How could we use new bike-ped bridges to improve safety and connectivity?

Bike bridge at Carmen and Spaulding over the North Branch of the Chicago River, possibly a good model for mass producing simple, cheap spans elsewhere. Photo: John Greenfield
Bike bridge at Carmen and Spaulding over the North Branch of the Chicago River, possibly a good model for mass producing simple, cheap spans elsewhere. Photo: John Greenfield

Expressways, railroad tracks, and waterways are among the major physical barriers to Chicago having a convenient and intuitive network of low-stress bike routes, despite the fact that our city is blessed with an otherwise relentless street grid, offering multiple options for getting from Point A to Point B.

In recent years the city has opened a number of notable bike-pedestrian bridges. There are now massive, architecturally interesting spans at 35th Street and 41st Street over Lake Shore Drive and parallel commuter rail tracks. A third shoreline project will replace the existing, run-down, non-ADA-compliant bridge at 43rd Street.

The 35th Street Bridge over Lake Shore Drive. Photo: John Greenfield
The 35th Street Bridge over Lake Shore Drive. Photo: John Greenfield

The Riverview Bridge, aka the Hot Doug, is a memorable new piece of infrastructure that forms a key link in the nearly completed 312 RiverRun trail system between Belmont and Montrose avenues. And last year’s opening of the Lincoln Village Pedestrian Bicycle Bridge, aka the Stone Free Bridge, 15 years after the late 50th Ward alderman Bernie Stone originally vetoed its construction, was a vindication for the local cycling community.

The Riverview Bridge. Photo: John Greenfield
The Riverview Bridge. Photo: John Greenfield

One part of town that springs to mind as needing improvements to existing bridges, and the construction of new ones, to make walking and biking safer and improve connectivity is the Southwest Side along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. (Also, any remaining bridges across that would otherwise be fairly bikeable but still have slippery-when-wet open-grate decks, should get bike-friendly decking.)

For the entire roughly five-mile stretch of the Sanitary and Ship Canal between California Avenue and the city limits, all of the bridges – at Kedzie, Pulaski, Cicero, Central, and Harlem – are at least four lanes, generally with high speeds and heavy truck traffic, and no bike accommodations. If you have to ride on these, you may be better off taking the sidewalks, which see relatively few pedestrians. This lack of bike-friendly bridges, or in some cases, any bridges at all (there’s a two-mile gap between Central and Harlem), are major mobility barriers.

Converting some of the travel lanes on these massive spans to protected bike lanes would be a big help. And ideally new dedicated bike-pedestrian bridges would be built to fill in some of the gaps in the street network. Here are a few possible locations.

Potential locations for bike-ped bridges on the Southwest Side. Image: John Greenfield via Google Maps
Potential locations for new bike-ped bridges on the Southwest Side. Click to enlarge. Image: John Greenfield via Google Maps

But even assuming there aren’t any impassible private properties that would interfere with the plans, these bridges would have to be long, tall, and/or moveable structures to get over the Stevenson Expressway, freight tracks, and the canal, a commercial shipping route. They’d probably be at least as expensive at the 35th Street Bridge over Lake Shore Drive, which was the cheaper of the two new LSD spans at $26 million. So we probably shouldn’t hold our breath on such bridges getting build anytime soon, but they’re longterm goals worth lobbying for.

In contrast, on Sunday when I was cycling from Uptown to the North Branch Trail I had a bridge idea that, while addressing a less urgent need, involves relatively low-hanging fruit. I was passing by the stretch of the North Branch of the Chicago River that forms the boundary of the Albany Park and North Park community areas. On a roughly one-mile stretch between the North Shore Channel and Hamlin Avenue there are five, count ’em, five car-free bridges.

It occurred to me that it would be cool if Chicago came up with a prefab bike-ped bridge design that could be installed relatively quickly and cheaply at every half mile or so along the river and other waterways, between the main vehicular bridges, wherever possible. Even in more bike-friendly parts of town, many of the existing vehicular bridges, and the main streets they serve, aren’t great for bicycling, and there are lots of good low-stress bike routes on side streets that get interrupted by waterways.

For example, adding a bridge over the river at Berteau Street (4200 North) plus a new path segment across Horner Park (or, else having cyclists use the existing park paths) would connect the Berteau Greenway to the east with bike-friendly Berteau (westbound) and Cullom (eastbound) west of the park, as well as helping people cycle and walk to the green space and the 312 RiverRun without using busy Montrose Avenue and Irving Park Road.

What routes serving Horner Park would look like after an under-construction underbridge below Irving Park Road is completed, and if an east-west river bridge and trail segment were built at Berteau Street. Image: John Greenfield via Google Maps
What routes serving Horner Park would look like after an under-construction underbridge below Irving Park Road is completed, and if an east-west river bridge and trail segment were built at Berteau Street. Image: John Greenfield via Google Maps

This idea would only work on stretches of waterways that aren’t used for commercial boat traffic, so that basically means the river north of Fullerton or so and the North Shore Channel, plus Bubbly Creek in Bridgeport. The Stone Free Bridge, the simplest and least ornate of the new spans I mentioned above, cost $3.4 million, and that price could probably be brought down further by streamlining the design and mass-producing it.

Here’s an interactive map of some potential locations for new bridges and trail segments to connect side street routes and improve access to existing trails. I haven’t looked into whether private property and industrial land uses might be dealbreakers at some of these spots.

There was a fair amount of enthusiasm for this idea when I floated it on Twitter. Granted, not everybody was a fan.

So what do you think – would installing bike-ped bridges every half mile or so on suitable waterways to connect side-street routes be a good idea? And, if so, does the above map miss any good spots for new spans?

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