Dividing a small part of a business district, centered on one street, into three fiefdoms cannot be an efficient way to govern a neighborhood, aggregate resources, or provide services.
This graphic illustrates how many elected “stakeholders” – each with their own ideas – a city transportation department and its contracted engineers have to deal with to repave a street and rebuild the sidewalks.
The constituents are the same, however. They are all small business owners, and if you want to get together and advocate for change, you’ll have to make three different appointments.
Say the first elected official supports your small group’s proposal. Are they going to talk to the next door elected official and collaborate?
Naw. Not in Chicago. This is the city where a bike lane will be repaired on a street, but only up to the point where the fiefdom boundary ends, because the next official didn’t want to pay for the maintenance on their side.
I can see one situation where having three boundaries is good: Say one of the official is really good, responsive to needs, pushes for street upgrades, spends their discretionary funds in ways that you like, and attracts more businesses to locate there.
The next door official, however, isn’t as responsive or “good”, but they want those businesses to locate on their side of the street. They’ll become better, in essence, competing.
I don’t think this happens in Chicago, because you’ll tend to have officials who are about the same.
People wait at a stop light on the first major ring road in the city center of Amsterdam. Photo: Northeastern University, Boston
I was flabbergasted to learn today that there are only 5,500 signalized intersections in all of the Netherlands. I was reading Mark’s blog “Bicycle Dutch” and he interviewed a city traffic signal engineer in Den Bosch, who described how different road users are prioritized at different times based on the complex programming. (Watch the video below.)
In Chicago there are more than 3,000 signalized intersections. And I believe this is way more than we need.
I understand more than the average person how traffic moves in each place and how it “works”. There is such a thing as too many traffic signals because at some point the signals (their proximity and their programming) start causing delays and conflicts.
Saying that traffic – of all kinds, bikes, trucks, buses, delivery vans, and personal vehicles – moves better in cities in the Netherlands than in Chicago is an understatement.
Aside from their impacts on traffic (which can be good in some situations, but aggravating existing problems in other places), signals are very expensive to purchase, install, and maintain.
In Chicago, an alderman (city councilor) can use part of their $1.3 million “menu” money annual allocation to purchase a traffic signal for $300,000. That’s money that won’t be used for transportation investments that reduce the number of severe traffic crashes as well as reduce congestion like bus lanes and protected bike lanes.
I compared their populations (about 17 million in the Netherlands and 2.7 million in Chicago) and saw that Chicago has a lot more traffic signals per person.
On Twitter, however, I was challenged to find the number of traffic signals per mile driven, not per capita.
So, I did, and I was surprised by the result.
This assumes I collected the right statistics, and converted the driving figures correctly.
The surprise: There are more passenger miles driven (known as VMT) in the Netherlands, per capita, than in Chicago. I actually can’t even get passenger miles driving in Chicago – I can only find “all miles” driven. And that includes trips on interstates that pass through Chicago but where the driver or passengers don’t stop in Chicago.
Here’s the analysis, though.
According to the OECD, there were 145,400 million kilometers driven on roads, for passenger transport, excluding bus coaches, in the Netherlands in 2013 (the latest year for which data was available in the Netherlands). That’s 145.4 billion kilometers. (Source, no permalink.)
According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, there were 11,150,109 thousand miles for all kinds of road transport, in Chicago in 2013. That’s 11.2 billion miles, which converts to 17.9 billion kilometers. (Source)
In 2013, the Netherlands had 16,804,430 inhabitants (they had declared reaching 17,000,000 this year), according to the OECD.
In 2013, the City of Chicago had 2,706,101 inhabitants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009-2013 ACS 5-year estimate.
I took this photo outside the café Memory Lane in Rotterdam because the man in the white shirt was standing in the “middle” of this intersection for a couple of minutes. Before he took this position, he was walking slowly across the intersection to the opposite corner as his car. He’s a livery driver, and he appeared to be waiting for his passenger.
This intersection is raised (the sidewalk is level with the road surface), and is uncontrolled (there are no traffic signals, stop signs, or yield signs). A bicyclist or motorist can pass through this intersection without having to stop unless someone is walking, or a bike or car is coming from their right.
This junction has no crosswalks, either. And no one honks. Especially not at the man who’s in the roadway.
Because he’s not in the roadway. He’s in a street, and streets are different. Streets are places for gathering, socializing, eating, connecting, traveling, and shopping. There was plenty of space for him to stand here, and for everyone else – including other motorists who were in their cars – to go about their business.
One of the people in this photo is Dutch. We’re on the Dearborn bike route installed downtown in 2012. The next downtown protected bike route was installed in 2015 serving a different area. However, the Dearborn bike route has become so popular that it’s size and design (t’s a narrow, two-way lane) are insufficient for the demand (who knew that bicycling in a city center would be so high in demand, especially on a protected course?) and there are no plans to build a complementary facility to improve the conditions.
My friend Mark wrote the following paragraph on his blog, BICYCLE DUTCH, relating the need to change a city and its streets to the way families change the contents of essential parts of their homes. In other words, cities and streets are like our living rooms and they must also change as we change.
Think about your living room, chances are you change it completely every 15 to 20 years. Because you need a wider sofa for the expanding family, or because you rightfully think that table has had its best years. Maybe the extra big seat for granddad is sadly not needed anymore. Of course, things can’t always be perfect: you have a budget to consider and it is not so easy to change the walls. Replacing things does give you the opportunity to correct earlier mistakes and to get the things which are more useful now. While you are at it, you can also match the colours and materials better again. Our cities are not so different from our living rooms. Just as families grow and later decrease in size again when the children leave the house, the modal share of the different types of traffic users changes over the years. These shifting modal shares warrant changes to the street design. So you may need some extra space where it was not necessary before, but if you see less and less of a certain type of traffic, its space can be reallocated to other road users.
What I really want to talk about is the rate of change in the Netherlands. I’ve visited Mark’s home in s’Hertogenbosh (Den Bosch), and we’ve walked around Utrecht.
One thing he told me, which is widely evident, is that the Netherlands is always renewing its streets. Or it has been for decades (maybe since World War II). They update street design standards regularly and streets that no longer meet these designs (or a few generations back) are updated to meet them.
Now, the two changes – updating the standards and updating the streets – don’t happen so gloriously hand in hand. Just like in the United States it takes a couple of years to come up with the right design.
The difference between our two countries is the regularity in updating the designs, and the regularity in updating streets.
I’ll lead with one example in Chicago and ask that you tell me about projects in your city that repair what’s long been a pain in the ass.
An intersection in the Wicker Park neighborhood got modern traffic signals, added crosswalk signals (there had never been any), and a stupid, sometimes dangerous little island removed. One of the four legs didn’t have a marked crosswalk. The state of Illinois chipped in most of the cost of the update – this was known at least four years before the construction actually happened.
When I wrote a blog post about the project for Grid Chicago in 2012, I found a photo from 1959 that showed the intersection in the same configuration. I also wrote in that post that the construction was delayed from 2012 to 2013. Well, it got built in 2014.
Intersections like this – with difficult-to-see traffic signals that motorist routinely blow past, missing crosswalks, and curb ramps that aren’t accessible – persist across Chicago in the state they’ve been in for 55 or more years.
The “reconstructed bicycle route” that Mark discusses and illustrates in his blog post is known to have been updated at least once a decade. He wrote, “pictures from 1980, 1998 and 2015 show how one such T-junction was changed several times. The protected intersection went through some stages, but having learned by trial and error, the design we see now is one that fits the present ‘family’ best.”
Three books by well-known city transportation planners have all been published within months of each other. I read and reviewed Sam Schwartz’s “Street Smart”, and I’m reading Janette Sadik-Khan’s “Street Fight“. Gabe Klein’s “Startup City” is the third. All of them advocate for new designs to match the changing attitudes and needs cities have. Actually, the needs of the cities haven’t really changed, but our attitudes and policies – and the politics – around how to update cities has evolved.
I don’t know what can spur all of these seemingly minor (they’re no Belmont Flyover) infrastructural updates. I don’t think a lack of money is to blame. I think a lack of coordination, staffing, and planning ensures that outdated and unsafe designs remain on city streets.
P.S. The Netherlands “renewal” attitude isn’t limited to streets. The Dutch national railway infrastructure company “ProRail” (which is “private” but owned by the government) has been completely replacing all of the primary train stations. The Dutch have been rebuilding dikes and building flood control projects for decades, many under the common name “Delta Works”.
Here’s a photo in Nijmegen where the government was building a new, bypass canal that would ease a shipping route, create a controlled flood area, a new recreation area, but that would also displace homes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.