Eyes on the Street: Concrete Protection on the Milwaukee and Elston Protected Lanes

A concrete-protected section on Milwaukee. Photo: John Greenfield
A concrete-protected section on Milwaukee. Photo: John Greenfield

“Build it and they will come,” they say. While I’m not sure if the new concrete protection along the Milwaukee Avenue bike lanes in River West deserves all the credit, in all my years of bike watching on the “Hipster Highway,” I don’t recall ever seeing such massive amounts of two-wheeled traffic on Milwaukee as I did on this damp, gray fall afternoon. Surely having more physical protection from moving cars isn’t hurting the numbers.

The Chicago Department of Transportation installed a short stretch of concrete protection on a few blocks of Milwaukee north of Chicago Avenue in summer 2015. This summer CDOT installed concrete curbs and islands on a nearly half-mile stretch of existing parking-protected lanes between Chicago Avenue and Ohio Street. The Department also installed concrete protection on a 0.7-mile stretch of existing protected lanes on Elston Avenue between Milwaukee and Blackhawk Street.

(Low) concrete curb protection on Elston. Photo: John Greenfield
(Low) concrete curb protection on Elston north of Division Street. Photo: John Greenfield

These projects are part of a $1.2 million package of recent federally funded Chicago bikeway improvements, which also include concrete protection on Dearborn Avenue between Polk and Kinzie streets downtown, new buffered bike lanes on Washington Boulevard in Garfield Park, and upcoming curbs on the Harrison protected lanes in the South Loop, slated for 2019 construction.

The construction on Milwaukee and Elston temporarily closed the bike lanes in one direction for a week or so at a time, and some cyclists have said that they would have rather seen the city build more miles of simple post-and-paint, parking-protected lanes than upgrade existing ones with concrete. But I’d argue that the benefits of hardscape are worth the extra cost.

Concrete islands on Milwaukee. Photo: John Greenfield
Concrete islands on Milwaukee. Photo: John Greenfield

Not only do cyclist get real, physical protection from traffic, even when cars aren’t parked in the parking lane, but it’s a permanent solution. The city often removes the flexible plastic posts from protected lanes to facilitate winter snow clearance, and in some cases the posts aren’t been reinstalled promptly in the spring, or at all. Of course, it’s important for the city to be diligent about clearing debris and snow from the concrete protected lanes as well, and make sure that water drainage isn’t a problem after rainstorms.

In addition to the curbs between the parked cars and the biked lane (although there are some major gaps in the curbed sections), the concrete islands at the ends of the parking lanes at driveways and intersections ensure that drivers don’t park on those areas, which helps make sure turning motorists and cyclists can see each other. Another nifty feature of the Milwaukee upgrade is a “floating” transit island at Carpenter for the southbound #56 Milwaukee Avenue bus, including a raised crosswalk to help CTA customers walk across the bike lane to the island.

The island bus stop at Carpenter and Milwaukee, with a raised crosswalk. Photo: John Greenfield

Have you ridden the new-and-improved Milwaukee or Elston lanes yet? If so, let us know what you think in the comments.

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  • what_eva

    I drove down Elston this past weekend and was wondering about the mix of low and high curbs. It seemed to make no sense to me. I would understand if they did low near some driveways or side streets so that large trucks could use the low curbs as additional turning radius or something like that. However, it seemed like many of the sections were like your picture, no driveways nearby. This included some odd transitions from low to high and back.


    I don’t see why at least some of the raised concrete area could be landscaped with evergreens. There is so much concrete already.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I agree that not replacing the asphalt with plantings, which would help with storm water management, was a missed opportunity. Presumably this wasn’t done because landscaping often requires maintenance, there may have been drainage issues involved, and plantings are more likely to collect garbage than a smooth concrete surface.

  • Obesa Adipose

    And salt, don’t forget salt.

  • Random_Jerk

    I’m happy that we get more protected lanes, but why execution has to be so crude and half-ass… There are other systems to separate bike lanes, many of them are better looking and probably cheaper to install. It would be nice to have some native plants/grasses that don’t require maintenance instead concrete islands. Why in Chicago EVERYTHING has to be done with concrete. It’s so utilitarian. And the quality of workmanship leaves plenty to be desired. Just look at the photos below. We look like third world country in comparison…

  • carfreecommuter

    FYI. I believe that the Blue Line runs right below Milwuakee Ave (with little clearance between the top of the tunnel and the street). While I think everyone can agree that vegetation is great wouldn’t it just drain onto the concrete tunnel below?

  • David Henri

    I took a walk down Dearborn today at lunch. For the life of me, I can’t understand what they are doing. The contractor is putting up concrete islands at each intersection, except where a left turn is permitted. For example, northbound Dearborn has an island on the south side at Jackson, where you can’t turn left, and doesn’t have one at Van Buren. Ok. Then they are putting up short little islands in the middle of the block, between them. And I mean short, like 10 feet long or so. The balance of the lane is still paint and plastic bollards. What is this supposed to accomplish? Maybe help steer the parked cars into their respective spots, but they seemed to be doing that already. Dearborn is still not a protected bike lane in any sense of the word.

    The work on Elston, while ugly and short sighted, still provides some form of protection from traffic as they appear to be more or less continuous.

    And I agree, why couldn’t the city have the foresight to have taken this opportunity and build something more pleasant to the eye? Some green, some planters? Some thinking involved?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Good point. I’m guessing it wouldn’t have been that hard to come up with an ‘L’-friendly drainage solution, but it would have added to the project cost.

  • Carter O’Brien

    My thoughts exactly. And whatever happened to that “smog-eating” cement? https://www.archdaily.com/359756/chicago-first-u-s-city-to-line-streets-with-smog-eating-cement

    Much like green alleys, it was all the rage, sounded intuitively intelligent, and then poof, gone never to be heard of again.

  • Toto_ly_Insane

    Good luck on Elston. After a few snowstorms those cement islands will be pretty banged up by the plows.

  • gage benson

    It certainly didn’t help me this morning when I was almost destroyed by a car turning left into me while I rode southeast bound at carpenter. All the concrete in the world won’t save us from unaware drivers.

  • gage benson

    Also, why are we not using the same curb system they used as in Evanston’s protected bike lanes? They have a modular system of concrete parking spot like things which are set side by side with a forklift. This seems to make way more sense to do than what is going on with this project. But then again it would be less work for the unions and trades.

  • Tooscrapps

    Bioswales can be planted with salt tolerant vegetation!

  • Obesa Adipose

    You wouldn’t want a bioswale here because then all the salt spread on the road would be diverted to it and no plant can live in soil with such a heavy salt load. A raised planter would work and plants like Russian sage and some grasses can handle the salt spray and splashes from cars. See the medium strip on Ashland and Webster in front of the Marianos.

  • Eric

    While not the most visually appealing designs, I do think this makes cycling infrastructure appear permanent and subsequently official. Bikes aren’t going anywhere!

    My main complaint is that the reflective bollards means I can’t pick a line to ride on/ hop off of the curbs! Or when the lane gets flooded or filled with snow.

    As for some greenery on the islands – with a little time, free reclaimed wood and soil there could be a variety of planter boxes ready for spring.


    the planning was done by a traffic engineer and a value engineer


    True. However, the value engineers have been ruining public space in america since time immemorial. As a biker, I’d feel a hell of a lot safer with a treetrunk between me and the psycho motorist rather than some flimsy lil IDOT post or a measly 8″ concrete curb.


    siberian iris is handsome, salt tolerant, and could do battle with any new zealand flax in terms of architectural beauty (losing but still putting up a fight)

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Any beautification would have to be low-profile, to maintain sight lines.

  • Carter O’Brien

    CDOT does not seem to follow that practice when it comes to traffic calming circles, much less in the lonely roundabout at Cornelia & Paulina that I think is terribly misplaced (and undermines the roundabout concept altogether). Are there standards for clearance for sight lines? Definitely seems like there should be.

  • Eric

    Plenty of native wild flower options that don’t grow higher than 3′ and are drought tolerant once established.

  • Eric
  • Carter O’Brien

    Indeed – the next time you’re on the Museum Campus check out the landscaping overhaul we did to our grounds with native plantings, we have 100+ species out there and they are wildly diverse in height, habit, color, you name it!

  • JacobEPeters

    Not too bad so far, but the portion of Elston (Magnolia to LeMoyne) CDOT replaced with buffered lanes was basically unridable until today due to the mound of ice.


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