Tagprotected bike lanes

#Space4Cycling: Chicago needs intuitive bike lanes and other street markings

Two bicyclists take different routes around this driver blocking the bike lane with their car

In this case at Milwaukee and Green, space was made and well-marked for cycling but no space was outlined for driving. The driver of the black car must pull up this far to see beyond the parked silver car. In the Netherlands they’ve come up with a solution that would work here: shift the green bike lane toward the crosswalk so that the motorist crosses the crosswalk and bike lane at the same time and has space to wait to turn left between the bike lane and the travel lane.

What does an intuitive bike lane or other street marking mean?

It means that the street user can reasonably (yeah) guess, and guess right, what they’re supposed to do.

For bicyclists in Chicago, the lack of bike lane markings that continue to the edge of an intersection (often demarcated at the stop bar) creates an unintuitive bike lane design.

At intersections, an intuitive bike lane design would mean that the bicyclist and the motorist know where and how to position their vehicles in respect to the other, even if there isn’t a car there yet, or there’s not a bike there yet. Many intersections in Chicago that have protected bike lanes do this; especially the ones with separate signal phases. And these intersections work really well for bicyclists: they stand safely away from motorists, and motorists don’t attempt to occupy these spaces.

Inverted sharrow

The “sharrow before and after the intersection because the city dropped the bike lane” is the most common “didn’t make space for cycling” problem. There was plenty of space to make for cycling here, and nearly every other “sharrow…” situation: it’s along the curb and it’s subsidized, curbside parking for drivers.

But currently at dozens, if not hundreds, of Chicago intersections where the bike lane drops before the intersection, you’ll see bicyclists behave and maneuver in several ways, none of which are accommodated by the street’s design.

Some people will bike between two lanes of cars to the front of the line, and when they get there, lacking a bike box or advanced stop line, they’ll stand with their bike in the area between the crosswalk and the stop bar. If the first car is over the stop bar, then people will usually stand with their bike on the crosswalk.

Riding north on Damen towards Fullerton-Elston

The sharrow painted on the pavement, and an accompanying sign saying, “shared lane – yield to bikes” are unintuitive because no one can occupy the same space at the same time, and the symbols don’t communicate who gets first right to a specific part of the road space. In the end, though, in a situation like this, I’ve never seen someone wait back this far on their bike, and many will consider riding on the sidewalk to get to the front. When they get there, though, they won’t find any #space4cycling.

Others will bike between a lane of cars and the curb to get to the front of the line.

New buffered bike lane on Halsted just ends

This is another version of the “sharrow before and after the intersection because the city dropped the bike lane”. Why’d they drop it in this instance? To make space for Halsted Street drivers turning right, and to push more drivers northward through its intersection with Clybourn Avenue.

Others will wait to the side of drivers, and other still will wait behind a line of cars, putting themselves at a major time disadvantage as the people who biked up to the front. Not to mention they’ll choke on more fumes.

Then, when the light turns green, motorists behave differently. Some will follow behind the first bicyclist, while others will try to pass but closely because they’re essentially sharing a lane side-by-side – this exerts a lot of mental stress on the bicyclist.

Where the city has built space that’s absolutely not to be shared (meaning it’s for the exclusive use by people bicycling), then the designs are substandard because they still allow or seem open to driving. Otherwise, though, space for cycling that’s “part time” is only usable space for those holding the most power and not for the people riding bikes who need it.

frankling at washington bike lane (composite image)

In this new design that built a “protected intersection” for bicyclists going north on Franklin and east on Washington Street, the bike space is still a drivable area. (Top photo by Kevin Zolkiewicz; bottom photo by Skip Montanaro)

These deficiencies in Chicago’s bike lane network are often the result of failing to make, or make well, space for cycling from space used for parking or turn lanes.

Bicycling on the Dearborn Street bike lane

Three years after the City of Chicago built the novel and well-used two-way cycle track on one-way Dearborn, this situation north of the track still exists. And somehow they expect drivers on a 4-lane road to travel at 20 MPH.

This is 2015 and we continue to “not make space for cycling” despite every policy that calls for making bicycling in Chicago safe and convenient so that more people will do it. It’s just that in the unwritten policies it says that you can implement that policy if it doesn’t impede driving*.

* The City of Chicago has built many road diets (a reduction in the number of travel lanes) in the last four years, and some before that. A few of these have worked well for bicyclists, like on 55th and Vincennes where they built protected and buffered bike lanes, respectively (and Dearborn through the Loop).

I put road diets in a note after “impede driving” because they’re only done where they also won’t make local traffic more congested on that street or an intersecting streets.

On the face of it, that’s exactly what many people believe they’ll do because a road diet removes or converts lanes and that’s seen as the same as reducing car capacity which will shift that car traffic to other streets. That pretty much doesn’t happen and the city only implements road diets on streets that have MORE capacity than is used.

Why the next downtown Chicago cycle track shouldn’t be two-way

Divvying in a suit and a skirt

Riding south, in the gutter pan, on Dearborn’s two-way cycle track.

 

There are many problems inherent to having a two-way cycle track (or protected bike lane) on a one-way street in a busy urban center. I’ll list them here to convince you that the next time the Chicago Department of Transportation proposes a two-way cycle track on a one-way street you should heavily question it (except in one circumstance I’ll outline in the discussion).

In two-way cycle tracks on one-way streets…

0. It’s less safe than one-way cycle tracks on one or both sides of a street. (See OECD passage below.)

1. It’s hard to pass same-direction cyclists. A cyclist who wishes to pass someone going in the same direction must watch for oncoming traffic, increasing the danger of passing if they miscalculated when they should go and reducing the opportunities to do so. It also presents a hazard for all cyclists, who have to watch out for oncoming cyclists who are passing a same-direction cyclist!

2. It’s unlikely there will be space to offer turn lanes. Busy cycle tracks need turn lanes, to separate cyclists who are going to slow and turn or stop before turning (in the case of pedestrians crossing), and those who are going straight. A turn lane could be accommodated if the cycle track can widen at intersections, but in practice it seems to be easier to split the cycle track into turn and through lanes.

3. It costs more. Opposite direction cyclists can’t use existing traffic signals and must have costly traffic signals with bike symbols (which also cost a lot to program). The need to have a yellow center line also means a two-way cycle track requires more paint.

Erik pointed out in the comments how this isn’t right. I mostly agree, but then I changed my mind on how important this is: The appropriate and best design for a bicycle facility shouldn’t have its quality compromised because of cost.

4. It interferes with decades of intuition gained from crossing one-way streets. Most pedestrians around the world are used to monitoring a single direction of traffic on a one-way street.

5. They’re anti-social. Two-way cycle tracks are narrower than one-way cycle tracks because the city street engineers likely have the same space to work whether they allow one- or two-way cycling. This means you can’t cycle and chat next to a friend.

6. They require that someone has to ride in the gutter. When two-way cycle tracks are built curbside on existing roadways, one direction of cyclists will always have to ride in the gutter, a slanted area of the road filled with water and debris. We could eliminate this by building raised cycle tracks with a new drainage system (either drain into the roadway, or into new grates).

7. There’s less room to avoid obstacles. If there’s a rock, pothole, or upraised manhole cover in your path, you go around it. But if there’s someone coming in the other direction you’ll just have to hit it and take the beating.

8. They don’t provide cyclists access to both sides of a street that has destinations on both sides. This is a conditional item, and moot if the options are a two-way cycle track on one-side or a one-way cycle track on one side. A cycle track on each side of a one-way street will provide bicycle access to destinations on both sides.

Keep reading for a deeper discussion on the situations where a two-way cycle track could be good.

Note: A two-way cycle track is scheduled to be installed on the left (east) side of southbound Clinton Street as part of CDOT and CTA’s Loop Link bus lanes project.

There may be a place for two-way cycle tracks

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a review of international best practices for growing cycling and keeping cyclists safe (hat tip to Copenhagenize). The authors concluded (page 177):

  • “Bi-directional cycle tracks along roads invariably lead to non-conventional maneuvers at junctions and where such tracks terminate. These situations entail a significant risk of crashes. Two-directional cycle tracks along roads generally should be avoided, unless the advantages are very clear or the space constraints for two unidirectional cycle tracks insurmountable.” [Grand Avenue is under discussion right now and I would say that the street has a lot of excess space. It has a “pair” on Illinois Street, with similar excesses.]
  • Opposite direction cycling on streets where cyclists don’t need linear protection from motor vehicles (because of lower volumes or traffic speeds; like Chicago’s side streets) is a very different ballgame.

None of this is to say that having two single direction cycle tracks, on each side of a one-way street is bad. They’re better than having a two-way cycle track because cyclists would then have a bigger, direct network of good places to ride and reach destinations.

A two-way cycle track to access bike parking at a train station. It wouldn’t make sense here, in a car-free environment, to have a one-way cycle tracks on either side of something in the middle (there wouldn’t be a something in the middle). Photo: Jennifer Judge and Ben Russell

The Dutch have installed many (probably hundreds of) miles of two-way cycle tracks, but they are more akin to our two-way off-street multi-use trails as they’re only mildly aligned with streets, or they’re used in very particular situations – for example, to carry a busy segment of the cycle network on one side of a large road to a bridge on the other – and not in dense, tight, uniformly dimensioned urban street grids that dominate American cities and are rarer in Dutch cities.

Quite often the Dutch will build a two-way cycle track on each side of the street to accommodate their cycle route networks, avoid a busy junction or train station area, work in harmony with intersections that prioritize tram and bus traffic but that can still keep certain directions of cyclists moving without any delay, or to provide access to both sides of a busy retail area. Learn more about the geometry and engineering of two-way cycle track design on Peter Furth’s website.

Speaking of networks, two-way cycle tracks on one-way streets must be integrated into a bicycle route/path network differently. This isn’t to say it cannot be done, but it takes a different and more complicated approach because of the nature of the other streets that would have to be modified to “receive” bicyclists turning off of the two-way cycle track. It has so far not been implemented well in Chicago.

Furth’s website describes the advantages of a two-way cycle track as listed in the Dutch street design manual called CROW. They are convincing! Yet Dearborn Street in Chicago, the first urban two-way cycle track on a one-way street in a big American city, doesn’t fit those criteria. And neither does building two-way cycle tracks on other one-way streets in the central business district.

You wouldn’t have to reject the proposal for another two-way cycle track on a one-way street, though, if there was a single, thoughtful design plan – the evolution of a network proposal like Chicago’s Streets for Cycling Plan – for all of the streets and intersections involved attached with dedicated funds for the appropriate infrastructure redesigns. However, three years after the Dearborn cycle track was installed, it still doesn’t bicycle facilities connecting it to the Kinzie cycle track. There, a network plan and a design plan failed to materialize.

A local example of a complicated and deficient intersection design is that cyclists going northbound on Dearborn Street (a northbound, one-way street with a two-way cycle track) and want to turn east onto two-way Kinzie Street (which has no bicycle facilities) have no way to do so without putting themselves and others at risk or burden.

Here’s how I would make that turn: if the Dearborn light is green, come to a complete stop in the intersection and wait for the Dearborn light to turn red and the Kinzie light to turn green – ignore that I’m blocking northbound cycle traffic. If the Dearborn light is red, signal to cyclists behind you that you’re turning right, and then watch for Kinzie traffic, turn right, and merge into it. Neither situation is preferable.

It’s imperative to redesign intersections when adding cycle tracks, and two-way cycle tracks on one-way streets require a more intensive and complex design but add little to no benefit over having a single, one-way cycle track, or one-way cycle tracks on either side of the street.

This slide from an APBP webinar briefly lists why a two-way cycle track may be better than a one-way cycle track.

This slide from an APBP webinar briefly lists why a two-way cycle track may be better than a one-way cycle track.

P.S. I laughed when I saw these three reasons [PDF] supporting a two-way cycle track over a one-way cycle track, because all of them are the same labels I’ve used to denote the disadvantages of using a two-way cycle track.

  1. Space limitations. Advantage: You don’t have enough room to put in two, appropriate-sized one-way cycle tracks, so you build a two-way cycle track. Disadvantage: Each cyclist now has personal space limitations.
  2. Wrong-way bicyclists. Advantage: You provide a space for people who choose to cycle the wrong way. Disadvantage: A two-way cycle track is less an accommodation for this rider, and more an admission that your cycle network doesn’t accommodate the rider.
  3. Difficult street crossings. Advantage: I don’t think there are any! Disadvantage: Start reading from the top of this post.

Divvy isn’t a real bike

Riding on Divvy in the snow.

Divvy, for the first time in its short, seven-month existence, shut down today at 12 PM on account of the weather and keeping members and workers – who move bikes, shovel snow, and drive vans around town – safe.

Every news media in town reported on the shutdown. Chicagoist, ABC 7, NBC 5, FOX 32, Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times – you name it they had it.

But nothing has been published, except parts of this story from DNAinfo Chicago, that discusses how bicycling – whether on Divvy or your own bike – is very difficult in Chicago winters because of the poor coordination between the Streets & Sanitation and Transportation departments’ snow removal efforts, and the slow pace at which CDOT gets around to removing snow from the protected bike lanes. (I was quoted, alongside someone I recommended the author get in touch with, and we have differing views on the matter.)

In winter the protected bike lanes are the only bikeable kind of bike lane as conventional bike lanes become snow storage areas because plows can’t reach further right when there are parked cars (to avoid knocking off car mirrors).

This problem is not unique to Chicago and other cities have solved it. The cold isn’t why people in Chicago stop biking: it’s that snow and ice make it even more difficult in a region with little, separated (meaning safe and desirable) cycling infrastructure. There are climes with similar and worse winters where a large portion of people who bike in the summer keep biking in the winter. Places like Boulder, Minneapolis, Montréal, and Copenhagen.

A well-plowed, separated bike lane in a Copenhagen winter. Stranded? Put your bike on the back of a taxi (their buses don’t allow bikes).

I think it’s good that news media have recognized Divvy’s position as a transit system in the area, which they do by holding it to the same, weird standard they do Chicago Transit Authority and Metra, and posting about it frequently. When the CTA or Divvy has some marginal or perceived issue with its finances or service, an article gets written. But when it comes to bicycle infrastructure they give the city a pass where it doesn’t deserve one.

The media cares about Divvy, but it doesn’t care about bicycling. It might be the 11,000 Divvy members (more than Active Transportation Alliance or The Chainlink), however, that gets the city to kick up its bike lane snow removal efforts up a notch and I anxiously await that day.

© 2017 Steven Can Plan

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