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Surfing the Green Wave: CDOT Pilots Bike-Friendly Signal Timing on Wells

Here’s another clever new idea from the Chicago Department of Transportation. This week, they re-timed the stoplights along Wells Street between Huron Street and Wacker Drive in River North, so that southbound bicyclists who maintain a 12 mph pace get an unbroken series of greens.

Known as a “green wave,” this kind of signal timing has been common on main streets in Copenhagen since 2007, and San Francisco has recently implemented it on several roadways. Not only does it make bicycling more efficient, it also reduces the chances that bike riders will endanger themselves by blowing red lights.

Wells was a logical place to pilot a green wave in Chicago, according to Mike Amsden, CDOT's assistant director of transportation planning. “After Milwaukee Avenue, it’s probably the second most popular on-street bike commuting route in the city,” he said, noting that cyclists account for up to 38 percent of all traffic during the morning rush. The street has buffered bike lanes and is classified as a Crosstown Route in the city’s bike plan, and several Divvy stations are nearby.

Previously, the stoplights were timed so that a cyclist pedaling at 12 mph starting from a green at Huron would hit a red light at almost every intersection. “I think there was a lot of frustration with the number of lights you’d hit and have to wait at, and hopefully that’s changed,” Amsden said. Note that the Wacker Drive stoplight is not part of the wave, so you’ll tend to get a red when you arrive there after a series of greens.

Signage at the start of the Wells Street Green Wave.

The new timing also benefits drivers, Amsden said. If they travel at about 25 mph, they’ll also hit every green. That’s an incentive for motorists to avoid speeding, and it should also reduce red light running by drivers, making the street safer for everybody. Between 2009 and 2013, there were 35 crashes on this stretch that involved red light running. Amsden added that the new signal timing doesn’t hurt traffic flow on major cross streets and, in some cases, it improves it.

I rode the Wells several times in the late afternoon today and found that the green wave timing generally functions the way it’s supposed to. Although my default commuting speed on my cruiser bike is 10 mph, it was fun to hustle a bit in order to get to the intersections while the lights were still green. The only thing that slowed me down and made me miss my signal was when drivers blocked the bike lane.

Take a spin on the Emerald Half Mile when you get a chance, and let us know what you think in the comments section.

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