Bikin’ the Suburbs: Active Trans Peddling Next-Gen Bikeways Beyond Chicago

Church Street cycle track in Evanston
Church Street cycle track in Evanston. Photo: Steven Vance

A recent survey conducted for the Illinois Bicycle Transportation Plan found that Illinoisans want bikeways that provide physical separation from motor vehicles, and believe these kind of “8-to-80” facilities are a key way to get more people to cycle. Protected bike lanes and bike boulevards, AKA neighborhood greenways, are becoming commonplace in the city of Chicago. Yesterday, the Active Transportation Alliance launched a new project to encourage suburbs to build these types of low-stress bikeways, which are comfortable for people of all ages and abilities.

The Family-Friendly Bikeways campaign will promote the establishment of off-street trails that can be used for transportation, on-street protected lanes, and bike boulevards on quiet side streets, with infrastructure that discourages speeding and cut-through traffic. “For the last 20 years or so, bike planning has been focused on the so-called ‘strong and fearless’ riders,” said Active Trans director Ron Burke. “That was OK, because there wasn’t political will to do more at the time, so it made sense to focus on low-hanging fruit.” However, he noted that studies show less than ten percent of the population feels comfortable cycling on streets with no bike accommodations or conventional bike lanes.

While the region now has hundreds of miles of bike facilities, the lion’s share of the on-street bikeways are conventional lanes or shared-lane markings, which do little to encourage less confident riders to bike for transportation. Off-street trails tend to be loops through forest preserves, which aren’t particularly useful for getting to destinations, and are often challenging to access without strapping your bike to a car rack.

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A suburban sidepath. Image: Active Trans

“Part of the evolution of the bike movement is for towns to say, yes, we want to create bike facilities for everyone, not just install some route signs or sharrows,” Burke said. He added that this isn’t such a heavy lift, because most of the suburbs Active Trans works with have already embraced the goal. “When you ask them if they’d be interested in creating a network of bikeways where even a little kid could ride, they say, yes, that would be awesome. It’s more about making a plan for moving forward.”

Active Trans has already been advising suburbs on creating bike plans, as well as coaching them on securing cash for the projects. “We recognize that funding is a big issue,” Burke said. “Even though bike facilities are relatively inexpensive, there’s a limited pot of money for these projects.” He noted that the state recently turned down a joint application by Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park for funding to expand Divvy into the ‘burbs. “Even if towns have the desire to do these things, they may not know how to get the cash.”

Bike boulevards will be an important part of Active Trans’ suburban strategy. “A lot of bike plans feature sharrows on side streets,” Burke said. “You don’t have to do a lot more to create bike boulevards.” Features like contraflow bike lanes, traffic diverters, and traffic calming, which allow continuous, two-way bike traffic but discourage drivers from speeding and shortcutting through residential streets, are relatively easy and low-cost, he said.

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A HAWK signal along a Tucson bike boulevard. Image: Bike Tucson

While many older suburbs already have a good network of quiet side streets that are comfortable for riding, it can be dangerous to cross major streets at unsignalized intersections. Treatments like refuge islands, raised crosswalks, and HAWK signals allow people to safely make these crossings without having to detour. “Obvious, if we’re talking about a state road with 55 mph speeds, you might need something different like an overpass or an underpass,” Burke said.

There’s already a significant amount of movement towards creating more bikeable suburbs. Evanston is well on its way to creating a network of protected lanes, and is currently updating its bike plan, although the city has floated the possibility of banning bikes from some downtown streets. Blue Island recently adopted a resolution to create family-friendly bikeways.

Active Trans recently met with Highland Park city staff to brainstorm, and they’re working with Oak Park to refine its existing bike plan, which will likely include new bike boulevards. “I’m really excited about that,” said Burke, who lives in the western suburb. “If we can make it happen in Oak Park, I envision a lot more biking.”

Active Trans has a petition on its website that you can sign to endorse the campaign. “The petition is so that, when we’re chatting with towns, and perhaps the state legislature, we can hold up all those signatures and demonstrate that there’s support for this.”

  • Alex Oconnor

    Meanwhile Libertyville autophiles bitch up a storm re their bike path.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Steve,

    I’ve always like your work since your “Can Plan” blog but can you explain to me how the hell that Church Street cycletrack is supposed to work? Looking it closely on Google this facility gives me the willies and is on of those facilities that is near useless to the 5 to 10% (percentages may vary depending on your location) of people who ride already.

    The eastern start of the two way section might as well throw the MUTCD out the window. http://goo.gl/maps/LvU6G

  • Andy B from Jersey

    OH MY GOD!!!! Then there are these curb ramps!!!! Should call them CRASH RAMPS! They’re much narrower than the cycletrack and get super narrow and don’t even line up with the cycletrack! Who the hell is designed this crashtrack?!?!

    http://goo.gl/maps/ZUgXJ

  • Andy B from Jersey

    The western terminus is even scarier!!!!! Either crash into a traffic light poles, a garbage can, or control box, or fly out into traffic into oblivion!
    http://goo.gl/maps/GBVvP

    Poor, useless facilities like this do way more harm to our cause than they help.

  • Don’t believe everything you see on Google Maps. Those aerials were taken before sidewalks were widened. Here’s what the Western terminus of the bike lane looks like nowadays (photo by Steven). Arguably not an ideal situation, but very different than what your aerial shows.

  • Anne A

    From what I’ve read, the houses were built AFTER the bike path they’re blaming for their flooding. SHouldn’t the morons be going after the *developer(s)* who built these homes without consideration of water/flooding issues?

  • Anne A

    I’ve often found that Google satellite and street view images don’t represent new bike facilities well because they’re not shot from a cyclist’s perspective. These are getting built fast enough that Google images are often out of date, which doesn’t help.

  • The developer bears 100% of the responsibility for grading and developing the plots in a way that created a water nuisance.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I mistakenly embedded the aerial photos. I meant to show the streetviews. I’m gonna’ try and edit my posts.

    Ehhh! It’s not working for me somehow.

    Anyway, I’m all for protected bicycle lanes where appropriate but crap like this, that I can’t figure out how to use and would simply avoid, ain’t helping things at all!

  • oooBooo

    Riding on the sidewalk? WTF? I’d rather ride lake-cook road at rush hour.

  • oooBooo

    It doesn’t say exactly where in libertyville or what bike trail, doesn’t appear to be the DPR. But given what little is in a news story, ‘water from the west coming from 4th ave’, I’d say their problem is they live next to the Des-Plains river. Water runs to the river. The pre-existing bike path may be graded above their yards so it acts as a dam. No big deal when it was empty land, but now there probably should be a few pipes under the path so the water can get to the river.

  • Don’t knock it ’til you ride it. These lanes actually work pretty well for leisurely commuting.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Respectfully no thanks John. I’ll take the lane and rejoin the bike lane where it becomes one-way on the right side of the road. It is my opinion that bike infra that is not useful to more advanced bicyclists is NOT 8-80 infra. It needs to be useful to ALL cyclists including those already cycling. Plus those narrow curb-ramps are crash makers and could never allow this facility to scale up in volume. There is only room for one cyclist at a time.

    Sorry to distract you from the main point of the article. I don’t disagree with that but there is way too much bad protected bike infra out there and this looks like another bad example. It doesn’t have to be like this. However if this is what you use as an example, I have to wonder what people are advocating for. Look at this article from you colleagues at SB LA. That’s a great cycletrack!:
    http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/05/22/sweet-new-protected-bikeway-on-beautiful-rosemead-blvd-in-temple-city/

    .

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