Tagpublic space

#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.

Daley Plaza is the “realest” public space in Chicago

People in Daley Plaza from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

I find that Daley Plaza is Chicago’s “realest” public space in the city. Real in the tradition of public spaces in cities around the world where history is made in the form of speeches and protests and where people are not afraid to occupy the space to relax, be idle, chat, and eat. Also real in that the legally space is owned by the city, and by extension its citizens, but never its corporations. Real in that commercial interests for that space are maintained. Real in that people have adopted the space as a natural, close, and unblocked meeting point.

Where Daley Plaza isn’t a real public space is that it is surrounded by roaring machines on three sides (the fourth doesn’t function as part of the plaza). It becomes less peaceful because of the metal boxes hurtling through space at every edge and vertex of the granite.

Millennium Park fails as a public space because it has rules. Because private security enforces these rules and bothers guests for the most normal of activities. The space is managed by contract from the city to a corporation. It has hours of use. You surely can’t protest, let alone ride a bike. Half of it was paid for by the names that adorn its features.

In Millennium Park, and many other corporate “plazas”, you can be told to leave.

Panorama of Daley Plaza during Critical Mass in March 2013. 

It would be disingenuous of me to only compare Millennium Park as an example of real public space in Chicago. It’s the extreme opposite of Daley Plaza in the spectrum of public spaces here. Grant Park is closer to Daley Plaza, but lacks the closeness, the tight feeling that you are in a community of other humans. There are smaller spaces that would be in the same vein as Daley Plaza, like Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square, and Federal Plaza just down the street at Adams. There are plenty of smaller examples, like the sidewalks and tiny plazas at Blue Island, Loomis, and 18th Street.

Daley Plaza’s water fountain near the southwest corner does a good job of masking the rumbling automobile engines and tires rubbing on the pavement. It provides stimulation for other senses, including vision (the water seems infinite!) and tactile perception (the water has a temperature and a texture against the skin).

I wrote this on June 18, 2013. I have a tendency to draft articles and then not publish for a long time. I have a draft about Berlin, Germany, from September 2012. 

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