To Make Cycling Accessible, Milwaukee Needs Continuous Protection

Issues with biking on Milwaukee towards Kinzie
Milwaukee will need continuous protection for cyclists to prevent the kind of hazards -- like bike lane-blocking trucks -- which keep people from riding.

The Chicago Department of Transportation is proposing to build a protected bike lane on Milwaukee Avenue in River West, connecting the protected bike lane on Elston Avenue with the protected bike lane on Kinzie Avenue. This project could help many more Chicagoans feel safe enough to bike on city streets, but as we reported earlier this week, the local alderman and some businesses on Milwaukee are uneasy about trading parking spaces for a fully protected bikeway, and CDOT is considering alternating between protected and buffered bike lanes. The businesses shouldn’t worry about the redesign: With better parking management and a fully-protected bike lane, Milwaukee will be accessible to more people and customers than it is today.

To make the street truly safe and attract Chicagoans of all ages, the bikeway on Milwaukee needs to be continuously protected, without stretches of buffered bike lane where drivers can double-park. An unbroken protected bike lane is especially important on the stretch between Elston and Kinzie, which would create a safe connection to downtown.

Jennifer James and Doug Hinckley currently ride on Milwaukee, carrying their three sons in a Dutch cargo bike between home in Little Italy and school in Bucktown. But they don’t feel safe riding in the street. James uses the Elston protected bike lane, then jumps on the sidewalk where it ends at North Avenue.

She says that the type of bike lane that CDOT builds on Milwaukee will determine how many people will ride there. “Building a lane that’s not 100 percent protected requires the kind of rider who’s comfortable, if there is such a person, with riding in the door zone and passing double parked automobiles,” James said.

According to a survey that helped guide Portland, Oregon’s bike strategy, 60 percent of people are “interested but concerned” about cycling: They want to ride but don’t feel it’s safe enough. Buffered bike lanes won’t get those Chicagoans to shift trips from driving to biking. Trucks and cars will still end up blocking the lane, and the design still puts cyclists at risk of getting doored. Continuous, protected bike lanes, on the other hand, create the sense of safety that entices large numbers of people to bike.

James added that by building a continuous protected bike lane between the two existing bike lanes, Chicago would, for the first time, be building the network it committed to with the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. “Right now, the Dearborn Street protected bike lane, which my family really likes, is an archipelago because it doesn’t connect to Kinzie Street.” No protected bike lane in Chicago currently connects to another protected bike lane. (The smallest gap now is a short 0.23 miles between Kinzie and Dearborn, which CDOT has expressed interest in closing.)

Meanwhile, Alderman Walter Burnett’s hesitance about the parking loss that would accompany a protected bike lane is misplaced. The double-parking on Milwaukee isn’t evidence that every parking spot must be preserved — it’s a sign that we aren’t managing parking as well as we should.

Open Streets on State Street 2012
Jennifer James and her sons at Open Streets on State Street last fall.

Milwaukee does have a pricing problem, with some bad mismatches between curb prices and parking demand. Parking is metered between Green Street and Halsted Street, where there is just a single retail use (the new European sandwich shop Duran), but there are no meters at all between Erie Street and Chicago Avenue, where there are many commercial and retail uses.

“The only parking crunch is for free, long-term storage of private vehicles,” said Lindsay Bayley, a senior planner at CMAP.

CDOT’s survey into how parking could be consolidated is the right move, and it should also involve looking at how parking is metered. By putting a price on curb parking on the popular sections of Milwaukee, spaces will turn over more frequently, and more customers will have the opportunity to park near their destinations. It will be a de facto increase in the parking supply, making up for the loss of physical spaces. In addition, a business that decides to convert 1-2 car parking spaces to 12-20 bike parking spaces will allow more customers to get to their store.

Preserving parking spaces cannot trump safety and the city’s stated goals of growing transit, bicycling, and walking. A continuous protected bike lane can enhance safety and increase access to businesses on Milwaukee, even if many car parking spaces are removed. That’s the kind of project Chicago has to build — not a protected bike lane network filled with gaps — to get more people on bikes.

  • Erik Swedlund

    The stretch of unmetered parking between Erie and Chicago would be a great place to add metered spaces to replace those that get removed from elsewhere, to satisfy the constraints of the parking meter deal.

  • Adam Herstein

    You mentioned the stretch on Kinzie that CDOT proposed extending to Dearborn. Is there a time frame on that?

  • I presume you mean the *other* Elston & Milwaukee at 6100 north, in which case, yes, wholeheartedly.

  • EndlessMike

    It’s exciting that we are getting at least on the north side what is starting to look like a coherent system of bringing cyclists into downtown with bike laned high usage such as Milwaukee, Elston and Wells combining bike traffic entering the loop into protected lanes. All that’s needed is a protected connection between the Lakefront Trail and the loop.
    If Chicago wants to show it is truly serious though, this new protected lane on Milwaukee should be protected by actual concrete curbs at intersections like the ones in NYC. This would add an air of permanence and respect for the lanes in the city and better protection from automobiles.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Great article Steven! As the abstract from a Mineta Transportation Institute research report points out: ” For a bicycling network to attract the widest possible segment of the population, its most fundamental attribute should be low-stress connectivity, that is, providing routes between people’s origins and destinations that do not require cyclists to use links that exceed their tolerance for traffic stress, and that do not involve an undue level of detour.”

    http://transweb.sjsu.edu/project/1005.html

  • Scott Sanderson

    I completely agree. The buffered lanes, while nicer than nothing, really do not come close to the safety of a protected lane.

  • Julia

    Ditto. I like to see Milwaukee protected lanes be divided by concrete instead of bollards! Has CDOT explored the DC-style in the middle of the street? I’m not sure how the widths work, but that seems to be an effective style too.

  • efe

    They’re going to connect Dearborn to Kinzie, but what’s the point if the Kinzie PBL is going away once construction at Wolf Point begins? Sounds like they need to take Dearborn all the way up to Grand, if that is indeed the designated street to replace Kinzie.

    And if Kinzie is really getting the ax, why is the focus on connecting Milwaukee to the Kinzie PBL?

  • Any removal of Kinzie because of Wolf Point construction is presumed to be temporary, although communication from CDOT regarding this point has been somewhat mixed.

  • Ha, yes. I, too, would like a protected bike lane on Elston between 6100 North and 830 North.

    However, Elston from Armitage to 6100 North (at Milwaukee) is entirely under IDOT’s jurisdiction and they’ve banned protected bike lanes on “their” roads.

  • Here here! We need a safer route to Superdawg…

  • efe

    Yeah, the mixed messages about Kinzie are what I’ve been hearing as well. Regardless, “temporary” closure for Wolf Point construction still seems like it will encompass a period of years, considering they are building 3 high-rises on this site.

  • According to the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan, Kinzie from Wells to Dearborn is scheduled to get its Crosstown Bike Route treatment between May 2012 and May 2013.

  • Jennifer

    But not rumble strip buffered lanes!

  • PBL the entire Knife!

  • “The Knife” refers to the bike route riding the entire length of Elston and then returning on Milwaukee (or vice versa). Look at a map and the name will make sense.

  • I like that I’ve made “PBL” a verb. “That route isn’t very bike friendly. CDOT needs to PBL it.”

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