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Protected Bike Lanes

Contrary to neighbor’s concerns, Chicago Fire Department says they haven’t heard of any problems with new Dearborn protected bike lane

The bikeway does make Dearborn safer for all road users, which means there will be fewer crashes for first responders to respond to in the first place.

Biking by Chicago Fire Department Engine 42, 55 W. Illinois Street, in the Dearborn Street protected bike lane today. Photo shot looking south. Image: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by Ride Illinois.

As I've written before, 2023 was a banner year for the Chicago Department of Transportation installing protected bike lanes. These facilities, especially if they include concrete protection, shield bicycle and scooter riders from negligent, reckless, and intoxicated drivers. They also shorten pedestrian crossing distances, and calm motorized traffic, making conditions safer for all road users.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the extension of the popular Dearborn Street protected lane north from Kinzie Street across the Near North Side. It provides a much-needed lower-stress way to head north from the Loop. A southbound protected route on Clark Street, one block west, is also in the works.

The new northbound Dearborn protected lane on the Near North Side, and the future southbound Clark PBL. Image: Google Maps

The new bikeway takes you 0.7 miles from Kinzie to Walton Street, where you can head west to meet up with Clark, which is two-way north of Walton, to continue into Lincoln Park. Just about every intersection on this stretch has sidewalk extensions or floating pedestrian islands, which make it much safer and easier to walk across Dearborn.

Recently CDOT installed split-phase signals on Dearborn at Ontario Street and Chicago Avenue that give people on bikes a green to ride forward while left-turning drivers have a red turn arrow. That said, it's common for turning motorists to disobey their arrow, so bike riders must keep their eyes peeled for them, even though this driver behavior is illegal and dangerous.

A bike rider waits for their green at Chicago Avenue, looking north. Photo: John Greenfield

The Dearborn PBL recently got a little better when CDOT extended the curb protection two blocks north of Chicago Avenue, by the historic YMCA building, to Washington Square Park, a block south of Walton. This involved moving the existing bike lane next to the curb, adding concrete protection/pedestrian islands at the intersections, and relocating the previously curbside car parking lane to the right of the bikeway. This required converting one of the two mixed-traffic lanes, so Dearborn north of Chicago Avenue is now a one-lane, northbound-only street for drivers.

Riding north on the first block of Dearborn north of Chicago Avenue, where there's a pedestrian island that doubles as bikeway protection. Photo: John Greenfield

Tragically, pedestrian safety improvements were way overdue on this section of Dearborn. In May 2019, Lynda Havlin, 68, was walking her dog in a crosswalk at Delaware Place and Dearborn, by Washington Square Park, when a driver reportedly sped backwards and killed her. The motorist received two traffic tickets. Read more about the case and Havlin's life here.

Lynda Havlin.

But not everyone is happy about the changes. We did hear from a neighbor worried that converting Dearborn, a relatively quiet, mostly residential street north of Chicago Avenue, from two northbound mixed-traffic lanes to one will cause problems for first responders. He argued the street redesign makes it tough for other drivers to pull over to the right to make way for firefighters, EMTs, and police officers.

The neighbor was particularly concerned about the intersection of westbound-only Chestnut Street and Dearborn, one block north of Chicago Avenue. There's a single northbound mixed-traffic lane through the intersection.

Chestnut and Dearborn this afternoon, looking north. Photo: John Greenfield

"In the event of a fire truck or police car, if there are a few cars at the light at Chestnut and Dearborn, there is no way around and drivers would be forced to go through the intersection to turn left or run the light," the neighbor wrote. "And hope there is room on the west side of the street about ten yards beyond the light." 

Another view of Chestnut/Dearborn today. Photo: John Greenfield

Again, this layout is not that different than any other one-way, one-mixed-traffic-lane street with car parking on one or both sides. No one complains that those street layouts block first responders. But I went ahead and asked CDOT what consideration they had given to this issue when designing the new Dearborn bikeway.

"CDOT always considers how changes in street design might affect traffic, including access for emergency vehicles and other essential services like garbage collection, snow removal, and street sweeping," said spokesperson Erica Schroeder. "In recent years, Chicago has significantly increased the number of curb-protected bike lanes that maintain on-street parking, including on Augusta Boulevard, Belmont Avenue, Kedzie Avenue, and others."

Protected bike lane with car parking on Belmont in Avondale, looking west last September. Photo: John Greenfield

"CDOT is not aware of any problems regarding emergency vehicle access along these routes as a result of the changes in street design," Scheroeder added. "In fact, observations show that the addition of protected bike lanes have resulted in fewer people driving at dangerous speeds, making these corridors safer whether you are walking, biking, or driving."

Indeed, it's common for residents to complain that Chicago's protected bike lanes delay emergency vehicle drivers, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

For example, a report about the new Augusta PBLs in West Town by WGN's Jenna Barnes amplified that complaint. "Some neighbors noted the new design of Augusta Boulevard causes major traffic back-ups because there’s no wiggle room for drivers, and they’ve seen emergency vehicles stuck in traffic with nowhere to go."

Augusta Boulevard in West Town with new protected lanes last November, looking east. Photo: John Greenfield

But Barnes found nothing to back up that claim. "WGN News took their concerns to the Chicago Fire Department, whose spokesmen had not heard of any issues for firefighters," She acknowledged. "Chicago police did not respond to our request for comment."  

Facebook commenters also recently argued that the new protected lanes on Clark Street next to Graceland Cemetery in Lakeview and Uptown would obstruct ambulances. As you can see at 1:15 in this video taken during rush hour, they don't.

The offices of alderpersons Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd), who oversee Dearborn on the Near North Side, did not immediately respond to questions on whether the new street layout seems to be causing any problems. This post will be updated if we get any replies.

A stretch of protected lane on Dearborn south of Delaware, looking north today. Photo: John Greenfield

But we did hear from the Chicago Fire Department that there haven't been any obvious issues with the new Dearborn PBL. "To the best of our knowledge, no problems have been brought to our attention," said spokesperson Larry Merritt. "In general we would ask that people travel as safely as possible and allow for emergency vehicles to get through."

The crosswalk at Delaware/Dearborn next to Washington Square Park, looking north, as it appeared in 2017 before Lynda Havlin was fatally struck, and how it looks today. Sidewalk extensions shortened the crossing distance and prevent parked cars from obstructing drivers' views of pedestrians entering the street. Image: Google Maps, John Greenfield

So there you have it. While some neighbors say the new Dearborn bike lane is causing problems for first responders, actual first responders don't seem to feel it's creating major issues. But the street redesign does make this roadway safer for people traveling by foot, bike, scooter, or car, which means there will be fewer crashes for first responders to respond to in the first place.

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