PBLs Off the Table in Jeff Park, But Milwaukee Still Needs a Road Diet

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CDOT rendering of Milwaukee with a road diet and protected bike lanes.

The Chicago Department of Transportation has proposed three possible street reconfigurations for Milwaukee from Lawrence to Elston. Unfortunately, the one that CDOT originally said would have had the greatest safety benefit for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers is now off the table.

The scenario where the current five-lane speedway would have been converted to two travel lanes and a turn lane, plus protected bike lanes, is no longer under consideration, according to 45th Ward chief of staff Owen Brugh. He said that Alderman John Arena and CDOT jointly concluded that PBLs weren’t a practical solution for this stretch, due to the high number of driveways.

Since protected lanes would have involved moving the parking lanes to the left side of the bike lanes, parking spaces would have had to be eliminated at each intersection and curb cut to ensure that cyclists and motorists could see each other. This would have required the removal of 20 percent of the parking spots on Milwaukee. However, parking counts show that, in general, spaces on this section of Milwaukee are currently used as little as 50 percent of the time, and not more than 90 percent of the time, so there would be a relatively minor impact on the availability of parking.

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Rendering of a road diet with wide buffered lanes.

The two other alternatives are still under consideration. One would involve a road diet with wide buffered lanes, which CDOT says would still have a significant safety benefit for all road users. The other would maintain all five lanes but add narrow buffered lanes, which would provide a minor safety benefit for cyclists and pedestrians, but have practically no effect on car speeds.

It’s a shame that protected lanes are no longer being considered, since this stretch of Milwaukee would greatly benefit from a major reboot. This section consistently averages well under 20,000 vehicles, making it the least busy stretch of Milwaukee in the city. But while Milwaukee south of the Kennedy Expressway is generally a two-lane street, north of the Kennedy it has two travel lanes in each direction, plus turn lanes, and the excess capacity encourages speeding. Recent CDOT traffic studies found that 75 percent of motorists broke the 30 mph speed limit, and 14 percent exceeded 40 mph, a speed at which studies show pedestrian crashes are almost always fatal.

Since speeding is the norm here, it’s not surprising that there’s a high crash rate. The project area saw 910 crashes between 2008 and 2012, causing at least 17 serious injuries and three deaths, according to CDOT. In January of this year, two men were killed in a rollover crash on the 6000 block of the street, just south of Elston.

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Rendering of Milwaukee with no road diet and narrow buffered lanes.

Studies show that road diets work well on streets with less than 20,000 vehicles per day, and that they often improve vehicle flow by better organizing traffic, so the protected lanes likely would have little negative effect on traffic. Meanwhile, converting the excess travel lanes to PBLs would have discouraged speeding and shortened crossing distances for pedestrians, as well as improved safety for cyclists.

At an open house earlier this summer, I talked to a number of local residents who supported the PBL option. However, many neighbors were against the plan, fearing that it would create gridlock and kill local businesses. Studies have shown that road diets with protected lanes have the opposite effect on commerce.

Aldermanic candidate John Garrido, who narrowly lost to Arena in the last election, interrupted the open house to present CDOT engineers with what he said were 4,000 signatures in opposition to any reconfiguration of the street that would involve fewer travel lanes. Brugh didn’t comment on whether the petition drive influenced Arena’s decision, but he said that the alderman has not been given a copy of the petitions.

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Garrido grandstands at an open house on the project last July. Photo: John Greenfield

Jeff Park residents who are opposed to the possibility of a road diet should take a field trip to Broadway in Uptown to see how a road diet with protected bike lanes has created a safer, more people-friendly street. This stretch of Broadway formerly had four travel lanes, plus turn lanes at some intersections – a similar configuration as the Milwaukee project area. Earlier this year, CDOT reconfigured Broadway to have two travel lanes and a turn lane, plus PBLs from Montrose to Lawrence, and buffered lanes from Lawrence to Foster.

“It has worked out really well,” said 46th Ward chief of staff Tressa Feher. “People say they feel much more comfortable biking on Broadway now. It has also made it easier to cross the street, since there are only two [travel] lanes to cross instead of four.”

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Protected bike lane on Broadway. Photo: John Greenfield

Brugh said Arena is still considering the possibility of a road diet plus buffered lanes on Milwaukee. He said CDOT is still compiling data and feedback from the public meetings, as well as consulting with the state and federal governments about the project. “Once CDOT completes that process, we’ll have a better idea of what the project will look like moving forward.”

Brugh acknowledged that something needs to be done to improve safety on Milwaukee. “I have a four-year-old daughter, and I can tell you from personal experience that it’s very hard to cross Milwaukee north of Foster with a small child, even at a stoplight. Since it’s a diagonal street laid on top of the city grid, it has very long crosswalks. I imagine it’s even more difficult for someone who is elderly and doesn’t move well.”

Regardless of which of the two remaining options are chosen, Milwaukee will get high-visibility crosswalks and pedestrian islands as part of the project. However, if Arena and CDOT are serious about improving safety they’ll move forward with the road diet with buffered lanes. That’s the one remaining option that will have a significant impact on Milwaukee’s speeding epidemic.

  • Hey, Garrido’s petition just says don’t reduce it to two lanes of traffic. It doesn’t say it has to be motorized traffic! Sounds like bike traffic in a protected bike lane still works.

    Seriously though: Has Cappleman’s office done any study that has looked at the initial speed reduction? It’s too early to look at injuries/collisions over years, but I’m curious. The CDOT rendering with buffered bike lanes only (above) does nothing to reduce the perceived width of the street, which slows drivers down. There are no new trees, concrete, no parked cars closer to the travel lanes, etc. Just paint. And we all know how well painted bike lanes are respected.

  • tooter turtle

    I drive on Broadway frequently. My perception is that the reduction of travel lanes has slowed the drag race between traffic signals (without really slowing average travel times). I find it less stressful for driving.
    I have used the lanes only a few times, but IMO the bike lanes have made the riding experience significantly better, also.

  • Brian C

    Does it make sense to listen to the vast majority of the community even if they are wrong? Isn’t that what public involvement is for?

  • JacobEPeters

    You are supposed to listen to what the community needs, from their own thoughts. That is sometimes at odds with what the community says they want, because people don’t easily connect the dots to see that the existing problems they have identified cannot be solved with the design they want. Same as every time a designer has a meeting with a client. If you give them exactly what they say they want, you won’t solve as many of their problems or address as many of their needs.

  • Mcass777

    Think about what you posted. Say it out loud a few times. Do you want to live in a country where some entity acts against the majority because you or a group say they are wrong. The art of reason is difficult to master but wonderful. That is a slippery slope you are walking on because one day you you may be on that majority you speak out against.

  • Brian C

    Mcass,
    You mis-read my post. I am questioning Steetsblog’s support if a road diet when a large majority of the community is opposed. I think the City should go with the community’s desires on this one, even though I personally disagree with their choice.

  • For starters, it’s not clear that a large majority of the community is against a road diet. Garrido originally launched an online petition against the road diet, which has garnered 786 signatures so far: http://www.change.org/p/alderman-arena-improve-milwaukee-ave-from-lawrence-to-elston-without-reducing-milwaukee-ave-to-one-lane-of-traffic-in-either-direction However, nearby resident and former Jeff Parker Bob Kastigar responded with an online petition in support of the road diet, which currently has 716 signatures: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/make-milwaukee-avenue?source=c.em.mt&r_by=522621 Garrido, who’s running against Arena, says 4,000 paper signatures have been collected in opposition, but he hasn’t shared them with anyone but CDOT, so we’ll have to take his word on that.

    I spoke to plenty of people at the last community meeting who supported PBLs on Milwaukee. But if parking space removals are considered a dealbreaker, a road diet with buffered lanes is a reasonable compromise. That configuration would still provide a significant safety benefit for all users, while causing minimal inconvenience for drivers.

  • Mcass777

    Got it, sorry

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    John Garrido asks the tough questions. Since we haven’t seen it, we can only assume the “petition” asked “Would you like to be slowed down on Milwaukee by hippie bike riders?” instead of “Would you like your children, the elderly, and other drivers to be safer on Milwaukee?”

    Arena thinks he can now pander to us NIMBYs. Garrido has us covered, though, and he shouldn’t waste his time. There’s a lot more than 4,000 people in the area, he should try to Arena should focus on everyone else. Most probably don’t care either way.

  • High_n_Dry

    Baby steps. Maybe in five years the BBLs can be converted to PBLs.

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