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Bikeway added, 20 mph speed limit planned on Damen where cyclist Liza Whitacre was killed

5:39 PM CST on November 19, 2020

The new dashed bike lanes on Damen this afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield

More than a decade after a truck driver ran over Metropolis Coffee barista and trainer Liza Whitacre on her bike on Damen Avenue in West Lakeview, a bikeway treatment has finally been added to the stretch, and a lower speed limit is proposed. These are steps that could help prevent further tragedy, but there's still more the city could do to make it a truly safe street for people on bikes.

Liza Whitacre.
Liza Whitacre.

In October 2009, Whitacre, who was also a student at Loyola University, was cycling with her roommate when she was run over on Damen at Wellington Avenue, next to Hamlin Park. According to a Chicago Tribune report, Whitacre "fell from her bike, landed underneath a truck and was run over" and police said she was attempting to pass between the truck and a CTA bus at the time. The trucker, who said they didn't realize the cyclist was under the vehicle, wasn't cited.

"[Whitacre] rode her bike everywhere," Metropolis owner Tony Dreyfuss told the Tribune, noting that she participated in the Critical Mass ride. Her family members said she was fluent in French, which she was studying at Loyola, and enjoyed knitting, sewing, and cooking.

"Liza Whitacre died yesterday," read an email from Metropolis to customers. "She lived more in 20 years than anyone that I have ever known. Her approach to being was so simple -- love it, whatever it is. That, for Liza, was so many things. Coffee, biking, friendship, school, figure skating... She meant the world to us, and we will never forget her strong and positive impact on each and everyone of us. She radiated, she beamed, she rubbed off that pixie glow on everyone that she came across."

Whitacre's ghost bike. Photo: John Greenfield

A white-painted ghost bike memorial to Whitacre at the crash site is well maintained, with recently-added silk autumn leaves, and a couple of real pumpkins in the handlebar basket. It features a photo collage of images from different times in her life.

This segment of Damen didn't have any bikeway markings at the time of the crash, which remained the case until this month, when the Chicago Department of Transportation striped dashed "advisory bike lanes" on the street between Diversey and Belmont avenues. CDOT has used this kind of bikeway on stretches that are deemed too narrow for solid bike lane, such as Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park and Clark Street in Andersonville.

Dashed bike lane on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. Photo: John Greenfield
Dashed bike lane on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. Photo: John Greenfield

While motorists are technically allowed to cross the dashed line if necessary, in my experience they tend to stay out of them, so they're a bit of an upgrade from what CDOT used to do on these kinds of roads, bike-and-chevron "shared lane markings" with no bike lane at all. That's what currently exists on Damen north of Belmont.

Damen north of Belmont has faded shared lane markings but no bike lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

In September 2016, just six blocks north of where Whitacre was killed, another young woman was killed on her bike by a truck driver. Anastasia Kondrasheva, 23, was biking north on Damen to her job as a health coach when a 38-year-old man driving a flatbed truck made a right turn onto Addison, fatally striking her.

Ghost bike for Anastasia Kondrasheva at Addison and Damen. Photo: John Greenfield
Ghost bike for Anastasia Kondrasheva at Addison and Damen. Photo: John Greenfield

In an effort to improve safety on the new bikeways on Damen between Diversey and Belmont, CDOT recommended lowering the speed limit from 30 mph to 20, and local alderman Scott Waguespack has proposed an ordinance to do so. "The signs with a lower speed limit alone may not have much influence on speeds, but the hope is that the combination of... bike lanes and the speed limit change will encourage lower traffic speeds," said Waguespack's chief of staff Paul Waguespack. He added that the deaths of Whitacre, Kondrasheva, and other cyclists killed on Damen, a major north-south biking corridor, influenced the decision. CDOT will likely install new speed limit signs in the near future.

The new bike lanes on Damen. Photo: John Greenfield
The new bike lanes on Damen. Photo: John Greenfield

Hopefully these changes will help prevent more heartbreak from bike fatalities on Damen. But if the city really wants to make a difference, it should build bike lanes with physical protection, such as concrete or plastic curbs. This could potentially be done by stripping parking on one side of the street to provide more right-of-way.

While Damen is a direct, intuitive route that sees plenty of cyclists, and therefore should have robust bike infrastructure, due to the heavy motorized traffic I never ride on it north of Diversey. I recommend Wolcott Avenue, one block east; and Leavitt (northbound) and Bell streets (southbound), about two blocks west, as much lower-stress alternatives. Check out the Mellow Chicago Bike Map for route details.

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