[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, my column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
There’s nothing like visiting another city to give you a fresh perspective on your own. Earlier this month I traveled to New York City to pow-wow with other Streetsblog editors. Pedaling a Citi Bike around Manhattan, I was struck by the thought that Chicago’s protected bike lanes could be a little nicer than they are.
In both cities, PBLs are generally located curbside, with parked cars relocated to the left of the bike lane to shield cyclists from moving vehicles, and a striped buffer marked between the parking lane and the bike lane. In Chicago, flexible plastic posts, AKA bollards, are installed in the buffer to discourage motorists from driving and parking in the lanes.
New York protected lanes usually don’t have the posts, but there’s generally an extra-wide buffer, and the entire bike lane is painted green. Often, the parking lane is capped with a concrete pedestrian island at the intersection.
That helps remind other road users that PBLs improve safety for everybody — not just cyclists — by shortening crossing distances for pedestrians and calming motor vehicle traffic. We don’t have safety stats for Chicago protected lanes yet, but a study by the city of New York found that the installation of a PBL on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue led to a 56 decrease in injuries to all road users.
It occurred to me that Chicago might do well to emulate the New York style of protected lanes. Despite the lack of bollards, I didn’t notice any problems with cars in the lanes during my visit. Meanwhile, the posts by Chicago PBLs often start looking ragged after a few months, and they’re frequently knocked out by careless motorists and snowplow operators. This year, the city of Chicago has temporarily removed bollards on PBLs along snow routes in an effort to reduce the damage to the posts and improve snow clearance.
It seems that the Chicago Department of Transportation could save the trouble and expense of removing, reinstalling, and replacing the bollards, which cost about $90 each installed, by getting rid of them altogether and painting the lanes green instead. Judging from New York, drivers wouldn’t be any more likely to park in the lanes – the colored pavement might actually make it more obvious that these are bike-only zones.