Once Again, Hilkevitch Spins His Wheels When Writing About Biking

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Jon Hilkevitch

Veteran Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch is usually effective at covering highway and transit news but, when it comes to bicycle projects, he often misses the mark. For example, around the time of the Divvy launch, in spring of last year, he wrote a couple of articles painting the system as a dysfunctional ripoff. By August, he wrote another piece that all but admitted he was wrong.

Similarly, today’s Getting Around column is a clumsy overview of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s bikeways program, including some factual errors, which emphasizes the cars-versus-bikes angle. Granted, Hilkevitch does give airtime to some of the arguments for protected and buffered bike lanes, such as the fact that they encourage new ridership, and make streets safer for all users, not just bicyclists. But the impression he creates is that bikeways have dubious value, inconveniencing drivers while getting limited use from cyclists.

“Chicago is hustling to reach the finish line next spring on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promise to complete 100 miles of bicycle lanes that are shielded from traffic,” Hilkevitch writes. “City officials hope the public doesn’t judge the project strictly by the number of bike riders seen — very few in some locations — using the lanes.”

Nowhere in the piece does he mention that in many locations protected lanes have dramatically increased cycling. For example, the number of cyclists on Dearborn rose by 171 percent after the PBLs went in.

Hilkevitch does state the cost of designing and building bike lanes, about $2.7 million last year, at an average of $67,000 per mile. But he fails to mention that this is a drop in the bucket of the city’s transportation budget, and $1.4 million of that money came from federal grants. One of the great things about bike infrastructure is that it’s inexpensive, so there’s little financial risk involved in piloting new types of bikeways.

Hilkevitch spends much of the article discussing the poor state of the Lake Street protected lanes, and the debatable value of extending them three miles west this year, a topic we’ve previously covered on Streetsblog. It’s true that it may not make sense to install bike lanes under ‘L’ tracks, and maintenance of many of Chicago’s PBLs has been an issue, which CDOT says it is addressing with more frequent sweeping and plowing. However, Lake is far from a typical protected lane and more like a worst-case scenario.

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Protected lanes on Vincennes. Photo: John Greenfield

Next, Hilkevitch sets his sights on road diets:

Yes, the lanes provide a designated and arguably safer place for cyclists to share the roadway with motor vehicles. But in many areas, including on Vincennes Avenue between 84th and 103rd streets, bike lanes were added to wide-open arterial streets mainly to slow down speeding vehicles by reducing the number of regular traffic lanes, transportation officials said.

Wrong. The number of mixed-traffic lanes stayed the same on Vincennes. It was previously a two-lane street, but with excessively wide lanes that encouraged speeding, resulting in 981 crashes, four of them fatal, in a five-year period. After the travel lanes were narrowed by the addition of bike lanes, the number of speeders observed during the a.m. rush was reduced from 624 to 390, and the number of vehicles going over 40 mph dropped from 192 to 54.

Hilkevitch also writes that road diets are “the reason why frustrated drivers often find themselves crawling in heavy traffic on 31st Street between the lakefront and just past the Dan Ryan Expressway, amid little-used bike lanes.” Again, for the most part travel lanes were not removed from 31st. Four-to-three conversions were done on two short blocks over bridges, but these kind of road diets tend to smooth out traffic by creating left-turn bays.

I haven’t seen stats on car speeds or bike ridership for this stretch of 31st, so I’m guessing Hilkevitch is basing this statement on a report from a disgruntled driver or two. However, after Kinzie Street received a similar PBL treatment in 2011, a CDOT study  found little to no effect on motor vehicle speeds — in most cases traffic moved slightly faster. Moreover, 49 percent of people surveyed said motorist behavior improved after the lanes were installed.

Hilkevitch may be fairly confused about bike issues, but one thing’s things for sure. Raising doubts about the entire bikeways program based on the Lake Street PBLs and anecdotes about the effects of road diets is pretty irresponsible, and certainly not worthy of a reporter of his caliber.

  • Installation of bike lanes on Vincennes has certainly removed the ability for impatient, impolite drivers to try to whizz past on the left (illegal both as passing on the left and as lane-splitting), possibly raising the PERCEPTION of congestion to those drivers, since they now spend more time sitting patiently waiting their turn like the rest of us.

  • Two things that annoy the heck out of me with his article (and most writing on the subject, in general)
    1. Perfect example of supply-side strategies being fine for auto infrastructure (build it and they will learn to use it) but demand-side for everything else (only build bike lanes in areas where people already bike.). I’ll have to look for it but it reminds me of an article that basically argued the country shouldn’t spend more money on transit because riders only occur in areas that have transit. (i.e. areas without transit systems have zero ridership proves that we shouldn’t spend money on transit.)
    2. Over short distances, the speed an automobile travels is largely irrelevant to how quickly it gets places. Road diets decrease the typical speed driven on a road but don’t greatly impact total travel time. For example, on a wide open LSD, on a trip from one end to the loop, a decrease of from 50 to 40 mph only adds about 3 minutes of time. For drives on local streets, with traffic signals, the difference is even smaller, often zero. Too many cars using a particular street, also known as congestion, will add to travel times far more than the designated/designed speed limit. Bikes (and public transit) remove vehicles from the road and aid in congestion relief. Can anyone imagine what Milwaukee ave would look like if all those bikers drove cars?

  • Alex_H

    I made that last point once to a friend who was complaining about all the cyclists on Milwaukee. His response was, “If those people weren’t on bikes, they wouldn’t be driving–they would be taking the train.” :/

  • Annie F. Adams

    Mr. Hilkevitch is one reason I will never pay for the Tribune. Truly irresponsible, lazy and self focused reporting. If he had any integrity he would walk, bike, drive and transit on our streets. He would talk to folks about what they see working and not working. It makes me sad that a newspaper for a great city like Chicago pays him money and gives him a forum for his one sided view of “getting around.” I have always assumed he does not live in Chicago. But drives to and fro downtown Chicago. Or else he would have a much more informed and varied view.

  • kevin

    Is it illegal though? I see people say that all the time but I can’t find a definitive answer. I looked through the city code (though not the state’s) and the only thing which seemed directly related was a passage that says [passing on the right is LEGAL if it can be done safely and without crossing a solid line or leaving the paved roadway] which seems to imply the opposite.

  • Mishellie

    Did you respond “and how the eff do you know this?”

  • David Altenburg

    I’ve heard that response before, and here’s why it’s bogus:

    1. Not everyone lives near the train.If you don’t, biking is faster than the train, so it’s likely that many would drive so as to not significantly lengthen their commute.
    2. Buses are slower than cycling, so see 1.
    3. The Blue Line is at capacity during rush hour, so even if some of those cyclists took the train, it’s likely that some of those who currently ride the train would say “screw it, I’m driving from now on”.

    Wouldn’t it be great to get data on this? Cycling numbers obviously decline in bad weather – it would be great to see how CTA ridership and car counts change on those days.

  • Fbfree

    One additional restriction:
    The stopped vehicle cannot be stopped for a pedestrian in a crosswalk (marked or unmarked).

  • Fred

    Here’s what the state has to say about it: http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/publicacts/fulltext.asp?Name=095-0231

  • whetstone

    Not sure what Vincennes is like, but I take Grand from California to downtown a lot (as a cyclist and a driver), and at times the number of lanes is confusingly variable–it’ll change from four to a very wide two-lane street, so there’s a *lot* of passing on the right. I’ve switched to mostly taking Hubbard because of the speeds (and because it’s a quick hop over to the Kinzie bike lane).

  • Anne A

    In sections where VIncennes hasn’t yet been modified to add protected or buffered bike lanes, passing on the right is a HUGE problem – causing crashes due to speeding, erratic driving and failure to leave enough space. For the most part, it was effectively one ginormous lane (effectively 2 to 2.5 lanes wide!) at each side of the yellow center line. I’m sure you’ve seen how drivers behave in such a situation. It was like the wild west out there. Now the modified portion is actually reasonable and much safer.

  • ThisManIsRight

    Grand, west of Western, right there is the WORST. Its like a freeway with no lane markings – drivers speeding around on the right to get ahead of other drivers, all right next to the park. Talk about an area ripe for a road diet

  • Hilkevitch does live in west surban Lisle (Lovett or leave it) but, to his credit, he does commute to work “using Metra, the CTA, Chicago River water taxis and his own two feet.”: http://bio.tribune.com/jonhilkevitch

  • If road diets cause cars to move slower but they were speeding to begin with THAT’S A GOOD THING! Perhaps now they will travel at the speed limit.

  • 2Fast2Furious

    What are the other reasons, because you’re really only punishing yourself if you actually want to read the other articles.

  • I assume John Kass is the other reason.

  • kevin

    ah, good catch. Thanks

  • kevin

    That seems to agree with my point, nothing on that page says passing on the right is illegal. There’s two relevant sections:

    (a) The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left thereof at a safe distance and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle. In no event shall such movement be made by driving off the pavement or the main traveled portion of the roadway.

    This does mention passing on the left, but it seems to apply to two lane country roads more than the city. Plus, when combined with b:

    (b) Except when overtaking and passing on the right is permitted, the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle on audible signal and shall not increase the speed of his vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle.

    it’s clear that overtaking on the right can be permitted in certain areas. That combined with the city law indicates to me that passing on the right is generally legal with restrictions. In my mind, one of the big benefits of adding bike lanes to a street is making passing on the right illegal and limiting weaving.

    Thanks for finding that.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Yes John Greenfield you are correct. #2 is John Kass. 2Fast2Furious frequently the free online parts of the Tribune is often enuf punishment for me. I pay for news sources that offer in-depth views on things I didn’t know. Years ago, during one of the many “CTA is too expensive to maintain! We must raise fairs! We must cut costs/trains/buses!” I wrote a letter to Mr. Hilkevitch asking if he could run the numbers on how much it costs me a citizen of Chicago (commuter cyclist, car owner) to have folks drive cars into downtown Chicago vs. bike or transit. So: EMT, street and traffic lights, asphalt, police, traffic management personnel, $220 pre-tax credit for parking, snow removal, bus drivers, train drivers, how many people are we moving, maintenance–and so forth. Seemed to me like that would have been interesting! And also perhaps informed folks on actual choices for the future of our city. No response. Although it did run as an editorial after I re-submitted it. So kudos to the folks in editorial!

  • Annie F. Adams

    Good to know! I have always wanted to ride bikes with Mr. Kass and Mr. Hilkevitch. Share with them my daily commute. It really changes how you see things when you do something like that day-in and day-out and from different locations in the city. I recently took pictures of the bad parts of what many consider to be a “decent” bike commute. But for me is still far too dangerous-on a bike! It was interesting to be walking around and how safe it felt vs. how unsafe those same areas feel on a bike vs. how safe all those areas feel in a car. I will be putting together an epic letter to the interested parties. As the choices over how I get to my job in downtown Chicago on a bike involve: IDOT, CDOT, numerous Aldermen, the Mayor and the Park District.

  • I’d like to see more than anecdotal data that the CTA is at capacity during rush hour. Of course the train cars themselves are at capacity under current levels of service, but does anyone know what infrastructure constraints are on the blue line to increase headways during rush hour from every five minutes to every 1-3 minutes for example? I am guessing yard capacity constraints at Rosemont and Forest Park if there are indeed constraints on the Blue Line.

  • Anne A

    That is comparable to the unmodified sections of Vincennes.

  • How long have you been sitting on that Lyle Lovett joke?

  • R.A. Stewart

    Those are golden moments, when the occasion finally arises …

    (Says the guy who has been known to sit on awful jokes for months, if not years.)

  • I use it whenever the ‘burb comes up in conversation, but no one ever gets it, so kudos to you!

  • Broseph Stalin

    A fare for all and no fair to anybody!

  • what_eva

    I’ve found that it’s usually not good to look at a public act by itself. It’s always better to go into the compiled and look around the change to find other things. This particular act amended 625 ILCS 5/11-703 about passing on the left, but the next section, 11/704 addresses passing on the right.

    Full text pasted below, but short answer, kevin is correct. Passing on the right is permitted on any road with 2 or more lanes in a direction by (a) 2. Also note that (b) says bikes can pass on the right (I think this was a recent amendment?)

    Note that it doesn’t say 2 marked lanes, it says “sufficient width for two or more lines of vehicles”, so it appears that passing on the right would be technically legal if the lane were wide enough.

    Sec. 11-704. When overtaking on the right is permitted.
    (a) The driver of a vehicle with 3 or more wheels may overtake and pass upon the right of another vehicle only under the following conditions:

    1. When the vehicle overtaken is making or about to make a left turn;
    2. Upon a roadway with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width for two or more lines of vehicles moving lawfully in the direction being traveled by the overtaking vehicle.
    3. Upon a one-way street, or upon any roadway on which traffic is restricted to one direction of movement, where the roadway is free from obstructions and of sufficient width for 2 or more lines of moving vehicles.
    (b) The driver of a 2 wheeled vehicle may not pass upon the right of any other vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless the unobstructed pavement to the right of the vehicle being passed is of a width of not less than 8 feet. This subsection does not apply to devices propelled by human power.

    (c) The driver of a vehicle may overtake and pass another vehicle upon the right only under conditions permitting such movement in safety. Such movement shall not be made by driving off the roadway.

  • what_eva

    Passing on the right is not illegal in IL. 625 ILCS 5/11-704 (a) 2. Full text in my other comment below.

    Chicago code has nearly identical language in 9-36-020.

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