Thoughts About Bollards vs. Green Paint, and Chicago’s 100-Mile PBL Goal

A typical Chicago protected bike lane on Broadway, and a typical NYC PBL on 1st Avenue. Photos: John Greenfield

[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, my column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

There’s nothing like visiting another city to give you a fresh perspective on your own. Earlier this month I traveled to New York City to pow-wow with other Streetsblog editors. Pedaling a Citi Bike around Manhattan, I was struck by the thought that Chicago’s protected bike lanes could be a little nicer than they are.

In both cities, PBLs are generally located curbside, with parked cars relocated to the left of the bike lane to shield cyclists from moving vehicles, and a striped buffer marked between the parking lane and the bike lane. In Chicago, flexible plastic posts, AKA bollards, are installed in the buffer to discourage motorists from driving and parking in the lanes.

New York protected lanes usually don’t have the posts, but there’s generally an extra-wide buffer, and the entire bike lane is painted green. Often, the parking lane is capped with a concrete pedestrian island at the intersection.

That helps remind other road users that PBLs improve safety for everybody — not just cyclists — by shortening crossing distances for pedestrians and calming motor vehicle traffic. We don’t have safety stats for Chicago protected lanes yet, but a study by the city of New York found that the installation of a PBL on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue led to a 56 decrease in injuries to all road users.

It occurred to me that Chicago might do well to emulate the New York style of protected lanes. Despite the lack of bollards, I didn’t notice any problems with cars in the lanes during my visit. Meanwhile, the posts by Chicago PBLs often start looking ragged after a few months, and they’re frequently knocked out by careless motorists and snowplow operators. This year, the city of Chicago has temporarily removed bollards on PBLs along snow routes in an effort to reduce the damage to the posts and improve snow clearance.

It seems that the Chicago Department of Transportation could save the trouble and expense of removing, reinstalling, and replacing the bollards, which cost about $90 each installed, by getting rid of them altogether and painting the lanes green instead. Judging from New York, drivers wouldn’t be any more likely to park in the lanes – the colored pavement might actually make it more obvious that these are bike-only zones.

Moreover, the lanes would look a little nicer without the sometimes-gnarly posts, which could help cut down on objections to proposed lanes from neighbors. CDOT didn’t respond to my inquiry about whether they’d consider ditching the bollards in favor of more green paint.

As for the pedestrian islands, in 2013, I asked then-CDOT Deputy Commission Scott Kubly – now heading the Seattle transportation department – if the city of Chicago had considered adding these to our protected lanes. He replied that concrete infrastructure was cost-prohibitive, since our city’s budget was in worse shape than New York’s at the time.

However, CDOT is currently building a sidewalk-level bike lane on Roosevelt, between State and Grant Park, separated from pedestrians by a line of trees. They’re also considering adding concrete curbs to protect cyclists in the Dearborn protected lanes, as well as along Clybourn in Old Town. Perhaps PBLs with pedestrian islands might be a possibility in the near future.

Wabash Avenue
This is not a protected bike lane, although CDOT counts it as one. A buffered lane on Chicago’s Wabash Avenue. Photo: John Lankford.

Another thing happened in New York that changed my perspective on Chicago bikeways. While I was hanging out in an East Village bar with one of my NYC colleagues, we discussed Rahm Emanuel’s stated goal of building 100 miles of protected lanes within his first term. His Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, released shortly before he took office, included this objective, as well as similarly audacious proposals to create a bike-share system with thousands of cycles, and to build the Bloomingdale Trail by 2015.

Divvy is already a runaway success, and the elevated greenway is slated to open in June. Building the PBLs has proven to be a thornier task. The transition plan defined protected lanes as being separated “separated from traveling cars and sit[ting] between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars that shield cyclists from street traffic.” However, by late 2012, after a couple of incidents where community members and their aldermen killed PBL projects, the city had quietly changed its bike lane terminology.

Buffered bike lanes, which are located to the left of the parking lane, with extra space striped on one or both sides of the bike lane, but no physical protection from traffic, are now referred to as “buffer-protected.” Real, physically protected lanes are called “barrier-protected.”

“It’s a lie for them to say they’re building 100 miles of protected lanes,” my usually mild-mannered coworker said over his pint. “No one else in the country counts buffered lanes as protected lanes.” He was right: neither the Active Transportation Alliance, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, nor anyone else in the world seems to define lanes that offer no physical protection as being “protected.”

As things stand, it looks like Chicago is going to exceed the 100-mile goal next year, but the lion’s share of the new lanes will be buffered, not protected. Of the eighty-five miles of “next-generation” bikeways that have been installed since Emanuel took office, 66.5 miles have been buffered while only 18.5 miles have been real PBLs.

Another 31.5 miles of buffered or protected lanes that have been designed are slated for installation by the end of this spring. Even if all of those are protected — which is highly unlikely — we’ll still wind up with only 50 miles of actual protected lanes. As a result, when Emanuel cuts the ribbon on “The 100th mile of protected bike lanes,” that claim will ring a bit hollow.

However, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Prior to 2011, Chicago had exactly zero miles of buffered or protected lanes. The city hadn’t even broken its taboo against building bike lanes in the Loop.

Even if we wind up with only 18.5 miles of true PBLs and 98 miles of BBLs, we’ll still have more miles of next-generation lanes than almost any other U.S. city. Only New York, with 31 miles of protected lanes, will have more PBLs than us. Sure, it will be a little disappointing that more of Chicago’s new lanes aren’t truly protected. However, in the grand scheme of things, that’s a good problem to have.

  • 2015 seems like a good time to kick off this thought.

    For a city whose history has long been defined by the motto “the mayor does whatever the hell he wants”, the lack of more-inclusive bicycle infrastructure is concerning.

    They do have a plan ( But at this rate, when all of the blue lines in that document should be built as separated protected bike lanes, at *best* 1 in 5 miles of those lines will be PBLs. At best.

    Which means 4 in 5 will still be perceived, fairly, to still be too dangerous for people in the city to ride on.

  • I wouldn’t call BBLs a failure, especially if the streets where they’re located can get traffic removed or speeds lowered.

  • Two main problems that face protected (curbside, outside parking) lanes are:

    1 — letting the car drivers know the parking lane is NOT a driving lane, even when no cars happen to be parked there just now
    2 — visually helping the car drivers realize exactly where there car is meant to be parked.

    The usual assumption on most Chicago streets that have a center yellow line but no other paint markings is “this can be two traffic lanes if no one happens to be parked, and when you park, park right up tight on the curb.” This is the existing set of presumptions in the driver base, and how they have been trained to act.

    Something has to be strongly visually different to cue and educate them that different norms apply. Putting a concrete curb in the whole length physically prevents the cars from parking in the bike lane (#2), does nothing about #1, is expensive to put in, and complicates plowing. Plus cars may treat it as a cut-through curbside lane.

    Islands put at the crosswalk would do a good job of cueing change on #1, reinforcing for drivers that these streets have ONE lane in each direction.

    Green paint on the full width of the full length of the bike lane might help with #2, somewhat, but will be expensive (and need to be reapplied about every 1.5-2yrs, good luck finding budget for that on past history).

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    No comparison. 1st ave in NYC is all one way. Broadway in Chicago two way.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Chicago DOT defines buffered bike lanes as buffer protected bike lanes.

    New York City DOT defines sharrow markings in motor vehicle lanes as shared bike lanes. That’s probably why whenever Janette Sadik-Khan mentions in a speech how many miles of bike lane were installed under her leadership at the NYC DOT she always states 400 miles of bike lanes. She has to be including the miles of sharrow lane markings installed also.

    Here is a listing of the miles and types of bicycle infrastructure installed by the NYC DOT per fiscal year:

    The only way to add up to 400 miles of bike lanes under Janette Sadik-Khan’s leadership at the NYC DOT is to include sharrows in the total.

    Getting separate roadway space on arterial’s for bicycling is the most important aspect of bike lanes. Creating some form of protection can be done later when there are resources available to do this. If you start out only doing protected bike lanes, then much less miles of bike lanes can be installed per year. This is due to the much greater staff time and money needed to do protected bike lanes. Also, limiting installations to only buffered or protected bike lanes decreases the places that bike lanes can be installed due to these types of bike lanes taking up more width on a street than conventional bike lanes.

    Los Angeles went from having 147 miles of bike lanes in 2009 to 391 miles currently. Most of those additional miles were installed since July of 2011.

    In LA, the communities with the highest population densities have usually gotten the least amount of bike lanes or paths per square mile. That’s due to the less likelihood that these more densely populated areas being located next to rivers and railroad right-of-ways and less left over roadway space or excess road capacity.

    The government of Los Angeles has been cutting back on staff since the recession in an attempt to balance the budget. This is now creating a situation of having more money for specific bicycle projects than there is staff to complete the work.

    The LA city government does not do bike counts. Instead the non-profit Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition has done bike counts in 2009, 2011 and 2013. At the intersections that had a before and after sharrow’s count there was an average increase of 132% more bicycling on these mainly residential streets where most of the sharrows were installed:

    My recent suggestion to a city planner in LA was that since almost 10% of the population in Los Angeles is in an area of less than 10 square miles just west of downtown, then why not concentrate the limited resources to a much smaller geographical area? Again, bike lanes are unlikely to be installed in those areas, but that still leaves bike racks, traffic calming, bicycle specific signals, sharrows used as wayfinding–as is done in Portland and wayfinding signs. The increase in bicycling could be greater per square mile working with mostly just residential streets in these densely populated areas compared to bike paths and bike lanes installed in much less densely populated areas of the city.

  • Whether it would make sense to replace bollards with green paint and/or pedestrian islands doesn’t have much to do with whether the street is one-way or two-way.

  • Velocipedian

    A question for anyone in power deciding what type of bike lane to build: if your eight-year-old daughter or eighty-year-old grandmother depended on cycling to and from their daily destination, which would you build for them? Would you name a death trap doorzone bike lane “protected” if they had to ride in it?

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    But on 1st Ave in NYC, to create the lane for bikes did they remove parking on one side of the street or just remove a travel lane? You’d have to remove the center turn lane on Broadway in Chicago to get the same effect if you want two way travel for bikes to remain on Broadway. The bike lane on 1st Ave would accomodate a snow plow. Not so on Broadway. Eventually, the lanes will be green, probably in 3 years when the repaint will be needed. And the picture of 1st Ave appears to be bollard separated.

  • In fairness, the point of a buffer on the right side of a bike lane is to keep cyclists out of the door zone.

  • The 1st Ave bike lane is somewhat wider than each of the Broadway lanes due to the wider buffer, but that’s irrelevant to the question of whether the Chicago bollards should be replaced with green paint and/or ped islands. Broadway is a snow route; the bollards have been temporarily removed for the winter to allow Streets and San to plow the entire street. The two posts in the NYC photo are there to help keep cars off the ped islands — there are no other bollards along the bike lane.

  • Velocipedian

    These lanes are misleading and are not safe. Am I the only cyclist in Chicago who feels this way?

  • Velocipedian

    The door zone goes beyond the paint, it gives the parking driver a false sense of liberty to open the door without checking, and gives drivers in traffic the sense that cyclists have their place and are not an obstacle to speed or recklessness. As 365 day/year commuter I regularly avoid streets with the lanes when possible, buffered or not, because they break every desire line on the road. For example I will take State St north of the river out of the loop because traffic is slow and there is no parallel parking. I am grateful for the hard work of the Active Transportation Alliance and the mayor to put bike infrastructure into Chicago streets, but these lanes are misleading and dangerous. I’ve said this before and the reply is always the same, but wouldn’t it be better to just reverse the parking with the lane, so the lane is inside the parking? I know, you need more space, etc … Seems like it could be done.

  • In my mind, on a scale of 1-10, protected is a 10, but buffered is an 8 compared to nothing.

  • John

    You work 365 days per year? No days off?

  • Alyssa

    I’m sorry if this is an obvious question — I’m ignorant of rules/requirements about width for certain infrastructure:
    If there is enough room for a buffer on both sides, wouldn’t there be enough room for the lane to be a PBL to the right of parked cars? Is the issue one of cost, of space, or something else?

  • Steven Vance covered this topic in a post on Grid Chicago, our old blog:

    Here’s what CDOT’s Mike Amsden had to say on the topic:

    “The minimum roadway width for installing [protected] bike lanes on roadways with one travel lane and one parking lane in each direction is 52′, and the preferred minimum width is 58′. A 52′ roadway allows for a 5′ bike lane, a 3′ buffer zone, an 8′ parking lane and a 10′ travel lane in each direction. However, even when a roadway is 52′, other roadway characteristics and operational considerations must be assessed before installing parking protected bike lanes. These characteristics include the amount of bus, truck and bicycle traffic, loading and delivery needs of local businesses, emergency vehicle access and maintenance requirements.”

    These standards come from the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide:

    Another reason that CDOT sometimes opts to put in buffered lanes instead of protected lanes is residents and merchants sometimes object to the removal of parking spaces to provide better sightlines at intersections for PBLs.

  • Alyssa

    Thanks for the explanation, John (and Steven). I hope that the city installs PBL wherever possible and doesn’t just do BBL because they’re now counting them as “protected” for the 100 mile PBL goal.


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