How Can Chicago Fix the “Weak Links” That Mar Bike Access Downtown?

Sharrows on Kinzie Street
Sharrows have been installed on this stretch of Kinzie Street, but it still lacks safe, dedicated space for bicyclists trying to connect to Dearborn from Wells.

Biking downtown has improved substantially with the addition of protected bike lanes on Kinzie Street and Dearborn Street, but much work remains to be done to create a safe, cohesive bike network linking people to Chicago’s biggest employment center.

At last week’s meeting of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, Michelle Stenzel, a community representative for the North Side, started the discussion about bikeways downtown. She began by noting that the Dearborn protected bike lane has been transformative. “I’m seeing so many more people biking downtown,” she said, but mentioned how east-west access to her office on Michigan Avenue near Madison is difficult. “A lot of my coworkers commute from the train stations and say, ‘I’d love to bike, but I’m afraid to bike in the Loop.'”

Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation, said that as part of the Central Loop Bus Rapid Transit project, protected bike lanes will be added to eastbound Washington Street and westbound Randolph Street, but not until December 2014. (The project will also create a two-way cycle track on southbound Clinton Street.) Commissioner Gabe Klein explained that IDOT “precluded us from doing Jackson through the Loop last year.”

Stenzel then turned the discussion to going north out of the Loop. “We have Wells, but there’s no good route back north, and I’ve tried everything,” she said. Wells Street has a buffered bike lane from the Chicago River north to Lincoln Avenue, but is southbound only from Erie Street to the Chicago River. Then there’s the two-way Dearborn cycle track, which ends just as it arrives on the north bank of the Chicago River. North of Kinzie Street, Stenzel said, “Dearborn is horrible.”

Bicycling on the Dearborn Street bike lane
Bicycling on Dearborn in a hard-to-see bike lane north of Kinzie Street, where one deals with a lot of turning traffic.

So currently there is no buffered or protected bike lane northbound out of the Loop, from Kinzie Street to Erie Street, and Wells and Dearborn are three blocks apart with no continuous bike lane linking them.

The Chicago Department of Transportation did install new pavement markings on Kinzie between Wells and Dearborn this summer, consisting of sharrows and a block-long eastbound bike lane from LaSalle Street to Clark Street.

CDOT bikeways engineer Nathan Roseberry said more robust bikeway options on Kinzie were incompatible with existing left turn lanes, which the agency wants to keep for safety reasons. “Half of the distance there’s either a left turn lane or a taper for a left turn lane,” he said. “Because of all the short blocks, we looked at removing left turns and it wasn’t feasible; they provide safety benefits. We needed to balance providing a safe street for bicyclists as well as pedestrians.” He explained via email that “based on federal studies, left turn lanes have a 36 percent crash reduction factor for injury crashes. They improve visibility for left turns and provide space for left turning vehicles to exit a through lane.”

Stenzel called those three blocks a “weak link,” adding, “I have no problems biking on them as an experienced cyclist, but would I take a 10-year-old child on it with me? Probably not.” That’s the problem with using sharrows: Without dedicated space for bicycling, people who are “interested but concerned” about biking won’t want to use the route.

Sharrows on Kinzie Street
An example sharrow installed on Kinzie Street.

This stretch of Kinzie has metered and unmetered curbside parking and loading and valet zones. Each block also has a large, off-street parking garage. I asked Roseberry about CDOT’s parking study of this area. He said that CDOT looked at modifying parking and loading zones here but it wasn’t possible to consolidate parking to one side. Additionally, Roseberry wrote, “Side streets did not provide an opportunity to relocate loading zones. Consolidating parking to one side or removing parking entirely would require elimination of loading zones which is not a viable option.”

Roseberry said at the meeting that “we’re looking at connecting Dearborn to Clark.” Currently the Clark buffered bike lane ends at Oak Street and the left-side conventional bike lane on Dearborn ends before Walton, a one-block difference. Klein also mentioned that “there’s an extension [coming] of the Dearborn bike lane north,” meaning an improvement to existing conditions. He added that “this is something we’re talking to the alderman [about] and we have to be careful what we say. We’re looking at Dearborn, Clark. Something could happen this year.”

CDOT’s complete streets manager Janet Attarian mentioned Illinois and Grand, a pair of one-way streets with bike lanes that connect Wells and Dearborn. However, there’s a gap of several blocks between these routes and the Dearborn protected bikeway, as well as short gap to the two-way section of Wells that could provide a safe northbound path out of the Loop.

Attarian added that a “ThinkBike workshop” will be held later in the year to involve the public and livable streets advocates in the redesign of Monroe Street in the Loop. A previous ThinkBike workshop, sponsored by the Netherlands government, was held in 2010 to come up with new designs for Randolph and Washington as well as a neighborhood-level bike plan for Lincoln Park.

Updated 22:56 to add comments about extending Dearborn protected bike lane and connecting Dearborn to Clark.

  • Mishellie

    I think it would really help if the two way on Dearborn connected to Illinois and Grand. It’s only few blocks really… why didn’t they do that? Also, si there any word of doing an east and west path of any kind on either division or Chicago? With the hospital district starting at Chicago and Michigan, there are a LOT of bike commuters/potential bike commuters, but there’s no way to get safely from Milwaukee east to that area. Seems like a missed opportunity.

  • Adam Herstein

    The left-side bike lane on Dearborn north in Kinzie is really awful. Car drivers use it as a left turn lane and cabbies use it as a drop off zone.

  • Anonymous

    I tried both sides of the road. I vastly prefer the bikelane on the left, despite the valid concerns you bring up, because it seems that the traffic on the right side is going a lot faster, because the road “feels” wider.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to see improvements to the Dearborn bike lane going northbound to Huron or so. From Huron you can ride west to Wells and from there north to Lincoln and Clark. Southbound you could follow Wells to Kinzie. Of course they should also install the promised bike lane from Wells to Dearborn

  • Rusty

    I VERY MUCH agree about making the street Chicago much safer for commuters. Gets a very good amount of bike traffic with hospital, Groupon, many other tech and commercial buildings. Would then finally have links with Red Line, Brown, Blue Line, and Wells, Halsted, and Milwaukee. Its too perfect. East-West routes are gonna be difficult, but need to do it if we want to make this the most bicycle and pedestrian friendly city in the country. 55th, 31st, 18th all have good PBLs for some distance, lets do some north of the river now.

  • Mishellie

    Wow. It actually makes a lot more sense than I even thought about when you put it that way!

    I feel relatively safe on Milwaukee in the bike lane… and then I turn onto Chicago and all hell breaks loose, especially up the hill to halsted, down that hill, and onto the bridge over the river. Almost every single biker takes the sidewalk over the bridge because cars WILL NOT leave space for bikers, even though the bridge isn’t wide enough for two full lanes of cars. Then all the bikers have to stop, get off their bike, take their bike down two stairs (how is a person in a wheelchair supposed to handle those stairs anyway?) get back on, and merge back into traffic. It coudlnt possibly be worse, and it’s a “designated bike route” to alll of these large, progressive, and diverse employers.

  • Mishellie

    Well Illinois is a one way, so either they’d need to do a two way bike path, or just a path on grand (it’s already there) going west and a path on Illinois going east. Then if they pulled Dearborn up north to hit Grand and Illinois, things would be pretty decent.

  • CDOT, despite all its great progress, still has a cars-first approach to traffic management in so many ways.

    Look at all the people who bike downtown with just two fragmented protected bike lanes and then look at all the car traffic that just sits in the street, and tell me what’s more efficient. It’s bus and bike lanes. That’s how you move more people more efficiently through a crowded downtown. Of course some people have to drive but there are a ton of streets. Some of them can be “sacrificed” and balance out the modes. Hopefully BRT does this but like you wrote, there are still broken links in the existing network that CDOT says can’t be fixed.

    And while left-turn bays for cars may make things safer, I must say that where I see them, it just leads to drivers overshooting the yellow and clogging up a lane of oncoming traffic. I can be persuaded otherwise, but this is what I see a lot of.

  • Chicago would make a great west-side bike highway too, if it got protected lanes for, say, a good stretch of the way from Austin to, say, Western? It’s enormously wide and a speedway through most of the West Side, and a good throwing distance from a lot of residences and businesses. Plus, then Divvy could use it as their primary westing route to connect up to Oak Park, if that grant goes through …

  • Mishellie

    Chicago would be my first choice as well – Division is wider and more open, but there’s the orleans intersection that seems like a bike lane would really complicate things. I think the city should try to divert some car traffic over to Division (its pretty wide and usually fairly uncrowded) and do a bike lane in both directions on Chicago.

  • The Division/Orleans/Clybourn/Sedgwick road binge of 2002 is a mistake that needs rectifying.

  • Andrew H

    Looking at the streets for cycling 2020 plan, it looks like Clark (Spoke Route) between Kinzie & Oak is due for an upgrade between May 2013 and May 2014. Any update on this timing. I am hopeful that it becomes a parking protected lane as buffered lanes are really disappointing for ‘spoke routes’.
    Additionally, I can’t seem to find Halsted between Milwaukee and Division anywhere on this plan? Is there any plan for this? Currently the pavement is horrible on that stretch and it is almost completely absent of any sort of lane or bike markings.

  • Anonymous

    Two-way cyclectrack on Clinton? Weeeeee!
    **Does little happy dance in cubicle**

    Right now I use Jefferson Northbound. Too much traffic jockeying for position to turn onto the Kennedy for my taste.

    I hope it also means that bikes will no longer have to interfere with the charter buses from companies like Aries and Freedom on Clinton and Jefferson. Charter bus drivers are some of the worst in the city, possibly because they are under such a tight schedule.

  • Katja

    Agreed on Halsted. It’s so sad, you can barely see the ghost of a bike lane on it near Milwaukee, and the bridge at Chicago ave is in terrible shape.

  • Fred

    I go through that intersection often on a bicycle and don’t think its that bad…

  • Fred

    I am for twin bike lanes on Grand and Illinois going to/from Navy Pier. I bike these regularly and the mixing zones on Grand where the bike lanes merge with right turn lanes are miserable. I regularly yell at cabbies and cars behaving badly.

    It would also be nice to have bike lanes on Kingsbury between Kinzie and points north. It seems to have regular bike traffic in spite of having no pavement markings whatsoever. I would love if they went all they way up to Bloomingdale and a bridge were added to connect it to the future Trail. You would then be able to get from Humboldt Park all the way to the loop with only 1-2 blocks not in bike lanes.

  • David

    I definitely think Chicago needs bike lanes. Also, Division seems like a no-brainer to me for installing bike lanes considering how wide it is, how North Ave is impossible to add lanes, and the demand is there. Orleans is a tricky intersection, but bikers already have to deal with it without lanes. It could be exactly like Milwaukee heading south just before turning left onto Kinzie where the bike lane suddenly just shifts over to the left. At least it would make drivers aware that bikers may want to continue straight on division.

  • Mishellie

    My biggest issue there is with busses that come from all the way on the right and want to continue down division. They hop over that striped “median” which bikers also use as a safety island.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Amen! Bicycling on Clinton past Union Station means bicycling in the far left lane, not the bike lane, because the charter buses and taxis form three lanes of parking. About a year ago I asked the traffic management person who directing traffic on Clinton about this, and she said that the buses have the right to stand in front of the station, regardless of which lanes they’re blocking. We need bike lanes plus bike-lane enforcement.

  • Kevin M

    YES! to installing a two-way bike-way lane on Clinton–or Jefferson. Jefferson on a bike during rush hour is a shit-storm. Some dipshit in a Jeep intentionally passed me within less than a foot last week–even though we both ended up at the same light. When I asked him why he did that, he said I belonged in a bike lane. A) there is no bike lane, and B) I was preparing to make a left-turn on to Fulton (to pick-up that bike lane) and had to be in an auto/general lane. The jerkass thought it was OK to make his point with a deadly weapon. I can only imagine conflicts like these happen all too often in and around the Loop where there isn’t sufficient bike infrastructure.

  • I’ve never seen so many people salmoning it southbound on the little strip of bike lane on Dearborn north of Kinzie as I have this year, and I assume it’s new bicyclists who ride down Illinois Street’s bike lanes, figuring they’ll turn south on Dearborn, not realizing the protected bike lane doesn’t reach that far north.

    And then, yes, northbound out of the Loop has no good options. These weak links really are holding the bicycling mode share down more than one would think. Every year, my Bike Walk Lincoln Park co-leader and I talk about maybe leading groups of people who are interested in biking to their Loop workplaces on an introductory ride, to help them give it a try. However, when we think through the route we might take them on, there are always parts that make me shudder. Maybe, just maybe, I could get them through the three blocks of Kinzie from Wells to Dearborn heading into the Loop in the morning, but the idea of taking them on Dearborn north of Kinzie in the evening? I couldn’t do that with a clear conscience. Plus, one harrowing experience, and they might be turned off from bike commuting forever. I’ve thought about advising people to just take the Lakefront Trail home in the evening instead, but how to get them there, even from the very eastern edge of the Loop? On the Blade-Runneresque lower Randolph? On the perversely wide highway that is Monroe Street east of Michigan Avenue? Illegally riding through Millennium Park or on the sidewalk alongside it? When some of these weak links are addressed, I think we’ll really see the numbers of bicyclists skyrocket.

  • I think you’re talking about Jefferson, but there is a bike lane on Clinton. It’s crap though, with so many buses weaving in and out, and the pavement is terrible! Going north I usually take Canal to Fulton to Desplaines to Kinzie. I haven’t used Jefferson.

    Anyway, my favorite driver comeback is “you should be in a bike lane,” when there isn’t one. After pointing it out, they usually say “oh I thought I saw one,” or “you should be on the sidewalk.”

  • Roland Solinski

    Thanks for the update, I was just about to ask you guys when the Central Loop BRT was gonna happen.

    Man, if they want to be finished in 14 months they’d better get started soon. I assume they will need to relocate utilities.

  • ATA

    I hate to say this, but in typical Steve Vance fashion, he left out a good portion of the conversation. CDOT said that they were extending Dearborn north, or Clark, this year and were working with the Alderman and traffic engineers on the routing. They also said that they were building Grand and Illinois out this year if time allowed. Why the partial reporting? I was sitting there too Steve.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. Curious what Steve or Michelle remember about this conversation.
    Of course road construction season is nearly over. If they are still trying to figure things out, I doubt it would happen this year.

  • Yes, it was said that CDOT is working on extending the Dearborn protected lane or building out Clark, but I didn’t catch a “this year” part of it. They did also mention they hope to put improvements in on Grand or Illinois, although again, not sure if the plan is for this year. However, I believe the point of Steve’s article was just that there currently segments that are weak links. Some of them, like the Kinzie segment, apparently will remain as they are, while we know that others will be improved or better alternatives will be provided. I’m hoping that the weather allows a few more months of construction season, so a lot more can get done all the way into December, like last year. It would be nice to get another grand opening of a new protected bike lane for an early holiday gift.

  • I missed it in my notes. I’ve updated the post. It doesn’t change the article’s essence.

    Why are you using “ATA” as your post name?

  • One is “in the open” for too great a distance and subject to frequent right or left crosses by drivers.

  • I’ve updated the post.

  • Did anyone else notice in the photo of the person bicycling on Dearborn that the speed limit is 20 MPH?

  • Fred

    I guess it depends on how you are going through the intersection(s). I am usually going between Orleans and Sedgewick or Clybourn. If you stay to the right hugging the curb, it isn’t so bad. Thinking about it, I can see how that intersection would be terrible if you were traveling straight through on Division in either direction.

  • Kevin M

    I don’t think Steven Vance has a fashion/habbit of leaving out a “good portion” of details on the stories he report. On the contrary, I’ve found Steve’s reporting to be extremely well-detailed. You were right to bring the additional information to this blog post/discussion, but you were wrong to paint Steven as a sloppy reporter.

  • Mcass777

    I know this might be off topic but can someone explain why Milwaukee PBL between Chicago and the Xway crossing was not repaved? Southbound PBL is horrible.

  • It will be repaved either this year or next after a water main project.

  • Cecilia Gamba

    Things are horrible also if you’re coming from the Milwaukee corridor into the loop and want to connect to South side routes (S Wabash lane). If you take Kinzie you’re gonna hit horrible conditions after LaSalle (esp. with the current roadworks). If you go south on Desplaines that’s not bad, but then there’s no good way to cross the river and go eastward – it takes forever to reach Dearborn, which then in turn is not linked to the more southern Wabash.. Staying on Desplaines all the way to Roosevelt is possible but then Roosevelt is a nightmare of traffic.

    I’ve biked via Divvy from Western Blue line to Garfield Green line multiple times and the loop is always a bottleneck. From looking at my Divvy log, it has taken me anywhere between 8 and 15 minutes to ride 1 mile in the downtown area, as opposed to 6/7 minutes per mile either on Milwaukee or on South side routes.

    I’d like to bypass the loop by reaching the lake path (south of the river) even though it would lengthen my route, but that’s not convenient either.

  • Mcass777

    Cool. Thanks

  • http://activetrans.org/thinkbike

    You should get yourself into that workshop if possible to share your views about connecting to the Lakefront Trail.

    One corridor under review is connecting the Loop to the Lakefront Trail via Monroe.

  • Cecilia Gamba

    Thanks! Sounds good, I’ll try to make it

  • Kaycee

    I think the “salmoning” is due to the sign on Wells- it says “bikes use Dearborn” right by Indiana, so it seems logical to turn there instead of continuing to Kinzie. I might be wrong- but I learned to go all the way to the barricade on Wells the hard way as well, after turning Eastbound at the sign and seeing the two way bike lane a block ahead on a one-way… Could be solved with better signage.

  • Kaycee

    not Indiana, Illinois. oops..

  • Karen Kaz

    Hahahahahaha! As someone who rides Dearborn north (starting north of the cycle track) those cars are going closer to 35, I’d say, and then like to cut right in front of the bike lane and slam on their brakes (or turn from the lane to the right of the bike lane) to turn left. That left-side bike lane is a disaster. I’m also seeing more and more cyclists riding the wrong way in that bike lane lately.

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