Elston Project Includes Short-Term Headaches, Future Bike/Ped Gains

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Biking on Damen is currently stressful, but this stretch will get new bike lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

This morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel broke ground on the Fullerton/Damen/Elston reconstruction, which aims to improve safety and reduce delays at one of Chicago’s most crash-prone and congested intersections. In an effort to unclog the intersection, the Chicago Department of Transportation is moving Elston about a block east of the six-way junction and bypassing it through land currently occupied by the Vienna Beef factory, which is relocating to Bridgeport.

While the construction work, which started last night, is currently causing headaches for all road users, the mayor promised that the hassles will be worthwhile in the long run. The project seems to be largely about expediting motorized traffic at an intersection that currently sees about 70,000 vehicles per day, but it also includes a few perks for pedestrians and bicyclists, including a widened sidewalk on Fullerton, and new bike lanes on Elston and Damen.

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A rendering of the new street configuration.

“We’re beginning construction on something people have… debated and deliberated on, and now we’re finally delivering,” Emanuel said at the press event. He joked that he would like to tell us what drivers have said, usually under their breath, while stuck in traffic at the tangled intersection, which has previously caused delays of up to seven minutes for motorists. “But you’re not allowed to say that near a microphone.”

As of last night, Damen and Elston have been reduced to one lane north of Fullerton to allow for demolition work, closures that will continue through this construction season. This creates a bottleneck for drivers, and a tight squeeze for cyclists who try to share the road with them. “Shared Lane Yield to Bikes” will be posted on Damen and Elston throughout construction. Less confident bike riders may be better off cautiously using the sidewalk on these stretches, which have low pedestrian traffic.

Next month, Fullerton will be reduced to one lane in each direction and will remain that way until Labor Day. In spring of 2016, the new Elston bypass will be opened for use with two mixed-traffic lanes plus curb-protected bike lanes. The entire project, including repaving of all streets in the affected area, is slated for completion by the end of next year.

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Emanuel and CDOT staffers break ground on the project. Photo: John Greenfield

“Know that people are working diligently to get the job done on time and on budget,” Emanuel said. “For the next 16 months it will be worse congestion than normal, but keep in mind what will happen on the back end. That inconvenience will be worth it.”

As part of the project, the sidewalk on the north side of Fullerton near the intersection will be widened by a foot or two, according to CDOT engineer Bridget Stalla. Elston bypass. The bike lanes on the new curving segment of Elston – which I propose nicknaming “The Hot Dog” – will be seven feet wide and protected by concrete medians that are about three feet wide and six-to-nine inches high.

The section of Damen between Fullerton and the new Elston stretch will be widened by ten feet, which will allow the installation of five-foot-wide, non-buffered bike lanes, connecting the existing bike lanes on the Damen bridge to Fullerton. South of Fullerton near the intersection, Damen will have 13-foot travel lanes, with no bikeway markings.

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The recommended north-south bike detour.

CDOT is advising motorists to avoid the intersection during the construction by using Diversey, Webster, and North as east-west alternatives, and Ashland and Clybourn as north-south options. Cortland, Clybourn, and Diversey is the recommended alternative north-south route for bicyclists. The roadway of the Cortland bridge will be closed for repairs starting Sunday, so the department is asking cyclists to walk their bikes on the sidewalk while crossing.

While congestion at the six-way intersection will likely be worse than ever during the first week or two of the lane closures, it’s likely that the situation will improve as drivers learn to take other streets on our well connected street grid instead. There’s also the phenomenon of “traffic evaporation”: When less road space is made available to cars, some of the traffic tends to disappear as people avoid driving, so congestion doesn’t wind up being as bad as expected.

Emanuel declined to discuss Mid-America Real Estate Group’s proposal to redevelop the Vienna Veef site with big-box retail, including a whopping 437 car parking spaces. CDOT staffers referred me to the Department of Planning and Development to get the city’s perspective on this questionable plan for centrally located, riverfront property. I’ll try to provide an update in the next week.

  • BlueFairlane

    This creates a bottleneck for drivers …

    I don’t know that it does. I think part of the problem with this intersection has always been that for some inane reason, Damen and Elston, which have been two lane streets up to this point, very briefly go to four, then almost immediately shrink back to two. This creates a chaotic jumble of attempted passes and forced merging, which only helps slow the whole mess down. It will be interesting to see what simply removing that dynamic will do to the intersection.

    When they close that lane of Fullerton, though, I predict the Apocalypse.

  • Um. That bike detour map says to take Cortland. The Cortland bridge is closed to bikes and cars for the forseeable future, and has its own complicated detours …

  • Hey look, the Damen bridge will be red again in the future!

  • Also, according to my informant who biked through there tonight, the K-rails you can see in the top photo wrap entirely around the corner, with no break for people to leave the sidewalk and cross the street (you have to climb over the K-rails to get out).

  • Consider me unsurprised.

  • That’s called a reverse (type) bottleneck. I discussed that in my story about the Belmont at Western/Clybourn road binge, where Belmont will be widened to six lanes even though east and west of there Belmont has two lanes and Clybourn has two lanes.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t know why they’d route you way out Cortland rather than down Webster, anyway. The Cortland detour adds a lot of east-west distance.

  • tooch

    From a motorists prospective, a quick-fix to these 6-way intersections would be to simply add protected left-turn green arrows. So much of the frustration and traffic build up comes from idiots that get caught in the intersection and/or continue to turn left after their light has shifted from yellow to red.

    If you have a left-turn only lane, you should have (IMHO) a protected green arrow for those motorists and cyclists.

  • Well, except that at most of the intersections I know of that have one, my left arrow is entirely taken up by people on the other street deciding they get to steal “just one more” left-turning vehicle “on their red” — which is in fact my green arrow, thanks, and now the arrow’s off and I don’t get to go. Unless I decide to steal THEIR green like a greedy thoughtless driver who is more important than everyone else at this intersection.

    CDOT tends to time pre-arrows VERY short (at Montrose/Pulaski westbound, for example, even if we’re prepped and ready only two cars can legally turn on it before it turns red), which makes every other car stuck behind the lucky ones frantic to go, so they beach themselves way out in the intersection and “steal” turns. I’ve seen cars that were two cars BEHIND the one that was pushed out blocking the crosswalk (which, itself, had two cars in front of it) “just have to” turn left on the red.

    Designated left arrows need to be completely rethought, or else people turning on other people’s light need to be ACTUALLY PENALIZED, because the current system only leads to more road rage and congestion.

    And people honking loudly at me for following rules of the road.

    One guy even came up and yelled at me through my (closed) window when I “made him miss that light” through refusing to commit a moving violation.

  • tooch

    I can empathize with your frustration Elliott. Could it be as simple as making the protected left-turn signals longer?

  • The problem with that is you’ve just delayed every other person sitting at this light (waiting to go straight, or to turn from other streets). If you give every left lane its own set 15 seconds, if there’s two streets that have left lanes that’s an extra 30 seconds you’ve added to each full light cycle.

    Now imagine if nobody’s waiting to turn, and the straight-going cars are sitting there fuming (because that’s what CDOT imagines in this situation).

    Overall, statistically, the intersection will move better, but the people in the cars who are made to wait will be fully convinced that their commute was RUINED, and they will complain to CDOT, who will set the turn lights short again.

    And none of it works anyway if drivers are still convinced that you have “a right” to sneak “just a couple more” left turns on any given red, which I’ve had people tell me to my face is legal in the Rules of the Road (it’s not).

  • BlueFairlane

    Three things would have fixed this intersection without the months of construction and hundreds of millions of dollars. All you had to do was include left turn signals, take out the brief sections where Damen and Elston go multi-lane, and take out the lights in the middle so you could treat this like any other six-point intersection. Instead, they’ve invented a complicated pseudo-fix that will still have lights on Damen spaced too close together, and that won’t really alleviate the problem.

  • Well, this also solves another problem, that the old parcel of land had parts that were so far from city streets as to be effectively economically useless to anyone but someone wanting to build a building 3-5 times larger than anything anyone builds nowadays.

    Cutting it into two reasonable blocks helps keep it economically useful.

  • BlueFairlane

    And we’ve seen how well that’s going to work for the sustainable transport crowd. Now we get a big parking lot and more cars.

  • cjlane

    1. Seems it’s 7 seconds. *everywhere* except LSD.

    2. Somehow, everyplace else in the country has traffic sensors handling the timing of turn signals. that include suburban cook county. Why is it deemed impossible in Chicago? Are we not allowed to have nice things.

  • The majority of the land area that will be the new block was empty lots, with occasional sparsely-parked Vienna Beef trucks. That is not an economically efficient use of such a central lot, directly on so many arterial routes and adjacent both to the river and to fairly expensive residential.

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