Bollard Blues: This Winter Was Rough on Chicago’s Protected Bike Lanes

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All the bollards along Milwaukee have been taken out. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece also runs on the Green Lane Project’s blog.]

In the wake of this brutal winter, Chicago’s third snowiest on record, some sections  of the Dearborn protected bike lanes resemble a gap-toothed grin. Several of the white, plastic posts that delineate the bi-directional bikeway are missing in action. Roughly half of the posts that once separated bikes from cars on nearby Kinzie are gone.

On Milwaukee, the city’s busiest biking street, every single bollard is missing from protected bike lanes the city installed less than a year ago. It’s a reminder of the downside of relying on plastic posts for protection, and the advantages of permanent lane separations such as curbs.

Milwaukee Avenue, with bollards - photo by Steven Vance
Milwaukee Avenue, shortly after the buffered and protected lanes opened. Photo: Steven Vance

Mike Fierstein, co-owner of Ancien Cycles, which recently opened on Milwaukee to take advantage of its high bike traffic, said the bollards were wiped out by reckless motorists, snowplows, and a water main project which tore up a stretch of the street last fall. That section of road is slated to be repaved and restriped this spring. “It seems like the posts aren’t really made to last that long anyway,” Fierstein said.

Chicago Department of Transportation project manager Mike Amsden has said the city made the decision to start out with the flexible, plastic posts, which cost about $90 each installed, rather than more durable, but more expensive, concrete infrastructure, in order to build many miles of protected bike lanes ASAP. “There’s pros and cons to doing it both ways — quality versus quantity, honestly,” Amsden told Seattle Bike Blog in January. “The philosophy of just getting as much in as quickly as you can is great.”

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Most of the posts on the Kinzie bridge are now missing.

That’s part of the reason the City of Chicago was able to announce this week that it has reached the halfway point of accomplishing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious goal to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within his first term. CDOT plans to install about 15 more miles of buffered lanes and five miles of protected lanes in early 2014, and will design the remaining 30 later this year.

But the department has also acknowledged that damaged and missing bollards have become an issue. At February’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, bikeways engineer David Smith told attendees the bike program is aware that many of the posts are damaged, flattened, or absent. CDOT is currently doing an inventory of the conditions of the protected lanes, but doesn’t yet have a number for how many bollards need to be replaced, spokesman Pete Scales told me.

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A fallen soldier on Lake Street in East Garfield Park. Photo: John Greenfield

Active Transportation Alliance campaign director Jim Merrell said it make sense to cut the city some slack about the damaged and missing posts. “The bollard-protected bike lanes represent a relatively new type of infrastructure on our streets,” he said. “There’s always going to be a learning curve in how to adapt operations like snow removal when a new element appears on our roadways.”

He noted that this winter was the first truly challenging one, with several major snowstorms, since CDOT started installing PBLs three years ago. However, he added that it shouldn’t be difficult to provide snowplow drivers with a list of PBL streets and explain where the posts are relative to the parking, so they can avoid knocking them out.

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A curb-protected bike lane in Seattle. Photo: SDOT

In the long term, Merrell says Active Trans wants to see protected bike lanes with more permanent infrastructure. Using curbs, planters, or grade separation, instead of plastic posts, can help prevent this type of damage, as well as give better protection to cyclists. The good news is that this has been CDOT’s plan all along.

Amsden said the city is taking a two-phased approach, installing quick-and-dirty, bollard-protected lanes that will eventually be upgraded to concrete infrastructure. Curb-separated lanes are being considered for possible late 2014 or early 2015 installation on Clybourn Avenue on the North Side and State Street on the South Side, and the Dearborn lanes may be upgraded to curbs in the future as well.

Alex Wilson, director of the cycling education center West Town Bikes, says he’s glad the issue is on CDOT’s radar. “I’m certainly happy to see as many bike lanes as there have been,” he said. “But there’s definitely a lot left to be figured out, and many lessons to be learned from this past winter.”

  • ohsweetnothing

    I wasn’t completely sold on barrier protected bike lanes (I like them, but figured them to be more of a luxury than a necessity) until riding on the Milwaukee PBL the past 2 months. The conduct of cars now that the bollards are gone is infuriating.
    I was literally tailgated by a white passenger van for two blocks earlier this week.

  • Peter Debelak

    I really hope that they don’t install any curb separated bike lanes on the streets I use. How are you supposed to go around potholes? Or pass other cyclists? They also make left turns worse than they already are since you are trapped in the lane until the break in the curb. Curbs will also just exacerbate the common problem of cars waiting to turn blocking the lane until car traffic clears. With the bollard separated lanes at least I can move into the left traffic lane to go around them. Finally, I have yet to see a “protected” bike lane that protects cyclists in intersections where most of the car/bike danger lies. I don’t see how curbs improve this situation at all.

  • JacobEPeters

    A better means of doing this would be periodic planters, raised lanes, or not continuous curbs. Separation needs to be enforced, but flexibility for left hand turns and avoiding accidents is imperative.

    As for intersections…http://www.protectedintersection.com/

  • J

    Breaking… flexible plastic posts not very effective at keeping cars out of bike lanes.

    Neither is paint.

  • Or even just bollards that are fatter and easier to see.

  • BlueFairlane

    Considering the number of times you see reports of cars running into buildings, neither are concrete curbs.

  • rohmen

    That’s interesting (and a shame) to hear.

    Up until last August, I had been an almost daily year round cycle commuter down Milwaukee from Augusta to Kinzie (and onto the Loop) for around five years or so. Even when there were just painted lines in the road, I never remember having someone pull into the bike lane and tailgate me (besides mopeds). I did see people use it often to pass another car that was making a left, but never a car actually pull in and use a bike lane as a travel lane for two blocks.

    Obviously, some people must function on a level where once they see that the bollards are gone, they feel they now get to do whatever they want, which in my mind is another knock on how impermanent the bollards feel.

  • JacobEPeters

    true, there are many solutions that more effectively narrow the road’s perceived width

  • rohmen

    See, I have a question about that. For years, it was looked upon as a victory to get even painted bike lanes added to a street. I always assumed it was celebrated as a victory (and celebrated myself) because even painted bike lanes add a level of safety to cyclists on the road.

    I support the push for (true) protected bike lanes, and I get that they’re necessary to get more riders out into the street. But, that said, are painted lanes really worthless and worth not pursuing at all?

    Did the painted lanes the City installed all over the place have a substantial impact in lowering accident rates on streets where no lanes had existed previously?? While we all get that paint alone will not physically stop a car from entering the lane, my understanding is that they had enough of a psychological impact to be worth using in areas where protected lanes aren’t practical, or as a stop gap until funds are available to get a more permanent option.

    I assume someone on here might know the facts and figures on that, though.

  • BlueFairlane

    I suspect this is one of those “feels like” issues for which there isn’t much in the way of concrete data. My own anecdotal response is to think of old-style Elston vs. Elston during that year between its repavement and the installation of the protected lane. Elston was never much trouble with the painted lines, but when they repaved, they left off the lines in anticipation of the bike lane installation, which took about a year. That meant Elston went a year with no paint at all, and car traffic turned insane. People decided it was a free-for-all because there weren’t any lines directing anybody anywhere.

    So my conclusion is that a line won’t do much for a car out of control, a drunk or for somebody willfully disobeying the law. But most people in car will pay attention to a line and try to obey it.

  • This is why I like the idea of raised bike lanes. Ideally, and from what I’ve seen, they’re better at keeping out debris, water, etc… the only issue is plowing them, of course, which has already been an issue.

    As far as what to do regarding turns: we need the intersections to be bike-friendly, too.

  • Peter Debelak

    I agree that intersections really need to be more bike friendly. I worry that the city thinks “bike friendly” mean “special signal that requires cyclists to wait longer for a green light”. That’s what they did for cyclists at the Milwaukee/Elston intersection and on the Dearborn PBL. The Milwaukee/Elston intersection is especially galling because the intersection functioned properly before (for people traveling northwest on Milwaukee making a right turn onto Elston) and now you need to counter-intuitively shift one lane to the left in order to make a right turn there.

  • DrMedicine

    I imagine a car swerving into a curb loses control much more easily and a biker running into a curb can fall into traffic. It’s not a perfect system.

  • Except for the green boxes near stoplights—they seem to scream “stop/park in me!” None of this stuff is going to work if the underlying causes are not addressed: Congestion, lack of driver education, and an antiquated approach to urban traffic manangement.

  • I personally don’t like concrete separators—they don’t weather well, and cause real damage to tires (bikes and cars), and don’t allow for an escape on either side if necessary. I assume the inward looking CDOT is unaware of the Barcelona solution: Look at the photo—the ridges are made of bolted solid rubberblocks from old tires, and so far have survived on most streets for 4 or more years (maintenance in B is just as shoddy as it is here). Barcelona does not have Chicago winters, but has brutal summers, and the drivers are much, much worse than Chicago’s, and are really adept at destroying anything in their way.

  • Those wouldn’t survive being snowplowed, and are too short to show above the snow. Other than that, awesome.

  • Well, if you put those down with an occasional bollard in between (like the flimsy ones used so far), it would be visible, and the bollard would probably survive. Besides, were snowplows the ones who sheared off all missing bollards? Also, I was wrong about them being bolted—they’re actually fused into the asphalt. Here’s the official announcement from 2010:

    “Los nuevos carriles bici de Barcelona incorporarán para segregarse de los coches unas piezas de caucho reciclado -soldadas al suelo y con bandas reflectantes– que el Ayuntamiento ha constatado que son más robustas que las actuales piezas de plástico, explicó hoy el concejal de Movilidad, Francesc Narváez. “

  • Definitely useful as part of a strategy, but not sufficient alone in Chicago. :->

  • High_n_Dry

    It isn’t all bad, someone put the base of one of the bollards in a pothole/ crack just before the Kinzie river bridge heading east. I think it falls into the “reuse” category of the “reduce reuse recycle” mantra. :) or it found the spot on its own with the assistance of the wind.

  • Edgewater Roadie

    Another reason I prefer buffered lanes. They get plowed and stay free of debis. Just keep them painted.

  • Adam Herstein

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious goal to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within his first term

    Ambitious? Hardly. Mr. Emanuel changed the definition of “protected bike lane” to suit his needs so he could reach this goal much more easily. This is especially evident in the fact that the city only plans to install four miles of bollard-protected bike lanes this year. Whatever “ambitious” plans the Mayor may have had at the beginning of his term have stagnated.

  • Mishellie

    I actually enjoy buffered lanes too. Cars seem to get into any lane, but buffered ones at least for the most part keep the moving cars a couple feet away. IDK if I’d say “prefer” but it’s close.

  • ConcernedNeighbor

    I agree with what you are saying about going around potholes and that can be frustrating. However, the mindset of passing other cyclists is something that is more of an American issue. Just as we expect cars to change their behavior, cyclists will have to adapt too. If we truly want bike lanes to be for every type of rider then we will have to be ok with various levels of riding. Not every rider is out for a tour de france ride. In Amsterdam where there are concrete curbs separating it is too narrow to pass; however, the difference is that bike traffic just flows naturally based on the rider who is leading the traffic.

  • Mcass777

    I brought this up before the PBL was installed on Kinzie. The PBL’s sucked all winter. I kept hearing the plows would take care of them. Well 2 years in and every time is snows, if the lanes get plowed, the buildings plow the sidewalk snow right into the PBL! There were weeks when it was dangerous to be in the PBL. I bet that since December 1, the lanes were horrible for more than 75% of the time. Now the street cleaners are out and they are cleaning around the bollards! I guess the small cleaners are not out yet.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    The problem I see with PBLs is the curbs are often where debris end up, and oftentimes the sewers clog and flood. The expectation that the city can keep the PBLs free of debris is dubious at best.

    In Uptown, two blocks of bike lane is being built as PBL and the rest as buffered. If you have a winter as we recently had, where 3/4/5″ inches of snow fall every 24 for hours in a couple of days time, I really doubt the city is going to haul its little snow plow around to clear 2 blocks of PBL here and 2 blocks of PBL there. And if the PBL does not get plowed or plowed well, I envision that the bikers will be riding outside the PBL where there is no buffered lane.

    Further, I really worry about bikers that are behind a wall of cars. I believe the PBL may give bikers a sense of false security – and – drivers will not be able to see them behind the wall of cars. Hence collisions by turning cars.

  • Pete

    Bollards will never survive an encounter with a snowplow. It was no surprise these goofy things would not survive the first Chicago winter with actual snow since the bike lanes were installed.

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