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Cycling Mon Jun 13 2011

On the Right (Cycle) Track?

Chicagoans sound off about the new car-separated bike lanes on Kinzie

by John Greenfield

Richard M. Daley had a widespread, if somewhat undeserved, reputation as a bicycle-friendly mayor. But with Rahm Emanuel in power, along with progressive new transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, it looks like there's going to be a sea change in the way the city pushes pedaling.

Emanuel's Chicago 2011 Transition Plan includes three bold, possibly unrealistic, bike goals. But it's refreshing that the City is finally making big plans that have, to paraphrase Daniel Burnham, magic to stir cyclists' blood.

The mayor's bike proposal, obviously influenced by transition team member Randy Neufeld, former director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, calls for expanding our anemic automated public bike sharing system from only 100 bicycles to thousands of vehicles. The mayor also promises to build the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.65-mile elevated rails-to-trails conversion on the Northwest Side within his first term, although it's taken two years just to get the design contract approved and the price tag for the trail is estimated at $50-70 million.

The third goal may be the least realistic but most exciting, and there's already rubber, nay bike lane paint, on the road. Rahm has pledged to install 100 miles of European-style "cycle tracks," bike lanes that are physically separated from cars by medians, parked cars and/or posts, within his first four years in office. This would require a lot more money than is currently spent on striping eight miles of conventional bike lanes per year, and it would involve taking away travel lanes and parking spaces from automobiles.

Many bicycle advocates argue that separated bike lanes are the missing link for getting large numbers of people on bikes in North America. By removing some of the dangers of speeding motor traffic and opening car doors, cycle tracks take away the fear factor that prevents average Chicagoans from trying transportation cycling. Separated bike lanes have debuted with much fanfare in Portland, Ore., New York and Washington, D.C.

Kinzie Street Cycle TrackHowever, cycle tracks can be problematic if they're not done right. European cities with successful separated bikeway networks, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, generally use special bicycle traffic lights to prevent collisions between right-turning cars and bikes emerging from the cycle track to cross an intersection. There will be no such lights on Kinzie, only signs warning turning motorists to stop for bikes and pedestrians.

People love to walk in cycle tracks, and garbage, broken glass and snow will accumulate in the separated lanes unless the city is careful to maintain them. Faster bicyclists may prefer to ride in the regular travel lane, but local laws require cyclists to use separate bike paths when available. As a result, those pedaling outside of the cycle track may be unable to successfully sue if a reckless motorist hits them.

Nevertheless, Chicago cyclists, including this one, are getting excited about the cycle track that the Chicago Department of Transportation is currently installing on Kinzie Street between Milwaukee Avenue and Wells Street, connecting two of the city's best-used bike lane streets. In general, the new separated lanes will be located next to the curb, to the right of the parking lane, and separated from parked cars by a diagonally striped buffer zone and flexible posts.

Kinzie Street Cycle Track

Though recent rains have delayed the project, the cycle track should be finished by the end of next week. Emanuel is sure to boast about it during his first speech at the Bike to Work Week rally this Friday, June 17, 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at Daley Plaza.

Last Friday afternoon I stopped by Kinzie to check out the work in progress. The sky was leaden but the air was perfumed by the Blommer Chocolate factory at the five-way intersection of Kinzie, Milwaukee and Desplaines.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new lanes on Kinzie continue as dashed lines across every intersection between Milwaukee and Wells. Plus, at the five-way a new "bike box" waiting area and a curving, dashed lane across the intersection will make it much easier for southbound cyclists on Milwaukee to make a left turn onto Kinzie.

Right now cars are still parking next to the curbs in the cycle track instead of the new parking lane, but this will stop after the posts are installed and bike symbols are marked in thermoplastic on the bike lanes.

I flagged down a few bike commuters to get their reactions to the new cycle track.

Abigail Jasper, riding a Trek hybrid, says she's excited about the separated lanes. "They're going to protect bicyclists from drivers who may be too busy doing other things to pay attention to cyclists," she says. She notes that it may take a little while for motorists and bike riders to get used to the new lanes. "There's going to be a learning curve but we'll figure it out."

Kinzie Street Cycle TrackScott Lambert, on a Masi single-speed road bike, is looking forward to protection from cars. "It's great that the city is doing something for bikers," he says. "I've been hit more than 12 times." However he's skeptical that the current cycle track layout is going to function well. "I'm not sure what's going to happen at the intersections. This is a great idea in theory but they're probably going to have to modify the design before it becomes sufficient."

Newbie bike commuter Patrick Crokin, pedaling a Giant mountain bike, is glad the new lanes will eliminate the risk of bicyclists getting hit by opening car doors. "This is really a great idea," he says. "I'm just curious to see how they're going to pay for all the new lanes."

When I duck into the Blommer factory's chocolate shop next to the five-way intersection, manager Kevin Schultz tells me the cycle track is pointless. "They should be spending money to improve the traffic and pedestrian flow here instead of wasting money on these bike lanes," he says. "This is one of the worst intersections in the city. We stand here all day and watch people almost get hit when they cross Desplaines to the Jewel."

He says the city should instead be spending money for a turn signal to keep westbound vehicles turning left from Kinzie to Desplaines from hitting these pedestrians. "One of these days some lady with a kid or someone walking their dog is going to get killed."

But Michael Bordenaro, waiting for the traffic light outside Blommer on his Raleigh mountain bike, thinks the city's plan for 25 miles of cycle tracks per year is too conservative.

"Citizens should go out with white paint and stripe 25 miles of bike lanes themselves this weekend and say, 'Mayor Emanuel, thank you for your leadership. Now keep up with us.'"

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Joanna / June 13, 2011 9:26 AM

Thanks for all the info John. Regardless of how the city pursues further development, I think it's great that Mayor Emmanuel is fulfilling campaign promises. Plus the idea of riding through this city without the ever present fear of being 'doored' is quite relieving!

Jeremy / June 13, 2011 10:01 AM

I LOVE the idea of protected bike lanes vs just having painted arrows, and I hope my neighborhood is next on the list. Our new mayor seems more than happy to get cracking on fulfilling those campaign promises and it feels like an exciting time to live in the city.

prattfall / June 13, 2011 10:23 AM

Michael Bordenaro for mayor!

Psom / June 13, 2011 1:12 PM

The city needs to go one step further with a raised median to separate the lanes like they have in Paris. Motorists can easily ignore paint, they cannot ignore a raised curb/planter...

Nastia / June 13, 2011 1:53 PM

Thank you for that last quote by Michael Bordenaro, I wholeheartedly agree. While our city may not be able to afford such an ambitious project, tens of thousands of people in Chicago really WANT this. So why not get volunteers involved? Solicit donations, ask us for help. I only bike occasionally, but would gladly come out and paint stripes for a day or two, and/or support the project in other ways! I think that (properly done) separated bike lanes are so important in improving Chicago's flow, getting more bikers on the road, and enhancing our city's stance as a global destination.

Lee Crandell / June 13, 2011 3:45 PM

The Active Transportation Alliance is organizing residents and businesses in neighborhoods and building aldermanic support across the city to move these kinds of bikeway projects forward. You can help bring this to your neighborhood by signing on to the Neighborhood Bikeways Campaign at

Jimbo2K7 / July 29, 2011 8:28 AM

Now how about coming up with a bike licensing plan to pay for all this?

Bikers should pay for tags - one to fund these improvements, and two to make them accountable when they (frequently) break traffic laws.Idiot bikers should be ticketed and fined just like idiot drivers.

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