311 is a joke? No, but some bike lane blockage reports are going unaddressed

Cyclists detour around a construction site in Wicker Park. Photo: John Greenfield
Cyclists detour around a construction site in Wicker Park. Photo: John Greenfield

Earlier this month at the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, it was announced that the city’s 311 app now has an option to report debris or snow in the city’s physically protected bike lanes. Christina Whitehouse of Bike Lane Uprising, a website that documents bike lane obstructions, asked if these new codes had been user tested, given the propensity for 311 users to pick the first option without reading through all of the options. Chicago Department of Transportation program manager Amanda Woodall stated that she wasn’t sure “but I know this is a new code.”

Later in the meeting, Whitehouse said that folks had told her they had submitted complaints to 311 about construction sites blocking bike lanes, debris in bike lanes, and potholes in bike lanes, and were notified that their request had been closed, despite the conditions being the same or worse. According to Whitehouse, when someone reports a construction zone or debris blocking a bike lane as “vehicle in bike lane,” the data from that request is lost. This has major implications for the functionality of 311 and record keeping, she argued.

Woodall described these issues as a “back end” problem that needs to be addressed by the relevant agencies. But she argued that the more people who notify the city about bike lane blockages, the better the city will get at addressing them. “Please don’t stop reporting bike lane issues to 311.”

Acting CDOT commissioner Tom Carney responded that with thousands of people using 311, and city employees learning a new system, there are bound to be mistakes.

To some extent, I feel like that’s an excuse. Given that the city has spent millions of dollars on the 311 system, it should perform better than it currently does. I’m unsure if the issue is really a 311 issue or a CDOT issue. Is the lack of response to bike lane safety issues like snow, debris, dumpsters, etc in the bikeways an issue of budget and/or workforce capacity? Sitting in the MBAC meeting and listening to the response from CDOT employees, I did not get the impression there was any urgency at the city around correcting these issues.

Screenshot of a 311 request about standing water in protected bike lane in the South Loop. Image via Bike LAne Uprising
Screenshot of a 311 request about standing water in protected bike lane in the South Loop. Image via Bike Lane Uprising

If you go to the Bike Lane Uprising website and watch the recording of the MBAC meeting (scroll down on the home page), you can see uploaded screenshot examples of 311 requests that were marked as “completed” but in reality were not. The discussion about issues with 311 begins around 1:19:00 and the screenshots come in around 1:24:00. 

Whitehouse later told me that many folks have reached out to BLU about issues with 311, especially in regards to construction sites blocking bike lanes. She said it sometimes takes CDOT months to respond to such issues, an in some cases the problems have been resolved faster by folks contacting the local alderman. However, the responses from aldermen has been mixed, with some of them more responsive than others.

It’s concerning that issues with bike lanes can linger for months without CDOT getting the memo. The department is apparently failing to notice they’re getting data submissions regarding construction sites via 311, through their Twitter account, and from aldermen. Admittedly Twitter is not an official way to submit complaints, but legitimate issues should not go ignored, especially if they’re receiving alerts from multiple people. 

As it remains to be seen whether or not these issues with 311 will be resolved soon, it seems the best course of action is a belt-and-suspenders approach of submitting a 311 request, informing the aldermen of the area in question, and follow up with the aldermen to see if they’ve reached anyone at CDOT. It’s also a good idea to report the problem on the BLU site.

The long-term fix of a 311 system and a transportation department that works well for all road users may require some heavy advocacy by residents who bike. Let’s hope new CDOT commissioner Gia Biagi, whose appointment was announced last week, will be more responsive to this issue.

Correction 1/13/20: This piece originally stated that Woodall said the new 311 codes had not been user tested; she actually said that she wasn’t sure.

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