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.

View Larger Map
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.”

View Larger Map
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.

  • It’s my opinion that there ought to be some sort of “compromise” which I feel is going to be hard to get. The way I see it, many of the main streets in Chicago – the destination streets with shops, residences, etc – are also the streets everyone wants to drive on, take the bus on, make deliveries on, bike on, and walk on. But the streets aren’t wide enough for all of that. Some streets are going to need to be the ones that are prioritized for walking, some are going to have to be more for transit, some are going to have to be truck routes, and so on… It’s a hard balance to achieve though, but I have seen it done in some places.

  • As usual, though, parking is the undealt with “bull in the china shop”. Move or reduce the parking and we can fit anything and everything on any street.

    To my knowledge very little of the parking on Elston, at least between North and Armitage (still Chicago jurisdiction, also), is metered.

  • lindsaybanks

    How about smaller trucks? Seems like trucks in cycling-friendly cities in Europe are all so much smaller.

  • Jennifer

    Who the bleep parks on Elston? Or am I only there when no one else is?

  • How about one-way streets. They have perfected this to an art in Barcelona (where I’m spending my Christmas this year…). It has a grid pattern very similar to Chicago in many parts of town, and even the widest streets (about twice the width of Elston) are one-way.

  • Crane trucks aren’t going to get any smaller, OK, maybe the trucks will but the cranes won’t.

  • How did an office space meet requirements on a stretch that has little, if any, transportation options outside of driving and biking not have enough parking? Yes, there are train stations, but they are well outside of the TOD window to avoid the typical parking minimums, at least 2900 feet away as the crow flies.

  • Julia

    In response to the “Milwaukee instead of Elston” suggestion – I actually did the opposite. I found Milwaukee to be far too congested, too narrow in many places, and with too many variables for my liking. Riding it during rush hour would make me anxious and tense every day. In contrast, Elston has far more room and feels a lot safer to me. I actually move faster because there are fewer lights. I’ve only had one near-miss with a truck on Elston in 2 years of riding – and it was AAA pulling a flatbed out of the dealership at Elston/North without so much as slowing to exit the drive (the driver was incredibly apologetic a few feet up).

    I get that Elston is an industrial corridor, but I think that truck drivers and cyclists have a lot in common when we ride. Both are looking for more obstacles and more potential problems than the average driver. I think an infrastructure that accommodates both can be done.

  • Chicagio

    I agree. Which is why I actually don’t think the Milwaukee alternative is a bad one(if we can improve the bike lanes north of Division). Clybourn should also be considered. Elston is a horrific street to drive on, let alone bike on and contains mostly suburban style land use. The fact that it runs next to the Kennedy also makes its value as a pedestrian oriented corridor minimal. I think there is a legitimate argument for not developing bike infrastructure here. Let’s spend dollars on streets that have a chance to become true bike/ped corridors and leave crappy Elston (and its awful intersections) alone.

  • A good case can be made for making much of Milwaukee’s length a bus-and-bikes-and-peds-only-street. Of course, everyone will wail “Paaaaaaaaarking!!” if it’s even suggested. But Milwaukee has enough bus/bike/peds traffic to justify taking all the pavement, and that will move the cars from it to parallel routes (like Elston). It would solve the dooring problem. :->

    Elston’s issues might be aided, while making PBLs, by designating loading/turn zones in geometrically appropriate places across from loading docks along it and putting big no-parking X paint in those ‘spots’ to save them for the industrial use of the turning/waiting trucks. And then turn to the PAAAARKING wailers and say sternly, “Planned Manufacturing District.”

  • Brian

    I guess in the fantasy land that you live in, it would be possible to suddenly make trucks smaller, just so they could “fit” on Elston.

  • Jennifer

    I also feel that Milwaukee can’t replace Elston until there are safer routes under the Kennedy. For that matter, neither will Clybourn, unless people are turning east.

  • David Altenburg

    Whatever Holzer thinks about Elston’s suitability as a bike route, it is one. There are two ways to change that: make it less pleasant and safe for cyclists, or make the alternatives more attractive. It’s unfortunate that a self-described “bike advocate” is going to be known primarily for the former.

    I’m sympathetic to his concerns. Chicago is an industrial town, as it should be. I’m curious as to the extent of the problems, though. Has anyone made an effort to quantify the inconvenience caused to the trucks. Obviously, adding flaggers and a police escort is expensive. How often does that happen? Every day? Month? Year? And for the trucks that don’t need that, what is the cost? A few additional seconds when turning into or out of the business on Elston? Or is it something greater?

    The truth is, I see a lot of large trucks every day on Milwaukee as well. The beer that goes to all those bars and restaurants isn’t delivered by bike. I understand that there may be more trucks on Elston and that some are bigger, but by how much?

    Given that all users of Chicago’s streets have optimized their usages for the current configuration, *any* change in the streets is going to inconvenience someone, at least in the short term. Until we can start quantifying that inconvenience, how can we distinguish real concerns that must be addressed from the bellyaching that comes with any change?

  • Please critique ideas, not people. Future personal attacks will be deleted. See the Streetsblog comment moderation policy if you need a refresher: http://chi.streetsblog.org/about/comment-moderation-policy/ Thanks.

  • Tim

    Lots of employees, many I them newer jobs.

  • Jeremy

    I use Elston because it has bike lanes the full length. Until Milwaukee does that from Devon to downtown, Elston is a better option for me. So recognizing that Elston is the revealed preference bike route of choice for many, let’s make it safer with some buffers that don’t impact the ability of trucks to use the road at all.

  • You don’t “make” trucks smaller, you buy smaller trucks.

  • Vic

    So tell me what are businesses suppose to do? Pack up and leave the city? There will be trucks staging and waiting to get into docks. You can’t precisely dictate a trucks schedule down to the minute when he will be able to enter a dock to unload. There will be waiting time. I used to drive a truck so I know.

  • Fbfree

    As I’ve commented multiple times before, Chicago NEEDS a truck freight plan.

    There is no map of city designated truck routes, overpass clearances,
    appropriate turning radii, weight restrictions, or even clear guidance
    on where the boulevards are. There’s no way to plan to improve freight flow without this information, or to find out how planned projects will affect businesses.

    It seems to me that Elston should be able to accommodate both cyclists
    and trucks. Cyclists should just be accommodated routinely. However, without a freight plan, business owners are rightfully scared that any changes to streets will impact freight movement without consideration. This is true of all the changes readers of this blog would love to see.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    The expressways have already been prioritized for driving, so walking, biking, and transit get everything else.

  • James

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea that truck traffic should take priority in an industrial area. There has to be a give and take, use this as a compromise for changes to Milwaukee and Clybourn that make them safer for cyclists.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Unfortunately, smaller trucks usually cannot carry heavy loads. They are not built the same.

    Logistically, larger trucks use docks that they can pull up to so that they can be directly loaded or unloaded from the dock onto the truck with a fork lift or pallet loader. Smaller trucks won’t meet the profile of the docks. This is the way of the world.

    I am just shocked and amazed how many people do not even understand basic delivery logistics. Secondly, I can’t believe how many readers on this blog think the world can be remade for them.

    No business is going to buy a fleet of smaller trucks and hire more drivers just so that they can deliver into Chicago. It would drive the cost of business out of sight and drive businesses out of Chicago.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I agree, I think that the few bits of industry left in this town should probably have extra effort given to them to preserve them. Reconfigure Milwaukee for proper bike travel and leave elston for trucks. They need somewhere to go, and this is a good street for them.

  • Kevin M

    I’d be fine with your suggested segregated approach if trucks were banned from Milwaukee. But they’re not, and as a cyclist I have to experience the frequent stress on Milwaukee that comes with “sharing the road” with large trucks.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I experience that stress on every road I ride on, but just like Bikes get priority streets (Kinzie and dearborn come to mind) Trucks should also get priority streets, especially through industrial corridors.

  • Kevin M

    I’m not talking about priority, I’m talking about the dangerous/stressful road squeezes that currently happen between trucks and bikes on Milwaukee. Hint: these are not (as) stressful to the driver in the truck as they are to the cyclist.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Remove a lane of parking from milwaukee, don’t ban trucks. there’s too many businesses that rely on deliveries. do you want people to handcart them over from 2 blocks away or something?

  • Kevin M

    Ban the trailer-trucks. I don’t think open-air trailer trucks with semi’s need to be taking Milwaukee–99% of the time (of course, allow exceptions for specific Milwaukee-construction).

    Short delivery trucks are find. It is the monster semis that are unnecessary and dangerous/stressful.

    As for removing parking, good luck. Its metered, and sh!tbag daley sold us out on that rotten deal.

  • Kevin M

    “are fine”, not “are find”

  • A wide one-way street has the potential for increased speeding. I presume you’d allow for two-way bike traffic on Elston if it was made one-way for cars.

  • The Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection should be “fixed” in 2015.

  • Obviously, and as far as speeding, making the lanes narrower and far removed from the bike lanes, with car-only traffic lights with timing designed to slow down cars to speeds not exceeding 30 Km/h. In Barcelona they are experimenting with this with good results, Carrer Granados being the best example. Large trucks can still pass, but have to drive with caution, which in practice means 30 Km/h or less.

  • James

    Businesses need deliveries from trucks in order to succeed. It’s not reasonable to ban trucks on Milwaukee, just like it’s not reasonable to ban bikes on Elston. It’s suggestions like banning trucks on Milwaukee that marginalize arguments from rational cyclists.

  • lindsaybanks

    I don’t think that this is something that could happen overnight, but I think that our trucks have been designed for efficiency* on highways without much consideration for the impact on dense cities. I think that there could be locations outside of the core where larger highway trucks transfer goods to smaller trucks. To some extent, this already happens. I agree with the comment by Fbfree that we need a freight plan, and I think it is a conversation that needs to happen nationally. And some goods simply can’t be shipped on smaller trucks, but a lot could.
    *err, not actual efficiency / fuel efficiency, but moving as much stuff as possible in one vehicle

  • lindsaybanks

    Paris has a delivery system where the “last kilometer” is handled by smaller, clean trucks: http://www.eltis.org/index.php?id=13&lang1=en&study_id=3639 A freight company stepped up to fill the need, not the individual businesses: http://www.geodis.fr/en/view-758-category.html

  • No business will buy a fleet of smaller trucks based on what you believe, but in due time they will have to do because the cost of the fuel will be higher, their loads will be smaller and the roads won’t be as capable of handling massive vehicles.

    The narrow portrait you present is as though the world isn’t changing, other parts are way ahead of the United States, but this perception of what can, and should, be done is what holds us back.

    I don’t know what makes you an expert, but I grew up in a logistics household and worked in it for twelve years. I know plenty about logistics. I’m just not willing to offer logistic companies an opportunity to play the “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” game.

  • On top of what I’ve already said, the logistics industry has already made progress to adapt. Box trucks shorten the length of a vehicle and eliminates a pivot point while providing similar capabilities for its size. Day cab trucks have lost an axle to improve the turning radius for city driving. Pup trailers were also developed to improve drop and go time but also deliver to smaller infrastructure environments.

    At the same time, you’ll see 18-wheelers out on major tollways across the Midwest and Northeast pulling two 48′ trailers or three pup-trailers. So what’s the difference, capacity per driver is increased on Interstates while inner-city driving is becoming tighter requiring adaption.

  • doug

    Elston is most dangerous because of aggressive commuter car traffic not yielding to bikes between Cortland and Ashland. CDOT fix that, and I’m sure the trucking community can work with CDOT for roadway design that accommodates all users.

    Keeping in mind that the practice of transitioning from bike lanes for sharrows at protected turn intersections needs to stop! Move the parking to allow for contiguous bike lanes. CDOT, your bike lane design on Clybourne gets a C+ because of this. Improve it!

    Thanks to Joe from Bike Walk Logan Square for attending the meeting.

  • Mishellie

    Milwaukee can be so incredibly stressful. When I first started riding my commute I was told “whatever you do, stay off milwaukee. It may look safe, but it’s not.”

    Now Im a little more experienced, but I will say that I DO find Elston to be easier to ride than milwaukee. By a lot.

  • Mishellie

    Agreed. I was once almost doored right in the face by a driver in a UPS -sized truck (all though it wasn’t UPS, as those doors dont swing. IT was just a similarly sized truck for… something or other…)

    I ducked, yelled “HEY WATCH OUT!” and the driver yelled “No YOU watch out.” As if I were to know that the truck driver was above my head, about to open the door.

  • Mishellie

    I also agree here. The trucks are generally very respectful of cyclists on Elston. They all seem to be turning/going into their destinations, so they aren’t moving at high speeds. Cars on the other hand are mostly just flying through on their way to other places. They go FAST, they ride in the bike lanes, they do all sorts of shit.

  • Andrew H

    Elston is wide enough for both trucks and bikes, including a PBL. I prefer Elston heading to west Lincoln park as it connects well to cortland, the Elston PBL south of North, and of course the newly built Milwaukee one. It is a little scary just due to the wide road without any markings and no separation, speeding plus poor pavement.
    The design should just factor in more turning radius and loading zones at the expense of normal car parking spots which aren’t needed as badly here. Putting in a well thought out designed PBL would alleviate the dangers and allow for trucking to not be disrupted. I’m sick of the “biking is good but it doesn’t belong in my back yard” nonsense. This is typical of any changes, even general pedestrian or bike related safety when CDOT proposes something.

    Also, how do we get more info?? The post mentions a meeting of business owners and also a plan being discussed by CDOT? I live close by and would like to provide input.

  • OK, what about the Ashland intersection, or the stretch directly north or south of it? Shaun has a point here…

  • The alderman for the area is Scott Waguespack. Contacting his office would be a good way to get in the loop. Just don’t tell him I sent you. Just kidding, despite my critiques of his statements about BRT and other transportation issues, Scott and I are on friendly terms, and I’m sure he’ll welcome your feedback on the Elston issue.

  • Mcass777

    As a frequent Elston rider, I am not sure if the pbl would be needed. The stretch is pretty wide and I never feel the traffic encroaching like I did on Kinzie. There is very little turning traffic, cars and bike can keep a good, straight pace, and most workers who park seem to be on a early sked. They are there in the AM early and gone when I’m riding home. Resurfacing would be nice but I do not see cars dodging into the lane except under the rail bridge. Why not consider the stretch from Webster to Fullerton? Many Cars move into the bike lane waiting for the light at Fullerton.

  • Mcass777

    I rode Milwaukee once, once was enough to make me never return! Elston is a breeze

  • Mcass777

    Hey you are giving away my secret winter parking area! A quick bike trip into the city from the street parking on Elston”

  • I don’t directly advise people on how to find free parking. I *do* point out bad parking policy, which almost always includes free parking. :)

  • Mcass777

    I know. I guess it is human nature (or at least mine) to find the work around. It is why I started biking.

  • dbekken

    Elston is a dream compared to any North Side route to downtown, including the LFT. I can go fast on Elston on the way to work. Cyclists insist on going fast on Milwaukee or Clyborn and get doored or hooked by inattentive drivers, while the truck drivers I encounter on Elston are for the most part considerate and, as Julia pointed out, more attentive than car drivers. PBLs on Elston, please, and extended past Ashland.


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