Elston Has a Speeding Problem — A Safe Bike Lane Can Help

Without protected bike lanes on Elston, bicyclists will continue to get the truck route squeeze
Without protected bike lanes on Elston, bicyclists will continue to get squeezed between trucks.

To reach Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of having five percent of trips under five miles made by bike, bicycling will have to appeal to a much broader base of people than it does today. CDOT’s bikeway projects will only succeed at that goal if new cyclists feel safe and comfortable while riding in these lanes — which, in turn, largely depends on whether they feel safe from nearby traffic.

Elston Avenue, where a proposal for buffered bike lanes has proven contentious, is a good place to measure how fast people are driving — and whether bike lanes provide sufficient separation from speeding cars. CDOT has proposed a buffered bike lane from North Avenue to Webster Avenue, and, at some point in the future, an extension further north through Avondale and beyond. The North Branch Works business association isn’t pleased with the proposal, saying that it will impede truck traffic.

John Greenfield and I spent last Tuesday morning measuring drivers’ speeds at two different locations on Elston. We used our new radar speed gun — donated by Streetsblog readers — to collect data on northbound drivers on Elston at Blackhawk/Magnolia, where Elston bends slightly, and on Elston at Willow, next to the Creative Scholars Preschool. The Blackhawk/Magnolia intersection is part of the stretch of Elston that has a bike lane separated from traffic by flexible posts, and the Willow intersection is part of CDOT’s new project area.

The proportion of speeders was high at both locations. At Blackhawk/Magnolia, 37.6 percent of drivers exceeded the 30 mph speed limit, and at Willow, 32.3 percent of drivers were speeding. We measured vehicle speeds for 15 minutes at each location, capturing 100 drivers apiece. While ideally a larger sample would be collected to gauge the extent of speeding, our measurements suggest there is a higher proportion of speeders on Elston than on other bike routes known for high speeds, like Marshall Boulevard and 55th Street.

High motor vehicle speeds not only pose a danger to people who bike, they also discourage people from biking in the first place by increasing the perception of risk. Likewise, bikeways that provide greater separation from speeding traffic not only reduce the risk of injury, they also lead more people to bike by increasing the perception of safety. To compensate for the high level of speeding on Elston — and the preponderance of truck traffic — the street should have the safest bicycle infrastructure available.

In particular, the intersection at Magnolia should be rebuilt to prevent high-speed turns across the bike lane. The wide turning angle onto Magnolia doesn’t compel drivers to decelerate. Most drivers made the slight right onto Magnolia without slowing down, and their speeds were included in our measurements. CDOT painted a “traffic island” with four flexible posts when they built the Elston protected bike lane in May 2012, preventing drivers from making the wide turn, but the posts were gone by November and haven’t been reinstalled.

One bollard down, one to go
A truck driver crosses over the painted island at Magnolia once outlined by flexible posts, three of which were gone just months after installation.

We also attempted to measure speeds at the intersection of Elston at Ashland, a special problem for northbound bicyclists, but the angle between our speed gun and oncoming cars was too oblique for good data collection.

I reached out to Alderman Scott Waguespack about the Ashland intersection. He said that he’s asked CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton to conduct a study on how to improve this intersection, paying close attention to the possibility of “right hook” conflicts. Waguespack said he would reach out to Hamilton to get an update, and I also requested more information from CDOT.

A safer bikeway on Elston would be a boon for residents who live a little bit outside the area that CDOT is reaching out to for its current project. CDOT typically only meets with business groups and block clubs immediately adjacent to proposed projects — but often not with communities further down the line who might also be affected, whether they currently travel through the corridor or might in the future.

Some of these neighborhood groups are speaking up: Bike Walk Logan Square and Bike Walk Lincoln Park published an open letter that called a buffered bike lane north of North Avenue “a generous compromise.” I agree, and it’s worth pointing out that more conventional bike lanes that put cyclists right next to people driving 40 mph (the fastest speed we recorded at Willow) probably won’t get many people to give biking a try.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Bike lanes might help. I think more influential is the land use in these areas. The auto-centric big box hellscape that is Elston and Clybourn as well simply promote speeding between parking lots.

    Change the land use to more mixed use reduce road size bike lanes may be part of that solution.

  • No Ur Fax

    How fast were they going? When you say speeding, do you mean literally anything greater than 30 mph?

    Because instead of clouding the numbers with people going 30.01 mph-35.99 mph, perahps you should define speeding as 36 mph +

  • JacobEPeters

    That does contribute to speeding, but industrial and large lot development is a necessary form of development. We cannot eliminate Home Depot, or Morton Salt, because we need these uses within the city both from a jobs perspective as well as to provide services to businesses within the city.

    Narrowing perceived road width is the best way to reduce speeding, the human brain naturally reacts to these conditions with caution. And caution = not speeding.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Are you saying that speeding 1-5mph over the speed LIMIT is okay and should be ignored?
    I get that it’s the social norm to do so, but doesn’t that lend more credence to the argument that Elston/Chicago has a speeding problem? 30.01 I get. But 31mph is still speeding.

  • rohmen

    I agree whole-heatedly that there is a speeding problem in Chicago, but classifying speeding as 31 mph just isn’t realistic.

    Considering speedometers and even radar guns have a pretty accepted margin of error, classifying cars going 1 mph over the limit as speeding to support such an epidemic just doesn’t make sense.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Well, if margin of error of the equipment is your problem…you have a really good point. But if you are actually going 31mph, you are by definition speeding. I think the the lax attitude towards what speeding is makes it much easier for the 36mph+ to rationalize their speed.
    I’ll admit it also irks me a bit because I see a direct correlation b/w that train of thought and “I’m just running in for a coffee, pulling over in a bike lane with my emergencies on is fine” type moves drivers make everyday.
    Someone much more familiar with engineering laid out how/why speed limits are determined on here before. That’s why it’s the LIMIT…not the “Speed Suggestion”

    EDIT: Or parking your car in the middle of a marked crosswalk with flashers on…as I just maneuvered around while going to get lunch. ugh.

  • David Altenburg

    Here’s a fact you ought to know: kinetic energy goes up with the square of velocity.

    That means that a vehicle travelling at 36mph has 44% more kinetic energy than one travelling at 30mph. How much do you think that 44% affects someone’s ability to stop or the possibility of someone surviving after getting struck?

  • Scott Sanderson

    I have stopped riding on Elston, mostly for the reasons cited in this article. There is a lot of truck traffic, the protected bike lanes are mostly ignored by trucks making deliveries, and there have been just too many close calls with speeding vehicles. I also don’t like that it exists in a bad pollution corridor next to a chronically jammed highway and a lot of dirty industry. Instead, I have been taking Clybourn, which has it’s own problems, especially once you get South of Division, but, on balance, is safer than Elston.

  • No Ur Fax

    Why are you asking me the questions. Your the one with an MD in physics.

    If you are going to nitpick over a handful of mph’s, then perhaps the cops should nitpick everytime a cyclist doesn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign, which is always btw.

  • Yes: “37.6 percent of drivers exceeded the 30 mph speed limit”. That is speeding. And the more you increase the speed differential between a bicycle’s speed and a car’s speed you put the bicyclist at exponential higher risk.

    Two charts that describe this:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/13722960593/
    http://chi.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/04/Screen-Shot-2014-04-04-at-16.01.17-.png

  • ohsweetnothing

    At the risk of speaking for the man, I doubt he has any interest in pointless non-sequiturs and old hat arguments.

  • The Clybourn/Division intersection has similar problems as the Elston/Ashland intersection.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Yeah, 44% + or – nbd. It’s nitpicking.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Right, I mean look at Manhattan. Jobs are drying up around there and no one can go shopping because of lack of suburban-style big lot shopping accessible by car.

  • rohmen

    Look at Manhattan, a borough contained within a much larger city, and not an independent city itself. While you don’t see heavy industry and big-box suburban-style retail in Manhattan, you do see it in Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx and Queens.

    Similar to Manhattan, you don’t see big-box suburban-style retail or Morton Salt operating in the Gold Coast or in the Loop.

  • JacobEPeters

    Rohmen summarized most of what I had originally posted, so, I’ll just finish with this.

    A variety of land uses are necessary for a city to survive, we will always need these land uses, but we can reduce the amount of parking needed, increase the amount of landscaping in a way that reduces the amount of environmental damage that traditional industrial development can impart. This section of Elston wedged between rail viaducts, highways, and the river is ripe for sustainable industrial development, with dense mixed use development around transportation nodes like the Clybourn Metra station.

  • JacobEPeters

    Clybourn and Elston serve completely different needs within the network. Riding to the West Loop from Bucktown and Logan Square is significantly less stressful via Elston, while any trip to Old Town is made much simpler by taking Clybourn, although it has a lot of the same stresses that Milwaukee has through Wicker Park with all the cars circling for parking & shoppers opening their doors without checking their mirrors (although buffered lanes have made it decidedly better recently).

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Obviously, you didn’t see the extended trailer sized dump trucks lined up outside of the Morton Plant this winter delivering road salt. Sometimes the trucks were backed up from Magnolia to Division. Unfortunately, these trucks cannot make sharp turns or they may turn over. Perhaps the little plastic sticks in the road are too close to the entrance.

    Kind of reminds me when new condos go into an industrial area, and all of a sudden the neighbors find out deliveries start at 4:30 am. A big fuss ensues. There used to be meat packers at the corner of Lincoln and George when I came to Chicago. The neighbors who bought condos nearby in the 1990s made such a fuss, the companies eventually moved. Lots of jobs went to the suburbs or elsewhere. People were put out of work if they couldn’t get to those jobs.

    I believe that is what concerns the businesses on Elston. Will the bike lanes push their businesses out of this area. Time will tell.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    What percentage were under the 30 mph speed limit? 62.4%?

  • JacobEPeters

    If we can eliminate dangerous road conditions without getting the cops involved, shouldn’t that be the goal?

    Also, Idaho Stops should be a law adopted by Illinois from a Red State. Yielding is what is necessary at stop signs. Yielding to turning vehicles, yielding to pedestrians, yielding to cross traffic that has arrived at the intersection before you.

  • JacobEPeters

    Bike lanes will not push out industry, because bike lanes are not NIMBY home owners. We can build sustainable infrastructure for sustainable industry, the constraints on this corridor make it more conducive to industry than residential. What is more likely to force out industry is a car oriented road that attracts big box retail, rather than industrial land uses. We are already seeing this in most Chicago industrial zones, and that is something that needs to stop.

  • skyrefuge

    Why didn’t you include a histogram, or at the least, a link to the raw data? Given your general respect for facts and data, the unexpected omission of it here only serves to make me unreasonably(?) suspicious that 90% of the speeders were going 30-31mph or something like that.

    I love the idea of you guys being able to gather hard data like this, but it would be a waste if you’re going to use it to its fullest extent only in cases when it supports a predetermined conclusion.

  • Joe Robinson

    What time of day did you head out there? By 8:00 or 9:00, there’s enough traffic that drivers are forced to slow down. If you were to go out there at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, I’m sure you’d see speeds above 40 mph, especially approaching the viaduct at 1800 N.

  • Eric Masek

    I’d be curious to know what the average speeding number was and/or what the highest speed recorded was. It’s difficult to find a street within the city that doesn’t have people speeding regularly aside from packed rush hour times.

  • Elston is not the only spot with a speeding problem. Almost everywhere the mostly one-lane roads turn into temporary two-lane stretches (often for inexplicable reasons, probably legacy) drivers recently liberated from previous congestion resort to kangaroo driving. I don’t have a speed gun, but my guess is that on those stretches speeds are anywhere between 45 and 50 MPH.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    OK. Trucks may have to occasionly block the bike lane. Even if they can pull to the curb some of these large trucks are wide. Semi trucks can’t fit in your average curb side loading zone. Big trucks need a wider turning radius. If bikers are willing to accept these obstacles, I don’t see business having a problem with an expanded bike lane. If, however, they call 911 and want tickets issued everytime there is an encroachment on the bike lane, and harrass business because of it, whose then the NIMBY? Some of these trucks are not going to be able to circle the block, because of the river and the Kennedy. Further once you limit left turns with Ashland BRT, and no plans laid out with whats going to be done with Ashland/Armitage/Elston intersection, this is going to be interesting.

    There is a strong expressions by many writers here that autos don’t own the right to park on the street. I’ll give you that in residential neighborhoods. However, since there is not an Elston bus, business people and employees, their delivery trucks, suppliers, have to be able to arrive and depart. Strong sentiment on this site is once a bike lane is created, its ours and ours alone, so stay out of our way. That’s generally what I call NImbyism.

  • Adam Herstein

    I agree. Buffered bike lanes are not enough for Elston. Protected cycle tracks should be the minimum considered here.

  • Adam Herstein

    Agreed. What are the counts grouped by number of MPH over 30?

  • BIKElane

    You’re right, once a bike lane goes in, it is for bikes, not for car or truck parking. NIMBL!

  • JacobEPeters

    The only time I ever call the cops on a vehicle is when it is blocking the entire bike lane, or parked in a travel lane, which is causing dangerous merges by cyclists or drivers. I am a huge proponent of the protected bike lane switching to a buffered bike lane at the loading zones along Elston, because I have never seen a large truck block the bike lane at those locations. However, I have seen vans parked in the protected bike lane…when there is an open parking space on the other side of the bollards, and on the other side of the street.

    Isn’t anti bike lane just NIMS (Not in my street)?

  • Well-designed infrastructure should have designated loading zones (that ARE NOT in the bike lane) for all these purposes. Business owners don’t get to take over through-traffic lanes at will for their convenience, whether those lanes are originally designated for cars or for bikes.

  • It amazes me that CDOT thinks anyone will obey — or, in some cases, even SEE — those dinky little white poles. They fade into the background, visually (especially when the street is whitened with salt or gravel-dust from nearby sewer work), and they’re too short and thin to actually register.

    If they have to be breakaway and flimsy for safety purposes, at least put a (completely cosmetic, doesn’t-touch-the-ground, lightweight) wide orange cover on them to make them at least hood-height and 6+” across!

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Well if you like to drink at many of the fine establishments on Milwaukee Avenue, there are few loading zones large enough to accommodate a beer truck. Larger loading zones, probably means taking out paid parking meters.

    Angled streets like Milwaukee and Elston oftentimes have alleys that can’t accommodate trucks because they have odd angles and turns.

    Life if full of inconveniences. If you build a bike Utopia in Chicago, that can’t allow business some slack, to remove the chance of an inconvenience to every road user, you will have a very flat and and uninteresting town as businesses will go where they can do business.

  • We were talking about Elston, and industrial trucks. I lived on Cicero, where one beer truck pulled up in front of the liquor store (in a traffic lane, because there was no parking on that stretch of street normally, and none for blocks in rush hour) caused nearly a mile of congestion — about three times a week, every week. You’re not going to get me to say that beer trucks SHOULDN’T be using proper loading zones or alleys. :-> At minimum, they should be doing deliveries at low-traffic times of day.

    A lot of pre-existing businesses occupy spaces that, if they were looking to go in as new construction, they’d currently be required to design/get permits for APPROPRIATE truck usage; but because they’re grandfathered, the public in general are expected to suck it up.

  • Alex Oconnor

    A medical doctor in Mathematics? Clearly, you do not know your facts.

  • cjlane

    “But if you are actually going 31mph, you are by definition speeding.”

    And, until either (1) IL adopts Idaho stops, or (2) cyclists actually stop at all stop signs, and don’t ride thru intersection on red (which, yes, of course I do when I’m riding) and stop for pedestrian crossing the street, describing cyclists as ‘traffic scofflaws’ will remain *technically* accurate.

    So, everyone is a f’ing lawbreaker. Booyah!

  • cjlane

    “While you don’t see heavy industry and big-box suburban-style retail in Manhattan…”

    Except where you do! And except, as it relates to industry, for the first 3/4 of the 20th century!! The “meatpacking district” isn’t a disparaging reference to gay clubs, ya know.

  • ohsweetnothing

    So? I’m sure we’re all chronic jaywalkers too. In that sense the City has a “traffic scofflaw” problem among all modes of transportation. That’s not my point.

    Would you argue that the potential consequences of a car speeding are the same as an Idaho stop (which CARS do all the time as well, but I digress) or a jaywalker? I would say one of those violations has far more serious consequences…I think the numbers would agree with me as well.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    How very sad for you. I grew up up in suburia. I didn’t hate the sprawl as much as the conformity. As a mere child in 1968, the family visited downtown Chicago. One night we ate at the Stouffer’s restaurant on top of the Prudential Building, Top of the Rock. The next day we walked down Wabash under the El. Trashy, smelly. Low brow mens only bars and SROs. I loved the contrast. I vowed someday I’d live here.

    30 years later, ready to leave. Too many conformists wanting no inconvenience, neat, orderly lives, with lots of rules and lots of blandness in between. Turn Michigan Avenue in to the world’s largest cul de sac, so the kiddies can ride their bikes. Suburban mentality. Proper loading zones. Enforcement of tedious rules and hatred of anybody who the rules.

  • cjlane

    “Would you argue that the potential consequences of a car speeding are the same as an Idaho stop (which CARS do all the time as well, but I digress) or a jaywalker?”

    You were arguing that speeding is speeding is speeding b/c, aside from measurement error, it’s all “breaking the law”. See: “if you are actually going 31mph, you are by definition speeding”, which is what I quoted.

    Now you’re saying that it’s not about “breaking the law”, it’s about risk. Which is completely legit, BUT: please document the increase in risk from going 31 v 30.4–I think we all recognize the significant risk difference bt 30 and 40, but what’s 31 v 30?

    You hung your hat on “it’s against the law”–and that’s weak sauce

  • ohsweetnothing

    I hung my hat on 31mph is speeding, that dismissing that makes it easier to rationalize going 36+ and there’s a reason why the limit is called the limit, not the suggestion.

    You introduced the concept of “breaking the law” (and I assume law enforcement?). I didn’t mention that once. So would that make your argument weak sauce?

    I was referring to Steven’s count of vehicles that were speeding. I just think it’s totally fair to count all vehicles going over 30mph.

    Should he have only counted vehicles going 40+, 35+, 33+? Especially considering that the risk of serious injury/death increases exponentially with speed. I think it’s weird to say you shouldn’t count the vehicles that weren’t speeding “enough”.

    Also, I conceded that it was totally legit if your concern was with the margin of error of the equipment. I think rohmen made a great point there.

  • kastigar

    If you are going to nitpick over a handful of mph’s, then perhaps the cops should nitpick everytime a car doesn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign, which is always btw.

  • Cheryl

    I just came across this post and want to thank you for examining the intersection at Elston and Ashland. Most attention seems to go to Elston/Damen/Fullerton, which feels less hazardous to me than NB Elston at Ashland and the potential of a right hook by the many motorists who speed ahead of the through-lane bikes (and cars) and cut over to make the right turn. Elston is my daily commute and that intersection is about as bike-unfriendly as you can get. I’d love to see better infrastructure there, such as a separate bike lane and signal for through bike traffic.

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