IDOT Exec on Bike Planning: “We’re Trying to Move Away From Old Cultures”

A meeting attendee asks IDOT to stop barring protected bike lanes on state jurisdiction roads.

At a public meeting about the first state bike plan last night, staff from the Illinois Department of Transportation said the agency is trying to change its culture, and that starts with separating the bicycle component from its Long Range Transportation Plan into its own planning process. With about 70 participants in the crowd at an auditorium in the Thompson Center, IDOT and its consultant, Alta Planning + Design, explained how the bike plan will be developed, led two public input exercises, and fielded questions.

The first exercise asked attendees to think about how “to achieve a future where a broad range of people use bicycles for a broad range of reasons in a broad range of places in Illinois.” After several people shared their ideas, Alta staffer Jack Cebe walked through a survey that attendees picked up on the way in (parts of which you can fill out online), asking participants why they bike and what “policies, programs, and projects” – and infrastructure – would encourage them and their friends to bike more often.

A risk with this type of survey is that it will overemphasize what people who already bike want to see happen, instead of focusing on treatments that are proven to be safe and appealing to the broadest possible range of people, including those who don’t currently bike. For instance, it asks if you would bike on a four-to-six-lane road if a different kinds of bike infrastructure were added (including protected bike lanes), if were left as-is, or if you might never ride on it regardless of the treatment. Since the people in the room already bike, this doesn’t necessarily provide a good sense of what would make the average person more comfortable biking on Illinois streets.

As it happened, several people who showed up last night did express strong interest in protected bike lanes. When Cebe finished explaining the survey, attendees launched right into interrogating IDOT about its ban on protected bike lanes on roads under its jurisdiction (like Jackson east of Ogden, the first proposal from the City of Chicago that IDOT blocked, or on Elston north of Armitage). Annie Adams, who bikes from Andersonville to the Loop year round, asked, “Why does the Illinois Department of Transportation oppose the Mayor’s protected bike lane plan?

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IDOT staffer Gabe Sulkes, right, speaks about the first-ever state bike plan.

Gabe Sulkes, a bicycle and pedestrian policy advisor at IDOT who recently broke his leg in a bike crash, replied, “IDOT does not oppose the mayor’s protected bike lane policy or any policy. We support the collection of data and safety data in particular to ensure that we develop safe and sustainable accommodations for all users.”

When I asked Gabe if protected bikes were unsafe, he started off by saying, “What the state is doing… is allowing enough data to be collected so the state can make informed –” but was interrupted when someone asked, “How long does this collection take place?” Another attendee piped in, asking, “How can we make this go faster?”

I won’t inundate you with the whole play-by-play. But it’s worth noting that the IDOT reps did seem to be listening attentively to the attendees and noting their concerns.

Jane Healy, a school district board member in Blue Island and leader of Cal-Sag Cycles, said she was concerned that IDOT is saying one thing, but doing another. She cited the example of a roadway widening project outside Blue Island High School — most people walk or bike to the school, but IDOT isn’t building a sidewalk. “Can we have actual implementation of the Complete Streets policy?” she asked.

It was apparent that people don’t understand, don’t believe, or don’t accept IDOT’s reasoning for banning protected bike lanes. The IDOT reps responded from their handbook on this one, but at least they heard from people who hadn’t had the chance to talk to state officials about this very important safety issue before.

In response to attendees’ complaints and concerns about the protected bike lane ban, IDOT representatives stated again and again that the agency is trying to change its standard operating procedures. Bola Delano, the department’s deputy director of planning and programming (former deputy executive director at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning) said, “We used to focus only on highways…you’re right, but we have been given direction to focus on all modes. We’re trying as a department to move away from old cultures.”

Like many a public meeting, this one didn’t represent everyone who lives in the city and region. Adrian Fisher, the sustainability coordinator at Triton College in River Grove, asked, “I’m not seeing a lot of folks. Are you going to be interviewing individuals on a more granular level?” Fisher is concerned about how students can bike to school.

Getting a wider variety of participants will be the most important issue for IDOT and Alta to address. Reader Justin Haugens commented on John’s post about the bike plan meeting for transportation professionals that administering the survey to attendees was unnecessary, because they were not novice cyclists. “What needs to be done is to pass the survey along to friends, family, acquaintances to increase the input the state receives,” he wrote.

IDOT expects Alta to provide a series of recommendations and action items in December, addressing what the state’s bike policies should be, what to change about its design standards, and how to handle maintenance, funding, and education issues. But without expanding the scope of the outreach, the plan may fail to understand what people in Chicago and its suburbs need in order to ride a bicycle for work and shopping trips, or to encourage people to start bicycling for transportation.

  • Anonymous

    Stop trying and start doing.

    In *2003* IDOT announced, “The movement for contextual design began in the wake of the substantial completion of the Interstate Highway System. The mandate given by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 was to build a new national highway system which would move large volumes of traffic safely and expeditiously at the highest design standards. By any measure, that effort succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. However, that era is over.”

    If it is over, why are we still doing the same thing in 2013?

    IDOT’s mission reads, “The mission of IDOT is to provide safe, cost-effective transportation for Illinois in ways that enhance quality of life, promote economic prosperity, and demonstrate respect for our environment. We will accomplish our mission while making the following principles the hallmark of all our work: Safety, Integrity, Responsiveness, Quality, andInnovation. The vision of IDOT is to be recognized as the premier state department of transportation in the nation.”

    Is that mission reflected in their actions, folks?

    I’m really tired of listening to what IDOT says and I’m ready to see IDOT start doing – honoring their commitment to meaningful public engagement, honoring their commitment to improving quality of life, honoring their commitment to be fair, transparent, and accountable.

    No, wait, they never said they would be fair, transparent, and accountable. Maybe that’s why they keep saying but not doing.

  • I’ve read this post and John’s post on the meeting for the professionals, and of course I’ve been following this issue generally now for months, and I still don’t know what IDOT’s response is to the question: Why can’t IDOT look at the data on protected bike lanes from other cities (numerous European cities, NY and Montreal in North America, Champaign in IL) in order to make their decision about how safe PBLs are? Why must it be data from another Chicago street? Is there really something so different about Chicago’s street configurations that has to be considered? If there were any further questions or responses on that topic, I’d love to hear it.

    Second, I hear the IDOT people saying that they’re trying to change, and that they have been given a directive to change their way of thinking, so I guess my question is, what or who exactly is holding them back from doing so? As Coolebra points out below, the movement away from “highways only” is at least 10 years old. Gov. Pat Quinn is certainly all about green initiatives and sustainable transportation. So what is IDOT Secy Ann Schneider’s views on sustainable transportation, bicycling initiatives, protected lanes, etc? I’ve never seen any articles about her anywhere, ever. Maybe Streetsblog Chicago could interview her to get the scoop. If she’s truly on board, then again, I don’t understand what exactly is keeping the IDOT staff from changing their way of thinking and doing.

  • Roland Solinski

    IDOT may talk the talk, but ultimately their District 1 (Chicagoland) HQ is off of a tollway exit in Hoffman Estates, surrounded by forest preserve. How can we expect their staffers to value alternative transportation if they can’t use it themselves?

    IDOT’s policy in Chicago doesn’t yet include PBLs but generally conforms to the strong leadership from CDOT. In the rest of Chicagoland, IDOT’s mission should be to retrofit suburban areas in support of walking, biking, and transit, not to expand the road network out in the cornfields. I’m not seeing this yet, although there is quite a bit of new sidewalk and path construction.

  • David Altenburg

    Agreed. Personally, I would find IDOT’s stance on the PBLs much less frustrating if I thought they were being honest about it. Does anyone really think that if, in 2014, the data overwhelmingly show that PBLs increase safety for all road users, IDOT will take the initiative to aggressively install PBLs? I was at the public meeting last night, and it’s maddening to hear IDOT employees spout the pre-prepared lines over and over again, especially when those scripted lines stress “the safety of all road users”.

    In Chicago, it’s relatively easy to identify roadways under IDOT jurisdiction: they’re the ones that are the worst to walk near or bike on. If IDOT really prioritized the “safety of all road users” that would not be the case. When I see an IDOT street that is safer than the surrounding streets, I’ll believe that IDOT is really moving away from focusing on highways. As it stands, doing whatever they can to delay protected bike lanes fits in perfectly with the “old cultures” that Bola Delano referred to.

  • David Altenburg

    I’m curious if there are any IDOT employees who regularly commute via something other than personal motorized vehicle.

  • Cameron Puetz

    IDOT’s policy here isn’t the vast antibike conspiracy that it’s made out to be. IDOT is a very conservative organization and is opposed to any road design that’s not in their design manuals, whether it’s an emerging design practice like protected bike lanes, a discredited old design practice like 3 lane rural roads, or something just out of the ordinary like using different colors for pavement markings. This is done for a number of reasons including consistency so that road users know what to expect and how to act when using a road for the first time and ensuring that designs are properly vetted and don’t fall victim to unintended consequences. Many designs that seemed like good ideas and were built with the best of intentions have turned out to be disasters. No one ever sets out to build a dangerous road, but with something has complicated as road design, results don’t always reflect intent.

    When building infrastructure of any type, it’s important to build it right. Bad infrastructure can be worse than no infrastructure. Design standards are the main tool used to get it right. They are an attempt to compile massive amounts of research and distill it into easy to implement best practices. Rigorous vetting of design standards is done to try to prevent well intentioned but ultimately poor designs from becoming the norm. While this vetting is ultimately in the long run a good thing, it unfortunately means that change occurs very slowly. Even noncontroversial changes that are invisible to most people, like incorporating the lessons learned from the Loma Prieta earthquake into bridge design standards, can take years. The pace that IDOT is moving ahead with protected lanes is fast in terms of standard writing. While it may seem like IDOT is just being obstructionist, they are really trying to make sure protected lanes don’t inadvertently introduce new hazards.

  • Yes, the one in the photo who broke his leg in a car crash in Chicago.

  • Bola’s response to the “other cities’ data” question was to respond with a question, “Is that data relevant?” Apparently their study will answer that question.

  • Anne A

    As Steven mentioned, Gabe (shown with cast and crutches in the photo) is a real cyclist and IDOT employee who rides regularly and cares about making conditions better for cyclists.

  • Anne A

    I’d sure like to see Complete Streets thinking and designs become a norm for IDOT. I know they have at least a few employees who are conscious of non-car-centric policies and design ideas.

    A few years ago, I attended a public meeting for a project that would be a HUGE improvement for peds and bikes on the SW side (SW of Midway Airport). That area of the city (which includes 3 schools) is terrible for non-car transportation. The project is a Central Ave. underpass under a huge rail yard just SW of Midway. It would include bike lanes, sidepaths and improved sidewalks and intersections, making it possible to get through a currently impassable barrier on foot, by bike or by car. Unfortunately, it appears that funding has not yet been obtained for the project.

  • Guest

    I think most people appreciate the need to ensure consistency in design. And nobody is asking IDOT to experiment with untested features (at least that I’m aware of). That’s why many people feel frustrated: PBLs have been in wide use around the world (including here in the States) for more than the 3-year timeframe that IDOT has specified. And PBLs are only the tip of the iceberg. What about all of the other instances where IDOT has ignored the needs of non-motorized users in order to expedite vehicular traffic (see the Blue Island HS sidewalk fight, for instance)?

    If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

    Furthermore, I think people look to foreign cities that have been “experimenting” with safer, more equitable infrastructure for decades and compare that to our current state of affairs. It may be that IDOT is moving “as fast as it can”, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they are 20 years late coming to the table.

  • Jack Cebe

    Thanks for the coverage of the meetings Steve and John, and thanks to all that attended the Chicago meetings. We encourage everyone to take the survey (linked in the article and here: http://www.illinoisbikeplan.com/illinois-bike-transportation-plan/provide-your-input/)

    The intent of the public survey is to make the case for policy and design recommendations in the final plan. The more people who take the survey will mean greater support for final plan recommendations. The goal of the plan is to make bicycling a safe and attractive/comfortable form of transportation and recreation in Illinois. While we don’t expect all members of the general public to know what design/engineering elements make bicycle infrastructure safe, people certainly know what feels safe and is comfortable to them. For this reason, we are asking people questions pertaining mostly to their bicycling habits and preferences. Bicycle accommodations must both be safe and feel safe/comfortable in order to encourage people to ride.

    Please encourage your friends, family and neighbors to take the survey. While we are working hard to make public input for the plan as rich as possible, we have many parts of the state to cover in a limited amount of time. Your help will only make the Plan’s findings and recommendations stronger.

    Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    “IDOT is a very conservative organization…”

    I suppose that is one way to put it; another is to serve it up cold:

    IDOT is an unnecessarily rigid state agency marred in past practice, uncompromising and dogmatic, both unwilling and unable to embrace a vision beyond that defined by their myopic focus on highway capacity and design solutions to urban transportation needs.

    To make matters worse, they lack accountability for outcomes associated with their failed investment strategies, which are quite typically brought forward without meaningful opportunity for public input and justified using severely flawed analysis – analysis that does not adhere to basic mathematical principles and includes insidiously deceptive methods designed and intended to skew decisions in favor of their preferred solutions.

    While it is great that they are tossing a few resources at cycling to appease the growing ranks of disenfranchised masses, they need a more fundamental shift – a paradigm shift, really – in how they execute their responsibilities to Illinois taxpayers.

  • Anonymous

    Secretary Schneider has expressed commitment to multimodal solutions, including support for cycling.

  • Ryan Lakes

    I would like to see IDOT reaching out to the people still on-the-fence and the new-and-vulnerable cyclists that they are looking for feedback from by showing up at events like Bike The Drive and Tour de Fat where those people are, rather than requesting they come to visit IDOT between these hours in some boring auditorium.

    That would show comittment, and that IDOT has representatives that are also members of our community.

    Also, the survey needs work. Simple graphics would vastly improve the public’s ability to understand what the design and engineering elements are.

    A further critique of the survey is that it essentially asks, “what infrastructure would you need to feel comfortable riding on these kinds of streets” without providing any safety criteria for each type of infrastructure. THE SAFER IT IS TO RIDE, THE MORE PEOPLE WILL CHOOSE TO RIDE. What if the experts at our department of transportation provide us with their assumptions, paired with the effectiveness and safety data associated with each, and ask us to challenge those educated assumptions as a way of involving us, rather than asking the most basic 101 style questions that I’m actually ashamed to see our DOT asking us.

  • David Altenburg

    That’s heartening. As frustrating as I find IDOT’s non-answers and lack of accountability, I really can’t imagine what it must be like to advocate for complete streets from inside the organization.

  • Kevin C

    IDOT can’t look at other cities to determine how safe PBLs are because CDOT is installing PBLs which don’t comport with any other existing design standards. The new Milwaukee Avenue PBL from Kinzie to Elston has no less than 5 different lane treatments from barrier protected to protected, to bike lane and back, all in the course of 1.15 miles. IDOT can’t compare that to anything else because this design and construction is uniquely “Chicago School” PBL construction. The minimum lane width standards (NACTO, Amsterdam, London) aren’t used on the Dearborn PBL. Denmark hasn’t installed a two-way PBL in a city center for over 30 years because they have been observed and deemed to be “unsafe.” As Cameron pointed out, design standards evolve over a period of time based on observed results and a recognition of best practices. If Chicago were to design and install according to any existing design standards, it would be a simple matter to use other people’s results from installations of like designs. Since Chicago doesn’t, no apt comparison is available.

  • busty B

    This is just inaccurate all over the place. CDOT is a stickler for the NACTO urban design guidelines which have been informally adopted by DOT http://nacto.org/cities-for-cycling/design-guide/

  • If what you say is true (about Chicago not having any apples with which to compare), then IDOT should be the leader instead of the follower. IDOT should require strict adoption of some set of standards and require Chicago, and Evanston now, to comply. NACTO would be a good start.

    Dearborn’s design is quite consistent. 18th Street is consistent. Elston is consistent (except for three blocks).

    One thing that will be missing from any report about Chicago bicycle infrastructure data is good traffic counts. My request for it falls on deaf ears, for six months now.

  • Have you received a reply to your inquiry?

  • We are going to do our best to get as many people as possible to participate. Outside of the scheduled meetings in various towns across the state, will IDOT & Alta be reaching out to people at bicycling-related events and organizations’ meetings?

    For example, Ryan above commented that Bike The Drive would have been a great place to reach out to people who bike in the suburbs, a constituency that was very under-represented at Tuesday’s meeting and is unlikely to come to the DeKalb meeting.

  • David Altenburg

    Right, a followup question to IDOT that I didn’t think to ask is, if they are (as claimed) all about data in making a decision regarding protected bike lanes, what data are they gathering? I don’t know what conclusions can be drawn about the relative safety of the PBLs that currently exist in Chicago without having numbers of cyclists to use. I know CDOT does its bike counts – I can only assume they’re using those?

  • Joseph Musco

    I don’t understand how IDOT requires 3 years of their own data to be safe and cautious on the one hand and then on the other relies on an optional unscientific collection of customer comments for user input. It’s basic social science to use controls in surveys yet here you are sampling people who are engaged enough to attend IDOT planning meetings. Do you have any idea how self-selecting your sample is in this process?

    Do you have a representative number of 14 year olds answering your survey? How about 35 year olds who may or may not bicycle but are definitely not engaged enough to attend an IDOT meeting? Seniors? People who drive and don’t know how to respond when they see certain bike lane treatments? Is the comment sample representative by gender? By income? Policy decisions effect all of these demographics but you aren’t getting comments with any controls.

    IDOT should do some kind of targeted transportation census with some controls that they could use and reuse for all decisions. If you disagree, picture IDOT surveying AAA members and the trucking lobby about what kind of highway treatments they would like to see. Who you ask is going to shape what answers you get. So ask everybody or at least a fair sample of everybody. Or don’t ask at all.

  • Ethan Sapra

    IDOT did exhibit at Bike the Drive. Kind of shabby corner of the Active Trans tent but they at least had a poster for the bike plan. Have to agree on the survey.

  • Ryan Lakes

    That’s great to hear. I missed BTD this year, was out of town. I hope they’re at Tour de Fat this Saturday!

  • Jack Cebe

    Hi Steve, we did have a display for the plan at Bike the Drive, encouraging people to visit the website and sign up for the listserve: (http://www.illinoisbicycleplan.com/illinois-bike-transportation-plan/contact-us/).

    We had a table display and Bola Delano, Gabe Sulkes and Andre Ashmore with IDOT gave a presentation at the Illinois Bicycle Summit in Bloomington/Normal about 2 months ago. (http://www.illinoisbicycleplan.com/illinois-bike-transportation-plan/stay-connected/newsmilestones/)

    We will also be staffing the IDOT tent at the State Fair in Springfield in August. The Bicycle display will be a stop for people (targeted towards children) completing their “safety passport” at the state fair. We also plan on distributing IDOT bicycling materials during this event.

  • Ryan Lakes

    One more thing, IDOT admitting that they need three years of data going forward before they could allow protected bike lanes is also an admission to the fact that they have not been collecting data in the past, which is unacceptable. And their refusal to respond to why they can’t/don’t/ haven’t used other cities’/states’/countries’ data going back up to 30 years is absolutely baffling and also unacceptable to me.

  • Jack Cebe

    We’ll see you there! look for the ISBTP poster.

  • Anonymous

    IDOT pays tons of money to consultants to conduct their analysis and studies.

    Invariably, their methods not only lack scientific rigor, but, as you’ve noted, they often fail to adhere to the most basic of basic statistical principles or surveying techniques.

    The fact that we pay boatloads of cash for junior high level analysis is obscene. Furthermore, the fact that we rely upon such analysis in determining how to spend billions of public dollars is, at a minimum, a breach of public trust.

    No accountability = no change.

  • I’m happy to hear about all of this. I think it would be good for you to post a photo gallery of the extent of participation.

  • None of this matters since IDOT doesn’t use performance measures to choose projects.

  • Nathanael

    “She cited the example of a roadway widening project outside Blue Island
    High School — most people walk or bike to the school, but IDOT isn’t
    building a sidewalk. “Can we have actual implementation of the Complete
    Streets policy?” she asked.”

    It seems to me that the Complete Streets law needs to include a *private right of action* so that citizens can file suit to force IDOT to OBEY THE LAW, and recover money damages if the fossils at IDOT continue to break the law.

    Rebuilding a road right outside a high school with no sidewalk is the most blatant violation of Complete Streets law I’ve ever heard of.

  • Anonymous

    They do use them, but they’re all highway-oriented, e.g., roadway Level-of-Service, etc. They essentially refuse to use a more robust set . . . it seems they need additional legislative direction, like a minimum set of criteria against which the value of their major investments must be measured. They should also be required to conduct post-project analysis to assess how well their projects perform in relation to the claims made in their NEPA documents.

    What gets measured gets done. For IDOT, that means limiting metrics to those that drive the decisions they want to validate, and ignoring those that indicate they’re plainly doing the wrong thing.

    Note: Not citing source for the quote above as it is another with a lengthy debate about its origin and its variations :)

  • At one of the CMAP committee meetings involving the Circle Interchange, MPC’s Peter Skosey queried the committee and IDOT to ask about performance measures. An IDOT representative on the committee said that IDOT makes the measurements but that it doesn’t base its decision making on the outcomes of the measurements.

  • Anonymous

    That’s rather comical, but not surprising.

    So, did Skosey – or anyone else – accept the response, i.e., nobody asked a follow-up like, “Well then, what does IDOT base its decisions on?”

  • Alex Oconnor

    IDOT is about building roads. And padding the pockets of those friends who maintain & build those roads. Nothing more.

  • Anne A

    I wish that the survey allowed for comments. The questions asked are insufficient.

  • Anne A

    I got a brief response along the lines of “I got your message and am looking for current status info.” Still waiting for more info.

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