Plate Tectonics: A Sketchy Situation for Cyclists on the “Hipster Highway”

Should we nickname this stretch of Milwaukee "Skid Row"? Photo: John Cheevers
Should we nickname this stretch of Milwaukee "Skid Row"? Photo: John Cheevers

This morning Streetsblog reader John Cheevers alerted us about a sketchy situation for cyclists on the 1700 block of North Milwaukee, just south of the Milwaukee/Leavitt entrance to the Bloomingdale Trail. About 80 linear feet of steel plates are covering an excavation in the road, with the right edge of the plate roughly lining up with the location cyclists should ride in to avoid colliding with the opening doors of parked cars.

Cheevers reported that Monday around 4:30 p.m., a large truck was parked on the east side of the road by the plates, forcing bike riders to merge across the plates to get around it, and within a short period of time three cyclists wiped out while making this move. It appears the plates have been in place on and off for about two weeks – they’re used to cap the trench after the day’s construction work is done. Cheevers reported the hazard to the city’s 311 non-emergency service line.

“If the plates covered the [biking porting of the road], it would be safe,” Cheevers noted. “If the plates were completely out of the lane, it would safe. But with the plate edges in the middle of the lane, there is a situation where people can get squeezed into catching an edge. If you catch an edge, there is no recovering, you will fall left into the traffic lane.”

Here’s what the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Rules and Regulations for Construction in the Public Way, published in 2014, has to say about the protocol for plating construction trenches:

All openings in public streets, alleys, sidewalks and driveways that cannot be backfilled the same day excavation occurs shall be steel plated, unless specifically authorized by CDOT… All plating installed by a Permittee must be safe for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles and must be adequate to carry vehicular load. The gap between adjacent plates must be no greater than ½ inch and when placed in a bike lane the plates must be orientated perpendicular to the travel way, whenever possible… Steel plates subjected to vehicular loads or in the path of bicycle traffic shall have ramps installed consisting of bituminous asphalt, cold patch material, or plate locking system.

There is a bit of an asphalt ramp at the south end of the plated area. There are no bike lanes at this location. There were formerly bike-and-chevron “shared-lane markings” here, but they’ve pretty much faded from view.

According to CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey, a ComEd crew has a permit to do utility work at this site and they should be finished by the end of this week.

It would great if CDOT inspectors could be a little more diligent about enforcing the rule that construction plating must be safe for bicyclists, especially on Milwaukee, the city’s busiest cycling street, nicknamed “The Hipster Highway.” Using longer plates that extend to the curb, if possible, or else adding an asphalt ramp on the right side of the plated area, to smooth out the transition from road to plate, could help prevent future spills.

In the meantime, be sure to use caution when pedaling this stretch of Milwaukee, especially when the plates are damp.

  • There is also a big problem area at Western. No plates, but there is a major squeeze going on and not every driver is paying attention.

  • Anne A

    I’ve seen similar conditions recently on Adams from State to Dearborn.

  • Roo_Beav

    Why not remove some parking spaces for a couple of days to allow bikes to shift right? That would be easier than the other solutions.

  • Kevin M

    I have not personally experienced these Milwaukee plates yet, but I suspect my inclination would be to just take the (middle of the) whole lane, riding in the middle of the plates. Drivers might honk by then having no choice but to /stuck behind a bicycle/, but FK ’em. I’d be within the letter of the law that allows me to ride a bicycle in the center of the lane when the designated bicycle-area does not allow safe passage.

    Generally speaking, I’m an advocate of more cyclists taking the lanes in Chicago. We’ve spent far too much time in the gutter. Equality in the streets must be taken (by cyclists and pedestrians); it will not be given (by drivers).

  • Carter O’Brien

    Seize the plate!

  • Mcass777

    Why not get the city to pass an ordinance that states these plates must be covered with an anti skid coating so the top coat is similar to what is installed on bridge decks? These plates currently are an issue for cars and peds when wet and bikes 24/7. Is this a simple fix to a decades old problem?

  • There are several places on wide streets (like Belmont before and after Western, though lots of other places too) where utility work means they’ve had extensive horses/cones to shift travel lanes, and big flashy arrow signs indicating where people should drive.

    In some, where the work is closed down over weekends or taking a week off before continuing, they’ve parked the arrow sign in the parking lane (good) but left the horses in two-wide or three-wide stances, taking up the parking AND bike lanes. There’s plenty of space in the gutter to store them sideways, or even directly in front of the arrow sign, but over and over I see them moved “out of traffic lanes” into bike lanes.

  • jsb

    $$$$

  • jsb

    LOL. Whatever.

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