Most of Milwaukee in Wicker Won’t Get Bike Lanes in 2017, But Other Upgrades Are Planned

Bikes make up about 40 percent of vehicles on Milwaukee during the warmer months. Photo: John Greenfield
Bikes make up about 40 percent of vehicles on Milwaukee during the warmer months. Photo: John Greenfield

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For years people have been asking for better conditions for biking on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park/Bucktown. That’s not surprising because some 40 percent of the vehicles on this stretch during the morning commute are bicycles, according to recent Chicago Department of Transportation counts. At a community meeting on the planned redesign of the corridor last Wednesday city officials announced that while most of this stretch won’t be getting bike lanes in the near future, a number of bike- and pedestrian-friendly changes are planned for later this year. “We have the funding and need,” said 2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins. “This is happening. These aren’t the final designs, but the [Chicago Department of Transportation] team made this happen.”

Back in May CDOT, the local aldermen, and the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce held a public meeting to discuss ideas to create a safer, more pleasant Milwaukee Avenue from Division to Armitage, with a focus on the street’s chaotic intersection with North and Damen, and take input from residents on their preliminary designs. The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing was to give people a chance to check out the latest plans, with revisions informed by earlier feedback. The city wants to implement a number of low-cost, short-term improvements within the next 90 days. Let’s take a look at what’s planned.

General improvements along the corridor include reducing the posted speed limit from 25 to 20 mph; installing “paint/post” bumpouts at most pedestrian crossings; and relocating and consolidating bus stop locations. These changes will involve a net reduction in 32 parking spaces on Milwaukee. 11 existing free parking spaces on Wabansia will be converted to metered parking, and minor changes will be made to loading and standing zones to accommodate the bumpouts.

CDOT staffer Huan Hui discusses the planned changes with a resident. Photo: Coco Johnson
CDOT staffer Hsuan Hui discusses the planned changes with a resident. Photo: Coco Johnson

CDOT engineer David Gleason said lowering the speed limit could make a big difference in reducing the possibility of serious and fatal pedestrian and bike crashes. “The likely-hood of survival greatly increases even with a small drop in speed,” he said. “The change will most likely not even register as a change to most drivers.”

CDOT assistant director of transportation planning Mike Amsden said the new bumpouts will help calm traffic, but stripping an entire parking lane on Milwaukee to make room for bike lanes throughout the corridor was deemed counterproductive. “We want to keep the illusion of a narrow road for drivers so that they slow down,” he said. “If we eliminate all parking and create curbed bike lanes and pedestrian paths, it creates the illusion of space which can become dangerous.”

Changes to the Division/Ashland/Milwaukee intersection could include closing the slip lane at the norther corner of the six-way junction; moving bus stops so that most of them are located along “Polish Triangle,” the island in the middle of the intersection; and possibly relocating the cab stand from Milwaukee to Ashland.

Paint-and-post bumpouts will be added at the T intersection of Milwaukee and Honore to shorten the crossing distance and prevent illegal parking, which sometimes blocks the crosswalks.

Illegal parking sometimes blocks crosswalks at Milwaukee Honore -- new bumpouts will help prevent this. Photo: CDOT
Illegal parking sometimes blocks crosswalks at Milwaukee Honore — new bumpouts will help prevent this. Photo: CDOT

Lots of improvements are slated for North/Damen/Milwaukee. All of the crosswalks will get high-visibility zebra striping and the south leg of the six-way will get an expanded, triangular crossing section. Best of all, two new crosswalks may be added to accommodate existing pedestrian “desire lines”: from Starbucks to Walgreens along Damen, and from the Flatiron Building to Flash Taco along North. In addition, bumpouts will be added to the north and southeast legs, and a slip lane at the south side of the intersection will be eliminated on a trial basis using posts and paint.

“We watched and recorded the patterns people take and so that’s where we will move the crosswalks,” says Michael Ashkenasi of the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, which co-hosted the meeting and proposed many of these changes in a recent master plan for the neighborhood. “Stuff takes time and we don’t want the crosswalks to be an after-thought. The things we are going to do with planters and modest bumpouts will help pedestrians feel more safe.”

Bumpouts, bike boxes, a slip lane closure, and new crosswalks are planned for North/Damen
Bumpouts, bike boxes, a slip lane closure, and new crosswalks are planned for North/Damen. Image: CDOT

Green-painted bike boxes are slated for the northwest, north, southeast, and south legs of the intersection to give cyclists a place to safely wait for the light to change and get a head start of motor vehicles. “Technically [drivers] are supposed to know what a stop bar is when it comes to approaching a light,” said Gleason. “You learn not to stand [your vehicle] in the pedestrian crosswalks when at a light. The bike box works the same. It gives the cyclist the right of way and puts them in front of the vehicle.”

The blocks of Milwaukee between Wabansia and the Bloomingdale Trail are slated to get a short stretch of conventional bike lanes in the near future. Bumpouts will be used to straighten skewed intersection, and bus stops and turn lanes will be modified.

A turn lane for bicyclists will be added between Wabansia and the Bloomingdale Trail. Image: CDOT
A turn lane for bicyclists will be added between Wabansia and the Bloomingdale Trail. Image: CDOT

CDOT counts found that 75 percent of northwest-bound cyclists on Milwaukee turn west on the Bloomingdale Trail. To facilitate this move, a left-turn lane for bikes with green paint will be added in the center of Milwaukee between Wabansia and the elevated path.

CDOT plans to do pavement patching and install pavement markings & signs by September. The installation of the new crosswalks at North/Damen is slated for late 2017 or early 2018. After these near-term improvements are completed, the department plans to collect data and feedback to inform decisions about more permanent chances in the future, including the possibility of full bike lanes on the entire corridor.

This post is made possible by a grant from Freeman Kevenides, a Chicago, Illinois personal injury law firm representing and advocating for bicyclists, pedestrians and vulnerable road users.  The content belongs to Streetsblog Chicago, and Freeman Kevenides Law Firm neither endorses nor exercises editorial control over the content.

  • Carter O’Brien

    The bike boxes are a huge win, as intersection dynamics are so chaotic. It’s extremely helpful and educational in the long run to clearly indicate cyclists are not only welcome on the street, but that they also warrant their own real estate in areas where most of the accidents are. Glad to see the pedestrian/crosswalk improvements as well.

    While I think at this stage there isn’t an appetite (financial or cultural) at CDOT to push for the replacement of a parking lane with a protected bike lane, I do find it interesting that Mike Amsden doesn’t even bother trying to defend the parking itself, but rather he is providing an argument based more on physics and behavioral psychology, which in and of itself represents a pretty astounding sign of progress (I think it’s largely a financial issue, and I am sure CDOT hates how the parking contracts ties their hands more than anyone).

  • Kelly Pierce

    The hipster highway definitely needs a road diet along with
    a redesigned North and Milwaukee intersection. It remains to be seen whether
    this half-measure is enough to substantially improve life for cyclists. On Twitter,
    Steven has aggressively advocated for protected bike lanes on Milwaukee. Lowering
    the speed limit to 20 miles an hour doesn’t mean motorists will obey. For
    proof, ask residents along north Lake Shore Drive if motorists obey the posted
    speed limit. Drivers have turned that stretch of concrete into a high speed
    expressway. Legislating something doesn’t mean it is going to happen.

  • Does anyone else get drivers swerving into them around those pedestrian signs in the middle of the road at Honore or just me? It doesn’t seem to slow anyone down. As far as the parking goes, it’s more the unpredictability of drivers who are looking for parking. They aren’t looking for bikes, that’s for sure. Lowering the speed limit is good, though it doesn’t seem like anyone follows it now if they have a straightaway anyway.

  • Jacob Wilson

    I actually agree with what Amsden said about the protected lane. Milwaukee is not (nor should it be) a highway for anyone. Considering the commercial/nightlife nature of the street going more in the direction of an Argyle style shared street makes more sense than trying to maximize bicycle throughput. Elston is a great option for non local bike traffic and the cars have the Kennedy (and everything else).

  • Carter O’Brien

    Don’t you think CDOT/Amsden’s hands are tied by the parking contract? I suspect he’d be singing a very different tune if CDOT was able to pilot a protected lane. Milwaukee doesn’t have to be a highway, but it should be a lot safer. I could not agree more regarding the suitability of Elston for commuters, it was always (and still is) a better choice in that regard IMO. Little makes me as happy as escaping from Milwaukee where Elston starts in the afternoon rush, all Elston really needs is some kind of fix at Ashland, and some love on the stretch between Fullerton and Diversey.

  • rduke

    I always take the lane wherever those signs pop up, because drivers subconsciously start drifting over to put space between them and the sign.

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