Milwaukee Road Diet and PBLs Debated at Community Meeting

A cyclist on Milwaukee Avenue in River West. Photo: Quinn Ford, DNAinfo

Proponents and opponents discussed the proposed Milwaukee safety overhaul Wednesday night at a Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association meeting in the basement of the Congregational Church. Although association president Judy Skotzko emphasized the meeting was not called specifically to talk about the road diet and protected bike lane project, many of the nearly 40 neighbors and advocates present seemed eager to debate its merits.

Milwaukee Avenue currently has four travel lanes and a turning lane, plus conventional bike lanes or sharrows, between the Jefferson Park Transportation Center and Elston. Since motor vehicle counts for this stretch are consistently less than 20,000 per day, the wide layout provides too much capacity for the number of cars, which encourages speeding. In the past five years there have been 970 crashes on this two-mile segment, including 17 serious injuries and three fatalities – the last two deaths occurred Monday night after a rollover crash on the 6000 block of North Milwaukee.

The Chicago Department of Transportation has proposed the road diet on this stretch, which would convert the street to two travel lanes and a turn lane, plus protected bike lanes. This reconfiguration would help calm traffic and shorten pedestrian crossing distances. Some parking spaces would be removed at intersections to make it easier for right-turning motorists to see cyclists in the lanes.

45th Ward Alderman John Arena has expressed support for the idea but, despite CDOT traffic and parking counts that show the makeover would not negatively impact traffic flow or parking availability, there has been stiff opposition from some neighbors. At a rowdy public meeting on the plan on January 13, residents jeered and booed CDOT engineers as they discussed the proposal.

The scene of Monday’s fatal crash. Image: NVP News Video

John Garrido, a police lieutenant and lawyer who lost to Arena in the 2011 election and is currently suing him, started a petition against the road diet and protected lanes, which has gotten about 580 signatures in eight days. In response, Bob Kastigar, a longtime safe streets advocate and former Jeff Park resident, launched a petition endorsing the plan, which has garnered 420 signatures in only three days.

The JPNA meeting was decidedly less confrontational than the earlier forum. After other association business was addressed, 45th Ward reps Andi VanderKolk and Owen Brugh helped introduce and facilitate the discussion about the Milwaukee improvements. One attendee suggested participants stand while speaking and be given the floor until they sat down, which helped keep the dialogue respectful.

VanderKolk emphasized that the city has not developed a formal plan for Milwaukee but is still gathering information on the project, noting that maintaining the current configuration or striping buffered lanes are also possibilities. She promised Arena’s office would relay all comments to CDOT staff. She also stressed that the rehab is not just a bike project and but also could include street resurfacing, signal retiming, pedestrian refuge islands, and new street furniture, as well as a review of bus operations to reduce conflicts between buses and bikes.

John Garrido

A man describing himself as a transportation engineer and cyclist said he’s against the installation of protected lanes, citing concerns about the removal of snow and debris. CDOT says its goal is to plow PBLs within 24 hours of snowfall. The man added that’s he’s worried about the possibility of more right hook crashes due to sightline issues. The New York City Department of Transportation found that streets where protected bike lanes were installed saw a 12-to-52-percent decrease in injury-causing crashes for all road users.

Garrido said he supports all the proposed improvements to Milwaukee, except for the road diet and PBLs, i.e. the main features that would actually help reduce crashes. “We want something done, we just have concerns about one lane in each direction,” he said. Another attendee echoed his sentiment, asking, “Just how many people are actually using a bike?”

VanderKolk noted that Divvy bike-share has dramatically increased bicycling in the city. The system is slated to expand to new neighborhoods this year. Pace ridership is also on the rise, and the suburban bus system runs buses northwest from the transportation center on Milwaukee. She said CDOT’s goal is to create a safer, more efficient roadway for bike riders and transit users, as well as pedestrians and drivers.

Attendees also suggested longer walk signal times and pedestrian scramble phases at some intersections could improve access for people on foot. “You shouldn’t have to have to play Frogger when crossing the road,” one said. Another argued that dangerous conditions on Milwaukee are harming the economic potential of the area. While parking wasn’t one of the dominant topics, a participant expressed the need to retain car spaces for future development on lots and in storefronts along Milwaukee that currently sit vacant.

Jeff Marcus, who said he rides a bike regularly, said there’s a need for more traffic enforcement, education, and common courtesy among all users. Marcus implored those present to accept cycling as a legitimate means of transportation, mentioning two recent bike fatalities. His three-minute speech received applause, suggesting that both opponents and proponents of the road diet share a common goal of improving safety. However, scenarios that largely maintain the status quo on Milwaukee won’t achieve that aim.

There will be another public meeting to discuss the street redesign this spring, at a time and location TBA. In the meantime, you can email your comments about the project to Vanderkolk at andi.vanderkolk[at] If you haven’t already done so, be sure to also voice your support for the safety overhaul by signing Kastigar’s petition.

  • rohmen

    I realize this is still at the planning stage, but I wonder if the PBLs will be designed wide enough where a pick-up truck with a plow will be able to clear them, or whether the lanes will have to be cleared by the same specialized snow removal equipment CDOT currently uses for the PBLs in the loop.

    If the PBLs in Jefferson Park have to be cleared with specialized equipment, I would hope any plan developed by CDOT would also call for purchasing more specialized plows and assigning more crews. Considering some of the snow removal problems that have existed this year, it seems unlikely that a PBL that far outside the loop would be cleared within 24 hours otherwise.

  • DFD

    You make some valid points, I’m more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to CDOT on that, though, as snowfall has been exceptional this year and PBLs are relatively new to the entire plan.

  • oooBooo

    Who pays? Plowing isn’t free. cleaning isn’t free. Men and equipment cost money. These are government jobs so there are pensions to pay plus health care. Who pays? Motorists? Property owners? Business owners? Shoppers? People who eat at restaurants? Who pays for it? Will there be bicycle entry taxes for Chicago? Will Chicago find a way via the state to tax every bicyclist in cook and neighboring counties?

    Getting people out of the door zone will reduce injuries, but there are numerous ways to do that. With PBLs once again the faster riders will be sacrificed with sight line and other issues of moving speeds near or at that of the motor vehicles in a place where drivers won’t be looking for it, on the far side of parked cars. (assuming that’s the configuration being used, the article seems to imply that rather than plastic sticks) But since fast bicyclists are a minority the numbers will still look good over the door zone bike lanes but faster bicyclists are people too.

  • It gets funded from the same pool of money that maintains all local roadways.* However, the nice thing about bikes is that they don’t tear up the road like motor vehicles. Cities save money by more people biking.
    *According to the 2013 budget, there are three revenue sources that fund roads and road operations: the 3.2b corporate fund, and the 240m motor vehicle tax and fuel tax fund. The actual breakdown by department probably puts the motor vehicle and fuel tax at about 20-30% the streets & sanitation budget. So a biker who doesn’t own a car contributes about 70-80% of the money a regular driver does to maintain streets, of which probably less than 1-2% gets spent on their preferred mode of transportation. However, I’d venture a wild guess that at least 50% of biking advocates also own a car.

  • I’ve noticed more ATV-sized city vehicles roaming around the streets this winter. So they definitely know how to clear smaller width surfaces. As far as the 24 hr. time frame, i bet for a street like Milwaukee, it rarely takes that long.

  • oooBooo

    Funny how when I make those arguments, suddenly I don’t pay enough as a motorist or bicyclist or property ‘owner’. The problem being is that in most of the country the most local roads become very unclear who pays what, thus everyone can make their own arguments. And yes, I agree most bicyclists are subsidizing other road users because they also pay as other road users and property owners.

    But when it comes to the specifics here for this new service, you don’t know who pays are merely making guesses. I would be guessing too which is why I posed the question the way I did.

    According to the 2014 budget, streets and san is 6% of the corporate fund. It would take some time given this budget to see who pays given the presentation here:

    The Bureau of Street Operations is $48m. Which is where the cleaning probably falls. Because of how the budgeting is done, the way things are wrapped up together who pays is just anyone’s guess. Road and non-road are put together both on the funding and expenditure side. At least 260m is coming in direct motorist taxes. But streets and san does tree removal, garbage pickup, and other things that aren’t road care related… so they have money from the corporate fund too… then there’s pot hole fixing, snow removal, etc and so forth…. then how much of that would get done even if cars didn’t exist. My guess is the snow would still have to be removed to some extent for instance. A strict % doesn’t give correct values. A fair amount of math has to be done to even arrive at even a decent guess who pays for this new addition.

    The point I was making is that it’s unseen who will pay for it. But what is seen is that bicyclists don’t pay directly and specifically for this. Eventually taxes will be demanded from bicyclists whether they own cars or property or not. One proposal has already died, but even if it just pays for the cost of collection people will demand it because it will make them feel better that bicyclists are paying.

  • tooter turtle

    The bicycle infrastructure you want depends on how you see the future of urban cycling. If you want to keep it an extreme sport for young adults, then vehicular cycling with no bike infra at all is cool. You can go fast! If you want it to be possible for kids to ride to school, old people to visit friends, Moms to get the groceries, then you really need PBLs to handle high numbers of cyclists safely. It’s true that when you have PBLs with kids and old people riding in them, you just can’t ride very fast. Nobody goes fast in Amsterdam. But everybody goes.

  • oooBooo

    Vehicular bicycling is not an “extreme sport”. It’s quite safe. That’s why I started doing it. It’s safer than the alternatives.

    The infrastructure you want, these door zone bike lanes, these separated paths, these right hookable PBLs, these debris filled plastic stick PBLs, and so forth only feel safer. In reality they are far more dangerous unless one of the primary advantages of bicycling over walking is greatly diminished, and that’s speed. It doesn’t even reduce the skill set required unless people give up something important, like left turns.

    You’re demanding that bicyclists like myself halve our speeds and give up turning left. Also you’re demanding that we ride in these debris filled things off to the side… and then you have the nerve to be demeaning to our needs?

    And yes, demanding, because socially that’s what creating a reserved bike space does, creates an obligation to ride there. It also reduces road space for vehicles. (when you put bicycles off to the side it’s something less than a vehicle) So now a bicyclist who wants to go 20mph has a choice… reduced safety, reduced speed, or go out into the now smaller road-dieted vehicle space where motorists can’t pass safely without additional difficulty. If the law allows riding outside the bike space. (in some places I believe it doesn’t and the more bike spaces there are the more likely motorists are to pass such a restriction.)

    In the road dieted vehicle space there’s no longer space to ride there let alone three feet of gap space. And then some drivers are emotionally angry because they see a bicyclist who isn’t in the bike space. They don’t know it’s not safe to go 20+mph over there… they see a bicycle outside the bike space obstructing their travel and that gets them teed off.

    I don’t care about popularity or this anti-car agenda. Nor do I care about socialized mediocrity. I care about getting where I am going safely and efficiently and in a timely manner. The kind of infrastructure being pushed reduces all of that. Thus they are not improvements IMO.

    If you want slow bike routes with dedicated bike spaces for novices, put them on the slow minor streets. Chicago unlike many other cities is a grid. You don’t need to ruin arterial streets for people who will get there when they get there and are not concerned about the time it takes or their speed or making left turns. So put these bike spaces on the roads that aren’t for faster travel from A to B. Those are roughly 3/4s to 7/8ths of the roads in the city. Why not be happy with them? Because the drivers largely use the arterial roads and it won’t make driving worse without taking road space from the arterial roads now will it?

  • Alex_H

    Your experience with vehicular cycling is a lot different than mine has been. I understand your view, but there is a low ceiling on how many people are interested in vehicular cycling. Installing bicycle-specific infrastructure is a proven way to raise bicycling’s mode share, a goal I support as a way to make our city a greener, safer, and more pleasant place to be.

  • Andrea Kaspryk

    The bicycle backlash is in full swing. Any addition of bicycling lanes,even streets dangerous to motorists, provokes opposition.

  • oooBooo

    There are a multitude of slow travel minor streets to use for that while setting up a wide curb lane model on the arterial streets. This would organize bicycling traffic by speed as it is for other vehicular traffic.

    Chicago has the advantage that it burned down in the later half of the 19th century. Because of that it was rebuilt with a logical grid system. It’s not some city stuck with roads that started as goat paths.

  • David Altenburg

    Where do you find it difficult to make left turns? I frequently make left turns in a “vehicular” manner, on streets with bike lanes. I never have any problem. I signal, wait for a gap, and move left. Occasionally, the driver will not let me in, so I let them pass. Not a big deal.

    These past few weeks, I’ve been riding like a vehicular cyclist due to necessity – the bike lanes have been full of slush, snow, and potholes. That’s unfortunate, but it does illuminate one thing: If you want to ride as a vehicular cyclist, you can do so. You are the one trying to restrict the options of other bikers. You are the one who insists that your preferred way of riding is the only way.

  • So how do you feel about biking conditions in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen?

  • Jim Mitchell

    Not that this is at all relevant to the point you are trying to make here, but because there is a cool link I just saw on this, you might be interested to know that the grid pre-dates the fire:

    The majority of the diagonals (Milwaukee, Elston, Archer, etc.) – in case you were curious about how those sneaked into the grid – were Native American trails that predated the European settlements

    (It is OK to be wrong on the Internet. We all do it, all the time. It is why we are here.)

  • Jim Mitchell

    John, is it maybe fair to say that the compact, organically developed streetscapes of those European cities (evolved without modern city planning, from mediaeval to renaissance times) might HAVE to support having all routes “go slow” with protected bike lanes on basically every route, whereas Chicago’s grid system allows other options? For example, the option of leaving some routes as “express” for the cars and vehicular bicyclists to battle it out, while putting protected bike lanes on the less-traveled/residential type streets? That is what I think oooBooo is proposing, and maybe it makes sense. We do have a LOT of streets on our grid here in Chicago. (Also, Chicago is 234 square miles. Copenhagen is 34 square miles and Amsterdam is 85 square miles. So scale might also be a factor.)

  • oooBooo

    The point is about this argument that vehicular bicycling is too difficult and not needed with this infrastructure. You still need to make left turns in a vehicular manner. You often need to ride vehicular because the dedicated bike spaces become filled with snow, debris, and allowed to decay. That’s the point. The skills are still needed. Thus the idea that these things help people by telling them they don’t have to develop said skills is simply invalid. It’s an illusion that these skills aren’t needed. The only way they don’t is to operate very slowly, put up with the second class set up and not make left turns.

    And exactly how do you make a left turn in a vehicular manner when there is a line of parked cars in the way? A quick dive at 20mph when the line ends hoping that’s when the gap in traffic times up with when you reach the end of the line of parked cars or others brake for you?

    Restrict the options? Wide curb lanes do not restrict options. It allows equality among vehicles. You want space reserved for specific uses and then create ever more complexity to the road environment. It gives an illusion that necessary skills have become unnecessary.

    Have you ever had motorists attempt to teach you a lesson for not riding in the bike space? I have. Repeatedly. It’s considered rude by most people not to use dedicated bike spaces when available. Some go the extra mile to enforce it.

  • oooBooo

    Sidewalk bike spaces with dedicated signals? It’s fine if you never want to go more than 10mph and spend a lot of money. Pedestrians wander into those bike spaces. I did so myself. Walking along in a group, talking and next thing you know someone is going 8mph ringing a bell at you to get out of the way.

    But when a city has a road system that does not have redundancy I can see the point of the argument for beginners being made. That’s not Chicago nor most of the suburban area. There is redundancy in the road system. In Chicago the only thing blocking many a calm side street bike route perfect for beginners or anyone who wants to move slowly are alternating one way designations.

    Also the bike lanes on chicago arterial streets do not eliminate the need for developing vehicular bicycling skills. Thus I find the argument that arterial roadways must be changed in favor of beginner bicyclists not to hold much water.

  • tooter turtle

    Chicago and the suburbs have many obstacles (rivers, forest preserves, expressways and highways) which are not crossed by calm side streets. Compared to a PBL on a main road, I prefer riding on a quiet street with pedestrians, cyclists and drivers all sharing the space at low (i.e., safe) speed. This is what you see in the older parts of many European cities, including Amsterdam. But here, as there, often major arterials are the only way to cross obstacles. So sometimes PBLs on those arterials make sense.
    I do agree that PBLs are not a substitute for cycling skills (knowledge of the rules of the road and defensive riding techniques).

  • oooBooo

    Indeed a grid system was pre-existing, grid systems weren’t new and some roads are based on ridge lines, trails, etc. Part of the internet is having every short cut called out ;)

    The fire, the plan of 1909, etc have fixed things that centuries old european cities are stuck with, unless they were bombed flat in WW2.

    BTW, found that a grid system was imposed by a 1785 grant:

  • oooBooo

    I have absolutely no problem with building bridges or underpasses for minor roads where they don’t already exist. Bridges and under passes are built for forest preserve bike trails as a matter of routine. Bicycle only is just fine. I am big fan of bicycle only street connectors.

    Suburbs are in some instances learning to build bicycle connectors between subdivisions. This allows plotting courses that are efficient without using arterial roads at all. Usually it’s still dead reckoning where the local kids have made trails or looking on google maps for them.

  • Who will it make “feel better”? The drivers who aren’t paying enough to maintain their own infrastructure?

  • You read my mind… As an ex-Amsterdammer I can tell you that getting from A to B by bike as fast as you like is possible thanks to the infrastucture, especially in those areas where Amsterdam is like Chicago: The flat, modern outer parts of the city, all built in the period between 1945 and 1975.

  • JKM13

    I don’t have a problem biking 20 mph in protected bike lanes 90% of the time. You’re whining over nothing.


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