47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar discusses the greenway. Photo by Steven E. Gross.
When I attended a community meeting about the proposed Berteau Street “neighborhood greenway” last March, the following comment was representative of some 47th Ward residents’ panicked reaction to the idea of their street being reconfigured. “It’s going to create havoc and unnecessary confusion and problems and an inability to get in and out of our neighborhoods,” one local woman said to Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and 47th Ward staffers at the assembly. “So I’m asking you to rethink what you’re doing.”
Neighborhood greenways, known as “bike boulevards” in other cities, are residential streets where speeding and cut-through traffic are discouraged through the use of traffic calming devices and/or traffic diverters – bump-outs, cul-de-sacs and other structures which prevent cars from driving down the entire length of the street or making certain turns. Meanwhile, contraflow bicycle lanes allow bikes to travel in both directions on one-way sections, and the traffic diverters have cutouts that permit cyclists to continue unimpeded.
Bike boulevards are commonplace in West Coast towns like Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley California. Last April I visited Tucson, Arizona, and saw how effective these treatments are for creating nearly car-free routes where cyclists of all ages and abilities can feel at ease.
Traffic diverters on this Tucson bike boulevard prevent motorized through traffic.
The 47th Ward’s progressive new alderman Ameya Pawar was excited about building Chicago’s first neighborhood greenway in his district, on Berteau (4200 N.) between Lincoln Avenue (2100 W.) and Clark Street (1400 W.), running through the North Center and Ravenswood neighborhoods. Pawar and CDOT promoted the greenway to constituents as a facility that would improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike, and create a quieter, more peaceful environment for residents on Berteau.
But after CDOT and ward staff outlined the proposal, including the possible inclusion of traffic diverters, at the March meeting, many constituents made it clear that any changes that would force them to alter their car commuting routes would be a dealbreaker. After more neighborhood meetings and other community input the planners went back to the drawing board and came up with a new proposal for the greenway design that doesn’t include traffic diverters.
CDOT’s David Smith responds to a question from an attendee. Photo by Steven E. Gross.
They unveiled the latest proposal at a meeting at the Welles Park fieldhouse earlier this month. Probably because of the omission of traffic of diverters in the design, and possibly because many more people arrived on bikes this time, it was a much less contentious assembly. “What we heard over the course of the many meetings was that you wanted something that wasn’t restricting traffic, something that wasn’t making it more difficult for you to get around the neighborhood,” Pawar said to the attendees.
Overview of the project.
CDOT planner David Smith outlined the new greenway design. Berteau is one-way westbound between Lincoln and Damen Avenue (2000 W.), as well as between Ashland Avenue (1600 W.) and Clark, so there will be eastbound contraflow bike lanes on those sections. Eastbound bike traffic on the two-way section of roadway between Damen and Ashland, and westbound bike traffic on the entire greenway, will be accommodated with bike-and-chevron symbols on the pavement called “shared lane markings.”
Since there’s a stoplight at Berteau/Damen but currently no eastbound traffic there, CDOT will install a special bicycle stoplight to let cyclists riding east from Lincoln in the bike lane know when it’s safe to cross Damen. This stoplight will be coordinated with existing signal phasing so there will be no extra delay for cars.
Looking east on Berteau, approaching Damen.
On the two-way section between Damen and Ashland CDOT will install bump-outs to create chicanes, slalom routes designed to discourage speeding and cut-through traffic. In 2010, the city did a similar treatment on the 2400 block of North Albany Avenue in Logan Square, where I live. Although the large landscaped bumpouts added beautiful green space to my street, speeding still seems to be an issue on this diagonal block, which many drivers use as a cut-through between Kedzie Boulevard and Fullerton Avenue. Hopefully the chicanes on Berteau, which will be smaller than those on Albany, will be designed so that drivers will have no choice but to slow down.
Bumpouts on the “Albany Home Zone” create a chicane. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers.
Additional traffic calming devices proposed for Berteau include curb extensions at Hermitage Avenue (1730 W.) that will shorten crossing distances for Courtenay Elementary School students, and a traffic circle at Greenview Avenue (1500 W.) To further enhance pedestrian safety, all crosswalks along the greenway will be be marked in the high-visibilty, zebra-striped “International” style.
Currently there are several four-way stop signs along Berteau, and nearby residents say they cause confusion and noise from the stop-and-go traffic, and that many drivers simply ignore the signs. Anticipating that the traffic calming will slow cars down to safe speeds, David Smith said CDOT plans to remove the “unwarranted” stop signs for cars on Berteau while retaining the signs for the cross streets, prioritizing east-west traffic.
At the eastern end of the greenway, a new pedestrian refuge island in the middle of Clark will make it safer to cross the arterial on foot. A cut-through in the island will allow eastbound bike traffic on Berteau to turn north onto Clark. Curb extensions at the northwest corner of this intersection will discourage drivers from making high-speed turns onto Berteau. Building the island and curb extensions will involve removing 5-6 parking spaces on Clark.
The proposed design of the pedestrian refuge island can be seen on this rendering.
Smith said that once the design is finalized, CDOT aims to build it this fall. The cost is estimated at $150,000, paid for by “menu money” from Pawar’s discretionary budget. The alderman may also opt to re-pave the street at an additional cost.
Pawar stressed that it won’t be a crisis if the neighborhood greenway doesn’t function perfectly at first. “With a greenway or any traffic treatment it’s kind of like a Lego,” he said. “You can add a piece or take a piece out. So if something isn’t working you can remove it. Or if something isn’t working and you want to add more to it you can do that. So it’s not set in stone.”
In general the response from the crowd of about 45 people was positive. One of the few people I heard speaking negatively about the greenway before the meeting was longtime 47th Ward resident Peter Rekehal. After the presentation he told me he thinks the greenway will make it much harder to drive around the neighborhood. “You’re already down to 5 MPH if cars are passing [in opposite directions] on Berteau,” he said. “Now, in addition to that, they’re going they’re going to have to [slalom]. If you add in things like ice and snow and bicycles into the mix I think it will make driving more dangerous.”
Peter Rekehal, pointing at a rendering. Photo by Steven E. Gross.
I asked the alderman why he thought this meeting went so much smoother than the last one I attended. “It’s because [community members have been] been working with us for the past six months,” he said. “But I don’t think controversy is a bad thing when it comes to projects because it gets people together and figuring out what it is that they actually want.”
Some bike advocates will be disappointed that that the new design will still allow westbound motorists to drive the entire length of the greenway. As such, it probably won’t provide the same kind of tranquil, nearly car-free pedaling conditions I experienced on Tucson’s bike boulevards, where non-local car traffic is excluded through the use of traffic diverters. And the Berteau Greenway may not provide the level of safety and comfort that will attract the “8-to-80” demographic, including kids and seniors, that the city says it wants to accommodate in future bike projects.
But it was clear that Pawar and CDOT couldn’t build traffic diverters on Berteau without facing a major revolt from residents and, as the old saying goes, half a loaf is better than none. I still believe that by calming traffic and facilitating two-way bike traffic, the Berteau Greenway project will create a facility that most cyclists will enjoy using. It will also make the street safer for pedestrians and motorists, and more pleasant for residents. Hopefully its success will make Chicagoans more comfortable with the bike boulevard concept, so that in the future the city will have the freedom to build Tucson-style neighborhood greenways with traffic diverters, which would be true 8-to-80 bike facilities.
More info about the Berteau Greenway, including PDFs of the renderings, is available on the 47th Ward website.