Plastic fantastic: Nearly completed Milwaukee plastic-curb PBLs are functioning well

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

Update 10/5/20, 10:45 AM: Streetsblog Chicago readers say that Gillman’s Hardware owner Alan Gillman, who blamed the Milwaukee Avenue bike lanes for the loss of a third of his business, is an outspoken Donald Trump supporter who blasts anti-immigration radio programs in his shop in a community where many residents are immigrants or support immigrants’ rights, which may be a factor in the drop in sales. Read more on that subject here.

Last month the half-finished new plastic curb-protected bikes lanes on Milwaukee Avenue between California and Western avenues in Logan Square caused some confusion and chaos. With incomplete pavement markings, and not all of the flexible plastic posts in place to delineate the lanes, drivers weren’t sure where to park, leading to messy scenes like the scene below: Cars parked in both the curbside lane (where cyclists are supposed to ride) and to the left of it (where motorists are supposed to park.)

Parking chaos on Milwaukee last week. Photo: John Greenfield
Parking chaos on Milwaukee last week. Photo: John Greenfield

But as of today the project is largely finished, parking compliance is much better, and people on bikes will be rewarded for their patience with a bikeway where “dooring” by drivers will largely become a thing of the past. Of course, there’s still a learning curve for motorists, and today I did spot one or two motorists on Milwaukee who seemed to be willfully disregarding the rules. But overall, this project is a step in the right direction for giving people cycling on Chicago’s busiest biking street the protection they deserve.

Parking directions, and a COVID-cautious rider. Photo: John Greenfield
Parking directions, and a COVID-cautious rider. Photo: John Greenfield

While part of the northwest-bound bike lane is currently blocked off for a water main project, and two new crosswalks, plus paint-and-post sidewalk bump-outs, are still in the works, 1st Ward alderman Daniel LaSpata and Chicago Department of Transportation officials held a presser on Milwaukee this afternoon to mark the bikeway’s near-completion.

They noted noted that the Milwaukee corridor saw 446 traffic crashes from 2014 to 2018, with half of the injury collisions involving people biking, and two-thirds involving cyclists or pedestrians. “That’s not healthy or sustainable,” LaSpata said, adding that it’s particularly problematic during the pandemic, when Chicago is seeing a biking boom. He said friends of his suffered broken collarbones after getting doored on Milwaukee, and he himself once nearly got crushed between a reckless driver and a parked car on his bike.

LaSpata rides his bike on a non-protected stretch of the corridor. Photo: John Greenfield
LaSpata rides his bike on a non-protected stretch of the corridor. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT also found that half of all drivers on Milwaukee were breaking the 30 mph speed limit, with some motorists going as fast as 60 mph, a terrifying speed for a street with heavy pedestrian and bike traffic.

The new Milwaukee improvements are costing about $340,000 altogether, according to CDOT bike and pedestrian program manager Dave Smith. The department had to purchase the Qwick Kurb plastic curbs and bollards, rather than having the company donate a sample of the product for the pilot. Smith didn’t provide an estimate for how much it would have cost to do the same stretch with concrete curbs, but indicated that it was significantly cheaper and faster, taking “weeks instead of months.”

Milwaukee and California. Photo: John Greenfield
Milwaukee and California. Photo: John Greenfield

About 100 parking spaces were relocated as part of the project, mostly on the west side of Milwaukee. In compliance with the rules of Chicago’s detested parking meter contract, new metered spots were created elsewhere in the ward to compensate the concessionaire.

While stripping much of the parking from one side of a retail street may seem like a bold move, CDOT counts showed that on average a mere 46 percents of the spots on this stretch of Milwaukee, which are almost all metered, are occupied on weekdays. Unsurprisingly, the mostly free parking on adjacent side streets averaged a higher 73 percent occupancy on weekdays, but there was still plenty of available paid parking on those roadways.

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

During the presser, LaSpata said the project involved plenty of community outreach, including knocking on doors to share info about the plan, and meeting with over 30 local business. Outreach started a year and a half ago, with the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce helping to get the word out.

He added that it appears that the project is already bearing fruit, noting that while he was drinking coffee on Milwaukee the other day, he saw a woman who looked comfortable riding a bike with a toddler on the back. “That’s not possible without these protected bike lanes,” he said.

IMG_5313
Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT commissioner Gia Biagi noted that while the project remixed the Milwaukee parking situation, it should pay dividends in terms of retail sales along the corridor. “Bicycling is good for economic development. Cyclists are more likely to stop and shop… We’re confident this project will make this already successful corridor more vibrant.”

Active Transportation Alliance advocacy manager Alex Perez said the advocacy group wants to see more relatively quick-and-easy bikeway projects like this built across the city to improve bike equity on the South and West sides.

ATA's Alex Perez speaks at the press event. Behind him are Jessica Wobbekind, director of the Logan Square Chamber, and Alderman LaSpata (brown jacket.) Photo: John Greenfield
ATA’s Alex Perez speaks at the press event. Behind him are Jessica Wobbekind, director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, and Alderman LaSpata (brown jacket.) Photo: John Greenfield

Not everyone is a fan of the project, however. Business owners from Gillman’s Ace Hardware and a local barber shop showed up to the presser to yell complaints about losing parking in front of their storefronts, as if it’s an unreasonable hardship for customers who drive to have to cross the street from their parking spots. Accessing businesses on the west side of the street from the alley parallel to Milwaukee is another option.

Photo: John Greenfield
Gillman’s Ace Hardware. Photo: John Greenfield

But Biagi told me she’s not worried about political pressure to remove the new bike lanes. “This is the direction that cities are heading, so we need to keep moving forward on these kinds of projects.”

To view the detailed plans for the Milwaukee Avenue curb-protected bike lanes and learn more about the outreach process for the initiative, visit the 1st Ward website.

Follow John Greenfield on Twitter at @greenfieldjohn.

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