TagElston Avenue

Intersections are long!

There are many intersections in Chicago that are so long that, while cycling, I can enter it (by passing the stop bar) on a green light, be in it during the entire 3-second yellow phase, and exit the intersection after it’s been red for several seconds.

I don’t like this. I think it puts me at risk. We could make our intersections shorter or we could increase the length of the yellow and all-red phases. One of these intersections is Elston Avenue at Ashland Avenue. Going southbound on Elston Avenue, the distance from the west side to the east side is about 200 feet. Traveling at 14 MPH (because you didn’t have to stop, it was green when you arrived), that will take you 9.75 seconds to cross. Some people will be traveling faster but at this point you’re also riding uphill because of the railroad viaduct you just crossed under.

Traveling at 17 MPH, it will take you 8 seconds to cross – you’ll still be in the intersection when it’s red!

No more drive throughs, please

People drive their cars in and out of the parking lot for Micro Center, Joann Fabrics, and other stores in this strip mall on Elston Avenue. This design is almost inherently unfriendly to bicycle and walking transportation. But it doesn’t have to be. 

One reason that makes dense, urban areas pleasant and pleasurable is their walkability, variations in land uses, and architectural designs. When you walk down Belmont Street at Sheffield and encounter a new business or restaurant every 25 feet, you’re interested. Interested and curious in what others are doing, what new food you can eat, or what you will experience.

Photo of Belmont Street shopping and graffiti by Oscar Arriola. 

The opposite of this is Elston Avenue, between Ashland and Western Avenues. This stretch is marked by curb cuts, driveways, and seas of parking. Add in the lack of a bus route or nearby ‘L’ station, and you’ve got an environment that’s downright hostile to users of sustainable transportation modes.

I am still doing research for my article on the “pedestrian street” designation. In my research, I’ve learned a lot about the Zoning Board of Appeals, Special Use Permits, and drive throughs. I still haven’t been able to locate studies or reports about the effects drive throughs have on traffic or neighborhoods.

Just in the past 5 days, I’ve found out about the following news:

  1. The McDonald’s at Western Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue (1951 N Western Avenue) is seeking a special use permit. For what, I don’t know. It could just be a rumor. This is the same McDonald’s whose drive through someone so desperately needed to access and almost hit me with their SUV (see image below).
  2. Nodarse Family, LLC, is seeking a special use permit at 1646-1663 N Western Avenue for “the establishment of a one-lane drive-thru facility to serve a proposed 1-story restaurant”.

When I look at Street View for the 1646-1663 N Western location I see several homes and an empty lot with a car parked in it. The address seems to be a mistake, as 1663 is across the street. And even though this is a residential area, it’s zoned B3-2*.

In Mayor Emanuel’s “interest” (more like a selective, here not there, interest) for transparency, I’d like to see information that’s easier to find and process. For news from Zoning Board of Appeals, a blog-like website that lists all permits being considered and permits recently issued would be very helpful. I could subscribe via RSS and get notified of special use applications.

What’s a special use permit?

A special use permit is needed when the developer doesn’t have the right to build something that requires a special use permit. Like establishments for day laborers. Or drive throughs. Or businesses that sell liquor. Or a pawn shop. Speaking of pawn shops, Nodarse Family, LLC, owns the property 2826 N Milwaukee, for which the owner is seeking a special use permit to open one. This is in the 35th Ward, the same ward whose Alderman seems to have it out to build as much parking as can be built. You can see these applications on the ZBA’s agendas.

I’m not a fan of drive throughs.

B3-2: “Community shopping – destination oriented, no limit on size of commercial establishment. Allows dwelling units above ground floor.”

Friday is final day for comments about Damen-Elston-Fullerton

Tomorrow, Friday, May 13, 2011, is the final day to email comments to Bridget Stalla, project manager for the Damen-Elston-Fullerton reconfiguration.

What should you do?

  1. Read an overview of the project and my analysis
  2. View photos of the posters at April’s open house to understand what will and won’t change
  3. Think of what you like or don’t like about the project
  4. Email your comments to Bridget: bridget.stalla@cityofchicago.org
  5. Think about posting your comments here.

My draft comments

Here’s what I plan to email Bridget tomorrow:

  1. Bike lane on Damen – There should be a bike lane on Damen connecting the two ends north and south of Fullerton. Additionally, the bike lane should go THROUGH both intersections. See an example of a “through bike lane” in this photo. Too often bicyclists in Chicago are “dropped off” at intersections, left to fend for themselves and get caught in the same problems as automobiles. But automobiles and bicycles are different kinds of vehicles and need different treatments and direction.
  2. Roundabout – Was a roundabout considered for any of the three intersections? What were the results of this analysis? A modern, turbo roundabout should be given serious consideration for at least one of the three intersections.
  3. Curve and wide road on 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.
  4. Removing the center island – Was removing the center island an alternative the project team considered?
  5. Queue backups caused by Fullerton-highway ramp intersection – The project area should be expanded to include the intersection to the west of the project area, at Fullerton/Kennedy 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.

A bird’s eye view of the new configuration.

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.

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.

Milwaukee Avenue versus Elston Avenue

I moved to Avondale (north of Logan Square) in the final weekend of January 2011. I didn’t want to abandon Bridgeport but I didn’t want to find a new roommate and a great opportunity opened up. I miss Bridgeport.

So now my daily riding to friends’ houses, bars, clubs, UIC, or the library, happens most often on Milwaukee Avenue. Both are diagonal streets but I live 1.6 kilometers from Milwaukee Avenue and 350 meters from Elston Avenue. To be more efficient, I should more often ride on Elston Avenue.

So why do I prefer Milwaukee Avenue? In response to a thread on The Chainlink, “Milwaukee v. Elston,” I posted a photo essay with each photo documenting and describing problems that collectively are unique to Elston Avenue. The series starts with a photo of the Ashland/Elston/Armitage intersection and moves northbound through the Elston Avenue Strip Mall Zoo* ending at Diversey and Western Avenues.

Riding through this intersection is like being a gazelle in a savannah with hungry lions. At least for 340 feet. There are so many opportunities to get hit by a car, especially going northbound right before reaching Ashland Avenue (not pictured).

View the rest of the photos in “Why I don’t like riding on Elston.”

*Strip malls are terrible urban design. They’re inhospitable to everyone, even those who drive. At some point every visitor will be walking through a parking lot to get to the front door, risking life and limb, breathing fumes, and walking through leaked automobile oil.

Afterword: The Chicago bike crash map shows few crashes on Elston Avenue relative to Milwaukee Avenue. But the number of people cycling on Elston Avenue is unknown – we cannot make a comparison.

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