Evanston Protected Lanes Face Backlash While Making Dodge Ave. Safer

A person cycles on Dodge Avenue in Evanston
A person cycles on Dodge Avenue in Evanston in very light afternoon rush hour traffic. Photo: Steven Vance

Evanston installed new protected bike lanes on Dodge Avenue from Howard Street to Lake Street last month, and already some residents are complaining that the lanes have made it unsafe to park their cars. But these fears are unfounded because Chicago has had protected lanes with a nearly identical design for five years.

The new Dodge protected bike lanes replace conventional bike lanes that were located on the left side of the parking lanes, in the door zone. The new bike lanes are curbside with the parking to the left, separated from bike traffic by a striped buffer and flexible posts. It’s the same strategy that was used on Kinzie Avenue, Chicago’s first protected bike lane street, in 2011 and has been employed successfully on many more Chicago roadways since then.

I recently rode the Dodge Avenue PBLs and found them to be just as good as any that the Chicago Department of Transportation has installed. They’re also a little better than the first PBLs Evanston installed downtown on Church Street because the Dodge bike lanes are somewhat wider.

Map of the new protected bike lane on Dodge Avenue, from Howard Street (the border with Chicago) to Lake Street. The marker shows where the bike lane has a large gap at Oakton St.
Location of the new protected bike lanes on Dodge Avenue, from Howard St. (the border with Chicago) to Lake St. The marker shows where the bike lane has a large gap at Oakton St.

But some Evanston residents are up in arms about the new street configuration. “The new design makes it more hazardous for people boarding buses or getting into cars, because driver-side doors now open into very heavy, fast moving traffic,” a resident complained at a City Council meeting on Monday night, according to a report in Evanston Now. Actually, bus passengers aren’t affected by the protected lanes at all because the design still allows buses to pull up to the curb to pick up and drop off customers.

When I rode the Dodge bike lanes during the evening rush, motorized traffic was light, and vehicles were traveling at moderate speeds. That was probably partly because the street reconfiguration involved narrowing the existing travel lanes to make room for the PBLs, a type of “road diet,” which discourages speeding. While the new layout may put parked cars a bit closer to moving traffic, the traffic is likely going somewhat slower than before. Another benefit is that the bike lanes shorten crossing distances for pedestrians.

Some meeting attendees also argued that the new bike lanes make it challenging for emergency vehicles to travel on Dodge Avenue, according to Evanston Now. However, reporter Bill Smith added that he observed a fire department ambulance making its way down Dodge from Church Street to a nursing home near Howard at the end of Tuesday’s a.m. rush, and the ambulance seemed to have no trouble navigating the street.

Dodge Ave. protected bike lane turn radius
The new protected bike lane on Dodge uses a now-common design, but drivers are given a too-wide turn radius at some intersections.

That isn’t to say that the design of the Dodge lanes is perfect. One issue is that drivers turning right across the protected lanes are given wide turning radii at some of the intersections, and there’s only paint at the far end of the bike lane buffer zones, rather than a physical barrier. That makes it easy for drivers to make fast turns across the bike lane, which could result in “right hook crashes.”

The city of Evanston has attempted to mitigate this issue by posting lots and lots of warning signs. One sign tells bicyclists to watch for turning vehicles and the other tells turning motorists to stop for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Lots of signs on Dodge bike lane
Evanston has installed a lot of signs along the new Dodge Ave. protected bike lane.

Another problem is that there’s a gap in the protected bike lanes on the block of Dodge south of Oakton Street, by Dawes Elementary School. Interestingly, 8th ward alderman Ann Rainey, who originally opposed the protected lanes, called that unprotected section “unfortunate” and “terrifying” at Monday’s meeting, according to Evanston Now. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl responded that the city would take another look at that section and try to improve safety there before the school starts up again.

Bike lane drops at Oakton
The Dodge protected bike lanes disappears on the block south of Oakton Street.

Normally, when CDOT designs bike lanes so that they drop out at an intersection – which is unfortunately very common – they at least install bike-and-chevron “shared-lane markings” to indicate where cyclists should ride and remind motorists to watch out for bikes. There are so such markings on Dodge, and bike riders must share one extremely wide lane with motor vehicles.

One more issue is that since the northern terminus of the Dodge protected lanes is Lake Street, by Evanston Township High School, they don’t link up with the PBLs on Church Street, two blocks north. That’s a missed opportunity.

These criticisms aside, it’s great that Evanston is starting to build a protected bike lane network. Hopefully the city will hold its ground in the face of calls to remove the Dodge lanes. While protected bike lanes were once controversial in Chicago as well, they’re now fairly ubiquitous and well accepted, and it’s likely we’ll see the same learning curve in Evanston.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    One of the problems with these is they’re so narrow that you can get stuck behind someone going 5 miles an hour with no room to pass….

  • carfreecommuter

    Bike (traffic) Calming?

  • skyrefuge

    Is the claim in the headline (“They’re Making Dodge Ave. Safer”) supported by data? Obviously there is no safety data yet for this location, but is there any data from other locations that approximate this design? I found a study from NYCDOT ( http://www.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/2014-09-03-bicycle-path-data-analysis.pdf ), but I have a hard time comparing their 9- to 11-foot wide lanes+buffers with these 4- to 5-foot(?) wide lanes+buffers.

  • The blocks are pretty short (like Chicago’s) so there’s room to pass every 520-675 feet (less if there’s an alley).

  • There is data about this design of bike lane, which comes from the NACTO design book. NACTO is kind of the antithesis to the previously dominant (and mostly still dominant) road interests organization known as AASHTO.

    Here’s their latest report: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2016/07/20/report-as-cities-add-bike-lanes-more-people-bike-and-biking-gets-safer/

  • David P.

    If drivers now consider opening their car doors to put their doors at risk, perhaps they will…wait for it….look before they open their doors. I can’t imagine what other benefits such a habit might have!

  • Pat

    Not that it was a very harrowing stretch to begin with, but can’t wait to take it to Temperance Brewing!

  • skyrefuge

    Oh, ok, that’s a much more nebulous and indirect version of “safer” than I assumed you meant. That’s a three-step process saying “1) increasing the number of cyclists makes cycling safer, 2) building protected lanes tends to make the number of cyclists increase, and thus, 3) some point in the future, changing these lanes from normal lanes to protected lanes ought to broaden the umbrella of safety over cyclists in this area”.

    That’s a lot different than the implication I got from the headline, which was “changing these lanes from normal to protected has immediately and directly reduced the risk of crashes”.

    My fear is that the immediate change has increased the risk of right- (and left-) hook crashes, and it will take take some time for the safety-in-numbers effect to counteract that increased risk, if it ever does. I buy into the “more cyclists=safer” argument in general, but I suspect the effect is MUCH less pronounced in low-density areas like Dodge St., where cyclist density will *never* be great enough to prime drivers to always be expecting cyclists.

  • My biggest complaint about these lanes, and “protected” bike lanes in general is that they don’t protect intersections, where the most and worst kinds of crashes occur.

    The Netherlands is the safest place to ride a bike. They’ve been experimenting with designs for 40 years. They consistently replace outdated (because of standards they develop) designs. To them, on low car traffic streets, having a conventional bike lane is JUST FINE. But they will *always protect the intersection* if that low car traffic street intersects a medium or high-car traffic street.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    The North Shore has its minority of crabby residents, Evanston is no different.

  • Jo Oh

    RE lane widths: The point is to GO SLOW. You are driving in an area with pedestrians and bicyclists, seniors, moms with strollers, disabled folks (temporarily and permanently disabled), distracted teens and others, etc. etc. Drive cautiously at 20 mph and all will be fine!

    The Dodge Ave. protected bike lanes are a great addition to the road and to the neighborhood and to the City of Evanston! They help slow/calm traffic and make it safer for all roadway users (bicyclists, pedestrians, and drivers — especially the vulnerable, such as seniors, children, and persons with disabilities. They may take a little time to get used to but the criticisms offered here are not, in my opinion, well-informed or well thought-out. They represent reactive opposition to change. I’d like to know how many of the comments/complaints were by people who actually USE the bike lanes? Emergency response vehicles can still access the neighborhood, residences, businesses. In fact, emergency response vehicles — like fire trucks, police, ambulances — spend most of their time/outings responding to traffic accidents, so if we make roads safer for everyone using them (by all modes of travel), then the ER folks 1) are happy, and 2) can respond quicker to the fewer calls they get.

    Evanston should expand the network of separated bike lanes as quickly and aggressively as possible!

  • Carter O’Brien

    Amen. In a very real sense, bike lanes which disappear just when a cyclist genuinely needs them are a cruel, cruel tease.

    “My biggest complaint about these lanes, and “protected” bike lanes in
    general is that they don’t protect intersections, where the most and
    worst kinds of crashes occur.”

  • skyrefuge

    I rode these this weekend, going northbound. It was pretty bad. The visibility/safety at the intersections (what I was mostly concerned about prior to seeing them) wasn’t as bad as I feared, though it still wasn’t great, and it sucks being forced right up against the curb when there are cars pulling out of driveways. It’s harder for drivers to notice you when you’re tucked into the curb, and then you have to pass inches in front of their grille.

    But the worst thing was all the drivers who parked on top of the painted buffer zone, squeezing the bike lane into a dangerously narrow channel. I would say at least 60% of the parked cars were encroaching on the buffer zone to some extent, with one or two completely covering the buffer zone and actually encroaching onto the bike lane itself, forcing a slowdown to ~5mph in order to squeeze past.

    Getting doored by a passenger side door seems like a frighteningly likely possibility.

    In the thread at The Chainlink ( http://www.thechainlink.org/forum/topics/new-separated-bike-lanes-on-california-between-touhy-and-dempster?id=2211490%3ATopic%3A997525&page=1#comments ), someone posted a bunch of pictures of this encroachment, but the Flickr link appears to be dead.

    That thread also had been brought up in the comments section of a “Today’s Headlines”, as a way of objecting to the headline’s claim that complaints against the lanes were exclusively NIMBY-driven. The comments by more than half a dozen cyclists in that thread are almost universally negative (with maybe one grudgingly “neutral” opinion). So how did this subsequent full article end up still implying that it’s only drivers that dislike the reconfiguration? Hopefully it was just an oversight, and not an attempt to gloss over the fact that this was a lot of money spent on a reconfiguration that neither drivers nor cyclists seem to like.

    Maybe parker education can improve things here, but that would still make it no better than the previous configuration, and I’m just worried that 20 years from now, if the spread of these designs continues, transportation designers are going to be cursing the people who let the trend go unchecked and wonder how the hell it all happened.

  • FG

    I notice you didn’t report on a large part of the backlash being from Evanston city employee’s, both in the planning and public works departments…

  • I don’t understand. What were city employees saying?

    I was reporting based on my experience riding in the lanes, along with a report from local news coverage that came out just after their implementation.

  • “The visibility/safety at the intersections (what I was mostly concerned about prior to seeing them) wasn’t as bad as I feared…”

    I’d say it’s about the same as Chicago’s “protected” bike lane visibility at intersections, which isn’t doing people any favors.

    “I would say at least 60% of the parked cars were encroaching on the buffer zone to some extent…”

    The real reason flexible posts are installed on “protected” bike lanes isn’t to somehow protect cyclists, but to “encourage” (influence?) motorists to park better. But the low frequency of post placement means they aren’t very influential.

    “So how did this subsequent full article end up still implying that it’s only drivers that dislike the reconfiguration?”

    I was writing about a report in local news media. I didn’t see that discussion thread on The Chainlink.

    Personally I’ve been writing about the sorry state of design of bike lanes in Chicago for the better part of a decade and not a single thing has come of it. I think that either the people designing bike lanes in Chicago have a limited sense of what is possible, or they are being inhibited too much by issues outside of their control and outside of what the transportation commissioner (their boss) is willing to get changed (probably a combination).

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