It’s Time for CDOT to Stop Calling Buffered Bike Lanes “Protected”

Clark Street buffered bike lane
Clark Street should not be counted as a protected bike lane.

After Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor, he released a transition report that called for creating 100 miles of protected bike lanes by May 2015. It was an ambitious and admirable goal. The report defined protected lanes as “separated from traveling cars and sit[ting] between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars that shield cyclists from street traffic.” In December, the Department of Transportation changed the definition of protected bike lane to include what the rest of the country calls a buffered bike lane.

That February, it became clear that the Illinois Department of Transportation would not allow PBLs on roads under its jurisdiction, and it may be that CDOT changed the definition so that the city could reach the mayor’s goal despite that limitation. Whatever the reason, it’s time to end Chicago’s experiment with coining bike lane definitions that don’t exist anywhere else.

City officials, including transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, have been inconsistent in their use of the new terminology, and news outlets are misreporting what kinds of bike lanes are proposed. In short, everyone is confused and CDOT should switch back.

At public meetings and on the radio, CDOT staff have sometimes used the new terminology and sometimes used the old terminology when describing proposed changes to streets. Mayor Emanuel’s public statements about the city’s bike lane miles have lost their meaning.

When Emanuel said, “We now represent 21 percent of the country’s entire protected bike lanes,” what did it mean? Using the definition that the rest of the country uses, it would have meant that Chicago has built about 12 miles of physically protected lanes, while the rest of the country has built around 50 miles. Using CDOT’s unique definition, it would mean that Chicago has built about 30 miles of protected and buffered lanes, while the rest of the country has built about 120 miles. Worst case scenario: The mayor made a disingenuous comparison of Chicago’s protected and buffered lanes to the rest of the country’s genuinely protected bike lanes.

The point is, we have no idea what the “21 percent” statistic means, because our definitions in Chicago are now out of whack with other American cities.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when news outlets proceed to fumble facts about bike lane projects. RedEye reported that Clybourn Avenue, after Bobby Cann’s death, would be getting protected bike lanes, even though they’re simply buffered. Then DNAinfo, reporting on the public meeting about changes to Broadway in Uptown, said that protected bike lanes would be added between Montrose and Foster, but buffered bike lanes will make up 75 percent of that length. A map that accompanied Streetsblog’s own Angie Schmitt’s widely-shared Momentum article, The Rise of Protected Bike Lanes in North America, listed Chicago as having 27 miles of protected lanes. This inaccurate number is surely due to CDOT’s practice of counting buffered lanes as protected.

Inaugural bike ride on Dearborn Street two-way cycle track
This should be counted as a protected bike lane.

I have no doubt that a well-designed mixture of buffered and protected bike lanes totaling 100 miles will have a transformative effect on bicycling in Chicago, but the city can achieve that without muddying the meaning of what a protected bike lane is. It’s time to go back to the nationally-accepted, previously-used-in-Chicago definition: A protected bike lane is separated from car traffic by barrier-forming objects. Otherwise, any future claim that Chicago has built 100 miles of protected bike lanes will have a hollow ring.

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