Ice Ice, Baby: Long After Snowfall Ended, Bike Lane Conditions Are Still Treacherous

Main street travel lanes were plowed soon after the snowstorm ended, bikeways not so much. Photo: Halsted Bike Lane
Main street travel lanes were plowed soon after the snowstorm ended, bikeways not so much. Photo: Halsted Bike Lane

Ever since Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection in the wake of the Great Blizzard of 1979, city officials have been fanatical about clearing the streets for driving, going to far as to salt travel lanes in advance if there’s even a possibility of snowfall. Accordingly, following the snowstorm that dumped several inches on the region Sunday night, commuters reported that major arterials were in fairly good shape for motorists a few hours into Monday.

Unfortunately, clearing snow from bikeways isn’t as high of a priority for the city, even though thousands of Chicago commuters don’t give up on cycling when the snow starts flying. (Despite the challenging conditions, the Divvy bike-share system saw 1,868 Divvy trips yesterday.) This morning, more than 24 hours after the storm ended, local cyclists tweeted that many of of our city’s key protected bike lanes were still a mess, clogged with snow and/or glazed with ice.

In fairness, conditions have been challenging for bikeway maintenance, with the damp snowfall being followed by a drop in temperature that froze slushy puddles into treacherous skating rinks. But this morning bike riders said that some important cycling route didn’t seem to have received any TLC at all.

Streetsblog’s Steven Vance shot a photo of the inbound Milwaukee Avenue protected bike lane, which was completely unplowed south of Chicago Avenue.

Meanwhile on the Near South Side, “The bridge on Halsted over the south branch of the river was super icy and rutted,” reported Noah Manion. “The bike lane north of there to Canalport was pretty bad too.” However, he added that the bikeway was well-plowed south of the river.

The recently launched Twitter account for the Halsted Street bike lanes noted issued with workers dumping snow from the sidewalk in front of the Newcity shopping center, on the 1500 block of North Halsted, into the bikeway.

The account for Bike Lane Uprising, a site that allows cyclists to document bikeway obstructions, recommended submitting such blockages to the site’s database under the “other” category.

The bike touring nonprofit Out Our Front Door issued a general warning to its followers to be careful cycling on poorly maintained bikeways. “Be careful biking out there friends! The elements have had time to compact down into thick, slippery ice! (or be plowed directly into our safe spaces.)”

However, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Claffey promised that conditions will improve in the near future, hopefully in time for the evening commute. “We have had crews out today. They have been plowing and salting the bike lanes all day today.”

That’s reassuring, but it would be great if city officials would prioritize snow clearance for sustainable transportation facilities, just as they obsess over making sure drivers aren’t inconvenienced by the white stuff. It would be even better if they were to follow the lead of forward-thinking countries like Sweden that clear sidewalks and bike lanes before plowing roads.

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  • rohmen

    Honest question. Where are businesses suppose to shovel snow when they clear sidewalks and there aren’t greenways (which is true for most major streets)? As a year-round cyclist, it bugs me too when snow gets piled into bike lanes/roads, but at the same time I have to admit I don’t know where else they’d put it. I guess the assumption of most of these businesses is that a plow will come and clear it out—and unfortunately we know that doesn’t happen.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Cleared sidewalk snow should be left in the street furniture (signs, trees, pay & display boxes) zone. Bonus points if they shovel out the bike racks.

  • Anne A

    A business owner I know had a frustrating situation with this in the last few days. They really try to clear the sidewalks as well as possible and leave clear space for people coming by any method of transportation. They have an average width sidewalk but no grass, so there isn’t really a good place to put the snow if they try to clear the full width of the sidewalk. The street hadn’t been cleared yet, and they put some of the snow in the street, but got yelled by a city employee for doing it. They had the honest question – okay, so where are we supposed to put this? Of course the city employee didn’t have a good answer for them.

  • Cameron

    I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work in Chicago. In Milwaukee property owners pile snow up in parking spaces and once all travel lanes are clear teams of dump trucks and skidstears work their way around the city hauling the parking space piles to the snow dump.

  • Cameron

    Yesterday the only snow downtown was in protected bike lanes.

  • rduke

    Any bike lane installation that didn’t come with guaranteed and funded maintenance and clearing is not a bike lane. We will never ever get the 8 to 80 crowd if the bike lanes are a pathetic, dangeorus afterthought.

    Imagine building a highway and just flat out refusing to clear the snow off of it.

  • Clicky Freewheel

    Bike lanes cleared the next day? That’s great to hear. Here in Portland OR, our bike streets don’t get cleared of snow or ice for weeks, if at all. The city lays gravel down instead of salt to help cars with gripping the road. This gravel creates slipping hazards for cyclists for months after the snow or ice melts until the city gets around to vacuuming it back up.

  • Mcass777

    I’ve said this yearly, these best bike lanes are those with no protection. The plows can clear curb to curb and the salts gets mixed to the sides by traffic. The worst lanes are the separated lanes with PBL’s next. It’s dangerous and I agree with rduke below.

  • Mcass777

    Minneapolis too.

  • Jeremy

    I have seen the workers at New City dumping snow in the bike lane in past winters. That is their SOP.

  • Kaveh

    Makes sense in theory, doesn’t happen in practice. None of the unprotected lanes was cleared today. Halsted and Clark were solid, bumpy ice-pack this afternoon. I think the plow is one lane wide, and its having access to the unprotected lanes doesn’t help because it’s not doubling back or even bothering to scatter salt. A lot of the lanes especially downtown would have been fine if they could have just salted them, they didn’t bother with that either.

  • planetshwoop

    That would have been 1,869 trips yesterday if Divvy had worked for me.

    I had been using the transit app. Nothing worked. I had to take a cab and was peeved.

  • Random_Jerk

    I had a yearly confrontation with maintenance people over at Kinzie by Merchandise Mart. They always push the snow over the bike lane and since they are a**holes about it I always call 311. I was told the building owners supposed to be cited for doing that.

  • Anne A

    This morning the Dearborn bike lane was looking a lot cleaner in the Loop. Then I noticed a guy with a shovel scraping ice from the edge of the Federal Plaza into the lane. I called him on it. He said “but I’m not putting it in the lane.” “Yes you are.” “But it’s not IN the lane.” “It sure is.”

    As I walked away and waited at the light at Adams, I saw him step into the lane and push it up against the curb. Shame worked a little bit anyway.

  • rohmen

    Yeah. That’s how I remember Wisconsin growing up as well. Chicago can maybe get away with loading snow into the street furniture zone (since it’ll likely melt, but it’s still not really an ideal place), but if Wisconsin and other major snow zones did that where snow sticks around for months on end, you’d end up with walls of ice that effectively mean people can’t access the sidewalk outside of crosswalks.

    That’s a big issue for people that are disabled and can’t walk down to an intersection to gain access (it is even in Chicago I imagine), or would have to walk in a busy road to do so.

  • rohmen

    That’s my concern. People with disabilities need to gain access to the sidewalk without having to walk down to a crosswalk access point. Just piling snow in a street furniture area causes issues in a lot of spots, including plaza areas that many people complain about (which in turn is why a lot of people push it into the street. I think it’s a much more complicated issue than people give business owners credit for.

  • Michael Babcock

    File a 311 request. I did it yesterday about the uncleared sidewalk on the north side of Upper Wacker East of Michigan and the city responded/cleaned it within a few hours.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Create occasional paths through the berm of snow to the street, analogous to the concrete “courtesy walks” that exist on streets with grassy medians.

  • Greg

    Fleet of electric bike-plows?

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