CDOT Didn’t Hit 100-Mile PBL Goal, But They Did Transform the Bike Network

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Scheinfeld, 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, and Emanuel at this morning’s press conference. Photo: CDOT

First, let’s get one thing straight. Despite what was stated today in the Chicago Department of Transportation’s press release, and local news reports based on it, the city has not achieved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes in four years.

Emanuel’s Chicago 2011 Transition Plan set that ambitious goal for PBLs, which it defined as “separated from traveling cars and sit[ting] between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars that shield cyclists from street traffic.” However, after it became clear that it wasn’t going to be feasible to install that many miles of physically protected lanes within the mayor’s first term, CDOT adjusted its goal.

It certainly would have been reasonable for the department to announce that it would instead be putting in a mix of PBLs and buffered bike lanes. The latter are painted lanes with additional space striped on one or both sides to distance cyclists from moving traffic and/or opening car doors.

Instead, CDOT changed their terminology. By late 2012, they had begun referring to physically protected lanes as “barrier-protected” and buffered lanes as “buffer-protected,” and counting the latter towards the 100-mile goal. Since no other U.S. city refers to buffered lanes – merely paint on the road – as protected, that has caused plenty of confusion in the local and national media.

At a press event today by the Milwaukee Avenue bike lanes in River West, Emanuel announced that the city has surpassed the protected lane goal, with 103 miles installed to-date. “Investing in bike lanes is essential to growing Chicago’s economy and improving our quality of life,” he said. “We have made tremendous progress toward expanding our bicycle network for all Chicagoans, and we will continue to work towards making Chicago the most bike-friendly city in America.”

However, rather than 103 miles of protected lanes, CDOT has actually installed 19.5 miles, plus 83.5 miles of buffered lanes, since Emanuel took office. They’ve also put in 1.5 miles of neighborhood greenways (referred to as bike boulevards in other cities), and there are now 94 miles of conventional bike lanes, 46 miles of off-street trails, and 48.75 miles of sharrows (bike symbols with chevrons), for a grand total of 292 miles of bikeways.

While it’s a little disappointing that we’ve gotten less than a fifth of the protected lanes that were originally planned, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that 103 miles of BBLs and PBLs in a little over four years is still a major accomplishment. According to CDOT, Chicago has installed more physically protected lanes during the last four years than any other U.S. city did during the same time period.

Transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld dismissed the terminology issue as “a red herring.” “The point is, we’ve been providing better protected facilities, whether it’s a buffered, striped area or a physical, vertical barrier, through [flexible plastic posts] or concrete separation,” she said. “These are all great improvements over the simple striped design.”

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Bike riders on Milwaukee Avenue this morning. Photo: John Greenfield

“The whole intent [of the 100-mile goal] was to build better bicycling infrastructure, to give people low-stress environments so that they can choose biking as a healthy, active, and affordable way to get around the city,” Scheinfeld elaborated. She noted that CDOT has recently been going further with barrier protection. This year, concrete bike infrastructure was installed on Milwaukee, Sacramento Boulevard in Douglas Park, and Clybourn Avenue and Division Street in Old Town.

“It really is a fantastic milestone that we’ve reached, and we’re not stopping,” Scheinfeld said. At the presser, Emanuel announced that the city will be installing 50 more miles of bike lanes during the next four years.

The commissioner said these will include buffered and protected lanes, as well as neighborhood greenways, and the department will also focus on improving the connectivity of the bike network, upgrading existing lanes, and improving intersections. Personally, I’m hoping they’ll do something about the nightmarish, but heavily pedaled, junction of Logan Boulevard and Western Avenue.

It must be noted that this 50-mile goal is more conservative than the one stated in the City’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, released in 2012. That document called for the following by 2020:

  • Continuous bikeways on all Spoke Routes
  • An additional 50 miles of protected bike lanes
  • An additional 30 miles of neighborhood greenways
  • An additional 40 miles of bike lanes on Neighborhood Bike Routes
  • Mark and/or sign all Neighborhood Bike Routes

Emanuel has recently come under fire for proposing a $588 million property tax hike. However, Scheinfeld said that the current 50-mile bike lane goal has nothing to do with budget issues.

Active Transportation Alliance cofounder Randy Neufeld, currently heading the SRAM Cycling Fund, said CDOT deserves kudos for building as many miles of buffered and protected lanes as they did, even if they didn’t hit the original target. “Their overall approach of doing what you can where you can is a good one,” he said. “You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Neufeld added that there has been a dramatic improvement in the city’s bike network over the last four years. “But we’ve been mostly making it better for the demographic of cyclists that’s already out there,” he said. “We haven’t really been cracking the mainstream yet. I think we need to be clear about what people want, and that’s physical separation from moving cars.”

Current Active Trans director Ron Burke agreed that the 103 miles of “advanced” bike lanes represents a sea change from what existed before Emanuel took office. “That plus the Divvy system has contributed to a tremendous surge in the number of people biking. The bottom line is that cycling probably is growing faster now than it ever has in the city of Chicago, certainly in the modern era.”

CDOT certainly deserves a round of applause for all the hard work they’ve put in over the past four years – it really has made a huge difference in the city’s bikeability. That said, the new 50-mile goal does seem a bit conservative. It would be great if a respected local advocacy organization was to step up to the plate and call for, say, another 100 miles instead. We’ll have to wait and see what happens…

  • Red herring?

    Come ride a bike with me Rebekah Scheinfeld, you’re clueless to what you’re speaking of. I’ll show you the difference between a BBL and PBL. A BBL is merely a stepping stone of improvement, but you’re shortchanging the importance of PBL treatments.

  • tooter turtle

    Chicago is still nothing like a friendly city for cycling. But I think this mayor has added bike infra about as fast as public sentiment would allow. Good for him.

  • kastigar

    Building or adding both BBL and PBL bicycle-encouraging travel is certainly newsworthy, makes good headlines, and gets praise and “attaboys” for government officials, but lets not forget about maintaining the existing bike lanes.

    Several stretches have lost their markings and the lanes have faded. Lawrence Avenue, between Western and Central Park, Kedzie Avenue between Foster and Peterson are two examples that once had clearly marked bike lanes but which now seem as if they’ve been removed.

    Do these ‘removed’ bike lanes get included in the count? Periodic painting and re-stripping needs to be included in the planning.

  • From an SBC post back in May:
    http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/05/18/chicago-gets-first-curb-protected-lanes-many-other-bike-projects-on-deck/

    “Existing bike lanes on a 2.5-mile segment of Lawrence Avenue, between Central Avenue and Central Park Avenue, will be upgraded to buffered lanes in the near future. ‘[Bike advocate] Bob Kastigar has been eagerly awaiting that one,’ [CDOT staffer Mike] Amsden said.”

    Lawrence west of Central Park was upgraded this year. Hopefully the stretch of Lawrence east of Central Park to Western (the start of the new road diet with fresh non-buffered lanes) will happen next year, and Kedzie will be refreshed as well.

    But, you’re right, restriping is a big issue. Arguably, CDOT should keep track of which lanes are no longer visible and remove them from the Chicago Bike Map until they are refreshed. More on the subject: http://gridchicago.com/2011/the-case-of-the-disappearing-bike-lane/

    The former city of Milwaukee bike coordinator found that it was cheaper to simply restripe their bike lanes ever year with regular paint, instead of the more durable, but more expensive, thermoplastic. The latter fades after a few years, and often isn’t replace before it becomes invisible.

    Of course, Milwaukee has a lot less miles of lanes to maintain, but my impression is that their bike lanes tend to stay clearly marked. CDOT should consider this approach.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I would like to see the city drop mileage based goals. I feel that these goals have led to a prioritization of long easy to build lanes over short segments that address critical gaps and could link existing segments into a true network. For example, the Logan/Western intersection mentioned in the article is a sorely needed project, that would bring huge improvements to the cycling network. However, it would be a very resource intensive project that would cover less than 1/4 mile (the distance from the end of the service drive at Campbell and the start of the existing bike lane at Jones is 0.2 mi). If CDOT is being judged on whether or not they build 50 miles of bikeway, they not going to spend all those resources on a 1/4 mile project.

  • Bingo.

    “f CDOT is being judged on whether or not they build 50 miles of bikeway, they not going to spend all those resources on a 1/4 mile project.”

    I’m shooting fireworks right now…

    It should be less about miles and more about more people cycling, and better designs*.

    *By design I don’t mean “protected versus buffered” or “this type versus that type”. I mean, better design of protected bike lanes, and not a little curb/concrete here/there, and jog to the left, a jog to the right, and then dropping the bike lane approaching the intersection (think southbound Milwaukee from Racine to Chicago).

  • tooter turtle

    Especially confusing and dangerous is when the lane markings for contraflow lanes are worn away (as on Albion in Rogers Park).

  • Moving in the right direction for sure. More bike lanes, Divvy, D4E and public outreach.

  • I would argue that we are actually either losing or at most holding steady on PBL miles as the plastic bollards are either smashed or simply removed without being replaced.

  • John

    It’s working. In the past seven years I’ve been bike commuting there are so many more commuters now than when I started. That of itself is good, regardless of miles counted and names giving to the new infrastructure.

  • madopal

    It is working, but it’s horribly imbalanced. I still think many areas of the city are really underserved. It’s like Divvy that way: great if it’s in your area, but lousy if you’re outside.

    I’d love to see a metric based upon average lane distance per ward, or perhaps a walk-score type things for different areas, but to give bike service. Then maybe they could see the dead zones a bit better.

  • madopal

    Or low hanging fruit of neighborhoods that have little or no lanes being connected. I’m thinking of Narragansett from Irving to North. It connects to nothing, and is actually used against cycling advocates as an example of a waste of money lane.

    Without at least a series of basic lanes in some neighborhoods, the negative feedback loop of “no one rides there, therefore there’s no reason for lanes” can continue.

  • VVV

    Does anyone know if there’s data or a map provided by the city showing where the bike lane improvements have been? Curious about their distribution across the city (I imagine it skews towards the north side, but would love to be shown otherwise)

  • Here you go.

  • Bruce

    Restriping is a major problem. Drivers tend to show some respect for the bike lane when the markings are clearly visible, almost none when not. We are on the street and know they are there but drivers either don’t know or don’t care.

  • VVV

    Oh awesome, thanks!

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