A look at WGN’s new report, in which uninformed people claim the Augusta protected lanes are dangerous
What was the point of including interviews with critics of the PBLs who didn't really know what they were talking about?
10:20 PM CST on November 15, 2023
Note: All of the photos of Augusta protected bike lane users (the facility is also legal for users of e-scooters and other micro-mobility devices) in this article were taken during a roughly one-hour period this afternoon before rush hour.
As I've discussed, when it comes to creating a citywide, connected network of safe, low-stress bikeways, in recent years Chicago has fallen behind peer cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, and... [checks notes]... New York City. On the other hand, things have been getting better here lately, and 2023 was a banner year for the Chicago Department of Transportation when it comes to installing concrete curb-protected bike lanes. These can help prevent reckless, intoxicated, and negligent drivers from seriously injuring or killing people on bikes, and encourage more everyday Chicagoans to ride.
Thant's not to say that everyone loves protected bike lanes, like the new Augusta Boulevard PBLs (1000 N.), which debuted in early August and run 1.3-miles across West Town between Western (2400 W.) and Milwaukee avenues. Last week we reported that these lanes are at risk of “changes to the design” due to mostly dubious complaints from car-focused members of the local Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association.
And yesterday WGN9 reporter Jenna Barnes aired grievances about the new August bikeway from seemingly random, poorly informed locals in the report "Residents navigate changes as protected bike lanes expand in Chicago." As such it's an example of the downside of interviewing "people on the street" about issues they don't really understand. The report went live around 10 p.m. last night, by 8 a.m. this morning it was being widely roasted on Twitter by bike advocates.
Here's a good example from Rony Islam, cofounder of the advocacy group Chicago, Bike Grid Now!, pointing out that the lead image for the segment, with interviews from people saying the bikeway is dangerous, shows an illegally parked car.
"It’s way too dangerous," driver Erin Rubio says, as she takes her young kids out of the improperly parked vehicle. "Of course we want bike safety, but... it’s like we sacrificed my kids’ safety getting out of the car now,” she adds.
"Rubio, who [illegally] parks on the street outside her home... [is] now dodging car traffic on one side and bike traffic on the other as she tries to get her small children out of the car," Barnes states. That is, Rubio feels endangered by the completely mundane task of checking for traffic, albeit bike traffic, before crossing the street.
"Others we’ve talked to complain of blind spots," Barnes reports. "The cars parked farther off the curb make it harder to see for drivers turning onto the street."
"You mean like the illegally parked driver interviewed for this?" a bike advocate asked on Twitter.
“You think being a biker [bicycle rider, not motorcyclist] I would be a fan because it was made for biker safety," said another non-expert critic of the Augusta lanes, a guy named George Kohl. “But I think it actually makes it more dangerous."
"WGN News dug into city crash data and found he’s right," Barnes opined. She noted that on Augusta between Western and Milwaukee from August 1 to November 1, the first three months the protected lanes had been in effect, there had been "a nearly 90 percent increase" in crashes compared to those months in 2022. That sounds scary!
However, the reality is less frightening. It turns out the "nearly 90 percent" more collisions during the three-month period in 2023 meant 36 total crashes, instead of 19. That's 17 more collisions, or a little over one additional crash per week from August 1 to November 1.
Even that modest increase would still be no laughing matter if these were all serious crashes. But Barnes indicated that the majority of them were mere car-on-car fender-benders. "Most of the crashes from August 1 to November 1 this year involve side-swipes and parked cars," she said.
Barnes added that, out of the 36 collisions during that period in 2023, one involved a pedestrian, and a different crash involved a person on a bike. Hopefully neither of these two cases where the victim was a vulnerable road user resulted in serious injuries.
But it's not shocking that, despite the bicycle safety improvements, there was a single bike crash during this three-month period. According to the WGN footage and my own observations today during non-peak hours, the bike mode share on Augusta has increased dramatically during that time.
As for the fender-benders, CDOT Complete Streets program manager David Smith politely told Barnes that it doesn't really make sense to "dig in" to protected lane crash data only three months after the project is completed. "We typically wait many months up to a year to really let the changes settle in. There’s always an adjustment period."
Smith told WGN that protected lanes on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square have a similar layout. But in the first full year after installation, traffic crashes dropped by 50 percent, and there were zero pedestrian crashes.
So those stats suggest Augusta will see fewer sideswipe crashes after the learning curve for driving and parking subsides, especially since the speed limit was lowered from 30 mph to 20 as part of the project.
Still, Barnes amplified the neighbors' claims that "they've seen emergency vehicles stuck in traffic with nowhere to go... because there's no wiggle room for drivers." But she acknowledged that the fire department spokesperson said they hadn't actually heard about any of their vehicles getting delayed on Augusta, and the police didn't mention any issues either.
In fairness, in addition to getting useful info from CDOT's Smith, Barnes interviewed a couple of experienced, well-informed sustainable transportation advocates. These were Kyle Lucas, cofounder of Better Streets Chicago, and Stephanie Reid, a biking mom who has often appeared on Streetsblog Chicago. They both strongly supported the new Augusta bikeway. So the news report isn't completely worthless.
But what was the point of WGN including interviews with critics of the protected bike lanes who didn't really know what they were talking about?
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