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Victory! After years of NIMBY opposition, the Dickens Greenway is finally approved

12:54 AM CDT on June 11, 2021

Eastbound cycling is already common on Dickens, a one-way westbound street. The contraflow bike lane will make it safe and legal. Photo: CDOT

It shouldn't have taken this long to get approval for some street markings and traffic calming features. But the good news is that, after more than two years of relentless Not In My Back Yard-style pushback to the Dickens Avenue Neighborhood Greenway proposal, Lincoln Park alderman Michele Smith has finally signed off on the project.

When the Dickens Greenway was first announced in early 2019, it initially seemed like a fairly uncontroversial proposal. Neighborhood Greenways were fairly common on the North Side by then. The plan – installing  a contraflow bike lane to legalize eastbound cycling, and lowering the speed limit to 20 mph, plus building sidewalk extensions, speed humps, and raised crosswalks – involved minimal inconvenience to drivers (no traffic diverters) and would make walking safer and easier.

The first community meeting on the Dickens Greenway in March 2019. Photo: John Greenfield
The first, contentious, community meeting on the Dickens Greenway in March 2019. Photo: John Greenfield

But surprisingly many neighbors argued that the treatment would make the corridor more dangerous, claiming more people riding bikes on Dickens would endanger pedestrians. They were alarmed at the possibility of more cyclists riding on a multiuse path through Oz Park as part of the route. And some residents even raised the specter of "fixie kids" from less affluent neighborhoods to the west riding though their toney enclave if the Bloomingdale Trail is extended east into Lincoln Park.

The Chicago Department of Transportation tried to reassure them that, while Neighborhood Greenways had increase bike traffic on other streets, they simultaneously reduced crashes. But the NIMBYs took extraordinary measures to stop the initiative, launching an anonymous website against the project, and sending slick political-style mailings warning residents to kill the proposal "before it's too late."

Young attendees at the Dickens Greenway meeting. Photo: Rebecca Resman
Young attendees at the Dickens Greenway meeting in August 2019. Photo: Rebecca Resman

A community meeting on the Dickens Greenway in August 2019 with a strong turnout from greenway supporters, including lots of kids, should have settled the question. But the alderman still hadn't announced a decision by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, slowing down city operations.

That  summer Smith let CDOT pilot a temporary "Slow Street" treatment on Dickens. The department placed barricades and barrels to ban through traffic and encourage drivers to hit the brakes so that people could safely walk and bike in the roadway.

The Dickens Slow Street. Photo: John Greenfield
The Dickens Slow Street in summer 2020. Photo: John Greenfield

On May 18 of this year, Alderman Smith convened yet another community meeting over Zoom, drawing 166 attendees. CDOT staffers gave a presentation, noting that about two-thirds of all feedback received on the greenway plan has been positive. At the hearing Smith, who has generally been semi-supportive of the greenway plan, threw a bone to the anti-bike crowd, saying that “Every one of us has experienced a bad cyclist,” and claiming she'd like to see police crack down on bike riders running stop signs.

Nevertheless, yesterday in her newsletter Smith announced that she is signing off on the greenway project. "Why is this needed?" the alderman wrote. "Over the past twenty years, automobile usage increased dramatically in our ward." She noted that while ward's zip code's population has dropped, it now has 3,500 more cars than at last count. Moreover, in 2018 Lincoln Park was one of the top-ten neighborhoods for street-clogging ride-hail trips. On the bright side, the alderman said, bicycle travel has increased 30 percent in the area in the last decade.

The Dickens Greenway route.
The Dickens Greenway route.

Smith noted that while Armitage Avenue, a block south, has non-protected bike lanes, it's a busy commercial street that's not comfortable for less-confident riders or families with young kids. She added that Dickens is a good candidate for an alternative route because  it has far fewer average daily car trips than any other Lincoln Park east-west street, but it's wide enough for a broad "family-friendly" bike lane.

The alderman dispelled the notion that the Dickens Greenway treatment will lead to neighbors being terrorized by hordes of wild-eyed, hell-bent-for-leather bike riders. "Will this create a high-speed 'bike highway'? Our experience with the [Slow Street] proved this to not be the case." She noted that more pedestrians than cyclists used the Slow Street, and there were roughly half as many people riding bikes on Dickens than Armitage.

Moreover, Smith noted, speed bumps on the street and sharp turns as the route enters Oz Park will force cyclists to slow down. She added, "CDOT conducted 23 hours of observations in Oz Park in fall of 2019... These observations led to the conclusion that Oz is the destination for bike riders for both directions and much less a thoroughfare."

Sharp turns will force cyclists to slow down as they enter Oz Park.
Sharp turns will force cyclists to slow down as they enter Oz Park.

The alderman didn't have a timeline for building the greenway, but promised she'll be providing updated on construction plans.

Well, it was a longtime coming until approval, but hopefully the facility will be built sooner than later. Then we'll be able to ride like the Dickens on Dickens, just not too fast.

Check out CDOT's presentations on the Dickens Greenway here.

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