Elevating the Conversation: Raised Bike Lanes Are Coming to Chicago

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Raised bike lane on Nørrebrogade in Copenhagen, said to be the world's busiest bike street. Photo by John Greenfield.

[This piece also appears in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

I’m a fan of the city’s efforts to get a total of 100 miles of protected bike lanes (which put a physical barrier between cyclists and moving traffic) and buffered bike lanes (conventional bike lanes with extra dead space striped on either side) by 2015. Protected lanes are crucial if we’re going to significantly boost Chicago’s bike mode share because they attract the so-called “interested but concerned” demographic, folks who would like to try urban cycling but are worried about getting hit by cars. The Chicago Department of Transportation deserves kudos for installing 11.4 miles of protected and 18.65 miles of buffered lanes in the last two years.

That said, there are some issues with Chicago-style protected lanes, created by moving the parking lane to the left of the bike lane, which is delineated by flexible plastic posts, so that the parked cars serve as the barrier. For example, this configuration makes it harder for right-turning drivers to see cyclists, which can result in the dreaded “right hook” crash. It’s common for motor vehicles, especially cabs and delivery trucks, to drive and park in protected lanes. And curbside asphalt tends to be in worse shape than the rest of the road and often has poor drainage, as demonstrated by the slush-filled puddles in the Dearborn Street protected lanes this winter.

European-style raised bicycle lanes, elevated a few inches above street level and sometimes located an inch or two below the sidewalk, could solve all of these problems. These facilities are the norm in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which each have more than seventeen times our bike mode share. Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan, published in 2006, called for testing raised lanes in two or three locations by 2010, but nothing ever came of this recommendation.

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CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein observes bike traffic in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Photo courtesy of the Green Lane Project.

“Raised bike lanes and other permanent ‘hardscaping’ on our protected bike lanes would be welcome improvements to Chicago’s streets and are a natural next step to make it safer and easier to bike,” said Lee Crandell from the Active Transportation Alliance. “Chicago’s [current] protected bike lanes were created mostly through simple retrofits of existing street infrastructure, enabling the city to achieve significant improvements for biking both rapidly and at a minimal cost … but we would also like to see the city find opportunities to pilot more permanent infrastructure in the near term.”

CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein explained that raised lanes cost roughly $1 million per mile to build, about four times as much as Chicago-style protected lanes. Construction would be much more complicated, and getting approval from federal and state authorities plus local aldermen would be more challenging. But Klein rode on raised lanes during a visit to the Netherlands last October, and he agrees that they would be a big improvement over Chicago’s current lanes.

“I thought [the Dutch raised lanes] were wonderful,” he said. “They make a lot of sense. The interesting thing is, I think when we were in Utrecht, when I showed [local transportation planners] pictures of what we’re doing here, they broke out laughing, not like they were making fun of us but almost in an affectionate way. And I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ And they said, ‘It’s just interesting to look at these pictures of your bike lanes because this is exactly what we were doing forty years ago.’”

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Newly constructed raised bike lane in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy of Copenhagenize.com.

“The mainstreaming of cycling as a basic part of [American] transportation infrastructure is a new thing in the last decade,” Klein said. “And so the infrastructure now has to catch up. So what you see is, like in D.C. or here or New York, first you start with striping, and then you add some inexpensive plastic posts. Then you move to concrete or other forms of hardscaping. And then you’re going to move to rebuilding streets with the bike lane not as an afterthought but as an integral part of the infrastructure.”

Klein surprised me by revealing that CDOT actually plans to install Chicago’s first raised bike lane within the next year. He declined to say which streets his department is considering because they’re still in negotiations with the Illinois Department of Transportation and other agencies. But he said the potential locations are on streets that already have high levels of cycling, where he’s confident the local aldermen will get behind the plan and there won’t be a major backlash from residents.

Milwaukee Avenue, more or less, fits that description, and CDOT plans to build protected bike lanes on that street this spring between Elston Avenue and Kinzie Street. But Klein said it’s much cheaper to install raised bike lanes on roadways that are undergoing a full-depth reconstruction, which involves resetting utility lines and drainage, since building the lanes requires moving the curb and gutter. Milwaukee is not scheduled for this kind of reconstruction, but we can expect to see Chicago’s first raised lane built on another popular biking street that is. “In the future, if we’re reconstructing, and it makes sense, and we can work it out with the authorities, we’d like to see raised bike lanes become the standard,” he said.

I wouldn’t have blamed Klein if he’d decided to shelve plans for raised bike lanes until after CDOT meets its 100-mile goal, but I was stoked to hear they’ve returned to the front burner. “We can look at blanketing the city with [Chicago-style protected and buffered bike lanes] and, as we do street reconstructions, also start to dip our toe into a more permanent hardscaped design strategy,” he said. “We’re very capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.”

  • Scott Sanderson

    wow, this would be huge

  • Yes, it will be great if this pans out. Any guess which streets are under consideration?

  • Maybe an expansion on Elston from North Avenue, up to Cortland or Ashland? It’s not in the best of shape and there are few residents to contend with.

    Perhaps it could even inspire IDOT to incorporate better bike facilities into the Damen/Elston/Fullerton reconstruction up the road.

  • It’s probably safe to assume it won’t be an IDOT-jurisdiction roadway, since they’re not even letting CDOT put Chicago-style protected lanes on IDOT streets. Here’s some background on the issue: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/02/05/idot-blocks-protected-bike-lanes-on-several-chicago-streets-until-2014/

  • I didn’t think so, but based on that map, there’s still that .7 mile stretch of Elston between Le Moyne and Ashland that’s under CDOT jurisdiction and is still wanting for new bike lanes (since the old conventional lanes have all but worn away).

    I think that’d a decent choice, especially since it’d connect the Cortland lane (one of the best river river crossings, IMO) with a straight shot to downtown. I think it’d be really valuable for the West Lincoln Park and Bucktown residents in the area.

  • Maybe Lower Randolph from the Lakefront Trail to Michigan? Or Monroe from LSD to Michigan? Both are overbuilt for existing motor vehicle demand. However, those are both not scheduled for their upgrades until May 2014-May 2015, and that’s not “within the next year”. Wherever the raised lane goes in, it will be great to see, and hopefully just the beginning of a lot more to come.

  • Between Cortland and Ashland there are no bike lanes, and there’s that awful northbound right turn lane.

  • Mike

    Would this be the first grade-separated bike lane in the US?

  • Nope, they exist in NYC, Indianapolis, Tempe, Eugene and Bend, Oregon, and probably some other towns.

  • Mike

    Milwaukee

  • Adam Herstein

    Does a “Chicago-style protected lane” come with mustard? :-)

    This is great news; I can’t wait to ride in one! Any word on replacing the bollards with a curb on Dearborn?

  • Matt Trauner

    Halsted from Greektown up through North Ave could use a complete rebuild, has wide streets with plenty of space for a bike lane, and doesn’t have any protected lanes yet. It would be ideal for people commuting from Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Crossing my fingers for that?

  • I suppose Chicago-style isn’t the best way to describe them, since they existing in lots of other cities, but it was a simple way to contrast them with Euro-style.

    Here’s what Klein said about concrete on Dearborn at last month’s MBAC meeting: “In terms of vehicles in the lanes we have to experiment with the right number of poles,” Klein said. “It’s nice that we’re not using concrete
    [bollards] yet which allows us to make changes. We talked about putting a
    delineator right at the entrance [to the bike lanes at each intersection.] We decided to try it without that and see if we need it. Ithink you’ll see some changes next year.”

    I’ll try to stay on top of the Dearborn situation.

  • Adam Herstein

    Great, thanks!

  • Adam Herstein

    Wells is being repaved this summer and is a major bike route from the North Side.

  • I read recently that Somerville, MA plans to add bike infrastructure on Beacon St. next year. My understanding is that part of it will be a grade-separated lane, and parts will be buffered or sharrow, depending on road width and allocation for parking.

  • Alzo

    This is fine if it respects the essential topographic problem of Chicago: drainage.

  • Yes, the drainage issue is largely why CDOT wants to build these on streets that are having the curb and gutter rebuilt anyway.

  • Charlie

    Yup there are some in Cambridge, MA: Vassar St and Concord Ave and soon Western Ave!

  • Which part of Wells?

  • Adam Herstein

    The section between North and Division that contractors ripped up and filled in with shoddy concrete.

  • Adam Herstein

    The section between North and Division that contractors ripped up and
    filled in with shoddy concrete.

  • The concrete isn’t really shoddy, but not floated enough. Floating is just dragging a flat bar across the surface several times to pull up the water that smooths out the top.

    But it feels shoddy.

  • Adam Herstein

    Agreed – It’s a terrible surface for riding. I have switched my route home to Franklin/Orleans because of this.

  • Tim

    Grade separation refers to junctions and means one route going under or over the other using a bridge, tunnel, or other similar means. A “few inches” will not cut it, unless you have very short cars in Chicago.

    Please at least have the decency to read the Wikipedia article on a term before providing a patronising and completely incorrect definition of it.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_separation

    Given the use of the term in quotes here there is a worrying amount of ignorance from people who should know better.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know about this. IDOT’s intransigence is unfortunate, but it’s possible that they only care about what happens between curbs, since lane striping is traditionally under the purview of the AASHTO/FHWA/Big Asphalt alliance.

    A raised bike lane is essentially part of the sidewalk and it can be treated like a streetscaping project. IDOT allows unique streetscaping all the time.

  • Good point. Here’s hoping that IDOT interprets the issue this way.

  • This happens too often—roads are cut open, and then filled up shoddily, and more often than not it’s left like that for eternity. Not such a big deal if you drive a Hummer, I guess. Murder on my bike and back.

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