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South Siders Spar Over Proposed Stony Island Protected Bike Lanes

Elihu Blanks and Waymond Smith on Stony Island, a few blocks north of the Skyway access ramps. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

For much of its length, Stony Island Avenue is basically an expressway with stoplights. Located on the southeast side between 56th and 130th, it generally has eight travel lanes, the same number as Lake Shore Drive, although it carries half as many vehicles per day—35,000 versus 70,000. Due to this excess lane capacity, speeding is rampant.

The city has proposed converting a lane or two of Stony between 67th and 79th into protected bike lanes. Some residents, and Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston, fear the “road diet” would cause traffic jams, and argue the street is too dangerous for bike lanes. Other neighbors say Stony is too dangerous not to have them.

According to the Chicago Crash Browser website, created by Streetsblog’s Steven Vance, 53 pedestrians and 16 bicyclists were injured along Stony Island between 67th Street (the southern border of Jackson Park) and 79th Street (where access ramps connect Stony with the Chicago Skyway) between 2010 and 2013.

Two pedestrians and a person in a car  were killed in crashes on this stretch between 2010 and 2014, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. Last year was unusually deadly, with two fatal pedestrian crashes and two bike fatalities.

The complex intersection of Stony Island, 79th, and South Chicago, a diagonal street, is particularly problematic. Located beneath a mess of serpentine Skyway access ramps, the six-way junction has terrible sightlines. It was the site of 444 traffic crashes between 2009 and 2013, the most of any Chicago intersection, according to CDOT.

Adding protected bike lanes could change this equation, making Stony, among other things, a useful bike route. Due to the Chicago Skyway and other barriers like railroad tracks, cul-de-sacs, and a cemetery, it’s one of the few continuous north-south streets in this part of town.

CDOT rendering of a two-way protected bike lanes on Stony.

The bike lane plan has been around for almost a decade. In the mid-2000s under Richard M. Daley, CDOT proposed installing the city’s first-ever protected bike lanes on the street. By December 2010 the city had been awarded a $3.25 million federal and state grant to build the lanes as part of the Stony Island Master Plan.

Ultimately Kinzie Street got the city’s first protected lanes in July 2011. Around that time the Illinois Department of Transportation began blocking CDOT from installing protected lanes on state-jurisdiction roads within the city, including Stony Island. The opening of curb-protected lanes on Clybourn last summer marked the defacto end of the moratorium.

The department discussed two possible scenarios for the Stony protected bike lanes at public meetings in the Fifth , Seventh, and Eighth wards in 2014, according to CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey. The first would convert two travel lanes to one-way bike lanes on either side of the street. The other would replace a single northbound travel lane with a two-way protected bike lane, as has previously been done downtown on Dearborn and Clinton.

But the 2014 community meetings didn’t go smoothly. According to DNAinfo Chicago, at a March 2014 meeting in the Fifth Ward, residents expressed doubt that cyclists would bike on Stony, and fear that the road diet would lead to traffic jams.

However, the plan may finally have some legs. Last month at a Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council meeting, Mike Amsden, who manages CDOT’s bikeway program, said the project still has “a very good chance of moving forward” as a single two-way protected lane.

IDOT is currently coordinating with the city on the project, according to spokeswoman Gianna Urgo. “We are in the very early planning stages,” she said. “Nothing has been ruled out.”

But Hairston, whose ward contains most of the project area, said last week that she’s against the plan. “The community was vehemently opposed to bike lanes on Stony Island,” she said. “If you take away travel lanes, it will cause congestion.”

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.

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