Let’s Not Use Sidewalk Bike Lanes as Defensive Architecture

The Wilson viaduct. Photo: John Greenfield
The Wilson viaduct. Photo: John Greenfield

Did you ever notice how the glass panels of standard CTA bus shelters don’t go all the to the roof, so that when you wait for a ride during a heavy rainstorm you tend to get wet anyway? Have you used a public bench that was sort of uncomfortable because city planners wanted to make sure it would be almost impossible to sleep on? Ever notice that urban bridges often have large boulders placed underneath them to create an uneven surface, or how window frames sometimes feature spiky fixtures to keep people from sitting on them? That’s called defensive architecture, strategies to discourage loitering, which often have the effect of making public space less useable and welcoming for all of us.

It appears that the city of Chicago wants to use bicycle infrastructure as a form of defensive architecture, by installing bike lanes on the wide sidewalks in Lake Shore Drive’s Lawrence and Wilson viaducts in Uptown. For years people experiencing homelessness have camped out on the sidewalks within the underpasses, many of them using tents provided by homeless advocates. On occasion the city has forced these folks to remove their belongings, such as before a 2015 Mumford & Sons concert at nearby Montrose Beach, which has often resulted in protests by advocates and threats of lawsuits. The situation has been a constant headache for city officials, especially bike-friendly local alderman James Cappleman.

To varying degrees, I’m sympathetic to all involved parties. It’s generally not lawful to camp out in public space in Chicago, and it’s understandable that some of Cappleman’s constituents don’t feel they should have to pass through an illegal homeless encampment in order to walk to the beach.

On the other hand, these tent cities provide the residents with shelter from the elements, safety in numbers, and a sense of community. These locations make it easy for them to be located by people who wish to offer donations of goods and services and check on their wellbeing. Moreover, the encampments are a high-profile symbol of our city’s failure to adequately address its homelessness problem, which is one reason they’re so embarrassing for politicians.

As reported by the Sun-Times’ Mark Brown, the city is planning to install bike lanes on the sidewalks of the viaducts as part of the reconstruction of the underpasses, which is slated to begin next month. Presumably the new bikeways will be similar to the sidewalk lanes in a Metra viaduct on Randolph between Canal and Clinton in the West Loop.

The sidewalk bike lane in the viaduct on Randolph at Canal. Photo: John Greenfield
The sidewalk bike lane in the viaduct on Randolph at Canal. Photo: John Greenfield

While there’s no question that the crumbling Lawrence and Wilson underpasses should be rebuilt, the bike lanes would make it impossible for homeless people to return to the viaducts after the renovations are finished. Therefore on Wednesday the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless announced its intention of suing the city if it follows through with the bike lane plans. In a letter to city officials, the group demanded that permanent housing be found for all people currently living in the underpasses, and that the project be redesigned so that there will be space for tents in the future. There was a protest over the issue yesterday.

When I checked in with Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey about the bike lane plans today, he provided the following statement:

The improved viaduct will better accommodate the high volume of pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles that travel to and from the lakefront more safely, including improved sidewalks and dedicated off-street bicycle paths. Designs are final and a contractor has been selected for the work. Construction work is expected to start in September and is estimated to take eight months.

When developing and designing projects such as the Lawrence and Wilson viaducts, CDOT makes a determination about layout based on traffic volume, conditions on nearby roadways and longer-term development plans in the adjacent communities. Each project is different and what works for one viaduct may not be the best design for others. In this case, CDOT began the design process by incorporating the recommendations in the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, which was published in December 2012.  Lawrence Ave. from Austin to the Lakefront Trail is included as a crosstown bike route.  Wilson from Spaulding to the Lakefront Trail is designated a neighborhood bike route.

[It was determined that], given the available right of way, built environment, and traffic volumes, the best option would be to utilize the unusually wide right of way for separated bike lanes and pedestrian ways, while preserving traffic capacity. This is consistent with other repairs and building of bridges along Lake Shore Drive, with an upgraded pedestrian/bicycle bridge at North Avenue and ongoing work on the Navy Pier Flyover. New pedestrian/bicycle bridges are also being added to the south side, at 35th St. (finished in 2016) and 41st St., currently under construction.

While, all other things being equal, putting bike lanes on these sidewalks would be a good strategy to make biking through these tunnels somewhat more comfortable, as things stand these are not particularly hazardous passages for cyclists. Under the current configuration, tents included, families and less-confident riders can already ride slowly or walk their bikes on the wide sidewalks within the viaducts. As an Uptown resident myself, my experience has been that the folks living in the viaducts are friendly to passers-by and careful to leave plenty of room on the wide sidewalk for pedestrians.

Moreover, there are hundreds of viaducts in this city. If it’s simply a coincidence that the two underpasses where tent cities are causing a public relations nightmare for the city are the ones that are getting bikeways that will displace those encampments, as CDOT claims, that’s a heck of a coincidence.

More likely, this is a very intentional attempt by the city to use bike infrastructure as defensive architecture, to try to keep the homeless from occupying public space in the future. Other bike advocates may disagree with me on this issue, but in this case I say “Not in my name.”

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  • Buena Parker

    Are there any other encampments under viaducts in the city? I’m unaware of any, but I obviously don’t travel under each viaduct. None on LSD or under the Kennedy on the NW side that I’m aware of.

    Under the JFK they actually put up fencing to prevent encampments.

    Why only under two viaducts in Cappleman’s ward? Why not any under the viaducts to the north and south?

    Is there one standard for the 46th Ward and different standards for neighboring wards? It’s a rhetorical question.

    I look forward to utilizing the new bike lanes.

  • This is just Cappleman in a nutshell isn’t it?

  • Curtis James

    I’m with you on this one, John.

  • **

    That’s a really good question, Buena Parker, why planners are using different standards in our ward and allowing people to ride on the sidewalks. It’s been such a problem just to the north that there’s a special ordinance (9-52-021) which subjects those who ride on the sidewalk on Sheridan Rd. to a fine and the temporary disabling of their bike. When you change up the rules, it just confuses the message and complicates enforcement.

  • The article is about how the bike lanes are being used to punish the homeless.

  • Just as there are advocates for transportation and cycling there are advocates for the homeless.

    The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless wrote this open letter to public about the policies and practices of Alderman Cappleman. Many of the homeless you see in the viaduct were housed before Cappleman, not a coincidence.


    “The letter goes on, saying: “If you’re puzzled, you should be: Yes, Cappleman is the alderman you’ve read about who systematically reduces low-income housing in his ward in favor of a gentrification strategy. He regularly vilifies those who live on the streets, as he did at last week’s luncheon, blaming homeless people for ‘preventing economic growth.'”

    The organization also pointed to a 2013 dustup, when Cappleman made headlines for asking the Salvation Army truck to stop giving food to the needy.”

  • skelter weeks

    And don’t forget all the spiky things they put on the crossbeams at CTA stations so the pigeons don’t perch there!
    Next, they’ll have to put the spikes in the floor of the warming shelters because I saw pigeons last winter that figured out it was THE SPOT to go to during the cold.

  • rwy

    I’m with John on this one too. This is just inhumane.

  • Yes, in Logan Square. I think it’s the Belmont one but I haven’t been there in awhile.

  • Well I believe CHA has plenty of money (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-cha-finances-report-met-20170112-story.html) and should be forced to house all these people immediately. But in the meantime I’m against persecuting them with bike lanes because that’s downright evil.

  • rohmen

    I agree, but the mental health aspect for some people who are homeless means there will always be some people who decide to stay outside of the CHA system, or may have low-level criminal offenses that mean they might not qualify for CHA housing. That’s why I hate these type of maneuvers, especially in a City that has refused to properly funds its mental health programs and has actively removed beds from treatment centers. I agree that it’s simply evil to simply expect these people to come somewhere else where there’s often nowhere else to go.

  • rohmen

    Lower Wacker in the loop has some pretty big encampments as well that are hidden in. So far, it seems like the encampments have been left alone (at least while construction was underway on the river walk). However, given the push to make the river walk a major tourist destination, I doubt those encampments will go unchallenged long term.

  • Anne A

    There’s been one at Belmont for years.

  • rwy

    Maybe not bar criminals from public housing? People deserve a second chance, even those who have committed crimes. Or maybe some badly needed criminal justice reform to prevent people from getting caught up in the system in the first place.

  • CDOT still doesn’t care about building good bicycle infrastructure everywhere.

    “Preserve traffic capacity” has been their M.O. for a long time, and continues to be, despite the various pro-bike and pro-pedestrians plans.

    Was there public consultation about this plan to build sidewalk-level bike lanes on a pedestrian-heavy (well, maybe not now because of the tents) corridor to access the beach?

    Claffey references the Streets for Cycling Plan, but that was in 2012, and that didn’t have the level of detail that we now have about the bridge reconstruction project. That doesn’t count as public consultation.

  • Cameron Puetz

    There are small encampments under the Metra tracks in Ravenswood. Most sleep on the raised ledge so they’re only visible from certain angles. There are also encampments under the Damen and Diversy bridges over the river in the southern part of Roscoe Village. Those were just two I could think of off the top of my head where I’d seen people recently. What makes the Wilson and Lawrence encampments unique is their size, visibility, and high traffic around them

  • Cameron Puetz

    In addition to seeming to target the homeless, it’s not even good cycling infrastructure. The intersection at Marine Dr. would be a terrible place to have to transition from a sidewalk bike lane to an on street lane.

  • **

    I was mystified about that too—from the only design I’ve ever seen it looks like the transition is right at the base of the on/off ramps. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1c92b6ece00d339164bf1f771507e2553c231a79ecc0241b582565f3517e56c6.jpg

  • **

    It’s quite a statement for CDOT to put riders up on the sidewalk at such a key pivot point on the US Bike Route, as designated in 2014. It was a great choice because Lawrence connects with so many rail lines—CTA & Metra. There’s even the possibility of flying in and picking up the route.

    Public feedback would have helped come up with a better solution, especially in a ward where there are so many people who are very conversant with bike infrastructure and willing to help. So many people worked on participatory budgeting in 2013 and 5 of the 6 top vote winners were about pedestrian and bike safety.

  • **

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I was responding to Buena Parker, who was questioning the exceptional situation in the 46th ward that has “allowed” the homeless to live under the viaducts. I was questioning the other glaring exceptions—that CDOT is spending public money on poorly designed, unvetted infrastructure contradicts CDOT’s usual standards and safety messaging.

    Which begs questions: Whose idea was this? Why are they taking exception to their own standards? Why didn’t the biking alderman step in to point out the flaws both in process and design?

    As John says: Not in my name.

  • u-ta-h

    Let’s add a dose of reality to this discussion.

    No one is “punishing” the homeless here, as suggested by a commenter below. Adding bike and pedestrian lanes to two of the most heavily used viaducts on the north side of the city is a major victory for all who use the streets and parks regularly. I regularly read StreetsBlog and support its goals generally, but this article is incredibly short sighted and clearly favors the few (those who camp under the viaducts and their supporters / enablers) over the many (the thousands of people who use this viaduct daily to get to and from Lincoln Park, including me).

    Now, a few facts. Unlike John’s characterization of the homeless as innocents, we local residents who traverse the viaducts regularly have witnessed open drug and alcohol use at this encampment as well as violence and open air sexual activity. I have seen it personally, and fellow residents have seen it as well. To say it’s ok because they are homeless and have no where else to go is directly aiding and abetting the behavior and contributing to the problems.

    I have contacted the City directly about this encampment and know the statistics well. I know that 90% of the original group camping here were resettled into housing per the agreement between the City and homeless advocates (the remaining 10% refused to be housed). However, the success in resettling homeless ‘residents’ of the encampment provided ample space for another group to move in. The City is now working to get that group resettled, as part of the plan to rehouse people while they rehab the bridges.

    All told, the City will have arranged transitional housing for more than 140 people by the time construction begins on this project. That is a great success, and it is a credit to the homeless activists that their determination in supporting this encampment helped people along the way.

    However, now that construction is going to happen, it is time to figure out a way to serve the interests of the residents of the city and Uptown in particular. This protected bike lane goes a long way to serving that end. Although some see the design as being made with nefarious intent, I can tell you as a user of this street and viaduct that having a protected bike lane makes complete sense. Drivers often turn off the drive and accelerate to a high rate of speed through the Wilson viaduct. Transitioning from daylight to the viaduct (which is very dark during the day) means that drivers are entering the area with very little ability to see and avoid bikers. Having protected bike lanes here (with appropriate signage to guide riders through) makes complete sense. A useful next step would be to create a signaled intersection where Wilson and the bike trail come together, so that the cars and bikes can more safely navigate the entrance to the park and the bike trail. I have suggested this to CDOT, but I think it would be helpful if others did as well.

    As pointed out by others, this particular debate is more about politics than anything. If this were anywhere else in the city, this blog and its commenters would be celebrating progress in building out the bike infrastructure for future generations. Because this is the 46th Ward, however, long the stepchild of the North Side of the city, what would be otherwise celebrated is questioned. There is no other ward in the city that has been asked to take as much of the burden for housing and providing supportive services to economically disadvantaged and homeless people. The statistics don’t lie – Uptown is the far and away leader for subsidized housing in the entire city. https://goo.gl/KoRHfp Uptown’s concentration of poverty is also close to 40%, almost twice the percent recommended by HUD for adding new subsidized housing to a community.

    So, why would we want to “help” the homeless by sending them back to a cold and wet underpass to live through the winter, particularly in an area that already has extremely high levels of poverty and subsidized housing? To make a political statement? If we truly want to help the homeless, let’s focus less on settling political scores (we see you, Jeff Littleton) and making statements (“the encampments are a high-profile symbol of our city’s failure to adequately address its homelessness problem, which is one reason they’re so embarrassing for politicians”) and focus instead on decentralizing services (http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-utah-shelters-20170707-story.html) and reshifting focus to ‘housing first’ initiatives to take people off the streets (http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459100751/utah-reduced-chronic-homelessness-by-91-percent-heres-how). We could and should put homeless shelters in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Old Town, the Gold Coast, the West Loop, the South Loop, and other popular areas. It won’t happen because it’s politically untenable. But just because it wouldn’t fly in other more affluent areas doesn’t mean that Uptown should therefore take the burden.

  • Why not at least make the bikeway and pedway equal size? Six feet is not nearly enough for a good bikeway, especially through a viaduct.

  • u-ta-h

    And to preempt those who will inevitably respond by saying “why not take over one of the driving lanes in each direction,” this street is often jammed on the weekends when the weather is good. With the lack of a controlled intersection at Wilson and the bike path, there are cars trying to go left and another set trying to enter the park and access Montrose Beach. It makes no sense to further narrow that intersection and create additional congestion when there is an easy and readily available solution (a sidewalk wide enough to accommodate both bikers and pedestrians).

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “If this were anywhere else in the city, this blog and its commenters would be celebrating progress in building out the bike infrastructure for future generations.” Yep, as I said, all other things being equal this would be a good project. I’m also in favor of coming up with a humane long-term solution to the tent city issue. But as a bike advocate and Uptown resident, who is glad to live in a North Side community that hasn’t turned its back on disadvantaged residents in the past, I can’t get behind bike infrastructure being as a back-door strategy to solve an embarrassing problem for politicians.

  • u-ta-h

    John – thank you for the response and for your civility. I appreciate it. As a fellow biker, I really don’t want to get involved in the politics of this discussion. It is better that we focus on how we can improve access to Chicago’s non-car (biking/walking) community. However, I respectfully disagree with you that there is any “humane long-term solution” (a point where we both agree, at least in spirit) that involves housing these people under a viaduct. I would much rather spend CHA money on thousands of shipping container homes (http://www.ocregister.com/2017/04/04/how-these-shipping-containers-converted-to-housing-have-affected-homeless-veterans/) and put those homes on empty unused lots rather than putting people back in harms’ way under a viaduct. Thanks again – UT

  • **

    u-ta-h, would you consider asking CDOT, IDOT, and the alderman to facilitate that solution or some other human solution BEFORE doing this work? People are tired of paying for the inability of decision-makers to work out compromises and solutions, which results in expensive lawsuits.

    I agree it is important to focus on how to improve access to Chicago’s non-car community. (The people under the viaducts belong to this community, btw.) It is very important to understand that these viaducts have been in bad shape for years. So what is the rush now when there are so many unresolved issues and the design isn’t good enough. It doesn’t even account for the fact that the Park District is now planning to move (starting in September) the bike path farther east—a risky move considering that further south in the same trail separation project they are promoting a more westerly trail as a “commuter bike route.”

    Everyone knows that a lot of people drive to the Lake because a) parking in this area at the Lakefront is free and b) the transit system that could bring people there hasn’t been optimized and made user friendly. So why isn’t everyone getting creative about how to observe and support CDOT’s modal hierarchy (attached)? CDOT’s sustainable design guidelines talk a lot about protecting those most vulnerable, which is a great step. So let’s take it.

    Community members have made suggestions over the years as to how to help lessen traffic on these streets in the summer. For example, Lawrence bus (#81)—a 24-7 bus that crosses so many transit lines—turns around empty on the Drive instead of taking people that little bit further in the summer to the lake. How hard would it be to put it on the bus marquee “Lawrence/Lakefront” and to offer discounted rides to the lake for a while to get people using it? Or create an on-off circulator (outside of downtown for once) to help get people from the ‘L’ to the Lakefront?

  • u-ta-h

    John – is there any way to get my primary comment out of moderation? I don’t think I said anything to merit being in moderation. Thank you!

  • u-ta-h

    Of course I would support that. It makes sense from a human perspective. The problem, as understand it, is that the bridges are actually dangerous in their current condition, both to cars and people. The recent episodes of concrete falling and hitting cars show how dangerous the viaducts really are. So the construction has to happen sooner rather than later. Since the construction is going to take multiple months anyway, what better time to get those people into the social welfare system and rehoused? I don’t think it makes sense to delay that portion, and it is my understanding that the city is doing exactly that as we speak.

    We could delay implementation of the bike and pedestrian lanes, but as we have seen time and again in this city, if we don’t go through with a plan as soon as the money is available, the planned improvements may be lost. It wasn’t too long ago that Chase Park was awarded several millions of dollars to replace the field surface. That was postponed due to State of Illlinois budget issues, and now may never happen. For that reason, I think we have to take advantage and put the bike lane in place now, rather than later. The opportunity may not be there in 2, 3 or 5 years…

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Done. Sorry, I’m not sure what happened there.

  • Yeah there is evidence that just giving people housing is a better solution than all the jumping through hoops they make these poor people go through.

  • **

    The reality is that you cannot simply uncouple those who live under the viaduct from the bike infrastructure that will displace them, especially if you actually care about CDOT’s core values as expressed in its Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Guidelines and Policies (below). As a number of posters have expressed, it would have made a big difference if a genuine public process had occurred.

    That process should have included reporting about the pilot housing project for those sleeping under the viaducts and supplying information about next steps. It’s healthy and normal for people to be deeply concerned about the welfare of their neighbors and impact on their community. There’s momentum on creating greater transparency in Chicago these days, but money needs to be dedicated long-term to high quality public engagement just as badly as it needs to be spent on project materials.

    To make matters worse in this case, the viaducts being repaired are physically co-located and financially tied to roughly $16 million in TIF subsidies for the Montrose-Clarendon planned development. The mayoral press release for that planned development stated that “some” of the TIF would be used for what’s become known as the viaduct pilot: https://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/mayor/Press%20Room/Press%20Releases/2016/May/5.18.16CommunityLandIntroduced.pdf. At the next opportunity to clarify, the sum was described as “a portion” but details were still sparse: https://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/mayor/Press%20Room/Press%20Releases/2016/June/6.22.16VariousCommunityLandDevelopmentApproved.pdf

    Isn’t it time for taxpayers to see a proper accounting of this city-wide pilot? How is that project actually going? Who is reporting to taxpayers about it and on what schedule? What are the plans in the event that people are displaced without housing? What can the Uptown community expect with the clearing of the viaducts about to occur? To whom should they turn?

    It’s important to remember that the Montrose-Clarendon development that gave “some” funding to the pilot project was approved and funded in meetings that the Circuit Court determined violated the State of Illinois Open Meetings Act. The city did not contest that finding. Decision-makers and the public were told in those illegally conducted meetings that this high-end development would not occur “but for” the use of the available public subsidy. The argument was that the subsidy was necessary because the developers couldn’t otherwise raise the funding to make the project financially feasible.

    Yet only four months after the public money was OK’d in an illegally conducted City Council meeting, one of the development partners refinanced another Chicago project, taking out $68 million capital gains tax free: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/realestate/20161025/CRED03/161029944/developers-score-big-payout-in-south-loop-apartment-deal. The “burden” of housing those less economically advantaged (as u-ta-h described it below) pales in comparison. The Low Income Housing Trust Fund portion of the deal only cost the developers $5.7 million—and that was paid for with public funds.

    All to say, it’s absolutely understandable that this infrastructure project in this sensitive location would create suspicion and pushback. What’s hard to grasp is why decision-makers failed to create a meaningful public process and why people keep acting like this is just a normal infrastructure project.


  • ChicagoCyclist

    Many, many homeless folks were moved out of the south loop site, when Related Midwest got the go for their development (see http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/ct-south-loop-new-neighborhood-development-ryan-ori-0514-biz-20170512-column.html):

  • BlueFairlane

    A lot of bridges over both the North and South Branch of the Chicago River have camps. There was a big one under Fullerton over the North Branch, like, two years ago, though I don’t know what happened to it during the construction connected to the Elston reroute. There’s been a shifting camp on Webster under the Kennedy for at least 10 years, and little set-ups that come and go in the Metra property next to it. Last year, there was a big camp visible along the South Branch at Harrison, but I haven’t been that way since January.