Good news in the update about the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection design


A close zoom on the newly created west intersections from the plan drawing. Renderings are courtesy of CDOT. 

Update April 10, 2013: Construction will begin in fall 2014 after the acquisition of several parcels, covered in an ordinance introduced to city council on April 10, 2013

Update January 25, 2012: Based on some comments, and on some emails from readers, neither the original and revised designs are very good. One reader said that the project designers are applying a set of standards to a problem instead of applying a solution. Part of the problem at this intersection is the traffic coming from a highway where the ramps are spaced too closely together, but is not within the project limits. I will be looking into these and other questions, like, How much will this project cost (including property acquisition)? and Who will pay for it?

The much despised Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection is being redesigned by the Chicago Department of Transportation. They hosted an open house in April 2011 at the Bucktown Wicker Park library which I wrote about extensively on Steven Can Plan. I and others who attended were not satisfied with how the new design affected people who will bike through here. I published my comments in my article, left a brief comment with the stenographer at the open house, and emailed the project manager my extended comments. I asked Steven Can Plan readers to do the same. A few of them did!

CDOT received 41 comments, and is responding to all of them; 20 included comments about bike lanes and 3 people requested protected bike lanes.

What’s changing?

I sat down with Bridget Stalla, the project manager, to get more information on the project. CDOT is submitting a revised Phase 1 project development report (PDR) in February 2012. The revision includes many cycling-specific changes. The designers have added in several new features I’m excited about:

  • Curb-protected bike lanes on the curve of “New Elston Avenue”, the new street that is being created to connect the diagonal parts of existing Elston through the Vienna Beef truck trailer lot. From where the Elstons split (southeast of the intersections) to Fullerton, and from Damen west to the western project limit, there will be a buffered bike lane instead of a protected bike lane.
  • There are “two-stage left-turn queue boxes” for bicyclists to turn left from New Elston onto the intersecting street (Damen and Fullerton respectively). I think that Damen should have these to turn left into New Elston (in either direction). A right-turn version of this was installed on Jackson Boulevard at Wood Street (see end of video).
  • Bike boxes on New Elston at both intersections and Damen (see drawing). Bike boxes are also seen on the Kinzie Street bike lane.
  • The bike lane on Damen north of Fullerton and New Elston will be extended to pass through New Elston (which it doesn’t even meet currently, ending several hundred feet north of Existing Elston) to meet the Fullerton intersection. However, the bike lane on Damen south of Fullerton will still end about where it does at the highway exit ramp between the highway and railroad viaducts.
  • The northbound lane (against the curb) on Damen south of Fullerton will be widened slightly and will remain a “marked shared lane”.
  • The southbound lane (against the curb) on Damen south of Fullerton will not widen, but the beginning of the parking lane will be pushed further south. It will remain a marked shared lane.
  • The sidewalks in all directions on all roads will be made brand new. Some of them will even be widened.

All of these were placed with the Bicycle Program’s recommendation and none were in the original plans. I wish I could say that designing safe cycling facilities into construction projects was standard practice, as the Complete Streets policy mandates, but I don’t think that’s the case. And it may take until the end of Gabe Klein’s commissionership for that to happen. Or turning Complete Streets from a policy to an ordinance with teeth and an evaluation process, as Cook County did.

Since Elston Avenue is in IDOT’s jurisdiction, CDOT will need their approval to build these “new” bike facilities. Currently, IDOT is delaying the design for the Jackson Boulevard bike lane between Ogden and Halsted, a segment also known as Route 66. I expect to have more information about this issue in the coming days.


A wide look at the intersections. See the full overview. See complete set of drawings and photos about this project. 

My comments were

1. Bike lane on Damen – There should be a bike lane on Damen connecting the two ends north and south of Fullerton. Additionally, the bike lane should go THROUGH both intersections. See an example of a “through bike lane” in this photo: Too often bicyclists in Chicago are “dropped off” at intersections, left to fend for themselves and get caught in the same problems as automobiles. But automobiles and bicycles are different kinds of vehicles and need different treatments and direction.

2. Roundabout – Was a roundabout considered for any of the three intersections? What were the results of this analysis? A modern, turbo roundabout should be given serious consideration for at least one of the three intersections. Curve and wide road on New Elston Avenue – On “New Elston Avenue,” between Fullerton and Damen, there are two regular lanes and one bike lane in each direction. The widening of Elston was not justified. The high radius curve on New Elston Avenue on the east side of the project, and two regular lanes in each direction, will likely cause higher-speed traffic than bicyclists are used to on many roadson which they travel in great numbers. Automobile drivers speeding around the curve may enter the bike lanes. This is a good case for protected bike lanes at least on this part of the roadway.

3. Removing the center island – Was removing the center island an alternative the project team considered?

4. Queue backups caused by Fullerton-highway ramp intersection – The project area should be expanded to include the intersection to the west of the project area, at Fullerton/Kennedy ramp . Westbound drivers constantly and consistently block the Fullerton intersections with Damen and Elston while waiting to go through the signal at the highway ramp.

CDOT’s response

We received a number of requests to consider enhanced bike lane accommodations on Damen Avenue.  Our team continues to evaluate measures to improve the safety of bike travel through the Damen corridor, including the feasibility of on-street bike lanes on Damen Avenue.

A roundabout was evaluated early on in the study, but was eliminated from further consideration for a number of reasons.  Roundabouts are designed to accommodate vehicles entering, changing lanes and exiting safely.  At this location, the roundabout would have six legs, requiring a very large radius, which would have greater impact on more commercial and residential properties than the proposed design.  Similarly, providing a roundabout at any of the three intersections would impact significantly more right of way.  Turbo roundabouts require users to carefully select their lane based on their intended destination prior to entering the roundabout.  Turbo roundabouts also work best at the intersection of a major and minor route.  Based on the existing conditions and driver expectations, this design would not be an appropriate fit for this location.

The widening of Elston in the proposed design was necessary in order to provide capacity at the intersections.  The proposed radius of rerouted Elston Avenue is the minimum allowable by state standards for a 30 mph posted speed limit.  The team is currently investigating the separation of the bike lane from the driving lane on re-routed Elston to provide buffering for bicyclists along the curve.

In response to removing the center island as an alternative, the team found that although this three way intersection appears similar to the other three way intersections in the city, the three streets do not align sufficiently to create a true six legged intersection.  Therefore, three separate signals are required to serve the individual legs safely.  Removing the island would eliminate the ability to site the signals for each of the three separately functioning operations.

The signals along Fullerton will be retimed to accommodate the new intersection timings.  The existing Fullerton signals are all on an 85 second cycle length, so the new intersections will allow the city to achieve progression on the Fullerton corridor.

31 thoughts on “Good news in the update about the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection design”

  1. A couple of the left turn lanes make no sense to me.  NWB Elston to SB Damen and WB Fullerton to NWB Elston.

    In Chicago, at a “right triangle” type intersection, if you’re on the outside leg and want to make a left turn involving the “angle” street, you make a left at the first road, then a left at the second one.  eg, Belmont/California/Elston, which also doesn’t quite line up as a 6-way.  WB Belmont to SEB Elston, you turn onto SB California, then to Elston, not directly from Belmont to Elston.  Same thing with SEB Elston to NB California, you turn left to EB Belmont first.

    Given the extra distance involved, nobody who wants to go from EB Fullerton to NWB Elston (eg exited Kennedy, going to Home Depot or Tiger Direct) is going to go all the way to the more eastern Elston intersection, they’ll just turn onto NB Damen.

    1. I thought about that, too, but I think this:

      1. For drivers, the amount of queue they perceive at either intersection will play a large part in their decision making of whether or not they turn onto New Elston from Fullerton, or Damen from Fullerton, in order to get to the strip malls (the same decision making will play into people traveling westbound on Fullerton). 
      2. For cyclists going SEB on Elston and are continuing through this area to SEB Elston south of Fullerton, they could turn south into SB Damen, then left into EB Fullerton and SEB onto Old Elston which connects to Elston. This would decrease the distance, but may increase “travel stress” because of all the additional turning movements.

      In any case, I don’t think any of these are issues in the design, nor will become issues when people start using the new design.

      An even bigger advantage of this design is the safety benefits, not the capacity benefits.

  2. What are they going to put in the island?

    Could be a neat place for a public square, but more likely a shopping center, right?

    1. I asked Bridget and the CDOT PR person, they replied:

      “The city acquisition of property for this project is only the area needed for the roadway improvements. There are no plans to acquire that “island” property.  If the owners want to develop that land, they would have to follow the current zoning or seek a change through the City Council.”

      1. I ride down Elston.  If you get caught at a yellow light here, the wait is long.  Also, you also tend to get crowded out by motorists.  Based on the visual, I believe some of the congestion will be relieved?

        1. Yes, according to their traffic models, congestion will be relieved. I believe they said that delays now are sometimes over 2 minutes and with the new design they’re reduced to under 80 seconds (for the majority of people driving). 

          The new design also (finally) brings the bike lanes to meet the intersections so that people driving and cycling don’t have to jockey for the same space. 

  3. Design is still very dangerous in places. The bike boxes should extend across both the lanes. The problem is that when cyclists try to access the bike box to make a two point left turn by riding into the bike box, large vehicles in the centre lane block the view of the cyclist making the turn and vehicles in the right lane that might be cheating into the bike box, which unfortunately happens too often. Moving the centre lane stop line back to the stop line of the right lane won’t even have any negative impact on motorists but will likely improve safety for cyclists.

    They make this same mistake on an intersection in Vancouver a few years ago. They haven’t fixed it yet.

    1. I see a two-point left turn as being this:
      1. Enter the bike box and wait until light turns green. 
      2. When light turns green, proceed through the intersection to the left-turn queue box on the far side of the intersection.
      3. Reposition yourself to point you and your bike towards the street that was on your left (the transverse/cross street). Wait for green light. 
      4. When light turns green, proceed through the intersection, and you are now in the transverse direction. 

      1. Reading Richard’s comment, it sounds to me as if he is describing making a two-point left turn onto a street that does not have a left-turn queue box, but does have a bike box. Say, EB Fullerton to NB Damen in this proposal, using the bike box on Damen as the mid-point of the turn. Depending on the presence of pedestrians, I would probably avoid riding through the crosswalk.

        I would really like to see bike boxes and left-turn queue boxes at all of the intersections in all of the directions. Heck, I’d like to see bike lanes on every street, too. 

        1. I would also like to see bike lanes on all streets – Fullerton is the one missing here. Here’s what I believe might be thinking behind excluding them, based on my short time (3 years) at CDOT:

          Fullerton lacks a bike lane within the project limits, currently, and at both sides of the limits. If a bike lane was added to Fullerton in this project’s limits, it would not connect to anything. The nearest bike lane on Fullerton starts at Greenview, 0.5 miles away. 

          CDOT pursues a strategy of linking bike lanes to existing bike lanes, or putting in orphans “where appropriate” (my words). 

          Extending the Fullerton bike lane from Greenview to Damen and New Elston seems like a good project and is something I hadn’t thought of before. If I ask the project manager about this, I believe 100% I will be told, “That’s outside the project limits and scope”. Fine. But this project can be coordinated with a separate project to restripe Fullerton from Greenview to the edge of this intersection project and include a bike lane. The limitations are 1) parking, 2) street width. 

          At 60 feet wide going over the river, Fullerton has plenty of width for protected bike lanes. 

      2. You wait in the left-turn queue box on the far side of the intersection? Where there is oncoming traffic trying to turn left?! Don’t you mean the front of the right-most through lane (preferably in a bike box if there is one) for traffic approaching from your right…not quite all the way across the intersection?

  4. What about when the light changes before you enter the bike box? What should your attitude be while the right-hooking truck is crushing your lungs and mashing your intestines into your spine?

    What about when you’re moving towards the left turn pad just as the light turns yellow? How should you react when you’re stuck in the middle of the road with two lines of cars screaming by on each side of you and you get hit by a door mirror and knocked into the path of a semi? Should you be glad that the massive head injuries you’re about to receive will render you unconscious quicker and make you more certain to die before you can feel pain than if you had been right hooked?

    Bike lanes and bike boxes give the illusion of safety. They are not safe. They increase the potential for collisions. Ride in the traffic lane, where you are more visible and where 100 years of road engineering keeps you safe from conflicts that arise from riding too far right.

  5. I’m not a bicyclist, but thought I’d share a way around some of the traffic in the current setup. When heading north on Damen during peak hours, I turn right on Webster, left on Lister (where the car wash is, before Elston), right on Honore, left on Elston.

    It can easily save 10 minutes for a car when traffic is bad.This would probably be a preferable route for bicyclists, as well, because it’s such a crush on Damen south of Fullerton.

    The redesign looks promising. I hope you guys get what you’re looking for as far as bicycle safety.

    1. You’re right about Damen being a crush south of Fullerton. Since someone on a bicycle can easily maneuver around stopped cars, it’s usually not an issue, but neither is it very safe or low stress. 

      From the original design presented at the open house which had no consideration of cycling, to the current design in this article, I am very satisfied at the cycling facilities included in the project. 

      I am still disappointed that they were not included in the original design because the city adopted what’s called a “complete streets” policy that says, in no uncertain terms, that project designers must consider the needs of everyone who’s not in a car (children, older people, buses, people walking or cycling). 

      I created a map of your alternative route

    2. Justin makes a key observation here: there is essentially NO traffic on Elston south of Fullerton–ever. It makes me sick to my stomach that they propose to expand it to four lanes throughout and to make a massive Right-of-Way (ROW) acquisition that will remove Whirly Ball! This looks to become a standard arterial tangle straight out of  Suburban Hell.

      1. Just like the auto-oriented big box stores down the street: all separated from the street-front by a sea of parking. Probably once they approve more such developments in the areas they clear for this project, Elston will also be a nightmare traffic snarl.

  6. Just like the auto-oriented big box stores down the street: all separated from the street-front by a sea of parking. Probably once they approve more such developments in the areas they clear for this project, Elston will also be a nightmare traffic snarl.

  7. Can anyone comment on why a roundabout isn’t suitable here (aside from the fact that this is ‘merika and we don’t do them things)

    1. The project manager responded to my letter on the roundabout idea:

      “At this location, the roundabout would have six legs, requiring a very large radius, which would have greater impact on more commercial and residential properties than the proposed design.  Similarly, providing a roundabout at any of the three intersections would impact significantly more right of way.  Turbo roundabouts require users to carefully select their lane based on their intended destination prior to entering the roundabout.  Turbo roundabouts also work best at the intersection of a major and minor route.  Based on the existing conditions and driver expectations, this design would not be an appropriate fit for this location.”

  8. I wasted a birthday wish on this project.  I was hoping that the city would at least try the cheap way first.  If we could just eliminate any left turns that involve creeping into the intersection such as SB Elston to EB Fullerton and NB Damen to NB Elston.  Restripe it.  Repave it. Try it first.  If it doesn’t work, then move onto crazy plan B.

     Oh, maybe make the little slice of action at the NW corner of FullDam into a snazzy right turn launcher from SB Elston to WB Fullerton. 

     Also, Move the Popye’s, please.  

    Just keep it simple, take away some of the choices that are creating the delays and problems.  

    The reality of this project:  Three years of construction.  Millions of dollars spent.  It will take many many years to get back the time lost to this construction zone.  

    I can not imagine making two lights simultaneously in any direction under the new plan regardless if by bike, car, or shoe.  How could they possible improve the timing to make mucking through this quagmire any faster?  Eliminating multiple pieces of commercial property that pays taxes and leaving a huge open wasteland in the middle of the waqcktastrophe is not a good idea either.  

    @fa087a167b91b5c17238bc72e410183c:disqus:  How dare you publish a secret shortcut?  Steven:  Even worse, you mapped it.  

    1. There is a cost of doing this project: delays in traffic, pollution from the construction and idling automobiles. 

      But there is a cost of not doing this project: crashes and injuries, delays in traffic, pollution from the idling automobiles. 

      Which cost is greater?

  9. Wouldn’t it just be easier/cheaper to close Elston to through traffic and make the intersection just a four-way?

      1. Elston, Webster, Damen, Diversey, (Logan), Elston. Perhaps allow bikes on Elston and have a bike-only, all-red phase?

        Car drivers shouldn’t be going long distances on Elston – they have the Kennedy.

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