First, let’s get one thing straight. Despite what was stated today in the Chicago Department of Transportation’s press release, and local news reports based on it, the city has not achieved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes in four years.
Emanuel’s Chicago 2011 Transition Plan set that ambitious goal for PBLs, which it defined as “separated from traveling cars and sit[ting] between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars that shield cyclists from street traffic.” However, after it became clear that it wasn’t going to be feasible to install that many miles of physically protected lanes within the mayor’s first term, CDOT adjusted its goal.
It certainly would have been reasonable for the department to announce that it would instead be putting in a mix of PBLs and buffered bike lanes. The latter are painted lanes with additional space striped on one or both sides to distance cyclists from moving traffic and/or opening car doors.
Instead, CDOT changed their terminology. By late 2012, they had begun referring to physically protected lanes as “barrier-protected” and buffered lanes as “buffer-protected,” and counting the latter towards the 100-mile goal. Since no other U.S. city refers to buffered lanes – merely paint on the road – as protected, that has caused plenty of confusion in the local and national media.
At a press event today by the Milwaukee Avenue bike lanes in River West, Emanuel announced that the city has surpassed the protected lane goal, with 103 miles installed to-date. “Investing in bike lanes is essential to growing Chicago’s economy and improving our quality of life,” he said. “We have made tremendous progress toward expanding our bicycle network for all Chicagoans, and we will continue to work towards making Chicago the most bike-friendly city in America.”
However, rather than 103 miles of protected lanes, CDOT has actually installed 19.5 miles, plus 83.5 miles of buffered lanes, since Emanuel took office. They’ve also put in 1.5 miles of neighborhood greenways (referred to as bike boulevards in other cities), and there are now 94 miles of conventional bike lanes, 46 miles of off-street trails, and 48.75 miles of sharrows (bike symbols with chevrons), for a grand total of 292 miles of bikeways.
While it’s a little disappointing that we’ve gotten less than a fifth of the protected lanes that were originally planned, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that 103 miles of BBLs and PBLs in a little over four years is still a major accomplishment. According to CDOT, Chicago has installed more physically protected lanes during the last four years than any other U.S. city did during the same time period.
Transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld dismissed the terminology issue as “a red herring.” “The point is, we’ve been providing better protected facilities, whether it’s a buffered, striped area or a physical, vertical barrier, through [flexible plastic posts] or concrete separation,” she said. “These are all great improvements over the simple striped design.”