Getting ready for the protected bike lane “breakthrough”


The Kinzie Street protected lanes. Photo by Josh Koonce.

[This article also appears on the Green Lane Project‘s website.]

Last month dozens of transportation professionals from across the Chicago area converged on the Sears Tower to learn about protected bike lanes and other new developments in bike facility design. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s official planning organization, hosted the workshop “Designing for Bicycle Safety,” led by veteran transportation engineer John LaPlante.

The Green Lane Project’s Martha Roskowski flew in from Boulder to deliver the keynote address, helping to get the audience excited about the brave new world of protected lane design. And Randy Neufeld, former head of of the Active Transportation Alliance and current director of the SRAM Cycling Fund, gave an update on efforts to build the lanes here in the Windy City.

During the six-hour seminar LaPlante, a former head of the Chicago Department of Transportation and current director of traffic engineering for T.Y. Lin International, discussed strategies for safe and effective bikeway design. The talk included an overview of the new Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Topics covered bikeway marking and signing, intersection design, multiuse paths, bicycle boulevards, bike boxes, parking and more.


Roskowski, Neufeld and LaPlante.

To kick off the discussion, Roskowski provided background on the Green Lane Project, a two-year campaign to help six U.S. cities build networks of protected bike lanes and other innovative bikeways. The project, which is working with local leaders in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Austin, Memphis, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, is an initiative of Bikes Belong, a national advocacy group funded by the cycling industry.

“Just over a year ago, Randy and I started talking about protected lanes and their ability to really transform cities,” Roskowski said. “Along with bike share, they are one of the two things that cities are doing that really change the landscape and quickly get more people on bikes. So we had this idea to do a two-year campaign to work with the cities that were making the most progress.”

Although only 32 cities were invited to apply for the six slots, there was enough interest in the project that 43 cities sent in applications. “What was really exciting those was that it wasn’t just the normal cities that you think of as being progressive on bikes, you know, Madison and Portland and Boulder,” Roskowski said. “It was Omaha, and Wichita and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Dallas and Salt Lake City that were all saying, ‘We need to change how we’re doing things.’”

She discussed different ways the Green Lane Project is providing support for the six participating cities. One strategy is to engage local decision makers in the campaign. For several years Bikes Belong has been taking officials from U.S. cities over to Europe to show them how separated bike lanes work in places like Amsterdam and Seville, Spain. In June the advocacy they took delegations from Portland, San Francisco and Chicago to Denmark.

One of the Chicago politicians who went was Alderman Pat Dowell from the city’s South Side. “It was great to have an alderman like Pat Dowell there because she came into it fairly skeptical,” Roskowski said. “The department of transportation wanted to put a protected lane through her ward and she said, ‘I have concerns about this; I’m not sure it’s going to work.’ And she came back saying, ‘I need a bicycle so I can bike from my home to my office, and I want to make sure that the city is investing in the South Side.’ She really came back seeing the benefits of biking and committed to being an ambassador in her community.”


Pat Dowell at the press conference for the new bike camps inspired by Chicago aldermen’s trips to Europe. Behind her are Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, Ald. Danny Solis (25th) and Bikes Belong’s Chris Fortune.

Since protected lanes are a new phenomenon is this country, Roskowski said transportation professionals who are being asked to build them don’t have a lot models to emulate. “We can go to Europe and look at how they do it but we have a different regulatory structure and we have different engineering guidelines,” she said. “So the engineers and designers are really hungry to talk to each other and figure out how to create better facilities.” Here the Green Lane Project can help out by disseminating info about intersection treatments, bike-specific traffic signals, bollards, how and when to use green pavement marking, and other topics, she said.

Next Roskowski provided a rundown of what’s happening in the Green Lane Project cities. “Portland is leading right now on how to do protected bike lane design on a very, very low budget,” she said. “Everybody has financial woes but Portland is figuring our how to do these on the dime.”

A lawsuit by a disgruntled driver stalled San Francisco’s bike projects for five years. “But now the injunction has been lifted and they have some bond money so they’re going great guns,” Roskowski said. “They’re looking at how they can do innovative pilot projects on some of their major streets. They recently did one through Golden Gate Park along JFK Drive where they flipped the position of the parked cars and the bike lane, which is something that a lot of cities are doing.”

Memphis is a particularly interesting case, she said. “They are a poor, southern city,” she said. “There isn’t much bike infrastructure yet but they’ve got huge streets, so they have a lot of space to work with.” She showed a slide of a “guerilla” green lane on a Memphis roadway. “Folks went out and painted a protected lane three years ago and the city never took it out. It seems to work well. But now they’re envisioning a really cool protected lane to connect their major park to a new rails-to-trails path that’s really popular.”

Washington, D.C., is working on a handful of projects. “It’s more like downtown Chicago where you have high-traffic streets,” she said. “They’re still figuring out how to do protected bike lanes, especially what to do about intersections, how to get the bicycle through traffic and the turning cars to all play well together. They’re also looking at building a protected lane right by Union Station.”


Two-way protected lane in the middle of D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by Elvert Barnes.

In Austin, a new two-way protected lane opened this spring on Rio Grande Street, a one-way roadway near the University of Texas campus. “They’re cutting the ribbon on another new project on Bluebonnet Lane, even as we speak,” Roskowski said. “It’s three-quarters of a mile long and it goes by a public school, so the parent group was really supportive of it. It only cost $10,000 to do the striping and the bollards. That’s a pretty cheap way to provide much better bike accommodations.”

Roskowski said Chicago is currently the national leader in building protected and buffered lanes. “Mayor Emanuel has promised 33 miles of these by the end of the year,” she said. “They have close to ten miles on the ground today. And I’ve been biking around a little bit with Randy for the last day or two. There’s something we call, the ‘Ahh Factor.” Which is when you’re biking through downtown Chicago and it’s like, “Ooh, I’m going to die!” And then you get on one of these protected lanes and it’s like, “Ahh! OK, I can relax a bit.”

Afterwards Neufeld detailed Chicago’s plans to put a two-way protected lane on Dearborn Street from Polk Street north to the Chicago River. “Chicago has done some of these protected bike lanes and they’re pretty exciting,” he said. “But two Sundays ago the mayor announced they’re going to do Dearborn, and that’s going to be game-changing. It will be a very complex project. But more than that it’s going to be a big advertising splash for this kind of thing. It’s going to affect the character of the Loop.”


Neufeld in the Kinzie protected lane.

“Now when you do something that’s that big it’s exciting and it’s really hard,” Neufeld continued. “It’s got a whole set of complex signalizations. The engineering is much more difficult than anything they’ve tried before. And it’s also affecting all these different stakeholders. It’s going to attract a whole bunch of new bicyclists and they’re going to have to figure out where to park. So it’s exciting and complex.”

“And if you want a breakthrough you’re going to have to think about that one street in your community that is going to change the story,” Neufeld continued. “There are examples all over the country. Long Beach, California did a major cycle track along their main drag. Missoula, Montana did too, and there are a bunch of communities that have done that kind of thing.”

“But it’s not going to be easy, so you’re going to need help,” Neufeld said. “When you do something hard you’re not going to be able to push it from the engineering and planning level. It’s going to come from elected officials and city council and it’s going to have to come from the community.”

“There’s a lot of help around, and there’s a lot of potential to put a team together on these kind of things to give us a breakthrough,” Neufeld concluded. “Are you ready for a breakthrough?”

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.

29 thoughts on “Getting ready for the protected bike lane “breakthrough””

  1. It’s interesting that Roskowski called Chicago the current national leader in building buffered and protected bike lanes. While there may be 10 miles on the ground now, and 33 miles (total) promised for the end of 2012, what is the comparison to the existing mileage in New York City and to their current rate of installation?

    1. Interesting that you ask. By my own tracking, I count about 18 miles of protected bike lanes on the ground or in the process of being installed in NYC. There are another 5.5 miles that have been approved by the local community boards, but won’t be installed this year. 1.6 miles of that will be installed after 2nd Ave subway construction wraps up, which won’t happen until 2014 or 2015. In addition, the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway will include many more miles, but it is unclear when those will be built.

      The rate of installation in NYC fluctuates pretty dramatically. Here are approximate estimate of protected bike lane installation by year in NYC:
      2007: 0.7 miles
      2008: 1.5 miles
      2009: 4.5 miles
      2010: 6 miles
      2011: <1 mile
      2012: 4.5 miles

      By the current numbers and by design (NYC's design usually includes pedestrian refuge islands), I would say that NYC is the clear leader in protected bike lanes in the US. In terms of planned miles of protected bike lanes, though, Chicago blows NYC out of the water. Apart from the approved projects described above, NYC has made no commitment to building protected bike lanes. There is also no public plan for where new protected bike lanes will be installed or how many will be installed. In general, the City has done a great job placing protected lanes in locations where there is the greatest need (Heavy traffic, high speeds), but all of these decisions occur within the DOT. The public finds out about protected lanes when the City proposes them. In several cases, citizens have proposed protected lanes, but the City has yet to move forward installing them.

      1. NYC has a unique habit of counting the mileage of two-way bike lanes streets twice, at least with conventional bike lanes. E.g. under the NYC system, Chicago’s Kinzie Street, a half-mile of street with lanes on both sides, would count as one mile of lanes. Do you know if NYC is measuring protected bike lanes this way as well as conventional lanes?

        1. Yeah, it looks like they do this for protected bike lanes as well. However, since many NYC streets are one-way, this doesn’t throw things off too much. I’ve added an additional comment to reflect this.

          1. I think that the nature of the NYC protected lanes that I have used so far is that many of them are concrete separated and extremely permanent feeling. Our kids travel smoothly on their own on the Broadway lane from central park to madison square easily- imagine. I agree totally with Randy’s comment that the Dearborn connector will create a total splash.

            I think highly visible cyclists traveling through the center of the loop will have a huge positive impact. We use the Kinzie lane some times and travel in the Loop pretty much every other day, on Wabash north of the river. We choose to mix sidewalk with street along the river walk to Lake and to our favorite quieter streets with four way stops to get home to the UIC area.

            Connecting Kinzie to Dearborn would really change our routes, creating a much more comfortable combination for a variety of cyclists that might not use either one alone. Though we are visible–especially the lane on Monroe now that the buses give us plenty of room- we are not as visible as riding on Dearborn would be. I think this would grow not only riders that are visible but a visible mix of unexpected ages and ability.
            A friend who works with TA in NYC said this summer that they hope to pour as much separated concrete as possible before Bloomberg leaves. We find Chicago far behind NYC at this point as we have been family riding there for the last five years pretty often and sort of ridden the changes there as they emerged… and our children have grown to use the new lanes on their own. That said it is getting really exciting around here and you can see the all the incredible hard work paying off!

          2. “We choose to mix sidewalk with street along the river walk to Lake and
            to our favorite quieter streets with four way stops to get home to the
            UIC area.”

            I do hope I’m not reading this as you ride on the sidewalk?

          3. @FG: Honestly, anyone planning bike lanes should be listening to this post and realize people sometimes use sidewalks because the bike routes drop out and leave riders in unsafe situations (e.g. logan blvd underpass). The city is encouraging cycling, yet sometimes the placement of the lanes and the way the lanes drop off puts cyclists in danger. I realize that pedestrian safety is also paramount, which is why I think marked lanes on certain sidewalks where needed are the way to go to delineate a safe place for everyone to be when protected lanes are not an option. In Madison, WI and Dublin, e.g., the bike lanes sometimes join the sidewalk where needed to deal with certain traffic/parking obstacles and hazards. Our designs should take this approach rather than oh here’s a lane, now there’s no lane, good luck! (And yes, I acknowledge that currently, wrt to sidewalks, the right approach is to walk the bike as needed on the sidewalk anyone ever using the sidewalk should be using extreme caution and must yield to all pedestrians.)

          4. Agreed, connectivity is a huge issue in Chicago. I’m really forward to CDOT improving Milwaukee from Elston to Kinzie, which will form the missing link between two protected bike lanes. There are a few places in Chicago where sidewalks are the designated or de facto bike route. Monroe and (pre-construction) Fullerton leading up to the Lakefront Trail spring to mind.

    2. Interestingly, the City posts it’s own stats on this. It looks like they count the mileage by single direction lane-miles. In other words, 1 mile of two-way protected bike lane counts as 2 lane-miles of protected bike lane. By that methodology, NYC claims 25 miles of protected bike lanes, but I count around 22, and (my) yearly numbers look like this:

      2007: 0.7 miles
      2008: 1.5 miles
      2009: 7.3 miles
      2010: 7.4 miles
      2011: <1 mile
      2012: 4.6 miles

  2. It says Austin did a 3/4 mile bike lane for 10k. How much do chicago lanes cost per mile? I hope these meetings discussed how to install a bike lane ona tight budget. We need to be razor tight on projects like this to set an example.

    1. The city was able to obtain a fair chunk of change from the federal government to pay for a majority of the future protected bike lanes. Currently, the city is paying for these lanes with some of its own capital money (revenues from taxpayers), at least one grant from the SRAM Cycling Fund, and with Aldermanic “menu” funds.

      1. So the cost for Kinzie was 100K for the basic project (without labor and with out the fiberglass base for the bridges) 10x the cost for Austin. Can’t we get that lower? Then we get more lanes.

        1. Yes, roughly $100K for a half mile of protected bike lanes (PBL) on a two-way street, not including labor and signs, so that’s $200K/mile. Bluebonnet Lane in Austin is 3/4 of a mile of PBL on a two-way, $10K for striping and bollards, so that’s $13.3K/mile, quite a bit cheaper. I’m guessing it was a much simpler project. But I’ll talk to CDOT soon about the cost difference and ask what the current costs are for building PBLs.

          1. Thanks for checking. And Adam, you are missing the point. To get more of what we want be it roads, bike lanes, healthcare, or anything, someone has to stay on top of who gets what! If no one is watching, someone will look at that 100k and say it was not worth the return or xx bikers per day.

          2. No, I think the point is that car infrastructure reports never start with “The new expressway, which cost X trillion dollars and serves Y% of the population…”

            The next press conference for one of these things needs to start and end with “This protected bike lane cost 1/Zth as much as the [insert closest expressway here] reconstruction project.”

          3. I think officials end up making decisions based on cost, not on feel good numbers. Hard costs can be tracked and compared to other projects. These are great additions to our city, but we cannot copt the attitude that because it is better than a street or highway, it can cost tons of money. There will be a watchdog group or reporter who will sniff out this cost and expose it. You never know where corruption will pop up. Do not accept it at any level. I dont want to pay taxes based on that thinking and neither should you.

    2. Here’s some info on the .5-mile long, 2-way Kinzie Street protected lanes and bridge decking, per an older post by Steven:

      $130,000 for flexible delineators (soft-hit bollards), green epoxy
      covering, fiberglass bridge plates and bolts, modular curbs, traffic control and protection* (materials only, doesn’t include labor cost). Funded by a
      City mini capital program that had money budgeted but not yet allocated.
      No state or federal funding involved.

      $10,000 for bicycle symbols, provided by SRAM Cycling Fund (materials only, doesn’t include labor cost).Information on the cost of pavement markings and signage isn’t known at this time.

      $30,835 of the $130,000 above was for 1,300 square feet of fiberglass bridge plates.

      Keep in mind that many protected bike lanes won’t involve bridge decking, some will be one-way, and this was the first one the city ever did, so they may figure out ways to do this cheaper in the future.

    3. Protected bike lanes cost a tiny fraction of the price of highways. For the price of one mile of highway, a city can install 100 miles of cycle tracks.

  3. “The project, which is working with local leaders in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Austin, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon…”
    You forgot Memphis.

  4. A few weeks ago there was a announcement that the details of the streets for cycling 2020 plan were to be released by the end of August. What happened to it?
    There are also 12 protected bike lane projects that were to be completed anywhere from May through the summer. What happened to them?

    I live in Los Angeles, so I am not completely informed of everything happening with bike infrastructure projects in Chicago. I am hoping that enough protected bike lane projects can be installed in Chicago to provide a overwhelming amount of evidence to change the antiquated traffic engineering standards that are the bible for traffic engineers in Los Angeles, such as the CAMUTCD.

    1. I presume something will be presented at the September Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, next Wednesday (9/12/12). However, the agenda for the meeting is never released in advance.

    2. Dennis, re: the 12 protected bike lane projects, do you mean the Year One Proposed Bikeways list, link below? If so, many/most of these are either completed or in the process of being installed now. A good way to follow the progress of Chicago’s unfolding bikeways network is to view the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bikeways Tracker map, which the staff keeps nicely updated.

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