How a Bike Counter on Milwaukee Ave. Could Help Cure the Dooring Epidemic

Counting cyclists in Copenhagen
A bike counter in Copenhagen. Photo: Steven Vance

When I visited the Boston area last month, I saw a Copenhagen-style bike counter on a Cambridge boulevard. It occurred to me that installing one of these devices could help boost safety on Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago’s heavily cycled “Hipster Highway.”

The Chicago Department of Transportation has been steadily making improvements to this popular route between the Loop and bike-friendly Northwest Side neighborhoods – the city’s busiest cycling street. They’ve put in a mix of buffered and protected bike lanes on Milwaukee between Kinzie Street (the avenue’s southern terminus) and Division Street.

However, the 0.8-mile section of Milwaukee between Division and North in Wicker Park is the one that’s crying out for bike improvements. It has tons of shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars – prime cycling destinations.

However, this right-of-way on this segment is currently too narrow for proper bike lanes, so it only has “sharrows” – bike symbols with chevrons. The combination of high bike traffic, frequent parking turnover, and tight quarters has led to an epidemic of dooring crashes in recent years, including at least one nearly fatal incident.

Cycling at Ogden, Milwaukee, Chicago Avenues
Bike traffic on Milwaukee Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance

The Active Transportation Alliance and others have floated the idea of stripping parking from one side of this stretch to make room for protected bikeways, which would go a long way towards eliminating doorings. 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack even asked the Wicker Park Committee neighborhood group to take an advisory vote on whether this would be an acceptable solution.

The committee shot down the idea with a 15-8 vote. “”It would kill the merchants,” bar owner Kevin O’Donnell told DNAinfo. “For the sake of bikes you’re disturbing vehicle and pedestrian traffic.”

That’s where the bike counter idea comes in. Past CDOT counts, conducted using volunteers, have shown that cyclists have account for more than 40 percent of trips on Milwaukee during summer rush hours.

The Cambridge Eco-TOTEM. Photo: John Greenfield

Keeping a continuous, accurate count of bike trips would give us a better idea of whether it would make sense to reallocate the street space for protected lanes, or some other kind of bikeway. And advertising that count via a highly visible device with a lit-up display would let residents and merchant know that cyclists up a big percentage of the people who travel and spend money on Milwaukee, which would build support for the street remix.

Assuming the bike counter is a good idea, how can we make this happen? The devices have already been installed in a number of bike-friendly U.S. cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado. Cambridge’s counter cost about $27,000, which was funded by the Helen & William Mazer Foundation, based in New Jersey.

The model, which is called an Eco-TOTEM, is made by the Montreal-based company Eco-Counter. Sales rep Danielle Dhiab told me that, while the price varies depending on features, the $27K figure is typical for the two-sided model. They don’t offer a solar-powered option, so the Cambridge device is plugged into the city’s power grid.

The Eco-Totem can also be used to count cars and pedestrians, Dhiab said. To detect bikes and autos, loops are installed in the roadway which differentiate between the types of vehicles based on the amount of metal, wheelbase, speed, and other factors. Infrared sensors are used to count people on foot.

At a time when Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed record tax hikes to help balance the budget, spending city money on a bike counter would surely be a non-starter, but federal transportation grants might be a possibility. Since Milwaukee is such a popular route for cyclists, it might even be possible to bankroll the device through crowd-funding.

CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey indicated that the agency is open to a counter being installed on Milwaukee. “We are always looking to improve our ability to collect data and open to explore new ideas,” he said. “But there’s nothing specific we can say about it right now.”

However, a source told me that the Hipster Highway Bike Counter may already be a project  under consideration. We’ll try to find out more and hopefully provide an update soon.

  • To really counter the assumption that only people who drive patronize local businesses, a group could spend some period of time walking the blocks noting license plate numbers and then get vehicle turnover rates, too.

  • Kelly Pierce

    The idea is cool. Putting a bike counter on Milwaukee essentially christens the area the center of bike culture in Chicago and the Midwestern United States. Given this, the bike counter should not look like me too urbanism, a cookie cutter artifact imported from Portland, Cambridge, Toronto, Vancouver or somewhere else. The bike counter, if designed well, along with additional signs can represent the sensibilities of a new generation of Chicago residents that value community connection, real experiences and physical activity.

  • Anne A

    I’m planning to do at least one bike count myself in a Beverly business district that gets regular bike traffic.

  • Anne A

    I think we should start doing bike counts in neighborhood business districts away from the Loop. Saturday mornings and afternoons could show a lot of action in some locations.

  • Michael

    Admittedly I haven’t lived in Beverly in about 5 years, but is there really regular bike traffic somewhere?

  • Anne A

    103rd St. between Longwood and Wood is probably the most concentrated location outside of rush hour traffic to/from the Metra stations. The Unitarian church (Irish castle) on the hill west of Longwood would probably get a few on Sunday mornings. They have rack space for several bikes and they’re working on getting more bike parking – very encouraging sign.

    99th & Walden also gets some, but not nearly as much as 103rd. I certainly don’t expect large numbers, but I’m curious to see what they are. I ride there regularly and often see other bikes there.

    I see localized spots in other business districts, but they’re small and scattered enough that I’m not motivated to count there.

  • Michael

    I’m glad 19th Ward residents are getting out of their cars. My dad rides his bike to work and is one of the only people to ever use the Vincennes lanes. Hopefully the trend continues.

  • First, it’s not a count but you can get an idea of the most heavily trafficked bike routes by looking at Strava’s heatmap

    It’s pretty obvious that Milwaukee is a major thoroughfare despite the lack of protections. I would rather see Milwaukee closed completely to through traffic. During rush hour it’s handling what seems to be highway overflow. Certainly there are drivers who seem to think they’re on the highway. We should also really stop asking businesses how they feel about change. We already know the answer, they don’t like it. I personally stopped taking Milwaukee recently after a few too many road rage and near death experiences. I now go the extra 3 miles and take the 606 to the lakefront trail. It takes longer but for the most part no one has tried to kill me which is worth the extra time it takes.

  • I’ve really got to wonder why Kevin O’Donnell thinks bike lanes would harm PEDESTRIAN usage of Milwaukee. I know I don’t really want to cross the street right now.

  • Thanks, but as I’ve said before, the Strava heatmap does not show the most heavily trafficked bike routes. It shows the roads and paths that are heavily traveled by Strava users, who represent an extremely narrow, non-typical subset of Chicago cyclists.

    Good point about businesses and change, although, of course, there are many forward-thinking merchants.

  • Yeah, the dude was kind of unclear on the concept of how PBLs work. Here’s the full DNAinfo quote:

    “It would kill the merchants. For the sake of bikes you’re disturbing vehicle and pedestrian traffic. What are you going to do, walk a block and a half to cross the street? … Why don’t we create a second level bike lane that goes over the streets like the “L” tracks?” said Kevin O’Donnell, owner of Pint Bar, 1547 N. Milwaukee Ave.

  • Good point, but it’s still the best map of actual usage I’ve seen, even its a limited and non typical subset (it’s also out of date now).

  • Wheat

    lol… why don’t we just have a bike lane that goes underground?!! the subway does it, should be easy enough

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’d be fine with making drivers use a tunnel.

  • Wheat

    i’ll grab the shovels


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