Protected Bike Lanes Should Be the Default on City Streets

Courtney Cobbs says Chicagoans shouldn't have to jump through hoops to get the city to install more protected bike lanes.
Courtney Cobbs says Chicagoans shouldn't have to jump through hoops to get the city to install more protected bike lanes.

[This piece originally ran as a letter to the Chicago Tribune.]

I moved to Chicago from Little Rock, Arkansas, because I wanted to live in a city that didn’t require a car to get around. Over the past year and a half, I have greatly increased the amount of biking I do in the city. I’ve had some great bike rides that filled me with gratitude for being alive. I have also had some terrifying and rage-inducing moments on Chicago streets. I’ve encountered drivers who cluelessly and sometimes willfully park in bike lanes, large trucks that take over the whole bike lane when they park, and more than a few instances of people trying to seriously injure me or kill me.

When I think about biking somewhere, my first thought is, what’s the safest route? Which route will expose me to the least amount of car fumes? Which route will expose me to the fewest drivers? I don’t recall ever having to ask myself these questions when I drove. Physically protected bike lanes need to be as standard as stop signs and stop lights. Otherwise, how can we call ourselves a Vision Zero (road fatality-free) city? Good infrastructure protects us all. By not having physically protected bike lanes as standard, the city ensures we will continue to have a two-tiered transportation policy that puts cyclists last and motorists first. The planet we all share and public health demand we do more to create safe cycling conditions.

  • LJ

    I know this is an argument that’s been had before, but as a longtime cyclist in Chicago, I’d like to respectfully but completely disagree. I cannot stand protected bike lanes, as they’ve been implemented in this city, for a range of reasons:

    – They put you in the gutter, and the edge of the street routinely has the most potholes and worst paving, especially in winter. Take a look at the bike lane on 55th Street in Hyde Park, especially between Ellis and Cottage Grove, for an example of a truly unrideable surface.

    – You can’t ride around an obstacle when either cars or a barrier are preventing you from doing so.

    – Turning into and out of protected lanes is tricky, and visibility is very poor for both bikes and cars at intersections. This is especially true on streets with buses (which sometimes have to cut across the protected bike lane) and wider streets, when you have to make a left turn.

    – When multiple bicycles ride in protected lanes, it’s harder to pass respectfully because there’s often not enough room to ride around.

    – Given that there is often not a barrier between protected bike lanes and the sidewalk, pedestrians will often step into the lanes without looking, especially downtown.

    – MOST OF ALL: the more protected bike lanes are in use, the more cars feel as though bikes are not a part of the road, and they don’t have to treat us as such. You talk about a two-tiered system, but any system that separates bikes and cars is by definition a much more two-tiered system than one that asks them to share space peacefully. If you spend much time riding on a street like Cicero, you know that drivers over there think bikes are not part of the road, and honk at you just for biking on that street… I fear (based on lots of personal evidence) that the more protected bike lanes become the norm, the more cars will antagonize bikers for biking anywhere else.

    Personally, I’d much rather the city spend its money on (a) consistently paving roads well, especially roads that bikers use often, and (b) painting clear, simple, ample bike lanes on as many streets as possible, even if it reduces the number of car lanes, but not introducing any physical barrier, and doing whatever it can to educate drivers that bicycles are part of *every* road and should be respected.

    I can see a few very special cases where protected bike lanes might make sense, but I’d much rather they remain the exception, not the norm.

    Rogers Park

  • David Henri

    The solution is to design it the way they do in Europe. Extend the raised sidewalk into the street and make the edge of that the protected bike lane. Surface it with something different than the sidewalk so pedestrians know that it’s a bike lane. You have a curb between the bike path and the street. The bike path is sloped toward the street so it drains to the gutter and remains clean. And you’re not trapped in case something is blocking the bike path. It’s a simple design and it works well. They even have this in Washington DC.

  • rohmen

    I hate to say it, but as a cyclist that’s ridden in the pre-protected lane Chicago, and the post-protected lane Chicago, I agree and personally do not feel like protected lanes have made me much safer on the road (often even while riding in them). Luke nails many of the reasons why.

  • Courtney

    Some of these issues you list speak to why we need wider lanes. I follow Modacity on Twitter and seeing the Dutch bike infrastructure, to me, gives me an idea of how I’d like cycling to look in the U.S. Make streets designed for bikes first, buses second, and cars last.

    I totally hear you that protected lanes may train drivers to not look for cyclists. At the same time, plenty of folks are not looking for folks on bike with mere paint on the ground dubbed as “bike lanes.” Paint on the ground will not protect me from a driver swerving/driving into the “lane” but a physical barrier can. If the lanes are too narrow to pass safely, that speaks to the need for a wider lane.

    I have heard that protected bike lanes don’t address issues at intersections, which is where many crashes occur, and I agree.

    I appreciate your respectful disagreement. =) I’ll still continue to advocate for physical barriers and wider lanes.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I don’t have cause to take protected lanes very much, but the sections they have done on Elston seem promising, in no small part because of other efforts to improve some of its nastier intersections.

    I started biking on Elston in 1990 due to a job in Logan Square and have watched it evolve since then, and I’d say that one of the biggest issues I’ve seen is really not so much protected vs. unprotected, but maintained vs. not (or not well) maintained. There’s little worse than when the city installs a bike lane and then just lets it dissolve into the ether. That sends a terrible message to cyclists, and worse, as the striping disappears, drivers start just using the now-iffy bike lane to pass other drivers illegally on the right.

    Intersections have been about 90% of the problem with street riding in my life, though. Cars going straight may occasionally veer too close when you’re mid-block, but it’s the perfect storm of bus stops, vehicles turning without signaling properly, vehicles cutting ahead of each other, etc. that can really put you in a vise as a cyclist.

    I think it’s also worth noting that drivers distracted by smart phones and disconnected from the street due to massive SUVs may be undermining some otherwise excellent bike infrastructure improvements. I’m not sure it’s really fair to compare biking in Chicago pre-Y2K to today for just that reason.

  • LJ

    I really appreciate all of these replies. Courtney: we agree completely that streets should be designed for the smallest actors first, and only then the largest. (I’d say, given all the ways sidewalk and street can blur, pedestrians first, bikes 2a, public transit 2b, private cars last, trucks a special case for another thread…) And more generally, as cyclists, I think we all agree that (a) cycling infrastructure is far from where it could be, and (b) the way drivers act on the roads + current infrastructural intent + current infrastructural realities (maintenance, etc.) creates an unsafe environment often, or at least an unpleasant one. Like many hardened cyclists, I’ve gotten used to what we’ve got, and have figured out how to feel fairly safe amidst it, but still have moments every other day of tension or uncertainty, especially on roads like Sheridan and Cicero. I’m definitely not arguing for doing nothing… :)

    Given that, I feel like Carter’s point is the most important one: there’s consistently a disconnect between rhetoric and reality, and that disconnect has mostly to do with maintenance and upkeep, with thinking about the system as a whole and not just flashy bits of it. My frustration with separated bike lanes has mostly to do with this: I think it’s a convenient thing for politicians to rhetorically latch onto, throw money at, but not have to follow through on long-term. And I think that the cycling community has set up the issue in such a way that there’s no room for argument, or nuance, in the debate around them. I don’t feel like being pro-bike but highly skeptical of separated lanes is a remotely represented position politically, and I think it should be. There’s at least an argument to be made that painting and repainting 20X clear bike lanes is better and more sustainable, for promoting bike culture and respect for bikes, than carving and maintaining X protected lanes. Especially if you care, as many cyclists who don’t/can’t traffic the most obvious paths do, that *every* street is bikeable, not just specific routes.

    Cities have limited money, and as much as I could see myself eventually coming around, maybe, to David’s vision of European-style lanes in Chicago, I can’t imagine the city having the money (or the road geometry, everywhere, or the political will) to do that comprehensively enough in the near future. Chicago’s a big city with bruising weather and a middling tax base… not Amsterdam, whose bike culture has developed for decades to the point it’s at now.

    Ultimately, what I’d like is for the political conversation to be like this one. To be respectful, but allow for multiple points of view, recognize the long-term honestly, and take into account the social effects of changes made (such as how drivers and bikers perceive shared space).

  • Courtney

    While I agree with some of the points made that physically protected lanes are not better, many folks who fall under the “interested (in biking) but concerned)” would be more apt to bike if there were physical barriers. As the lanes grow in popularity, this could build up the political pressure for City Council to widen those lanes, better maintain them, etc etc.

    When I tell folks I bike their main concern is my safety….while also not reflecting on how their own driving patterns make it unsafe for folks who bike…but their concerns say something.

  • Pam

    After several years I decided I would leave my old job which improved my everyday life… I proceeded working on a job through internet, for an enterprise I found out online, for a number of hours regularly, and I bring in a lot more than I actually did on my previous job… Very last payment I obtained was 9 thousand bucks… Brilliant point about this is the fact I have additional time for my family members. Look it over, what it’s all about…

  • Mark

    The protected bike lane on Elston from Milwaukee to Damen has never been cleaned since it was created. The lane is filled with glass, construction debris, car parts, sand and gravel. I will NOT ride in it any longer until it is cleaned up. It is not safe and has caused numerous punctures and cuts to our tires.

    As soon as a saw these lanes being installed I asked” so how will they clean and maintain these”? Well they just don’t.

    I have place a call to the Alderman today hopefully with some results. 773-248-1330. Please feel free to call if you feel the same.