What do Hyde Parkers really think of the 55th Street protected bike lanes?

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[This piece originally ran on the website of the Green Lane Project, an initiative that is promoting protected and buffered bike lanes nationwide, sponsored by the national advocacy group Bikes Belong. The term “green lanes” refers to protected and buffered lanes and other innovative bikeways.]

Bike planners and advocates get excited when green lanes appear on city streets, but how do regular folks feel about them? To get a better idea, I pedaled to 55th Street in Chicago’s Hyde Park community, where the city recently built new protected bicycle lanes.

A square-mile of land on the city’s South Side, surrounded by parkland to the west and south and Lake Michigan to the east, Hyde Park is famous as the home of the University of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Obamas. A dense, ethnically diverse college neighborhood, it naturally boasts a high bike mode share.

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Although Hyde Park is generally a bike-friendly, walkable community, 55th Street, an east-west road that bifurcates the district, was a four-lane road with fast car traffic that formed a barrier to pedestrians. And while the thoroughfare should have been a logical bike route to the lakeside beaches and the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail greenway, it was an intimidating place to pedal.

In June the Chicago Department of Transportation put the road on a diet. For a .75-mile stretch between Washington Park and Lake Park Avenue, the department removed travel lanes in each direction and replaced them with protected bike lanes delineated by flexible posts. On-street parking was relocated from the curb to the left of the bike lanes, so people on bikes are shielded from motorized traffic by the parked vehicles. Meanwhile, the removal of the travel lanes means shorter crossing distances for pedestrians and calms the motorized traffic, creating safer conditions for all road users.

As work and classes let out on a sunny autumn afternoon, I saw dozens of people using the lanes, especially near 55th Street’s intersections with Woodlawn and University Avenues, north-south streets that run near the campus. I buttonholed various people who live, work and/or study in Hyde Park for their thoughts on the new facilities.

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“I really love them,” said Cynthia de la Rosa, a U. of C. undergrad who was waiting to cross 55th Street on her yellow Schwinn. “I live off campus so I have to cross 55th to get to school. The bike lanes make it much easier to get across. And now I feel like I have the option of riding on 55th. Before I would have avoided it at all costs.”

College students Andrew Kam and Christina Chan were unlocking their bicycles from a rack on 55th Street after shopping at Treasure Island Foods. She was using a two-wheeler from the university’s ReCycles bike share system. “I think the protected lanes are a good idea,” Kam said. “People generally don’t like you riding on the sidewalks so it’s good to have a dedicated lane.” Chan said she appreciates not having to worry about car traffic when she rides in the lanes. “Usually when I ride I’m worried about cars that I can’t see coming up from behind me.”

David Jones, owner of the shop DJ’s Bike Doctor, located on 55th, said he likes the lanes in theory, but there seems to be a learning curve for drivers. “The problem I’ve seen is that people don’t understand that they have to park to the left of the bike lane, not next to the curb, which blocks the bike lane. ‘Cause if they’re not going to park right then it’s not going to work right.”

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Manuel Quinonez, a manager at 55th Street’s Seven Ten Lanes bowling alley and tavern, said the city gave his business a heads-up before the bike lanes were installed, and he hasn’t heard any complaints about them from customers who drive there. “It’s great to finally have a safe way for bikers to get across the neighborhood,” he added. “For the most part it’s been a very positive thing.”

Art history professor Persis Berlekamp was walking her bike on along 55th with a friend on foot. “When they work the way they’re supposed to, the lanes are great,” she said. “The only problem is if a delivery vehicle or an emergency vehicle parks in the bike lane, you have no maneuvering room for a Plan B. Whereas if you’re riding in the main part of the street it’s more dangerous but if something comes up you can move. But in general [the protected lanes are] much safer and I feel much more comfortable riding in them.”

Melvin Taylor was walking back to his home on 55th Street after riding a Chicago Transit
Authority bus from his downtown job. “I think the bike lanes are a great idea,” he said. “I’m all for safe pedestrian traffic and bike traffic as well. Parking-wise [the lanes] took up a couple of extra spaces but it was worth it. People are driving differently now because this was a four-lane road and now it’s a two-lane road. It’s really noticeable at night. There aren’t a lot of speeding cars because this slows down traffic.” He added that with the new lanes he now feels comfortable pedaling to the lakefront on 55th with his kids.

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Noticing some cycles in the window of a Jimmy John’s Subs location on 55th, I ducked in to get the staff’s opinion of the new lanes. Stan Wallace, a delivery biker, said the new facilities make his job easier. “They’re useful because I don’t have to worry so much about cars crossing my lane and cutting me off,” he said. “So they’re doing their job pretty well. We could use more of them around.”

On the other hand, Wallace’s co-worker Rob Hagovian, a delivery driver, was disgruntled. “It’s hard to go anywhere,” he groused. “I’m always stuck behind ten cars at the same stop sign over here, because there’s now only one lane in each direction.” But even Hogovian conceded that the protected lanes are getting plenty of use by folks on bicycles. “We’re located by a college campus though, so I can’t really complain,” he said with a shrug. “There’s always going to be lots of people riding bikes.”

So while not everyone is in love with the new lanes, I got the sense that they’re getting good use and a majority of Hyde Parkers feel positively about them. And as motorists get more accustomed to driving and parking in the new street configuration, I’m confident more people will view them as a great addition to one of Chicago’s iconic neighborhoods.

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.

26 thoughts on “What do Hyde Parkers really think of the 55th Street protected bike lanes?”

  1. I have heard complaints from cyclists making left turns from the bike lanes, and I think it’s an issue that could use some education. It’s hard to get from the protected bike lane to the left turn lane — you either do it a block in advance, or use the bus stop’s gap in parked cars to get over. The parked cars make visibility hard, if you’re trying to identify a gap in oncoming traffic to quickly move over to the left turn lane.

    I think a box turn works better — cross with the traffic (in this case east or west bound) and then wait for a light (if there is one) and cross with the cross-traffic (north or southbound). But that does take a little extra time, if you’re waiting for a light in the middle of your turn.

    Left turns from a PBL aren’t insurmountable, but it would have been nice to have some tips from the designers before trial-and-erroring it this summer.

    1. Box turns are the norm in Copenhagen, which is grade-separated bike lane Nirvanna, but they have a fairly different riding style then we do. your concern is a valid one. I’ll keep an eye out to see what kind accommodations have been made for left turns from Chicago’s protected lanes.

      1. There are left-turn pockets for people want to turn left from Elston Avenue’s cycle track onto westbound Division Street (from northbound Elston) and eastbound Division Street (from southbound Elston).

  2. Wonder if a variant of this type of lane might work as part of the future Lawrence Ave streetscaping / road diet plans. If some kind of road surface cue—for example, a rumble strip made by stripping or pattern the top of the asphalt along the ‘curb’ line—was made to alert parkers that they are into the bike lane, it might reinforce the markings & also protect in the event that markings wear away.

    Locating the lanes on the inner side of parking has the advantage of not subjecting the bike lane markings to as much tire wear as the lanes we have now, which get driven on constantly. Lane marking are missing all over the city & it’s clear that maintenance is going to be a chronic issue.

    All you have to do is watch cars on a street that’s being resurfaced to see how much drivers respond to the stripped surfaces … talking about a cheap traffic-calming method. I’d much rather see strips of patterned asphalt in the middle of streets than speed bumps that aren’t being repainted. Patterning might also be used at crosswalks to help direct stormwater to alleviate some of the standing water issue at corners.

  3. I like them. I haven’t mastered left turns yet, but they make bike commuting in the neighborhood safer and faster. I think they’ve also made driving on 55th around Dorchester and Kenwood safer as well.

  4. Anyone know what the right of way widths and ADV counts are on this road? I’ve got some local roads that could use these types of treatments and I’d love to know how they compare in those respects.

  5. The protected lanes are great for the most part. However, I’m not a huge fan of the stretches where the lane is sandwiched between parked cars and the curb. One reason was mentioned in the article–when cars are pulled up to the curb, cyclists cannot easily maneuver around. Two, when approaching and biking across intersections, cyclists are blind to turning cars because the lane is obscured by the parked vehicles. Three, it’s risky/dangerous/challenging for the cyclist to make left turns from this lane because it’s difficult to safely cut across the parked car lane and the traffic lanes–there’s not a whole lot of clearance between the parked cars and intersection, the parked cars obscure the cyclists’ view of oncoming traffic and vice versa.

    1. 1. I haven’t been down here more than once after the new infrastructure was built. Where are cars being pulled to the curb, and why? The bike lane is the curb lane. Only buses should be pulling to the curb.
      2. The parking area has been set back from the intersection slightly to account for this. On Kinzie Street, it doesn’t appear crashes have increased because of this (crashes either stayed the same there or decreased per bicyclist riding there).
      3. The infrastructure should have been designed to accommodate box turns, as it does at Elston/Division. But this isn’t just about engineering, but education as well.

      1. I haven’t seen many cars parked at the curb, after the initial confusion passed. This was a particularly egregious example, though, from just last week. I ended up turning onto Woodlawn rather than trying to bypass this and stay on 55th. It seems like they should have requested permission from the city to prohibit parking for the day, or something!

        1. I was in Copenhagen this summer. When construction sites were set up like this, over the sidewalk, near the street, over the curb, in the bike lane (or some combination of that), then the cycle track had its own detour onto the road level using temporary ramps (cycle tracks are elevated).

          They may have requested permission, or maybe not. Can you give me the dates and address? I’ll try to find their permits on the city’s open data portal.

          1. That photo is time stamped 10/17/12 at 10:11 am. I took it facing west, at the corner of 55th and Woodlawn, in front of the Starbucks there. I think they’re working on the Woodlawn Tap in the photo.

          2. Oh, and thanks! It’s great to know that someone would act on a photo like this, to find out how it’s being handled. It is certainly a scenario that will come up and a solution needs to be figured out that works for all of the road users.

  6. As a resident of Hyde Park, I’ve had a lot of time to interact with the new bike lanes and do not feel very positively about them. These are my thoughts as a pedestrian on foot and sometimes car driver:
    -Reducing 55th street to one lane in either direction has made the traffic intolerable. Pedestrians on foot (or on bike) used to be able to cross 55th at intersections without lights (Greenwood, University, etc.) fairly easily; a break in traffic would come often enough. But now it’s basically impossible and pretty dangerous to cross at intersections without stoplights because of the one-lane traffic.
    -When driving a car, I’m always on the lookout for bicyclists (especially because most of the time they are not on the lookout for me) but because cars are parked between the bike lanes and moving cars, it is IMPOSSIBLE to see bikes when making a right turn in the car. When I (infrequently) drive around 55th, I always make an extra slow right turn to make sure there’s no bikes whizzing down the bike lanes, but I imagine people who are less careful/have less experience with bike lanes designed like this won’t be so cautious. I imagine it being quite dangerous for bicyclists.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I don’t follow you: how did removing car lanes make it more difficult to cross on foot at unsignalized intersections? The Hyde Parkers I spoke to said it makes it easier because there are fewer lanes of traffic to cross.

      1. John,

        I understand Laura’s point completely and the Jimmy John’s delivery driver you interviewed basically answered your question.

        Removing the car lanes for dedicated bike lanes forces more car traffic into one car lane. Cars no longer have the ability to split traffic flow into two lanes. That causes longer backups at stop lights like at 55th and Ellis or Woodlawn. The single car lane forces car traffic to back up for such long stretches that it can stretch into crossings where there are no signals. This is particularly true if a right-turning car is waiting for a pedestrian to cross a signal regulated crossing. Imagine a pedestrian crossing 55th and Woodlawn from the southwest corner to the southeast corner. I think that intersection is a no turn on red intersection. With two options for car traffic in each direction, the 55th Street traffic would have flowed much faster with much wider intervals between cars. In the past, non-turning cars could have bypassed in the left lane. Now, they are all lined up behind one car waiting to turn because of the crossing pedestrian and if it can’t make before the light turns red, everyone has to wait. You have a slow, funeral processional single file of cars. Pedestrians have to try to blindly poke out into the bike lane and hope that it’s clear on both sides of 55th Street. With the car congestion, you can’t see clearly both directions of 55th Street traffic. It’s particularly bad when a #55 CTA bus has to stop to discharge or load passengers, because all of the cars on the bus’s side of 55th Street have to stop behind the bus and the bus blocks the pedestrian’s field of view.

        The loss of parking spaces to accommodate bike lane is another waste. Hyde Park is free parking space challenged. A driver burns gas trying to find free parking in the area. Perhaps that escaped the attention of the sustainable transportation community.

        A similar bike lane created congestion problem, minus the pedestrians, is the intersection of Payne Drive and Garfield Boulevard just north of Du Sable Museum in Washington Park (1/2 west of the U. of Chicago tennis courts at 55th Street and Cottage Grove). Before the bike lane, Payne Drive made a nice northbound morning rush bypass route to the hospital construction and traffic congestion between 57th to 59th Streets and Cottage Grove. But once the bike lane was added, it forced all of the northbound Payne Drive and eastbound Garfield Boulevard traffic into one lane. To make matters worse, the city added a stop sign to northbound Payne Drive but not to much busier eastbound Garfield Boulevard. Now, morning rush hour car traffic on Payne Drive must wait seemingly forever a break in the heavy flow of eastbound Garfield Boulevard traffic coming off of the Dan Ryan Expressway. Then Payne Drive commuters must try to squeeze into a single lane where there used to be two. It’s especially bad if an eastbound 55th Street bus is occupying the intersection. When there were two car lanes, the eastbound #55 bus would get in the right-hand lane leading to 55th Street, turn and go east; northbound Payne Drive traffic would stay in the left lane and go straight toward 51st Street / Hyde Park Boulevard. The bike lane took away the right-hand lane and forced eastbound Garfield and northbound Payne traffic into one lane. It’s difficult to tell who’s going north and who’s turning east. I’ve seen a lot of near accidents at that intersection.

        The sad thing is that the traffic jammed car commuters forced to use a single car lane waste far more gas than sustainable transportation advocates ever can hope to save by encouraging cycling through the use of bike lanes (especially in the dead of winter or inclimate weather, when few people are on bikes, or for work commutes that are far longer than all but the most decidated commuting cyclists will venture). Unlike their use of the 55th Street bike lanes east of Cottage Grove in Hyde Park, 55th Street / Hyde Park cyclists rarely venture west of Cottage Grove to bike through Washington Park. If they did, they would see that the sidewalks behind Du Sable Museum are wide open for a cyclist to use. There are no residences or businesses there. It’s just a sidewalk by open park space with a museum well removed from the sidewalk. It would have been much better to leave the previous situation alone or at least have the bike lane at 57th and Payne Drive, just south of Du Sable, which is less traveled than 55th / Garfield Boulevard. Different situations call for different solutions and dedicated bike lanes on arterial streets are not always a good fit for overall transportation flexibility. I write as an occasional cyclist, driver, mass transit commuter and habitual pedestrian on the South Side, including parts of Hyde Park.

        1. A previously very problematic crossing was Kenwood and 55th. Families cross there all of the time, to get to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club and the childcare and classes inside, and to Nichols Park in general. With two lanes of car traffic, often one car would stop, and another would forge ahead at high speed, making things very hazardous. Having one lane has made that crossing much safer and more predictable.

          I don’t drive on 55th very often, particularly now that the new bike lane is in, so I haven’t experienced the challenges you mention. But I know that the University is generally interested in decreasing traffic speeds on both 55th and the Midway, with the idea of making the neighborhood less hazardous to peds. For that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar road diet on the Midway, despite the additional annoyance to drivers. Slowing traffic is the point of the project, not an unhappy byproduct.

    2. Since the bike lanes have been installed, I’ve found crossing 55th on
      foot much easier, but only because I’m not afraid to stare down cars and
      insist on my legal right of way, as long as they’re traveling slowly
      enough. (A friend of mine jokingly, but insistently, called this
      “exercising white male privilege.”) If you actually stood there and waited for all the cars to go by, it would be harder.

  7. Pavement markings that say “Parking Lane” might eliminate some of the confusion about parking away from the curb. As for driving, it seems to me that traffic moves well on 55th Street, with one lane in each direction.

  8. In principle, I think the buffered bike lanes are a good thing for all the reasons discussed. BUT
    As a pedestrian I should never again have to deal with a cyclist bearing down on me on the narrow 55th St sidewalks, especially where they circle around University Park Condos. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Cyclist now have buffered bike lanes; they MUST not ride on the sidewalks!
    And as a motorist, I find it confusing and more than a bit scary to try to turn right on Dorchester going south or on Blackstone going north. The parked cars make it difficult to see the cyclists in the buffered lanes, which I must cross to make my turn. The shift of the parking lane around University Park Condos from away from after the bike lane to next to the curb is also difficult and confusing.

    1. There’s going to be a learning curve as the people who tend to bike on the sidewalk learn that 1) it’s illegal, and 2) the cycle tracks here are comfortable for them to use.
      As for not being able to see, that’s a design issue (called “daylighting”) that until rectified has only one solution: drive slowly.

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