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United Center Streetscape Is a Tie at Best for Cyclists, But a Win for Pedestrians

Biking to a Blackhawks game at the United Center. Photo: Mike Travis

Damen Avenue on the west side of the United Center is fairly chaotic and totally jammed with cars after Bulls and Blackhawks games, concerts, and other special events. Much of this disorder and congestion is caused by attendees making a poor decision by bringing their cars to the stadium. Sure, some people truly need to drive to the arena, but with easy bus, taxi, ride-share, bike, and even plentiful pedicab access, there’s not much reason for able-bodied city dwellers without small children in tow to clog the neighborhood streets (and pay stiff parking prices).

We got some good news on this front in February when the city announced plans for a new Green Line station at Lake and Damen, two blocks north of the stadium, slated for completion in 2020. That should mean fewer cars in the street and a lot more pedestrian traffic.

Scheinfeld and Burnett at the groundbreaking on Monday. Photo: City of Chicago
Scheinfeld (at mic) and Burnett (to the right of Scheinfeld) at the groundbreaking on Monday. Photo: City of Chicago
Scheinfeld and Burnett at the groundbreaking on Monday. Photo: City of Chicago

There was more good news on Monday when the Chicago Department of Transportation and 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett broke ground on a new streetscape project on Damen between Monroe and Van Buren (just north of the Eisenhower Expressway), which will help accommodate all that extra foot traffic. The $3.2 million project will also improve connections to Malcolm X College, at Jackson and Damen, and help enliven the surrounding area.

There’s plenty to like about the planned changes. Curb extensions will be constructed at the Monroe, Adams, and Jackson intersections to shorted pedestrian crossing distances and discourage fast turns by drivers, including bumpouts at all four corners of Adams/Damen. Pedestrian islands will be built on the north legs of the Monroe and Adams intersections. And high-visibility “enhanced” crosswalks, apparently with interesting visual elements, will be added to all legs of the four junctions.

Bumpouts will be added to all intersections.
Bumpouts will be added to all intersections.
Bumpouts will be added to all intersections.

The project also includes the installation of brightly colored, wing-shaped community identifiers attached to light poles dubbed “West Side Victory and Opportunity.” They were designed by local artist Justus Roe III.

The main fly in the ointment is the lack of a proper bikeway on this stretch of Damen. The north-south street, which connects several bike-friendly neighborhoods is a key north-south bike route across the city, and it has bike lanes on much of its length. But there’s currently a five-block absence of bike lanes by the United Center between Washington and the Ike, and the streetscape does little to address that problem. The new street configuration will include narrower 10-foot travel lanes which will calm traffic, and bike-and-chevron symbols will be added to the curb lanes of the four-lane street to remind drivers to watch out for cyclists, so conditions for cycling will be a little better than the status quo, but not much.

typ cross section_damen and adams
"Shared bike lanes" -- really CDOT?

"This streetscape project is also a great example of how CDOT is working to construct streets that are safer for all users through Vision Zero Chicago," said Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld in a statement. The problem is, the new street really won’t be much safer for cyclists. It’s also a little maddening that plans refer to the travel lanes with bike symbols with the Orwellian term “shared bike lanes,” when they aren’t bike lanes at all. The renderings also depict cyclists riding in the center of the narrow travel lanes, directly in front of cars, something no one but the most devout followers of “Vehicular Cycling” guru John forester would attempt on a game day.

In fairness, putting real bikeways on this stretch of Damen would be a tough nut to crack. There’s no curbside parking that could be stripped to make room. A four-to-three conversion road diet wouldn’t really work here, since the traffic loads on event days are probably well above the 20,000 vehicle trips per day that’s general considered the upper limit for this kind of street remix. The sidewalks on this stretch of Damen are fairly narrow, especially considering the heavy foot traffic, so sidewalk bikeways aren’t really an option.

So the bottom line is, perhaps it’s best to look at the Damen streetscape as at best a tie for cyclists, but a win for pedestrians. On the bright side we can look forward to car-free access to the United Center being greatly improved after the Damen station opens in a few years.

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