Elston Project Includes Short-Term Headaches, Future Bike/Ped Gains

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Biking on Damen is currently stressful, but this stretch will get new bike lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

This morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel broke ground on the Fullerton/Damen/Elston reconstruction, which aims to improve safety and reduce delays at one of Chicago’s most crash-prone and congested intersections. In an effort to unclog the intersection, the Chicago Department of Transportation is moving Elston about a block east of the six-way junction and bypassing it through land currently occupied by the Vienna Beef factory, which is relocating to Bridgeport.

While the construction work, which started last night, is currently causing headaches for all road users, the mayor promised that the hassles will be worthwhile in the long run. The project seems to be largely about expediting motorized traffic at an intersection that currently sees about 70,000 vehicles per day, but it also includes a few perks for pedestrians and bicyclists, including a widened sidewalk on Fullerton, and new bike lanes on Elston and Damen.

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A rendering of the new street configuration.

“We’re beginning construction on something people have… debated and deliberated on, and now we’re finally delivering,” Emanuel said at the press event. He joked that he would like to tell us what drivers have said, usually under their breath, while stuck in traffic at the tangled intersection, which has previously caused delays of up to seven minutes for motorists. “But you’re not allowed to say that near a microphone.”

As of last night, Damen and Elston have been reduced to one lane north of Fullerton to allow for demolition work, closures that will continue through this construction season. This creates a bottleneck for drivers, and a tight squeeze for cyclists who try to share the road with them. “Shared Lane Yield to Bikes” will be posted on Damen and Elston throughout construction. Less confident bike riders may be better off cautiously using the sidewalk on these stretches, which have low pedestrian traffic.

Next month, Fullerton will be reduced to one lane in each direction and will remain that way until Labor Day. In spring of 2016, the new Elston bypass will be opened for use with two mixed-traffic lanes plus curb-protected bike lanes. The entire project, including repaving of all streets in the affected area, is slated for completion by the end of next year.

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Emanuel and CDOT staffers break ground on the project. Photo: John Greenfield

“Know that people are working diligently to get the job done on time and on budget,” Emanuel said. “For the next 16 months it will be worse congestion than normal, but keep in mind what will happen on the back end. That inconvenience will be worth it.”

As part of the project, the sidewalk on the north side of Fullerton near the intersection will be widened by a foot or two, according to CDOT engineer Bridget Stalla. Elston bypass. The bike lanes on the new curving segment of Elston – which I propose nicknaming “The Hot Dog” – will be seven feet wide and protected by concrete medians that are about three feet wide and six-to-nine inches high.

The section of Damen between Fullerton and the new Elston stretch will be widened by ten feet, which will allow the installation of five-foot-wide, non-buffered bike lanes, connecting the existing bike lanes on the Damen bridge to Fullerton. South of Fullerton near the intersection, Damen will have 13-foot travel lanes, with no bikeway markings.

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The recommended north-south bike detour.

CDOT is advising motorists to avoid the intersection during the construction by using Diversey, Webster, and North as east-west alternatives, and Ashland and Clybourn as north-south options. Cortland, Clybourn, and Diversey is the recommended alternative north-south route for bicyclists. The roadway of the Cortland bridge will be closed for repairs starting Sunday, so the department is asking cyclists to walk their bikes on the sidewalk while crossing.

While congestion at the six-way intersection will likely be worse than ever during the first week or two of the lane closures, it’s likely that the situation will improve as drivers learn to take other streets on our well connected street grid instead. There’s also the phenomenon of “traffic evaporation”: When less road space is made available to cars, some of the traffic tends to disappear as people avoid driving, so congestion doesn’t wind up being as bad as expected.

Emanuel declined to discuss Mid-America Real Estate Group’s proposal to redevelop the Vienna Veef site with big-box retail, including a whopping 437 car parking spaces. CDOT staffers referred me to the Department of Planning and Development to get the city’s perspective on this questionable plan for centrally located, riverfront property. I’ll try to provide an update in the next week.

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