Could IDOT Bike Plan Represent a Turning Point for the Car-Centric Agency?

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Cover of the executive summary for the bike plan.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has a long history of promoting driving before all other modes. However, its new Illinois Bike Transportation Plan, released this morning at the Illinois Bike Summit in Champaign, may represent a new direction for the department.

In recent years, IDOT has pushed wasteful, destructive highway projects like the Circle Interchange Expansion and the Illiana Tollway, and it recently released a “Purpose and Need” statement for the North Lake Shore Drive rehab that was written largely from a windshield perspective.

When the department launched the public input process for the state bike plan last summer, it was still prohibiting Chicago from installing protected bike lanes on state roads within the city, apparently for reasons that had nothing to do with safety. It seemed ironic that IDOT was seeking input on strategies for improving bike safety when its own policy undermined it.

In October, at a memorial for Robert “Bobby” Cann, a cyclist who was killed by a motorist on Clybourn, a state road, it was announced that IDOT was lifting the PBL ban. The agency is currently working with the Chicago Department of Transportation to design protected bike lanes on Clybourn, possibly shielded by concrete curbs, on an experimental basis.

This morning, the Active Transportation Alliance heralded the release of the bike plan, which calls for improvements to state road design and more funding for bike safety projects, as a sign of IDOT’s growing commitment to improving conditions for non-motorized transportation. “This is not an easy task given IDOT’s historically car-centric perspective that has de-prioritized biking and walking,” the Active Trans release said.

“With the adoption of its Complete Streets policy in 2007, its plans to pilot-test protected bike lanes on state routes, and now the state bike plan, I think it’s fair to say IDOT is turning the corner, so to speak, toward a multi-modal approach that provides a range of transportation options for Illinois residents,” said Active Trans director Ron Burke in a statement.

Final Executive Summiary2

This photo from the executive summary was taken at Chicago’s North Avenue pier.

The bike plan focuses on the design and management of state roads, as well as the distribution of federal and state transportation money to Illinois municipalities. Improving state roads could go a long way towards making biking and walking safer, since these highways are often overly wide, with multiple lanes and high-speed traffic.

State roads often lack bike lanes or side paths, and crosswalks protected by traffic signals or stop signs are often few and far between. Active Trans noted that improving bike and pedestrian accommodations on state routes could have a big impact on safety in Chicagoland, since these highways make up 2,775 miles of roads in the region, nine percent of the total mileage. State hwys are also often the only through routes in suburban or rural locations.

In recent years, IDOT has begun striping bike lanes on some state routes, such as the Dixie Highway through south suburban Homewood. On the other hand, the department recently turned down a recent request from nearby Blue Island to add bike lanes while repaving Vermont Street. One hopes that with the goal of improving safety on state roads now codified in the bike plan, the department will be less likely to disregard such requests.

The new document, which the state prepared with assistance from consultants Alta Planning and Design, includes a number of action items. It calls for dedicated and prioritized state funding for safety and access facilities like bike lanes and sidewalks. Active Trans argued that IDOT should not require local municipalities to provide matching funds for these projects, since this can delay or kill the projects.

The plan calls for documenting the number and quality of state complete streets projects. It also recommends developing walking and biking safety standards and earmarking funding to make them a reality.

IDOT design manuals will be updated to reflect modern standards for accommodating biking and walking, which should increase the quantity and quality of bike facilities incorporated into state road projects. And the plan calls for hiring a full-time bike and pedestrian coordinator to work within the agency to ensure these modes are accommodated. Active Trans points out that this person needs to be someone well-informed about current best practices in bike and pedestrian safety in urban and suburban settings.

The language of the state bike transportation plan is somewhat vague, and the document will simply be words on paper until IDOT begins to implement its objectives. However, it’s encouraging to see the state acknowledge it needs to do a better job accommodating biking and walking in its projects. Hopefully, the document will lead to good facilities for cyclists and pedestrians becoming the rule, not the exception, on state roads.

Read the extensive executive summary for the bike plan here.