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.

  • Anonymous

    Amen. Buffered lanes are more a form of convenience, not protection.

  • J

    Yes! It was an extremely disingenuous and misleading change in the first place. It’s bad for Chicago. It’s confusing. It waters down the meaning of protected bike lanes.

    It was just a terrible idea, and there’s no good way to justify it. Keep up the pressure!

  • Scott Sanderson

    There is not much about the Franklin lane that I would consider to be “protected.” It’s used as a loading zone, cabs park in it to let out passengers, and there are almost always several cars sitting in it while waiting to make a right turn. You have to ride in the street on Franklin as much as in the lane. Sure, it’s better than nothing, but it’s not a protected bike lane.

  • Dennis Hindman

    New York City officials (including Janette Sadik-Khan) also have muddied the water for the definition of what a bike lane is by claiming that they installed 200-miles of bike lanes in two years:

    NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan boldly stated that NYC had installed 280-miles of bike lanes in four years at the 10-minute mark in this Tedx presentation that she gave last year–with graphs to back that up:

    When in fact NYC installed less than 200-miles of bike lanes in six fiscal years:

    NYC officials seem to be adding the miles of sharrows installed in with the figures for bike lanes in their proclamations about the total number of bike lanes installed under Mayor Bloomberg.

    The city of Los Angeles installed 101-miles of bike lanes this past fiscal year, which blew past what was probably a national recording setting 60 miles of bike lane miles installed in fiscal year 2009 in NYC. The fiscal year before this, LADOT installed 52 miles of bike lanes. As happened in NYC, the number of bike lanes installed will dramatically fall off this fiscal year in LA as the LADOT have squeezed in as many bike lane miles as they could while still enabling the intersections to handle the motor vehicle volumes during peak hours.

  • Matt Grosspietsch

    I suppose “buffer protected” is an accurate term in the sense the these strips of white paint “protect” the prioritization of car driving above cycling. These lanes serve to protect the convenience of car traffic over and above cyclists’ safety.

  • Randy Neufeld

    Steven, I’m sorry you’re confused. If you go to CDOT’s website you will find the definition of all their terms. CDOT defines both “buffer protected” and “barrier protected” and gives the mileages of both. Your whole point is that you don’t like buffered being called protected and that protected should imply a barrier. I agree but I hate your semantic whining. CDOT uses different words than you do, deal with it. Everyone including CDOT wants barrier protection where possible. Buffered is better than no buffer. CDOT is doing an incredible job implementing a very ambitious network. This is really hard work and Chicago is outpacing every city in both barrier and buffered lane development although New York is close behind. Yes we should be pushing CDOT to do more barrier protection where possible but in the real world corridors have challenges and we should celebrate the city doing the best it can as quickly as it can. The Milwaukee Ave. improvement is a great example. It’s not all barrier protected but it was as herculean a lift as was politically possible. I don’t expect the city to hit 100 miles of barrier protected lanes at the end of the Mayor’s term. But there’s going to be a hell of network attracting lots of new riders. Streets blog should be professionally clarifying the progress not whining.

  • The problem with CDOT’s choice to shorten ‘buffer protected’ to ‘protected’ in talking about their statistics is that everybody else in North American bike infrastructure uses ‘protected’ to mean ONLY barrier/bollard/etc protected — and they use ‘buffered’ to mean ‘only paint’.

    To a degree, Chicago can call things whatever they want; but if they want to be able to participate in a wider conversation, they need to use consensus terminology the way everyone else has already decided it should be used.

    Doing otherwise looks deceptive, even if they didn’t intend it that way.

  • Randy Neufeld

    Unfortunately there really isn’t consensus terminology. There are even other words out there like “separated”, “curb-separated/protected” , “cycletracks”, I’ve even heard “bike paths” We’ve got a whole new family of innovations and sometimes the configuration changes a couple times within a block. CDOT is trying extra hard to market their efforts to “protect” people riding bikes. As long as they are aiming for the most protection possible, I appreciate that. Again, they are defining their terms.

  • Steven’s not the one who’s confused. DNAinfo, RedEye, and Momentum are confused. And now their readers are misinformed, because CDOT’s terminology, however well-defined, doesn’t make sense.

    CDOT is outpacing every other American city these days when it comes to installing good bike infrastructure. All the more reason not to cheapen the work they do by calling their product something that it’s not.

  • Kurtis Pozsgay

    Another case of “it’s better than what we had, so why are you complaining.” I don’t care if Gabe Klein is the second coming of Mia Birk, if we don’t continue to hold their feet to the fire and push for the best possible solutions then we will end up with a sub par network.

    Similarly, are we going to allow CDOT to water down BRT on Ashland? NO! Are we going to allow IDOT to hold up buffered lanes for 3 years of study? NO! You fight for the best possible outcomes.

    CDOT may not be intentionally deceiving people with the definition changes, but that is what is going on. Steven is just trying to clarify the issue. This isn’t whining.

  • Brian

    Completely agree with Steve’s constant whining. Since he never questions what the government says is “good” for him, it’s funny to watch him cry like a baby and complain when the government lets him down. Maybe this will cause him to wake up and realize that government really doesn’t have the interests of its citizens in mind. It’s all about whose palms they can grease. Do you really think Gabe Klein cares about bike share? No, he wanted to hook his friend from DC up with contract. Do you really think speed cameras are about safety? Absolutely not.

  • Brian

    That makes no sense whatsoever. How does a lane like this prioritize cars?

  • Randy, you’re the George Washington of the local bike advocacy scene, and a big reason why CDOT is currently doing this awesome work putting in protected and buffered lanes.

    That said, this comment from you is off-base. Steven, Streetsblog Editor-in-Chief Ben Fried and I all worked on wordsmithing this post so as to not make it seem ungrateful about CDOT’s accomplishments. Steven’s point is a legitimate criticism, not whining.

    IDOT’s PBL ban is to blame for the fact that it will be virtually impossible for CDOT to build 100 miles of real protected bike lanes by 2015. But CDOT should have adjusted their goal to reflect this fact instead of changing the yardstick. This is causing confusion.

    Building 12 miles of PBLs and 18 miles of BBLs in two years is a fantastic achievement. Doing so and claiming you built 30 miles of protected lanes undermines respect for that achievement.

  • Brian

    Keep up the pressure- let’s hope Gabe Kelin is outta here soon, and whoever takes his place turns the bike lanes back into car lanes!

  • Scott Presslak

    The terminology is vague because of the wide variety of bike facilities offered due to the wide variety of “typical” cross-sections available. For instance: let’s talk about the Kinzie bike facility between Wells and the Chicago River. Everyone can agree that the westbound facility is a protected lane: parked cars separate the westbound bikes from the westbound car traffic. Great.

    How about eastbound though? Kinzie is too narrow to have on-street parking in both directions. The eastbound bike facility has two feet or so of paint between the bike lane and the car lane. Is this protected, or is it simply buffered? If we throw a few plastic pylons in there (half of which are broken), is it now protected or is it still only buffered? Do we need a certain density of pylons (X per Y feet) to qualify as “protected” instead of merely “buffered”?

    My take is that CDOT is simply using “protected” to any bicycle facility that’s above and beyond a “traditional” bike lane. Hell, we can’t even come to consensus on what to call that facility. “Traditional”? “Standard”? “Unprotected”? Any of these descriptors have weighted definitions added to them that tend to only be used by someone trying to make a point one way or another. (CDOT will never publicly refer to those bike lanes as “unprotected.”) In CDOT’s defense, they do often differentiate between “barrier-protected” and “buffer-protected”.

    The good news is that FHWA is starting to study cycle tracks ( ) in terms of crash data and best practices to hopefully make a final design recommendation to add into the Green Book (the go-to standards for roadway design nationwide). At that point, there will be national standards and consensus and this silly debate will be moot.

  • Slightly off-topic, but boy, how those readers are misinformed. I had a cabbie (who otherwise was quite a lovely fellow) tell me the other night how bike lanes were “stupid” because the city was “closing the schools to build them”. He had “heard it on the news”. It was quite late, and I was more interested in getting into my bed to attempt to set him straight.

  • Randy, is it within the purview of national active transportation organizations or professional planning bodies to promote the adoption of consensus terminology to avoid these kinds of communications issues? Is anybody working to do this? We see a similar problem in Chicago with “People Spots” instead of “Parklets.” It’s clear that Chicago and other cities wish to prove their exceptionalism, but at what point do those marketing strategies dilute national movements for mode shift?

  • Yes, there was already some ambiguity before “buffer-protected” appeared on the scene. The problem is that this term, and the way it has been used to jam more lane-miles under the general umbrella of protected lanes, injects more ambiguity and fuzziness into the public’s understanding of bike infrastructure, when what we need is greater clarity and precision.

  • J

    It IS possible to criticize one decision made by a leader while still supporting that person’s overall efforts.

  • CDOT

    Partial response from CDOT:

    1. On the issue of terminology, changes are made not just for delineation from other cities. It’s about sending the right message. A conscious decision was made by the administration to not name People Spot’s “parklets” in Chicago. That’s a recipe for problems when you have a parking meter deal as we do, and there is controversy over losing parking. Gabe participated in the transition and the use of “Cycle Tracks” was purposely changed to “protected bike lanes” for specific reasons. One potentially denotes racing and lycra , and the other safe facilities that all can relate to. These are small changes with far reaching effects.

    It’s also important to note that not all cities are alike. NYC does not have alleys in Manhattan, Chicago does in the CBD. We have Indian trails and 6 point intersections. They have 100 ft wide one way pairs. Randy makes some very good points on this issue. The fact is that a 1 mile stretch, or 8 blocks may go from a shared lane to a standard bike lane to a buffer/barrier protected lane many times over. Milwaukee Ave is an excellent example of this. It also has a barrier protected section with bike passing lanes on the bridge, because the right of way allows it there and it makes sense. So what do you call Milwaukee Ave in totality?

    Last year there was a tragic accident where a resident was killed in a standard bike lane on Wells Street when a car opened it’s door, and he swerved and fell under the wheel of a large truck. A buffer protected lane (as we term it) could save someones life in a situation like this. Doorings are a serious problem and that extra buffer, the dual striping, make a huge difference in how riders feel, and their ability to react and avoid a collision. The truth is that a flexible pole, or a curb will not necessarily stop an out of control car from hitting someone as we also saw this year. parking buffers are great, when cars are parked there. When they are not, is it no longer a “protected bike lane?”

    We don’t want to discount the arguments that people are making here or Steven’s writing, but we will say that the realities of designing and building this infrastructure, and making it work for the businesses and residents along the route as well as the commuters, combined with increasing safety for all users is very challenging. As well as balancing the expectations of different levels of riders, and setting terminology and definitions that make sense in Chicago. We try to do everything we can to be transparent, clear with people, but the realities on the street are often much more complicated.

    The 100 mile goal was set before anyone studied closely what was physically on the street, and the ability to create long expanses of physically separated lanes is much more unusual than what one might think, particularly in the densest areas where they are most needed. Having said that, we won’t be deterred from building the safest facility that we can in each particular context, block by block. We also have to work with the people lining the block of course and make sure that we serve their other needs (loading, parking, bus stops). So when you see the changes as you ride, know that the City is working on your behalf and balancing a lot of complexities that the average person is not cognizant of, and while we all would like to tie it up with a nice bow, us included, that’s not how our city came to be physically.

    I hope this is helpful and dispels the myth that definitions were altered for goal meeting purposes, rather, it is for reality-meeting purposes. Please check out for more information on the bike program, the definitions, and our achievements in each category. This dialogue is to be expected as cities build this infrastructure and run into realities and learning, and it’s healthy overall even if we don’t agree with all of it.

    -The CDOT Team

  • This is a joke, right? Gabe should stay.

  • Thanks for the input. I don’t think many people have a problem with counting hybrid stretches like the lanes on Milwaukee and Elston as protected, since physical protection was provided wherever possible.

    However, there’s a big difference between the lanes on those streets and, say, the upcoming lanes on Clybourn, which will be nothing but painted lines due to IDOT’s PBL prohibition.

    If goal-meeting was not the motivation for the terminology change, let’s call a spade a spade and stop referring to bike lanes that offer zero physical protection as “protected.”

  • Uh, Brian, you might want to do a little homework before you post. The Divvy contractor is Alta Bike Share, from Portland, Oregon, not D.C.

  • Pro tip: learn to spell the last name of the city official in question before you trash him.

    As for taking out bike lanes, that sounds like something right out of the playbook of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who was allegedly caught on camera doing cocaine, which is ironic, since his bike lane policy suggests that he dislikes white lines.

  • Joseph Musco

    “The 100 mile goal was set before anyone studied closely what was physically on the street” is another way of saying candidate Emanuel spoke without any real understanding of what he was saying.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    I’m glad MRE and “The CDOT Team” are willing to play Humpty Dumpty to Steven Vance’s Alice but Vance is not through the looking glass here — he has the facts on his side. Physical separation offers demonstrable protection to bicyclists, striped buffers do not. CDOT should rely less on semantic gymnastics in their modeling efforts and more on physics. A physical barrier impedes physical contact, painted lines do not. Contact is what causes injuries or death.

    Note: Who exactly is “The CDOT Team”? Is it a spokesperson? Gabe Klein? Scott Kubly? Mike Amsden? Does this comment speak for all the civil service employees at CDOT too? I’m guessing you are public officials or at the very least on the public payroll. It’s not a great idea to be skulking around anonymously in blog comments talking about public policy, nor is it the best journalistic practice to grant anonymity for no reason to municipal agencies trying to get out a message.

  • Johnny T

    Sounds like you have to agree to disagree John. CDOT seems to be dealing with pretty complex issues and at the end of the day, they write the rules, not a blog.

  • J

    These are all fine points, and CDOT is doing a great job in general, especially when it comes to biking. However, this response does not address the substance of this article, which is that CDOT is using an entirely different definition of protected bike lanes than everyone else in the known world. The response does not address the confusion that this change is causing nor does it provide a believable reason as to why CDOT changed its terminology in the first place. What exactly is the difference between a “goal meeting purpose” and a “reality-meeting purpose”? Does that mean that instead of changing your goals to meet reality, you changed reality to meet your goals? That’s what it seems to me, and that is essentially what this article says.

    Making changes to urban streets is difficult all over the world. I think most people can appreciate that. However, most cities manage to do so without changing the very definition of the things they are aiming to achieve.

  • Call me the Mad Hatter if you like, but I don’t think we should blame Emanuel or CDOT for the current impossibility of the 100-mile PBL goal. After all, creating a bike-share system with thousands of cycles and building the Bloomingdale Trail by 2015 also seemed like impossible goals, but now they’re getting done. It’s entirely possible CDOT would have achieved the 100-mile goal were it not for the IDOT ban. Therefore, our criticism for the current impossibility of this goal should be directed at IDOT, not CDOT.

    It’s also worth noting that when CDOT first started saying “buffer-protected” last fall, that was before Steven broke the story of the IDOT ban, so CDOT couldn’t really explain why they made the name change without going public about the ban. That might have angered IDOT, which has the ability to slow down federally funded projects. That said, now that the cat’s out of the bag, CDOT has no good reason not to adjust the the 100-mile PBL goal to a more realistic, still awesome goal of 100 miles of PBLs + BBLs and go back to using common-sense terminology.

    The CDOT response was written by Charlie Short, who manages CDOT’s bike and pedestrian safety education programs. I agree that is would be preferable if CDOT comments were attributed to a staff member, rather than being anonymous.


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