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Right Now It’s More Important to Install Bus Lanes on Chicago Avenue Than Bike Lanes

A rendering of a bike lane (with a passing lane) on the Chicago Avenue bridge over the Kennedy from the West Town Master Plan.

The new West Town Master Plan, commissioned by the West Town Chamber of Commerce and Special Service Area #29, floats the idea of converting  two of the four mixed-traffic lanes on Chicago Avenue in the neighborhood to buffered bike lanes. While that's a forward-thing idea, it would actually make sense to use that extra right-of-way for dedicated bus lanes, because that would help move a greater number of people across the city more efficiently.

While in a perfect world there would be bikeways on every retail street in Chicago, unless we're going to totally ban car traffic and/or parking from some streets (not a bad idea in itself), in the short term it's necessary to pick our battles. There currently isn't a desperate need for bike lanes on Chicago Avenue because Augusta Boulevard, located two blocks north is already a good east-west bike route, with buffered lanes from Milwaukee Avenue to Central Park Avenue, a more than three-mile stretch. The Chicago Department of Transportation did designate Chicago Avenue as a "crosstown bike route" several years ago in its Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan but so far the city hasn't taken any action to improve the street for biking.

For transit riders, however, the CTA's #66 Chicago bus really is a crucial crosstown route, and a workaholic at that. According to the transit agency, the route was among the top five most heavily ridden buses from 2011 to 2015, and in 2016 it got second place, after the 79th Street bus.

A possible layout for Chicago Avenue with bus lanes. Image: Steven Vance via Streetmix
A possible layout for Chicago Avenue with bus lanes. Image: Steven Vance via Streetmix
A possible layout for Chicago Avenue with bus lanes. Image: Steven Vance via Streetmix

In 2016, the Chicago Avenue bus had a weekday average ridership of 22,512 -- that's almost as many bus rides as the total number of bike trips to work in Chicago each day, 23,011. The #66 has excellent frequency during the morning rush: Between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. the bus runs 147 times. The average frequency is 9.8 buses per hour, or about one bus every 6-7 minutes.

It appears there are currently more people traveling on Chicago Avenue by bus each day than in cars. The Illinois Department of Transportation counted 17,300 vehicles between Ashland and Western in a 2014 survey (which included CTA buses). There would have to be an average of 1.3 people per non-bus vehicle, which doesn't seem to be the case, in order to match the number of bus riders on the route (The CTA doesn't publish data that reveals how many people are on buses between Ashland and Western.)

In the downtown stretch of the #66 route, east of the Chicago River, the vehicle count here is higher, at 21,000 vehicles a day in 2014. Due to this higher level of traffic, on this segment timesaving strategies like removing unnecessary bus stops, using all-door boarding, and implementing transit signal prioritization would be especially beneficial.

A bicyclist and a bus on Chicago Avenue. Photo by Mike Travis.
A bicyclist and a bus on Chicago Avenue. Photo by Mike Travis.
A bicyclist and a bus on Chicago Avenue. Photo by Mike Travis.

Creating dedicated, well-enforced bus lanes on Chicago would mean that 22,512 trips to and from work, school, shopping, or doctors appointments every day would be faster and more pleasant. The #66 provides access to tens of thousands of downtown, more even than the popular Division Street and Grand Avenue routes. For all these reasons, creating bus lanes on Chicago is a bigger priority than striping bike lanes.

That's not to say we should give up on the idea of adding bikeways on the avenue as well as bus lanes in the future, it's just that this would require a heavier lift politically. Converting one of the parking lanes, in addition to the aforementioned two travel lanes, would make room for bike lanes.

Removing parking to make room for bike lanes is often a challenge, and it's sometimes nearly impossible. But if Emanuel is serious about upholding the Paris Climate Accord and eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2026, making space for bike lanes as well as bus lanes on Chicago Ave. is something we should do in the future.

Does this sound like something you want? Contact the West Town SSA, or one of the eight alders whose wards touch the #66 route (1, 2, 26, 27, 28, 29, 37, 42).

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