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Plate Tectonics: A Sketchy Situation for Cyclists on the “Hipster Highway”

7:33 PM CST on March 7, 2017

Should we nickname this stretch of Milwaukee “Skid Row”? Photo: John Cheevers

This morning Streetsblog reader John Cheevers alerted us about a sketchy situation for cyclists on the 1700 block of North Milwaukee, just south of the Milwaukee/Leavitt entrance to the Bloomingdale Trail. About 80 linear feet of steel plates are covering an excavation in the road, with the right edge of the plate roughly lining up with the location cyclists should ride in to avoid colliding with the opening doors of parked cars.

Cheevers reported that Monday around 4:30 p.m., a large truck was parked on the east side of the road by the plates, forcing bike riders to merge across the plates to get around it, and within a short period of time three cyclists wiped out while making this move. It appears the plates have been in place on and off for about two weeks – they’re used to cap the trench after the day’s construction work is done. Cheevers reported the hazard to the city’s 311 non-emergency service line.

“If the plates covered the [biking porting of the road], it would be safe,” Cheevers noted. “If the plates were completely out of the lane, it would safe. But with the plate edges in the middle of the lane, there is a situation where people can get squeezed into catching an edge. If you catch an edge, there is no recovering, you will fall left into the traffic lane.”

Here’s what the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Rules and Regulations for Construction in the Public Way, published in 2014, has to say about the protocol for plating construction trenches:

All openings in public streets, alleys, sidewalks and driveways that cannot be backfilled the same day excavation occurs shall be steel plated, unless specifically authorized by CDOT... All plating installed by a Permittee must be safe for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles and must be adequate to carry vehicular load. The gap between adjacent plates must be no greater than ½ inch and when placed in a bike lane the plates must be orientated perpendicular to the travel way, whenever possible… Steel plates subjected to vehicular loads or in the path of bicycle traffic shall have ramps installed consisting of bituminous asphalt, cold patch material, or plate locking system.

There is a bit of an asphalt ramp at the south end of the plated area. There are no bike lanes at this location. There were formerly bike-and-chevron “shared-lane markings” here, but they’ve pretty much faded from view.

According to CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey, a ComEd crew has a permit to do utility work at this site and they should be finished by the end of this week.

It would great if CDOT inspectors could be a little more diligent about enforcing the rule that construction plating must be safe for bicyclists, especially on Milwaukee, the city’s busiest cycling street, nicknamed "The Hipster Highway." Using longer plates that extend to the curb, if possible, or else adding an asphalt ramp on the right side of the plated area, to smooth out the transition from road to plate, could help prevent future spills.

In the meantime, be sure to use caution when pedaling this stretch of Milwaukee, especially when the plates are damp.

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