Eyes on the Street: The Lawrence and Wilson Viaduct Sidewalk Bike Lanes

The lanes were likely installed to prevent homeless people from camping in the underpasses.

A cyclist rides towards the lake on a Lawrence underpass bike lane. Photo: John Greenfield
A cyclist rides towards the lake on a Lawrence underpass bike lane. Photo: John Greenfield

Last December, after the Seattle Department of Transportation installed a large number of bike racks in a viaduct, near no apparent destination, a department spokeswoman eventually acknowledged that the racks were part of a “strategy for lessening the hazards of unsheltered living,” i.e. they were put in to prevent homeless people from camping there.

It appears that the Chicago Department of Transportation took a similar approach of employing bike infrastructure as defensive architecture when it built sidewalk bike lanes inside the Lawrence and Wilson viaducts of Lake Shore Drive in the Uptown neighborhood as part of the recent renovation of the underpasses. For years there were homeless encampments on the sidewalks of both viaducts, which made it easy for homeless advocacy groups and others to offer donations and social services to the residents. But the tent cities were also a headache for local alderman James Cappleman, since some of his constituents disliked having to walk past them on their way to the lakefront.

Unlike SDOT, CDOT hasn’t stated that the chief motive for installing the infrastructure was to prevent homeless people from returning after the underpass reconstruction, and so far no smoking gun has been found to prove that was the case. However, former residents of the tent city, represented by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Law Project, sued the city over the issue, arguing that the installation of the bike lanes was discriminatory against the homeless because it was done with the sole purpose of displacing them. The lawsuit also asserted that the design of the bikeways is dangerous.

The initial purpose of the lawsuit was as a negotiating tool to get the city to the table to get housing assistance for the former tent city residents, according to the coalition’s policy director Julie Dworkin. The city filed a motion to dismiss the case, which the judge recently granted in part, arguing that the bike lanes aren’t discriminatory because they prevent all people, not just the homeless, from camping in the viaducts. However, the judge also gave the coalition a chance to amend their complaint, and current the goal of the suit is to have the bike lanes declared illegal as a violation of Illinois’ Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act, Dworkin said. The group hopes to force the city to remove the lanes, to send a message that designing public spaces specifically to exclude homeless people is unlawful discrimination.

One big difference between the Seattle scenario and the Chicago situation is that while the bike racks had no other function than to prevent camping, arguably the bike lanes serve a purpose by making it safer and easier to bike between Uptown and the Lakefront Trail and Montrose Harbor. Some cyclists are using the new bike lanes, although others are opting to ride in the street instead.

Notably, there are four travel lanes under both viaducts, while Lawrence and Wilson have only two travel lanes in all other locations, so if CDOT had instead converted travel lanes to protected bike lanes, there would have been no impact on traffic congestion. On the other hand there’s plenty of room on the wide sidewalks in the viaducts for both cyclists and pedestrians, and the two modes are separated by tightly spaced plastic bollards. (It would be great if CDOT used the same tight pole spacing for on-street protected bike lanes to help keep drivers out of them.)

The southbound on-ramp to Lake Shore Drive at Lawrence. It's a good idea to look over your left shoulder for turning drivers before crossing the on-ramps. Photo: John Greenfield
The southbound on-ramp to Lake Shore Drive at Lawrence. It’s a good idea to look over your left shoulder for turning drivers before crossing the on-ramps. Photo: John Greenfield

Before the sidewalk lanes were built, Streetsblog’s Steven Vance argued that they would be unsafe and inconvenient to use due to the need for cyclists to transfer from on-street bike lanes to the sidewalk and back again after crossing LSD access ramps. After test-riding them, I believe that they actually function reasonably well, as they shepherd cyclists directly to the Lakefront Trail and paths to the beach. The transitions between the street and sidewalk aren’t particularly awkward, and the ramp crossings don’t seem especially hazardous, although it is a good idea to look over your left shoulder for right-turning cars before crossing the on-ramps.

So the Lawrence and Wilson sidewalk bike lanes don’t seem to be useless white elephants, like the Seattle bike racks, or unsafe deathtraps. Still, if the city’s main motivation for installing them was to thwart human beings from seeking shelter from the elements, as appears to be the case, that’s highly troubling.

  • Tooscrapps

    I love how the bollard spacing is so tight here, yet people are free to drive into the Loop PBLs because the spacing is so loose. (Edit: didn’t fully read after the video. Doh) Gotta protect the pedestrians and cyclists from one another, but let’s not protect them from cars.

    Also, when are we going to get bollards on the LFT? My friend saw a guy drive down the path at Belmont Harbor on Friday.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Everything about this is so wrong. The trend of painting a sideWALK and calling it a bike lane is perturbing. At best these are a gift to motorists to get “those damn bikers off the road and on the sidewalk where they belong”.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I agree with Steven on this one. The east bound route is particularly dangerous during the morning rush at the crossing with the south bound ramp. Here cyclists are going straight to go under the viaduct, while almost all drivers are turning right onto the ramp. If a cyclist rides in the mixed lane here, they can hold their line while cars peel off to their right. This is a fairly safe arrangement. If a cyclist follows the sidewalk path, they begin veering right at the same point drivers begin turning. Cyclists then turn left across the path of cars right at point where drivers are straightening out and beginning to accelerate up the ramp. This is a very dangerous arrangement.

    Additionally since there sidewalk path has opened, I’ve gotten more harassment from drivers to “get on the sidewalk where bikes belong”. This has happened both under the viaduct, and carried over to the block by Weiss Hospital.

  • planetshwoop

    unlikely. It’s used a lot for garbage pick-up, constructions workers, etc so I doubt there will be bollards there.

  • planetshwoop

    Eliminate the viaducts and switch to roundabouts

  • Tooscrapps

    They make retractable bollards…

    Also , there literally is a drive right next to the LFT at Belmont.

  • UptownArtsCouncil

    The bike lanes are a failure even as bike lanes.

    I spent an hour watching the Wilson viaduct and the ratio of bikes using the street or the path was at least 3-1 in favor of the street.

    In addition there are pedestrians who walk in the bike lanes.

    Some of the few bikers using the lanes went “counterflow”, which is an issue since the bike lanes are not wide enough for 2 bikes.

    This entire scheme is a moral debacle and planning diaster. A traffic study cannot happen soon enough.

  • The other issue is that they will perpetuate confusion about where a cyclist can ride on the sidewalk and where they can’t. When I visited Montrose a month ago, and the bike lanes had been completed for at least a week, the “no sidewalk cycling, fine is $x” signs were still up.

    The Uptown/Edgewater parts of the North Side are also where some sidewalks have a higher fine amount for riding on the sidewalk.

    Another issue? Road-level bike lanes would have cost a fraction.
    But they wouldn’t have evicted homeless.

  • What would be the point of a traffic study?

  • They’re posts, not bollards. Bollards are immoveable structures, while posts can be pushed and bent by a child.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Actually bollards can be immovable or flexible:
    https://www.google.com/search?q=Flexible+bollard&oq=Flexible+bollard&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.4143j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

  • Tooscrapps

    These look more like the ones they use on Randolph which are a bit sturdier than the ones on Kinzie/Dearbon. Is that what you saw John?

    Steven, you’re right though, these are more posts then bollards. All bollards are posts, but not all posts are bollards – or something like that.

  • MelCrawf

    Can someone clarify the right of way when the straight-moving cyclist traffic is crossing the path of cars turning right to enter LSD? The concern with this design is a car turning right may not anticipate a fast-moving bike (relative to a pedestrian speeds in a crosswalk) suddenly crossing its path on the right. I watched the video a couple of times, so I think I understand how this is supposed to work — if I’m misunderstanding, please feel free to clarify. This is the way many cyclists get hit and seriously injured or killed — by a right-turning vehicle that either doesn’t see them, or thinks they have the right of way and goes anyway.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Legally the turning vehicle (in this case the car turning on the ramp) should yield. However, for several reasons I wouldn’t count on that happening here. First off regardless of what the law says, physics says the bike looses. Secondly, as you noted right turning drivers don’t anticipate fast moving cyclists, making them less likely to see and properly anticipate the cyclist’s position. Third, the way this intersection is laid out, the driver has stopped turning before the conflict point. The driver has nearly completed their turn and started accelerating, making them even less likely to yield. Fourth, the driver is on a highway merge ramp, making them even less likely to expect a cyclist crossing their path.

  • Tooscrapps

    They couldn’t even be bothered to fix the cratered surface that is the bike lane before the crosswalk or put in some of the obscene amount of posts they used in that painted island. Sums up how much this project was really about cyclists.

  • u-ta-h

    I have biked this multiple times so far and haven’t seen a single conflict so far. Cars appreciate the lane demarcation and yield, from what I have seen. It seems that bikes have the right of way, although I may be wrong. Overall, the lanes seem to be functioning well.

    With respect to the comment in the article about the 4 lanes under the Wilson viaduct, with 2 being “available” for conversion, I have two points to make:

    First, I have two kids under the age of 4, so we drive to the beach. The extra driving lane is actually very important in managing traffic flow to and from the lake. As much as I would like to cut down or eliminate car use, it isn’t going to happen any time soon, and having the extra traffic lane helps here. The sidewalk orientation, in my opinion, is a sensible alternative that allows for an extra car lane in a place it is needed.

    Second, with the Wilson viaduct in particular is there is a lot of contrast between the street and viaduct on a sunny day. You go from very bright to pretty dark quickly. Having the bike lanes on the sidewalk eliminates the very real possibility that drivers and bikers may come into conflict due to issues with light.

    Finally, although I appreciate what I see as well intentioned criticism of the “defensive” architecture here, is anyone here saying that it is ok to have a homeless encampment on the sidewalk? It is against the law in Chicago and in Illinois to camp on a public sidewalk. That much is clear from the laws on the books. There is no violation of the homeless’ rights here, since they have no “right” to camp on a sidewalk. I have read the Homeless Bill of Rights, and I can tell you that it does not create an exception from the applicable law.

    So, are we saying that we should eliminate these lanes so the homeless encampment can return? That’s clearly illegal, so why should we support and endorse a behavior that is illegal? (Not to mention that I can speak from personal experience regarding the drug deals, general filth and inappropriate behavior that previously existed here in trying to push two strollers to the park).

    The placement of the lanes on the street vs the sidewalk is up for debate, as it depends on one’s view of whether protected sidewalk riding is better than a dedicated lane for bikes on the street. There is no room for debate, however, on whether this alignment should be eliminated to create a new encampment under the bridge.

  • u-ta-h

    And one thing I forgot to mention – I don’t see how having the bike lane go on the sidewalk and under the viaduct (as compared to on the street) makes a significant difference in potential car-bike conflicts. In nearly 10 years of biking this area, I have seen bike/car conflicts under the old orientation (straight) several times, so I don’t see how this new orientation is truly any different. As I noted above, I drive a car in addition to riding a bike, and I always look to my right when I turn right to see potential bikers coming up to my rear. All city drivers should do that, and this orientation shouldn’t influence or change that behavior. It truly makes little to no difference.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, they appear to be the same kind.

  • Courtney

    The fact you drive AND bike means you’re part of the small percentage of people who know to look for bikes. I was biking on Lawrence Ave., in the bike lane, and almost got doored by someone and they mocked me for screaming because I was afraid. I realize this is different from the scenario you’re talking about but sometimes i am still amazed by the amount of clueless drivers despite a decent biking community in this city.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Another issue I thought of while riding through there tonight is what’s the plan to connect to the new path east of Cricket Hill? Will the sidewalk path be extended or are cyclists supposed to ride on Wilson, transition to the sidewalk, and then transition back to Wilson? For a project supposedly designed to improve cycling infrastructure, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of thought about how cyclists will access it.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The sidewalk path connects with an existing park path that leads to the new LFT bike path east of Cricket Hill. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e912264596d526aadd46566cd85ad0ae3d73054156a31e3d77b35bec667b91c5.png

  • what_eva

    Some bollards finally got installed in the last week or so in front of Chase Tower for the Dearborn PBL. Uber/Lyft drivers had been constantly pulling over into the PBL to drop people at Chase Tower.

  • JEK

    How do these lanes actually prevent homeless people from camping in the underpasses? Is the green paint like hot lava and they can’t pitch a tent there?

  • UptownArtsCouncil

    To count. To put a number to the anecdoctal comments such as mine.

    How many bikes in street vs. bike lanes making the plan absurd even without the homelessness angle.

    How many pedestrians in bike lanes creating a hazard.

    How many contraflow bikes in bike lane creating a hazard.

    I guess the short answer is to determine the efficacy of this planning scheme in practice.

  • ardecila

    Do you also oppose the raised bike lanes at Roosevelt/Michigan? Do you think the sidewalk bike lanes in Copenhagen or Barcelona are “perturbing”?

    IMO this is the gold standard of bikeway design and CDOT should be using these designs wherever space permits. They are far more welcoming for youths and the elderly also, or anybody who doesn’t like riding cheek to jowl with 2-ton screaming metal boxes.

  • Jacob Wilson

    I’m in favor of converting some of the vast expanses of excess automobile travel lanes (like the ones under the viaduct) into bike lanes.

    I have had the misfortune of riding the ones on Roosevelt and you might as well walk your bike.

    As much as it’s important to design infrastructure that accommodates the elderly and youths you also have to accommodate everyone else which is the vast majority of Chicago cyclists many of whom ride road bikes at more then 10mph because Chicago is sprawling in comparison to a city like Copenhagen or Barcelona.

    I don’t think any Dutch planner would have much nice to say about this particular piece of new infrastructure lol

    Also, go look at some videos of how drivers behave in northern Europe compared to here in terms of yielding right of way to pedestrians and cyclists. Infrastructure is important but education and culture are a huge part of their success as well and probably the biggest source of OUR problems with bike/car conflicts.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It gives the police a more obvious justification for evicting people who camp in the underpasses. Previously when people pitched tents there, there was still plenty of room for walking. Under the new set-up, tents would force people on foot to walk in the bike lane, creating conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists, so now officers can argue that tents or people sleeping on the pedestrian portion of the sidewalk create a crash hazard.

  • JEK

    So the problem is uneven enforcement (you think bike lane blockage will be enforced here while it rarely is citywide), not actually the design of this project.

    I feel like the focus of this article is the design of the facility – but no physical feature of this facility prevents the camp from being rebuilt.

    I think it’s plausible that the construction period was used to evict the homeless; I also think it’s likely that this might be the most enforced bikeway segment in the city.

    Have there been any reports of additional enforcement? The article doesn’t mention enforcement at all – I’d be interested in a followup to see how many tickets are written for tents blocking the bikeway in coming months.

    Or, was the construction period enough of an eviction that no one actually wants to come back?

    These are questions I’m left with after reading – but I would argue this isn’t an example of defensive architecture because the facility design in fact does not in any way prevent anyone from camping.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    My sense is that if homeless people pitched tents or slept in the viaducts again, the police would evict them as soon as they were notified.

    The new fences and curbs within the viaducts certainly count as defensive architecture, since they basically make it impossible to sleep on the portion of sidewalk closest to the street.

  • JEK

    But people didn’t sleep between the pillars close to the street; the tents were along the wall. The article points the finger at CDOT, but in fact I think they designed a quality facility for a viaduct – I’d like to see similar treatments in some of the city’s other viaducts which are truly scary places even for an experienced cyclist (the Damen and 14th viaduct comes to mind, although I don’t know what the sidewalk width is there).

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Right, but because the tents would more obviously block the pedestrian right-of-way under the current configuration, and it’s more likely police would immediately evict people blocking the pedestrian or bike space, it’s possible that folks would have tried to sleep on the space closest to the road (which would be dangerous) if it wasn’t blocked with the fences and curbs.)

    My sense is that the idea of using bike lanes to discourage homeless people from returning to the viaducts didn’t originate with CDOT — the issue has mainly been a headache for Cappleman and, to a lesser extent, Rahm Emanuel. But, assuming the main reason for this project was blocking the tent cities, CDOT has been complicit in implementing the plan. Similarly, I’m guessing it wasn’t originally the Seattle DOT who first thought of using bike racks as anti-homeless spikes, but the buck stops with them because they’re the ones who followed through with the idea.

  • JacobEPeters

    That did happen last week. I rode through Wilson in the morning & there was a woman camped there. I came back ~10 hrs later & her tent was gone.

  • JacobEPeters

    The on ramps are functioning fine now, but if that hatched area gets warn down over time (as it does on every buffered bike lane) from cars cutting wider turns through it, then the on ramps will become a bit more harrowing. They really should have installed a small raised planter or bioswale instead of the hatching, to physically prevent the unsafe speeding turns at a crossing.

  • Snotty

    Cool. These a are terrible just like Roosevelt. I’ll take the street.

  • UptownArtsCouncil

    I hope that makes sense.

  • bikeboy#61

    Nevermind the bollards…

  • Gin Kilgore

    I’m troubled by precedents for moving cycling to viaduct sidewalks instead of road dieting the 4 lanes when there are two lanes on either side.

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