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Elston Businesses Want Easier Trucking at the Expense of Bike Safety

The Elston Avenue protected bike lane at Division Street. Photo: John Greenfield

On Wednesday morning the North Branch Works industrial council hosted a meeting for business owners on the city’s proposal to upgrade barely visible conventional bike lanes on Elston between North and Webster to buffered lanes, focusing on the section south of Cortland. Joe Robinson, a member of Bike Walk Logan Square who teaches at a school located on this stretch, attended the session, in which Chicago Department of Transportation discussed the plan with attendees. Although there is a protected lane on Elston between Milwaukee and North, and this section is wide enough for PBLs, Robinson said there was stiff opposition from the business owners to merely striping buffered lanes with paint.

"CDOT tossed this group of businesses a bone [by proposing buffered lanes instead of PBLs], at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians, and the group hardly acknowledged it," Robinson wrote me. He added that the owners of industrial businesses instead expressed concerns about the new buffered lanes encouraging more bike traffic on Elston. "There was a lot of talk about large trucks having enough room, being able to turn out of driveways, and being able to access loading docks."

Robinson said safer conditions for biking and walking are sorely needed on this stretch. “There are no lights or stop signs between Cortland and North, and folks use that stretch like it's a highway,” he said. “I would guess that the majority of drivers speed, and a good percentage of them approach or exceed 40 mph.” Drivers use the existing bike lane as a passing lane and to avoid rough pavement, he said. He added that after a new office building opened at 1765 North Elston with hundreds of employees, curbside parking spaces on this stretch began filling up early in the morning, and truckers have taken to parking in the bike lane while waiting to pull into loading docks.

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Looking north on Elston from North.

Mike Holzer, director of economic development for the North Branch Works confirmed his organization is strongly opposed to new buffered lanes, let alone protected lanes. “The majority of business owners in the room [on Wednesday] were concerned about cyclists’ safety. We’re thinking that Elston shouldn’t be designated as a bike route, period, that there are better alternative routes for cycling.”

Holzer said the corridor was designated as a Planned Manufacturing District in order to secure the area for industrial growth. “There are multiple loading docks and drive-through doors on Elston, as well as buildings built right up against the sidewalk,” he said. “The feeling was that this is not a place where you should encourage cycling.”

Holzer says he himself is a real-deal bike commuter who frequently pedals from his home in Logan Square to his office at 1866 North Marcy, just west of the new buffered lanes on Clybourn. “I still stay off Clybourn,” he said. “It’s not a great street to ride on either. I take Cortland to work, and if I’m going to the Lincoln Park Zoo or downtown I’ll knit together a route that takes smaller streets like Marcy and Willow and stays off of heavily trafficked ones.”

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Looking south on Elston at Wabansia, near the Hideout music venue, a popular biking destination.

He said that cyclists looking for a direct route northwest should be encouraged to take Milwaukee Avenue instead of Elston. “It feels safer to ride on than Elston,” he said. “Traffic on Elston moves a lot faster, and there’s a lot more truck traffic.” It’s worth noting that the narrow, retail-dense stretch of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park has recently seen an epidemic of dooring crashes.

Despite his opposition to improving bike safety on Elston, Holzer describes himself as a bike advocate. “I’m a firm proponent of advancing cycling and safe bike routes,” he said. “Chicago has a congestion problem, and getting people onto bikes and transit is a good solution. But keeping cyclists safe is the most important thing, and it’s hard to do that on a street where there’s heavy truck traffic.”

Mike Holzer with a map of the Elston corridor. Photo: Skyline

I asked what he thought of the idea of installing parking-protected bike lanes north of North to shelter cyclists from trucks. “A protected lane would be the worst,” he said. “That would be very disruptive to the businesses.” He agreed with Robinson that parking spaces fill up early on this stretch, noting that installing PBLs generally involves removing a few parking spaces to improve sight lines. Of course, removing a few parking spaces for PBLs would have little effect on the truck parking issue, which could be solved by create new loading zones. He added that PBLs would narrow the travel lanes and tighten turning radii at intersections, making it more difficult for truckers to navigate the street.

“The protected lane south of North has been creating havoc,” Holzer claimed. He said that, due to the narrower travel lanes widths, large crane trucks from Heneghan Wrecking, 949 North Elston, now require a police escort and flaggers when they travel on the street because they no longer fit within the lanes. “If the city wants to maintain industry in this area, the have to keep in mind the movement of trucks,” he said.

Holzer has an interesting perspective, but what he fails to recognize is that bicyclists are already using Elston, Chicago’s oldest bike lane street, because it’s a good diagonal route and a quieter alternative to hectic Milwaukee. As such, it’s safer to provide bikeways that help keep trucks and cyclists out of each other's way.

It’s understandable that someone from an industrial council is prioritizing truck movement over other goals. And sometimes when you introduce a safer design, some users, like companies that run gigantic trucks on city streets, don't like the result. But putting in a good bike lane requires a certain amount of space. A street that people bike on should be designed to those standards, not to make trucking easier at the expense of safety.

Robinson said he’s sympathetic to the business’ concerns, but these shouldn’t trump the need for safer biking conditions. “Business leaders in the industrial corridor certainly deserve to be consulted, but they are not the only rightful users of Elston,” he said.

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