Eyes on the Street: The New Wells Street Bridge

The ribbon cutting. Looking north from the bike box near. Photo: Brooke Collins, city of Chicago

Bicycle riders should be generally pleased with the new Wells Street Bridge, which opened to traffic early this morning for the first time since reconstruction began a year ago. Most of the slippery metal grate bridge decking — including the entire bike lane on the span — has been filled in with concrete, providing a safe riding surface.

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The old lane configuration at Wacker, looking south

Previously the bike lane was located to the far right of the bridge deck and covered with non-slip plates, AKA “Kathy plates” after bike advocate Kathy Schubert, whose letter-writing campaign to the Chicago Department of Transportation resulted in their installation. The lane has been moved a few feet to the left, with dead space striped to the right of the lane. This has a bit of a road-diet effect, narrowing the remaining space for cars, which previously had been a broad expanse of unmarked metal decking but is now clearly defined as two travel lanes.

View from the middle of the bridge, looking south. Photo: John Greenfield

Green paint has been added to draw attention to the bike lane on the south half of the bridge, where motorists will be crossing the lane to make a right turn. As was the case with the old configuration, at Wacker Drive, the bike lane is sandwiched between a through lane and the right turn-lane, which means bicyclists have to ride between two lanes of moving cars. However, a bike box has been added, which will help cyclists get in position to make a left turn onto Wacker.

The current configuration near Wacker, looking south. Photo: John Greenfield

The bridge, which was originally built in 1922, was completely reconstructed to extend its lifespan but keep its vintage appearance. The $50 million project, largely funded by federal grants, involved replacing the trusses and steel framing for the lower level road and upper level railway structures.  The mechanical and electrical components were also replaced, and the bridge’s railings, bridge houses and other components were reconstructed to preserve its Jazz Age look.

The bridge, looking north from Wacker. Photo: Brooke Collins, City of Chicago

Pedestrian, bike, and car access to the bridge was disrupted during the one-year rehab but, save for two planned nine-day closures this spring, ‘L’ train service was maintained. While the bridge rehab was going on, the CTA rebuilt the Loop ‘L’ junction at Lake and Wells streets, known as Tower 18, and performed additional track replacement at the curve over Hubbard Street between Wells and Franklin Street. Combining their work saved CDOT and CTA a total of $500,000 in construction coordination costs, according to the Mayor’s Office.

When the construction barriers were removed around 6:15 this morning, the first Chicagoan to cross the bridge was bike courier Lionel Floyd, 46, according to the Tribune. “Very nice,” was his assessment after he pedaled to Wacker. “Smooth.”

  • Mishellie

    Ha. Already a car in the bike lane.

    But really, it looks nice! I need to suck up the fact that it’s winter already and ride so I can test it out!

  • Hate to be a downer on something so new, but the taxi in the photo is halfway in the bike box. Just like every time I’ve seen a bike box, the only time it is free of cars is when nobody in a car is waiting at the light. Otherwise, people pull over it just as nonchalantly as Loop drivers pull over crosswalks at rush hour.

  • Note to cyclists using this bridge now: be cognizant that the concrete doesn’t span the entire width and length of the bridge. The bike lane is entirely concrete, so that’s fine if you are going in that direction, but if you are going to merge left or right beware that the middle third of the bridge is the same ol’ slipper open metal grate. In wet weather you will lose traction.

  • Jennifer

    How long until all that dead space comes back to life?

  • Jack

    By the looks of the scale and position of the bike box, I believe its primary purpose is to transition bike riders into sharing the lane with cars south of Wacker as is clearly signed along Wells.

  • Alex_H

    When I rode it yesterday morning, the car next to me stopped before the bike box.

  • Hm, obviously an improvement, but I was hoping for more with a complete reconstruction. Looks like this will still be a stressful stretch of road.

  • There’s a first time for everything!

  • Jim Mitchell

    Bike boxes are a new road feature, so it’s not a surprise drivers don’t know what to make of them and are screwing up what to do. Maybe a “Cars Stop Here” sign with an arrow would help. Some drivers may be malicious, negligent, or indifferent to the road markings, but undoubtedly most are just ignorant of how to act.

  • Erik Swedlund

    Agreed. It would be nice if there was not a white line between the bike lane and the bike box, as that would better suggest that the two spaces are contiguous and reserved as “bike space.”

  • Peter Debelak

    I’m really excited about this! I didn’t know it was open, I’ve still been going past to a different bridge. I’m especially excited about the new placement of the lane. The way the bridge used to be I felt like you were expected to ride to the end of the bike lane and then magically transport yourself 10 feel to the left. Now you can just go straight. I’d love to see more bike lanes put between the right turn lane and the car through lane.

  • MLKendricks

    The bridge is decent. Turning lane, bike lane interference might be tough but we’ll see. The worst issue on Wells is right before the bridge though. The area south of Kinzie and before the bridge is a problem. Speeding cars heading towards the bridge. A bus stop with buses weaving across the bike lane back towards the thru-lanes with some cars weaving towards the right turn lane across the bike lane to reach Merchandise Mart Plaza St. Pedestrians trying to cross between the walkway mid-block to reach the Merchandise Mart with the previous crosswalk removed have to dodge cars as well. And to top it all off its pretty dark and not illuminated under the CTA station during the day. Now that construction is done, Chicago DOT needs to handle the bad situation before they hit the bridge.

  • I agree. I appreciate the concrete section that spans 100% of the length of the bridge, but riding between two lanes of cars is uncomfortable.

  • I think this would be a great place to try a bus stop island so that the bike lane can be against the curb. Taxis should not be allowed to pickup/drop off here – there’s a dedicated area in front of the Mart for this. The bus stop island would shorten the mid-block crossing (that exists in everyone’s minds but not in the infrastructure).

  • They’ve been in Chicago for 2.5 years now, with Kinzie having the first two (but not very well-maintained).

  • Adam Herstein

    The bike box is nice, but in my personal experience, they are frequently (read: almost always) ignored by people driving cars.


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