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
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

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.

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.


  • Chicagoan

    Can we get a Pink Line station at Madison now, please?

  • Eric

    Utilizing chevrons to make a road bike-friendly is to smoking e-cigarettes to cure lung cancer.

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • Chicagoan

    Great article, John.

    There’s been some positive development near the United Center. The Bulls training center replaced a parking lot and while the Blackhawks training center replaced Malcolm X’s old campus, their new campus due north is wiping out a parking lot. You’ve also got the atrium building that’s been built on the parking lot just east of the United Center, so that’s four developments wiping out three lots.

    A station at Madison would definitely set off a building boom east of the Pink Line tracks, where there’s a lot of ready-to-build land, land that developers could use to take advantage of the TOD ordinance. That real thin area of land from Lake St, Ashland Ave, the Eisenhower, and the Pink Line tracks has at least ten pieces of land that developers would devour if a station went in at Madison. It’s a short walk to the West Loop, close to Union Park, Blue+Green+Pink Line access, so much to love.

    But, the CTA can’t build a station on pure speculation, they’re building the Damen station in response to real economic factors that call for one.

    I’m optimistic that in ten years we’ll at the very least have one of the Madison Pink or Western Green stations complete or under construction as West Loop development surges eastward.

  • Slow down praising the loss of parking lots here…The City Colleges spent tens of millions of dollars building a new parking garage with space for 1,500 cars for the New Malcolm X college.

    At $30,000 per space (not the actual construction cost, but a typical cost for garage parking), that’s $45 million out of a $251 million project.

  • Chicagoan

    Yeah, I don’t like the garage that they built, but the fact stands that three lots are gone, which is a start.

  • Frank Kotter

    Yes, it is terrible the opportunity costs for an educational institution but isn’t stacking cars, increasing the cost of parking, and ‘bleeding the beast’ so to speak a great utilitarian way to expedite the change in culture away from driving?

    Look at it this way: If Google wanted to build a campus in that same area for 10k workers, Would you want 8k surface spaces or a 10 story ramp?

  • So where is the vaunted private/public partnership when we need it? What the rich owners of the United Center can’t aren’t willing to cough up some bit of of land for widening Damen itself so real dedicated bike lanes could be built along their parking desert?

    Now if they could also just hire Jane Jacobs as a consultant she could tell them to start building an African American commercial community tight around the center to match the neighborhood around Wrigly. It would take a lot of cheap interest loans and cheaper long term leases but hey in 30-50 years they could make a killing when the leases expire and they Ricketsize the area.

  • Alex_H

    Great, thoughtful article, John, thank you.

  • Pat

    How about a bidirectional PBL that is one width of a car lane with removable bollards at each end. Only during events could be used for car traffic (say 1 1/2 hours before and after). Lord knows there are hundreds of event staff on hand to help direct traffic.

  • Pat

    A lot of the lots around there are used for Rush during weekdays. Just Monday I went by on the Pink and saw them heavily used. They won’t be given up easily.

  • Does City Colleges charge for parking?

  • what_eva

    I like the idea and think they could do something innovative here. Some additional thoughts:
    1. Take both outer lanes for PBLs outside of events. Traffic doesn’t warrant 4 lanes outside of events. When there’s no event, the street goes to 2 lanes.
    2. Take a half lane on each side for a permanent PBL, leaving 3 lanes in the middle. Make the center lane flexible. Outside of events it’s a left turn lane (ie the common 4-to-3 center lane). During events, it changes direction. NB before event, SB after. 2 lanes in the direction of traffic to/from the Ike, 1 lane in the opposite. I’m making an assumption here that most of the traffic flow is to/from the Ike.

  • JacobEPeters

    Include bike lanes on the sidewalk out of the street & expand the sidewalk right of way from the Eisenhower to Warren Blvd. In this area there are no buildings who are right up against the street face, so it would not be that hard to acquire the necessary right of way to make this improvement directly around the United Center where game night traffic volumes can vary so much compared to the 99% of the year when the lanes are oversized for the much reduced volume of traffic.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I can’t think of anything right off the top of my head but is there a way to make a shared lane a “true” shared lane beyond the typical sharrows? Either a “bolder” indicator to users of the lane or some way to make this stretch more friendly to bikes over cars without a lane?

    I write this knowing the answer could very well be “no”.

  • Second option is best option.

  • 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.

    Why all the hostility? If traffic is that bad on game days, it’s probably faster by bike anyway and riders would be better of splitting lanes to avoid being stuck. The rest of the time, once bicyclists become about 3% of the traffic, the lane becomes a de facto bike lane anyway because there’s no way to reasonably pass.

  • Frank Kotter

    Don’t know but not really the point in my opinion. Not to say it has no bearing on usage and decision-making… rather that there is NO way that the fees involved cover even 10% of cost – whether it is surface of multi-level.

    My point was just that I always would prefer to see a parking garage than four paved city blocks or endless seas of asphalt rolling over the prairie. Any force which increases density and allows infilling is a good force imo. As we know, sprawl is like toothpaste: you can’t pull it back

  • Allison P.

    Thank you for the article and efforts to improve this stretch of Damen Ave. I am a commuter cyclist and ride down Damen from the north side to the Medical District in the mornings on my way to work. The stretch between Washington and Congress has been less than friendly, in terms of drivers. For instance, this morning, a car behind me laid on their horn for that entire stretch of Damen. I have also had cars race up behind me and lay on their horns. It is somewhat hostile towards cyclists, I find. I have ridden on the sidewalk there many times to be on the safe side. I have considered taking an alternate route just to avoid being targeted, but Damen is the most direct route from home to work for me and is ideal in that respect. I do hope that there is reconsideration to taking cyclists’ safety into account with the streetscape plans. Thank you.