How Can We Fix the Most Treacherous Part of the Lakefront Trail?

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The Oak Street curve was an arctic wasteland last week. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Maybe they should call it Dead Man’s Curve. Just southeast of Oak Street Beach, there’s a bend in the Lakefront Trail where it turns south, hugging Lake Shore Drive. As you head downtown, there’s a wall on your right, and the path’s concrete surface slopes down toward the water’s edge, where there’s a sheer drop of several feet into Lake Michigan.

During the winter, this hump of land is pounded by waves. After it snows, the waves turn the path into an arctic wasteland of ice boulders, forcing bike riders to dismount and walk their steeds or detour to Inner Lake Shore Drive. At other times, the surf transforms the trail into an angled skating rink that’s also a serious hazard. The curve is especially dangerous for southbound riders, who often fail to see the slick conditions before they round the blind curve. By then it’s usually too late to hit the brakes.

When such conditions exist, the Chicago Park District, which is responsible for maintaining the bikeway, barricades the curve with sawhorses and sends out alerts on Twitter that the section of lakefront is closed. But bike riders like Joe DeCeault hope a permanent solution can be found to fix the most perilous spot on the 18.5-mile-long trail.

DeCeault, who works as a Web producer for WBEZ, knows all too well what a death trap the ice-glazed incline can be. In February 2012, during his first season of winter biking, he was doing a training ride on a skinny-tired road bike on a particularly windy morning.

Convinced by what he saw farther north that the curve would be ice free, he confidently rounded the bend at a high speed. Then he looked down and saw he was entering a long, slippery stretch. He realized he had to pump his brakes. “As I did, I noticed the wheels start to slide,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My body and bike tilted sideways. Shit!”

DeCeault fell from his bike and landed hard on his side and stomach. “It stung like a b—-,” he recalled. “I grabbed at the ground to halt my journey towards the lake.” He came to a stop, but when he lifted his head, he saw his bike continue to slide towards the edge of the path. “My bike kept going and going and going until—bloop—it dropped off the edge of the concrete and into the lake.”

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Screen shot from 2004 footage that showed 18 cyclists falling at Oak Street in the course of a few minutes. NBC Chicago

DeCeault is far from the only local cyclist to crash due to perilous conditions at the Oak Street curve. An NBC Chicago clip from January 2014 showed 18 riders wiping out on black ice at the spot, sometimes two at a time, over the course of a few minutes.

The mayhem resembles something out of a Keystone Cops flick. “There goes another one, down, down, down,” chuckles the cameraman.

The persistence of the problems isn’t so funny. I checked out the path in the middle of last week, a few days after a couple inches of snow had fallen. The Oak Street curve was shellacked with ice and snow, and the trail was barricaded between the beach and the construction site of the Navy Pier Flyover. This $60 million elevated path will soar over Grand Avenue and Illinois Street, eliminating a dangerous trail bottleneck. Much of this stretch was impassable for bike riders, and treacherous for people walking and jogging.

In addition to the flyover, the city recently completed the $31.5 million Fullerton Revetment project, which built 5.8 acres of new lakefront parkland at Fullerton Avenue, and relocated a section of the trail so it’s less exposed to waves.

So are there any plans to fix the Oak Street curve problem in the long term?

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.

  • A metal catwalk with a high railing and a solid but draining floor surface that would be hung from the top of the roadway guard wall that stretche six hundred feet in either direction from the corner. The bike road surface might even be heated from below or above. That would be cheapest. But the city always goes for the most expensive. That I assume would be something similar to the overpass being built now to the south. The thing about the suspended catwalk is that it would be usable even if one still had to walk one’s bike. At least the danger of being sent into the lake is gone.

    Anyway you slice it the way is impassable during very high waves. Sometimes rarely even for cars. Otherwise some formalization of the inner drive with the tunnels at Oak and Chicago, like a road diet on the inner drive from four lanes to two with protected bike lanes.

  • al_langevin

    The curved concrete used to drain the water back into Lake Michigan makes this especially dangerous. It’s why the bike slide into the lake. The whole stretch from Oak Street to Olive Park is treacherous during winter and summer storms.

    The metal catwalk sounds like a great idea. Very inexpensive compared to redoing everything. Long-term they could create an elevated path and flatten it from south Oak Street Beach to Olive Park. As it is the current curved structure is tough on runners too.

  • I wonder what the intended detour route is? I can’t think of one that doesn’t go quite a few blocks west to go east again.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yep, after leaving the trail at Oak Street, it’s necessary to head west from the inner drive in order to get back on the path at Illinois.

    Here’s a southbound route: http://tinyurl.com/hx4jkz7

    And a northbound one: http://tinyurl.com/zt3z8pg

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yep, after leaving the trail at Oak Street, you can head west from the inner drive on Huron Street to McClurg Court, and then head east on Illinois in order to get back on the path.

    Heading north, go west on Grand Avenue, north on McClurg, east on Huron (this stretch is two-way) and north on the inner drive.

  • BlueFairlane

    I honestly don’t think there is a reasonable short-term fix for this. The catwalk idea mentioned above just results in an ice-covered catwalk. (I know what jeff’s going for with the drainage, but it still winds up covered in spray.) A wall along the curve will get itself pummeled, and a Corps of Engineers-approved rejiggering of the shoreline effectively eliminates all the city’s most popular beaches. I think a more reasonable solution is to accept that this portion of the path is only seasonally accessible and push for a formalized winter detour along the Inner Drive. Want a better spot than Clybourn for a protected bike lane separated by concrete? This is it.

    On the up-side, the situation as it stands now is exacerbated by the high lake levels. The warm winter thanks to an El Nino likely amplified by climate change will probably shift the direction of that, and this time next year the impact of the waves on the curve will be considerably lessened.

  • Add me to the long list of people who have fallen there. I had even gotten off and was walking my bike when I slipped and fell, landing on the bike and then slid a few more feet down toward the lake.

  • Is it signed in any way, or would a bike-commuting newbie be basically stuck with no guidance when they encounter the “DO NOT PASS” sign?

  • If the shoreline were extended outward, say, 25 feet on that whole stretch from the curve down to Navy Pier, it would preclude the new beach at the foot of the Pier but not harm any of the others.

  • BlueFairlane

    It also wouldn’t make much difference with regards to the problem. Waves hit that with more than enough power to cover an extra 25 feet. You’d need a much larger change than that.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The latter.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I like the idea of improving the ramps at Oak and Ohio, and installing a two way protected bike lane on Inner Lake Shore Drive. This provides a straightforward, easy to implement solution to the icing problem and haed the bonus benefit of creating a bypass to let people using the path for transportation avoid the beach crowds. The inner drive is a good candidate for a two way bike lane because there aren’t many cross streets. If the path were on the lake side of the inner drive, the only potential for intersection conflicts would be at Chicago.

  • Jeremy

    Yup. Fell here on the ice a few weeks ago. The park district puts a barrier across the trail, but there is no obvious detour. Going on to the Inner Drive is often just as dangerous as trying to navigate the trail because drivers treat it like an expressway; I’ve nearly been knocked off my bike a few times when I have detoured onto the Inner Drive. I think that a protected bike lane on the Inner Drive to provide an alternate route would be a good short-term solution.

  • Fred

    I always wondered if it would be advantageous to put a lip on the edge. Much of the spray is caused by water slamming up against the wall and shooting vertically. A lip could shoot that water back towards the lake preventing it from becoming spray. This obviously wouldn’t help when the waves are higher than the wall, but I don’t think that happens as often.

  • Mcass777

    Can we talk about the people falling on actual bike lanes on streets?an icy mess last week

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, do tell.

  • Michael Dunlap

    Fred it does. Most of the ice referred to is not from snow but ice from wind driven water. That is why it there is more at the curve than further south towards the Ohio Street Beach.

  • No. The most treacherous part of the Lakefront Trail is every single North Side crosswalk where high-speed cyclists zoom in front of moving cars advancing from stop signs that have the right of way without looking or slowing down. There’s far greater chance a cyclist is going to be taken out by their own stupidity recklessly flying across Montrose on the trail than recklessly speeding around a blind curve. Which you shouldn’t be speeding around in the first place. Since it’s a blind curve. That’s kind of how they work.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Actually, drivers on Montrose have a stop sign before the Lakefront Trail while cyclists on the path have a yield sign before Montrose. I think we can agree that this is a dumb, confusing using of signage, but cyclists technically have priority here. More on this issue: http://votewithyourfeetchicago.blogspot.com/2008/11/strange-signage-on-lakefront-path.html

  • Luke Seemann

    How do cars with a stop sign have right of way over cyclists who do not?

  • There is a chokepoint at this location because 20′ above are eight lanes of highway. As much as I would like to see a natural land barrier to soften the waves, instead of a sheet-piling wall, LSD should be addressed to make the lower path better for bikers/walkers.

  • But wouldn’t a metal catwalk become an ice-trap? What about a concrete barrier (made of modules used to separate roads during construction) placed in such a way that they deflect wave force. For anything like this to happen the Park District/CDOT needs to be reminded that many use this as a commuting route. I rode the curve many days into the thaw, and the ice/snow was never cleared, not even a single lane.

  • Yeah, probably anything put there would become an ice trap. Except a covered tunnel type thing that hugged the wall.

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