Updated May 2, 2011, with additional comments and concerns.

The City of Chicago plans to make major changes to the intersection of Damen-Elston-Fullerton. They revealed a lot of these changes and invited the public to learn more and make comments on the current proposal at an open house event Wednesday, April 27, 2011, at the Wicker Park-Bucktown library.

What is now actually three, closely-spaced intersections with six legs (two of them skewed), will become three, distantly-spaced intersections at right angles.

Why is this being done?

  • The closely-spaced intersections “encourage poor decision making.”
  • Small radii makes it difficult for trucks to make turns.
  • The island and closely-spaced intersections makes for limited queue capacity which blocks the other legs.
  • There are a lot of crashes, over 400 in a 3-year period. That’s over 7 per week.

So what’s the solution?

The Chicago and Illinois Departments of Transportation, and project consultant Benesch came up with 4 alternatives.

  • Enhanced “no build” – no improvements, but modernize signals didn’t address safety or delay. [In infrastructure project planning, there's always a "no build" alternative to which the other alternatives are compared.]
  • Fullerton tunnel, or underpass. A majority of Fullerton traffic would bypass the intersection, but the surface intersection would still have same conditions outlined under “why.” Additionally, there are many utilities under the intersection that would all need to be relocated. It would take 3 years to build. For the length of the tunnel, surface traffic on Fullerton could only make right-in, right-out turns.
  • Overpass. A majority of Fullerton traffic would bypass the intersection, but the surface intersection would still have same dismal conditions. This has the same turn restrictions as the underpass – this and its imposing aesthetics could impact economic development (the presentation didn’t say whether the project designers expected this to be positive or negative).
  • And there’s the “preferred alternative.” It has wider sidewalks, larger turn radii, and “safer bike accommodations.” Delays would improve from up to 7 minutes to under 30 seconds.

Other benefits of the preferred alternative include:

  • Access to properties is preserved.
  • Simpler intersections means fewer conflicting movements.
  • A “new bike lane” (I disagree with calling it new – the project is preserving the existing bike lane, bringing it into the new route of Elston Avenue, or whatever the new street will be called).
  • Supports future economic development by having simpler traffic.

What’s the timeline?

  • 2011 – Finalize phase 1 engineering. Seek approval from IDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Start the design process.
  • 2012 – While continuing work on the design, begin acquiring right of way.
  • 2013 – Finish design, and bid out project.
  • 2014 – Award project and begin construction.

The project is estimated to cost $32 million, with funds coming from the TIF Bank, grants from the FHWA, and the City’s own capital improvement funds.

Comment on the design until May 13 by emailing Bridget Stalla, the project manager who works for the City of Chicago. All emails to her about this project will go on the public record.

So what are my comments?

Lack of bike lanes

Currently there’s no striped bike lane for .26 miles on Damen Avenue between where it ends at the I-90/I-94 highway and railroad viaducts to where it ends on the hill to the bridge over the Chicago River.

The project does not add this bike lane, which I feel is much needed for the cyclists who deal with the congestion and tight spaces. I talked to Bridget and Colin Coad, a staffer at Benesch about this. Both admitted that a bike lane in this location was considered. It wasn’t in the current design because Damen Avenue must have two lanes northbound to keep the queue capacity and keep delays down. An animation showed the difference in delays between the existing and proposed intersection configuration. The delay reduction in the new configuration was very noticeable. This doesn’t preclude installing a bike lane.

An attendee asked Ryan Thady, who was explaining the animation, if Benesch had done analysis on a single northbound travel lane south of Fullerton Avenue on Damen Avenue. He answered, “No. If there’s one lane, there’s an increased delay.”

Colin said that a bike lane has always been under consideration and will be again under consideration. Bridget says she realizes there’s a need to reevaluate the bikes on Damen Avenue situation. “We need the two lanes to really make this thing work like it’s supposed to. We will look at extending the bike lane on Damen north of Fullerton [from the bridge approach to the intersection of Damen and Elston].”

I’m confused about “making this thing work like it’s supposed to.” After hearing this, I felt that I don’t know if it’s clear to me what this thing is supposed to do. I thought it was about improving safety and reducing delays. By having a bike lane, bicyclists’ safety will be improved and their delays will also be reduced.

Some bicyclists may be involved in collisions with motor vehicles here because they move against signals. The same is probably true for drivers who get into collisions: frustration and impatience and simply not knowing when you’ll have a turn may lead road users at this intersection to proceed when it’s not safe to do so (and against the signal). The project designers said that this intersection “encourages poor decision making.” With dedicated space, in the form of a bike lane, as well as simpler design and an expectation of when it will be one’s turn to go, bicyclists and drivers alike will better comply with intersection controls.

The plan does nothing to add bike lanes through the Elston or Damen intersections. The Damen bike lane currently ends 700 feet before the intersection. The Elston bike lane ends 400 feet before the intersection. That funny business needs to stop and we need bike lanes in Chicago that go THROUGH intersections, much like you see in New York City (example photo 1 and photo 2.

Complete Streets

My final comment, a quick one, is that the project made no mention of reduced travel times for those who ride the Fullerton or Damen Avenue buses through this intersection. We still have a long ways to go in accommodating, and caring about, our sustainable transportation modes.

Bicycle crashes are also not mentioned in the documentation, while motor vehicle crashes with pedestrians are. There were more crashes with bicyclists than with pedestrians in the 3-year period of 2007-2009 (12 versus 4). Bicycle counts have not yet been taken at this location; they should be conducted as soon as possible.

Complete Streets in Illinois needs to stop being a policy without any teeth and put into regular practice. Enough with just “considering” all transportation modes; we need to “provision” them.

Roundabout

Was a roundabout considered at this location? The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Guide to Roundabouts (PDF) lists criteria on where to use roundabouts, including these which describe the intersections in question:

  • Large traffic signal delays
  • Heavy left turning traffic
  • More than four legs or unusual geometry
  • History of crashes involving crossing traffic
  • Traffic growth expected to be high and future traffic patterns uncertain or changeable [because Elston is a diagonal and near shopping, traffic volume will not change]
  • History of right angle crashes [this is true because of the confusing signal phases]

While three roundabouts may not be necessary, one should be considered at least for the Elston-Fullerton intersection, which has the most space available for such a facility.

Curve and wide road of New Elston Avenue

On “New Elston Avenue,” between Fullerton and Damen, there are two regular lanes and one bike lane in each direction. The widening of Elston was not justified. The high radius curve on New Elston Avenue on the east side of the project, and two regular lanes in each direction, will likely cause higher-speed traffic than bicyclists are used to on many roads on which they travel in great numbers. Automobile drivers speeding around the curve may enter the bike lanes. This is a good case for protected bike lanes at least on this part of the roadway. Thank you to A. Lottes for pointing out the curve to me.

Removing the  center island

Some commenters on The Expired Meter have suggested removing the tinny center island (as well as removing the second stop bar and signal every road user passes over) and converting it to a simple six-way intersection like Lincoln-Ashland-Belmont. While doing so may reduce delays or the number of crashes, it would probably fail to do both. I think it should be a considered alternative.

Queue backups caused by Fullerton-highway ramp intersection

The plan does not address the westbound queue backups that start at the Fullerton intersection with the I-90/I-94 highway ramp. Westbound drivers constantly and consistently block the Fullerton intersections with Damen and Elston while waiting to go through the signal at the highway ramp. This intersection is outside the project area but pivotal in its success at reducing delays, at least with the “remaining,” new intersection at Damen.

More information

The end of the presentation said that all exhibit materials would be on the City’s website, but I didn’t find all the poster boards, so here are most of them in my Flickr photoset. I assume they would be posted here.

Photos

A visualization of the crash history (only automobiles and pedestrian types included) at the intersection.

Bird’s eye view of preferred alternative.