to my health and safety.

    A commenter on Chainlink made the great understatement that we’re not going to be attracting new riders with this detour. Forget 8 to 80 standards and new riders: When we’re actually discouraging our 5% of Enthused and Confident bicyclists, it doesn’t bode well.

    1. La Salle is terrible. i avoid it at all costs. In fact, most of the streets in River North are are awful for biking because they are three lanes (or six for the two-way streets). I don’t know why we need sich wide streets cutting though one of the densest parts of the city.

      I briefly considered taking Kinzie to Canal to Lake to get into the Loop, but decided that I will take the LFT to State via North and see how that goes. I took that way home this evening and it was about a pleasurable as biking through River North could be. Maybe you could try Kinzie-Canal-Lake if you don’t want to take State?

      1. Thanks, Adam. I think State is the best of the three, from RIver North into the heart of the Loop, mostly due to lighter MV traffic.
        I’ve been taking Wells like normal until the detour point. Earlier in the week, I took Illinois each time to head east. Today I took Kinzie because the big sign on Wells was telling me that bicyclists should go that way, only to discover Kinzie doesn’t have a bike lane. Why would bicyclists be detoured onto eastbound Kinzie, which has no bike lane, instead of onto Illinois, which has a nice wide bike lane? I’m sure there is some sort of reasoning to it, but whatever the reasoning is, I’ll be taking Illinois.

        1. Since I come in on Kinzie from Green, I just stay on it. The cars seem to be used to bikes and so far no problem. I took State again. Traffic light again and not hard to maneuver. That is my story and I am sticking with it!

        2. I live in Lake View, and today I took the Lake Front Trail to State to get into the Loop. It was very pleasurable – traffic moved fairly slowly on State and the lanes are much more narrow. I honestly found State to be much better than Wells through River North. Since there is no bike lane, I can just occupy the entire right lane instead of constantly swerving around cabs that park in the bike lane. My only gripe is where State widens an extra two lanes just north of the river. Not sure what that is all about, but it seems to create unnecessary chaos – especially considering there is no striping whatsoever.

  5. 8-80 planning is totally absent from Chicago. Lip service aside the only protected infrastructure an 8 year old can ride here is the Lakefront trail and that fails the test in many ways with the style of rider who dominates the path especially in the warm months.

    We all want to be on two wheels when we are 80. When will we make these changes happen? We know what the standard is for good infrastructure. I think it’s way past time to stop talking about talking about it.

    No 8 year old belongs on the streets in the Loop. I should know. My eight year old is one of the ten kids in the city that does ride there. I think it’s time for Grid to stop framing these discussions in these terms. Paint is never 8-80. After Neil’s death on insufficient infrastructure I have lost patience with the defacto ” green” lanes that are dangerous dooring hazards for young riders invisible to those sitting in cars and not respected by drivers who push children into the door zone. Isn’t enough enough yet? The only thing worse than building these bad lanes is talking riders– old or young — onto them.

    1. You highlight a core problem with the 8-80 slogan; children don’t belong in the streets. Eight year old cyclists do not belong in traffic. Cyclists must follow the rules of the road to coexist safely with motor vehicles and no 8 year old has the cognitive ability to perceive and act within these parameters. It’s an admirable goal to expand access for young and old but 8-80 is shorthand for a policy that cannot and should never be a reality.

        1. Only adolescents have the consistent ability to make good decisions in situations that unfold in real time with multiple variables: variables such as speed and distance. I believe that safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians can be real. This is an admirable goal. However, the cognitive development of an eight year old is not the same as an adolescent and this fact should take precedence over the marketing symmetry of the 8-80 slogan.

          This article below in the British Journal of Medicine explains the varying behavior of children as pedestrians using their developmental stage with a long list of works cited. Child cyclists are dealing with even more complex decision making.

          1. The road designs in other countries are such that they remove the complexity of decision making.

            I don’t think “8 to 80” explicitly means that 8-year-olds will be riding alone. But parents now don’t take their children on the streets except in seats or trailers – more likely not at all. With “8 to 80” infrastructure, children can bike on their own bike with a supervisor.

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