ThinkBike Challenges Chicagoans to Think Beyond Bike Lanes

ThinkBike 2013
Sjors van Duren, right, and the Monroe Street team.

Last Thursday, Dutch “mobility advisor” Sjors van Duren stood by the Lakefront Trail, pointed to the block of Monroe Street between Columbus and Lake Shore Drive, and asked, “What is the function of this street?” The answer, it was agreed, is to distribute automobiles between the Loop and Lake Shore Drive. Van Duren works for the Arnhem Nijmegen City Region in the Netherlands, and he was brought to Chicago last week by the Dutch Cycling Embassy (a public/private program that aims to export Dutch cycling policies) to lead a group of local advocates, planners, engineers, and neighbors to find a way to make Monroe Street better for cycling between the Loop and Lakefront Trail.

Van Duren pointed out that Monroe near Lake Shore Drive is no different than Roosevelt, Balbo, Jackson, and Randolph. Why should there be five streets for driving to and from Lake Shore Drive but none that work especially well for biking or walking to the Lakefront Trail?

The real Dutch embassy sponsored ThinkBike to teach and inspire new ways of providing for cycling. At the public workshop on Thursday morning, the ThinkBike leaders said that getting more people to cycle is about more than bike lanes, or even safety for that matter. A good city for bicycling needs coherence, directness, attractiveness, and comfort, too. They achieve this in the Netherlands by making bikeways out of red asphalt, allowing bicyclists to travel in both directions on one-way streets, optimizing traffic lights for bike speeds, and other methods that help make cycling an easy transportation choice for most people. Additionally, they pay attention to details like shade and lighting, fixing potholes, and reducing the number of stops bicyclists need to make.

Chicago has started to implement designs like protected bike lanes and raised bike lanes, but “thinking Dutch” isn’t the norm here yet. Ryan Lakes, a board member of West Town Bikes, worked with a ThinkBike group on Milwaukee Avenue between Division and North in Wicker Park. He told me his concerns “are about Chicago’s resistance to truly effective designs because of the popularly held conceptions that protected bike lanes are almost already too much to ask for.”

In 2010, the Dutch embassy sent over transportation experts to work on Lincoln Park streets and Clark Street in particular, as well as Madison/Washington through the Loop. The Madison/Washington work was used to develop bikeway plans in the Central Loop BRT project, Chicago Department of Transportation bike program manager Mike Amsden said. Protected bike lanes will be built eastbound on Washington and westbound on Randolph. Meanwhile, momentum has built to calm speeding traffic on Clark between North and Armitage, but nothing has changed yet.

On Friday, the two ThinkBike groups presented their ideas and design concepts to an audience at the Cultural Center after “suspending reality” for two days. The Monroe group reported that certain blocks are designed in ways that don’t match how people use them. The block at the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, for instance, is an access street and is used by people crossing between Millennium Park and the museum, and by taxis and tour buses dropping off passengers. Yet Monroe is five lanes wide here, and crosswalk rules are hardly respected.

The group presented their ideas about how to provide for cycling in the Loop, starting on Monroe as far west as Union Station. One proposed design diverted through traffic off some blocks but maintained taxi/loading access for businesses and the Palmer House hotel.

Monroe Street at Palmer House Hilton
Mid-block cul-de-sac in front of the Palmer House Hilton. Courtesy Monroe Street team.

Marissa Dolin, a transportation planner at Active Transportation Alliance, participated in the Monroe group and told me that they tried to develop innovative street designs “to address everyone’s interests.” She also said “the city will need to consider tradeoffs for how to use available right of way and how those tradeoffs will affect the people that live, work, visit and own businesses in the area” and that the Monroe group’s design ideas prioritized people on foot and bike “while still providing access for other modes.”

The Milwaukee Avenue group based their proposals on the fact that the street is a destination for shopping and eating but is used as a through route for traffic. They proposed calming traffic by adding curbside bike lanes, removing car parking from alternating sides of the street, and using chicanes to slow traffic.

ThinkBike 2013
Jacob Peters discusses the Milwaukee Avenue team's design. ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/sets/72157636122324554/with/10055612526/##More photos##.

Lindsay Bayley, a Milwaukee group member, said, “We’re going to need to get creative because space is so limited.” She learned that on narrower streets like Milwaukee, the Dutch prefer to mix traffic while giving priority to pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than completely separating modes. “They start at a young age teaching everyone that safety means looking out for the vulnerable users.” On one block, between Paulina and Wood Street, they proposed a shared street where only buses, bikes, taxis and people on foot would be allowed, similar to a proposal from a design class at the School of the Art Institute in 2011.

Michelle Stenzel was in the audience Friday evening. She knows a thing or two about Clark Street and told me she hopes the workshops inspire CDOT’s complete streets team to “continue to think big in the future,” acknowledging that they would face numerous hurdles in realizing these visions for Monroe and Milwaukee.

  • I really like the mid-block cul-de-sac idea. That’s filtered permeability in action. They have that in Strasbourg and it’s basically designed so that it isn’t impossible to get around by car, but it’s strongly discouraged (inconvenient), but not at the expense of other modes (walking, biking, or even buses, if the right control infrastructure is in place).

    The loop would be an excellent place to implement the “filtered permeability” design, since its grid pattern enables so many routes for cars, sometimes to its own detriment. It also makes it easier to speed. There would be streets for cars, and more streets safer to walk entirely on (think around the Daley plaza, for example) and bike on, and take the bus on. Downtown shouldn’t be a thruway for cars, that’s what the two adjacent freeways are for.

  • Adam Herstein

    Too bad American schools don’t teach safety for other vulnerable road users.

  • Anne A

    The mid block cul de sac concept has potential. The Monroe side of the Palmer House is one of the biggest traffic nightmares I face as a cyclist in the Loop, and much of that headache is due to conflicts between eastbound cabs leaving the Palmer House and traffic turning right onto Wabash. Eliminating through traffic on that block could be a great thing.

  • My nightmare is Adams between Lasalle and Franklin. It’s always a mash of taxis at the hotels which are directly across the street from each other, and the myriad buses going to Union Station. I’ve actually started going south from Wells and west on Kinzie to get to Clinton to make my commute, just to avoid that mess.

  • Anne A

    That’s just as horrendous. Can’t blame you for avoiding it. Cab traffic to/from hotels is a freakin’ plague.

  • I don’t recall a mid-block cul-de-sac like this in my travels, so I was genuinely surprised to see it. I immediately understood how it works and its benefit.

    I really like how Van Duren questioned the Monroe group about why there were so many identical streets. He suggested that they emphasize bicycling on Monroe Street and de-emphasize car travel, while doing the opposite on Jackson Boulevard, which has the same travel direction (eastbound).

  • I assume you’d have to look at what exists on those streets now, for example parking garages and hotels. But from the example they gave, it seems like it would work so much better than it does now. By getting rid of so much through traffic, you could just channel the traffic where it needs to go – hotels, garages, etc. instead of how it works now with all that traffic just being mixed together.

  • Ross Guthrie

    I really wish a biking / ped priority street would happen on a street downtown!

    There are quite a few hotels on this stretch of Monroe that loading zones would have to accommodated:

    -257 rooms at the Hyatt on the NW corner of Clark (opening 2015)
    -135 rooms at the Hampton Majestic on the N side between Dearborn & State

    -1,639 rooms at the Palmer House entire S side between State & Wabash

    -60 rooms at the University Club pm the N side just before Michigan (and a lot of traffic from their meeting & banquet space)

    I also think that the loading dock of target is mid-block between Stat & Wabash.

    There is also the parking garage at 55 W Monroe between Wabash & Michigan, so a lane would have to be dedicated for that entrance / exit.

    Taking all these factors in account, how far west should a redesign start? Would it work to go as far west as the river?

  • I think with the train stations both being near Monroe you’d want to go to at least Canal.

  • The team took it as far west as Clinton/Canal.

  • Ross Guthrie

    I bet the plans would be a great addition to downtown.

  • Ross Guthrie

    Yes, cab traffic from hotels is a huge volume of traffic.

    Without “premium” rail service from the airports, most business travelers will not take the train. This is for several reasons: they will not take public transit, they can expense the cab ride, they perceive cabs as being faster (which are not during rush hour).

    I do wish the mothballed Block 37 superstation would have happened with premium train service. Although I don’t know how it would have worked since woth the orange & blue lines are only 2 tracks, it is hard to make express service from the airports.

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