Missed connections, missed opportunities: cycling in the suburbs

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Ed. note: This post about the difficulties of cycling in the suburbs, and some tongue-in-cheek solutions, is written by contributor Robert Guico, the founder of Carol Stream Bikes, a budding advocacy group. -Steven

An effective bicycle network does a good job of taking bicyclists from one place to another. Out in the suburbs, though, you may find that you’ll have to master a few extra techniques to safely get from your origin to your destination.

The Cyclocross Method 

A map of Diehl Road over the DuPage River, west of the Cantera shopping and business center. 

Diehl Road (open the map) near the Cantera shopping and business center off of I-88 is an acceptably bike-friendly east-west corridor north of Naperville. In the sense that no one ever uses the sidewalks out here, so as a cyclist, they’re yours to own. In fact, by the time you get to Warrenville, there’s even a sidepath along the south side of the road. Very nice, and pretty safe, as far as cycling facilities go.

Then, assuming you ignore the sign “Path Ends” and off-road it onto the obnoxiously narrow, 3-feet wide bridge…

An obnoxiously narrow bridge on Diehl Road, looking east. Note the pointy metal supports designed to take you out at pedal-level.

…you’ll find yourself looking down at the West Branch DuPage River Trail. As a bicycle advocate, I’m irrationally thrilled to discover a new separated grade crossing. As a bicyclist with a relatively heavy setup (a rear rack holding my pannier, laptop, and laptop bag – about 20 pounds), I would apprecate a ramp.

In this case, simply hoist your 40 pound bike onto your shoulder, then side-step it down a 25-30 degree grassy, muddy slope until you have reached your destination. You’ll be Chicago Cross Cup material in no time.

Other places to practice this: Grade separations are rare, rare things, and recently built separations are far more likely to provide access between grades. But how else are you going to get from the subdivision in the bottom left to the Illinois Prairie Path in this neighborhood near West Chicago?

Fence hopping

In the three years since I’ve really started to get around on a bicycle, I’ve started to show a strong preference for very low volume through streets. Sonny Acres Farm at North Avenue and Klein Road in West Chicago specifically allows pedestrians and bicycles to use their frontage road, to provide easy (well, easier) access to the Prairie Path. The Theosophical Society of America in Wheaton… not so much – see map drawing below.

A map showing the Theosophical Society of America in Wheaton, Illinois. Open this view in Google Maps

To the north is an entrance into a Dominick’s (296 E Geneva Road), but also a through route to a low-volume commercial street and shortcut to the Great Western Trail. To the south is the north entrance to Northside Park (open map), located on West Street, which takes you straight to downtown Wheaton. The red line is actually a narrow driveway. At the south end, where the driveway meets the cross street, there is now a fence with a bulletproof lock.

Obviously, I’m not encouraging fence hopping onto private property. The fence was probably put up to minimize cut-through automobile traffic. But the only alternatives for bicyclists involve crossing four lanes without the benefit of a traffic light, or sharing the road with the lovely patrons from Jewel-Osco (2031 N Main Street), which I have found to be a detrimental experience.

By asking nicely, it might be possible for this driveway to be converted into a pedestrian and bicycle-only thruway.

Roll around the railroads

Showing the disconnected off-street trails along Struckman Boulevard in Bartlett, Illinois. 

Do not, under any circumstances, cross railroad tracks at unmarked crossings. (A friend of mine was ticketed for this offense. By whom? The railroad police!) I could find dozens of examples of desire paths across railroad tracks if I looked long enough; like this one.

For this case, there’s a railroad cutting off what should be a continuous Struckman Boulevard in Bartlett, Illinois. I first thought the crossing (open the map) was previously torn down, but building the crossing is apparently in the Bartlett budget for. The crossing is only an issue after it snows, and before the paths are plowed (assuming the Forest Preserve plows them at all; they missed two weeks last winter). The streets here are narrow. You’re sharing space with fast (40+ mph) cars on occasionally icy streets. A lighted, gated crossing in the red circle in the map drawing above would do wonders here.

Just go through it

One look at this picture, taken on Mallard Lane in Bloomingdale, Illinois (open map), and I think you can guess what problem someone was trying to solve:

The signs say, from top to bottom: “This is a neighborhood watch community — Prevent burglaries”. “No loitering”. “No dumping”. “No littering”. $500 worth of signs are a lot of attention to lavish on a dead-end street. Why on earth would a subdivision do this?

There’s a path through the wooded area, beyond the signs. Now let’s zoom out a bit.

Ah. Now this starts to make sense.

This is in Bloomingdale. The yellow arrows are part of an “official” bicycle route on maps (but not signed). Along the northern part of the route, the “path” is butted against a road with a 45 MPH speed limit, and tending to slope into a ditch. Traveling south, you can use an old asphalt sidepath that’s only about 5 feet wide, but tree roots and winter have gotten the better of the path. I usually take the road, which is 30 MPH at this point and has lower volume (except for people speeding who have found out it’s a time-saving alternative to Gary Avenue, off to the east). There’s also a bit of truck traffic.

The southern part of the route just happens to be a 25 MPH commercial road that goes straight to Carol Stream. It’s not signed, but it’s very wide. It’s all right; it gets a little crowded down the street where there’s a Staples and a Costco. It’s the only way to traverse this area.

It’s situations like this that make me shake my head. The sidewalk is located on an easement. The trees form part of an easement. The green lines represent a direct, very low-volume route (with no shoulders). Residential density here is, shall we say, very low.

It’s fine to cut off through-auto traffic from the subdivision, because speeding drivers and cars kill people. But instead of providing a pedestrian-only connection across the gap, there’s a fence. It doesn’t work, though, as people have created a desire path littered with broken glass through a few trees, drawing loiterers and litterers, and made the residents living there fear for their stuff while also watching out for other people dumping their stuff here.

That makes sense. Oh, but I’ve seen worse.

Connections are important

Chicago equivalents for each of these scenarios exist. In every case, no matter where, it takes someone dedicated to finding the right people that can solve the problem. Sometimes that person is a village official, sometimes it’s a homewoners’ association.

What connections would you like to see made? Have any of you had any successes in making these connections?

Top photo by Rails to Trails Conservancy, taken on the Illinois Prairie Path, the first rails to trails conversion. 

6 thoughts on “Missed connections, missed opportunities: cycling in the suburbs”

    1. Thanks for sending this on Rob. It’s hard for me to keep up on bicycle progress in the suburbs.
      Imagine the cost savings and convenience to cyclists if a “complete” bridge with a bikeway and proper sidewalk width had been built from the beginning.

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