Improvements in store for the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection

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.


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.



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


Bird’s eye view of preferred alternative.

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.
  • Aaron U. Salmon

    Excellent breakdown of the plans. I too was concerned about the lack of damen bike lane leading up to the intersection. That’s a difficult, packed area to navigate through on the bike… probably even more so when all the cars won’t be stopped for such long periods of time between lights.

    • Steven Vance

      I’d like to know more about the designers’ “consideration” of a bike lane addition on Damen in the .26 miles where one doesn’t exist. It’s really dumb to have disconnected bike lanes like this on a single street – people will still ride, so why not give them a comfortable place to do it?

      • Aaron U. Salmon

        Big time. Maybe they could remove those 8 parking spots on the southbound side… that might free up enough room to add a bike lane on each side of damen.

        Side note: It looks like this plan could lead to significant amount riverfront access to be reclaimed. There’s already 30′ of “Greenway Zone” guaranteed with any new river construction but there could be even more of room between the new Elston and the river to make amazing. that could be cool.

        • Steven Vance

          Parking removal could be an option. The sidewalks on both sides of Damen south of Fullerton are being widened from 8 feet to 12 feet (FYI).

          There was no mention of a riverwalk in any of the documents or presentation. Some attendees were talking to each other about it.

          I suggest you make a comment. Click on the “email Bridget Stall” link above to send a comment that will make it to the public record.

          • Aaron U. Salmon

            Nice. Emailed her a list of ideas and concerns. Thanks.

  • Ash L

    The space between the two lights at Damen still seems minimal and though I’m sure they’ll talk a big game about synchronized lights there will always be vehicles blocking intersections in heavy traffic which is 90% of the problem now. I also take issue with what will become an Elston frontage road (the sliver south of Fullerton by the D&D). What will prevent drivers from making rights or lefts here instead of cruising further to the new true through-street? Will drivers attempt to use this as a short cut/speed strip?

    Cyclists on Elston will also have the added PITA of additional lights and what may end up being a dangerous curve in the beginning when drivers are used to a straight-away.

    I really would have preferred an overpass option for this intersection or an elimination of the refuge island and dedicated left turn lights for each direction leaving one large but function intersection ie irving/damen or the not so wonderful belmont/lincoln.

    • Steven Vance

      I have updated my article, adding a section called “Other questions to ask” that attempt to address the issue of the curve.

      I also want to know if a roundabout was considered for any or all of the intersections.

  • jason tinkey

    I don’t really know what to make of this plan. Any change would be a slight improvement, but my problem is that they are starting with the problem of motorized traffic delays and then working down to everybody else. It should be starting with the most vulnerable users. A roundabout with a separated bike lane outside the ring would ameliorate both problems, but this is a car-centric solution. And heaven forbid we should ask drivers to modify their behavior in any way.

    My ideal:

    Like you said, Complete Streets needs to be taken more seriously. Of course, if they would just remove the expressway, probably half the surface traffic at this intersection would disappear.

    • Steven Vance

      I’m still trying to find information on how many automobiles a roundabout can handle – what is its capacity?

      With fewer delays, would taking the bus become more attractive? Would people switch to it, knowing the bus now makes the same trip in 5 minutes less time?

      The plan says nothing about the backups caused by the signal at the highway ramp with Fullerton. If you observe the intersection, the drivers queuing at the ramp intersection block traffic Damen and Elston. I bet if you asked the project manager about this, they would say “it’s not in the project area.” (Which is true, but irrelevant to the question.)

      • jason tinkey

        Depends on how big the roundabout is, look at the Place de l’Etoile in Paris, or similar ones in Mexico City or Rome. This project wouldn’t necessitate something even close to that scale. I was looking for, but unable to find, a video I saw of a public square in the Netherlands (I think?) with a roundabout around the outside that allowed buses and taxis to bypass through the center. It seemed to work very well.

        As for the expressway, I would wager that a decent percentage of the traffic is either headed to or coming from the access ramps on Fullerton. Perhaps some of it could be relieved by constructing a bypass route between Elston & Fullerton to the west of the intersection.

        • Steven Vance

          I don’t understand the location of the bypass. Can you draw it?

          • jason tinkey

            Not being an engineer, I don’t know where the best spot for it would be. Just looking at a map of the area, I was envisioning something to the west of the tennis club. Perhaps building through the existing dead-end block of Leavitt to link up with Fullerton just east of the train embankment.

      • jason tinkey

        Another thing that just occurred to me, even if those double intersections have synced streetlights, there will be instances (probably several each day) when cars get stuck between them as the cycle changes, and gun it to avoid getting stopped. Especially if they’re coming off that curve on Elston, oncoming traffic on Fullerton will be blind to them and this will be a new source of conflict.

        • Steven Vance

          I think if the delays are really reduced, and the intersection becomes more “reliable,” roadway users will adjust their behavior and respect it more.

          But I could be wrong!

          I think the project needs to go back to the drawing board.

          • jason tinkey

            We are talking about Chicago drivers here, remember? ;)

          • Steven Vance

            With the right infrastructure, anything can be changed. Especially separated and protected bike lanes… ;)