Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chicago’s “Streets for Cycling” Bicycle Plan Is Not Streets For Families (Yet)

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has been working hard for months on a new bicycle network system for the city named Streets for Cycling. There were public meetings we listed here. One of us has been working on the project, but the other of us — me —  hasn’t. After months of wondering what was being cooked up, I finally saw the public unveiling of the draft network plan last week. The short summary: despite a lot of good talk and useful extension of existing commuter lanes into the South and West, this draft version is unfortunately not a network that families can use much. It must be improved. With YOUR family's input. 

The CDOT Streets for Cycling Meeting
Many more photos of specific network maps and a general review at OneLessMinivan
An “8 to 80 network” was the main stated goal— a grid of cycling lanes so obviously safe that everyone from 8 to 80 years old feels comfortable on them — while increasing bicycling share to 5% of trips under 5 miles. Both these goals call for a safe network because only about 8% of the population now feels safe enough to use the current system according to CDOT's data. Unfortunately, the draft CDOT unveiled last week won’t achieve these goals. Here’s why:

If The Network Doesn’t Feel Safe New Cyclists Won't Come.
When evaluating a new bike lane, put yourself in the position of a parent about to take 3 kids down it, or an aging or less-than-fit person about to go shopping on it. A strong 25 year old with a fast bike and nothing to carry can happily ride anywhere. This is how I'm looking at the draft network plan. As designed so far, it won’t feel safe for everyone, because the kinds of lanes they chose aren't designed to be safe for everyone:

Protected Lanes:  The Safest Solution But Only 1/6 Of The Network
Protected Lanes elsewhere fully separate car and bike traffic, so cars can’t hit you even if they try. These lanes feel safe because they are safe. They use concrete barriers, overpasses, signals for different types of vehicle, and bike paths through spaces such as parks (like Chicago’s Lakefront Path). They keep children, parents and grandparents safe on their rides to school, playdates, work or shopping, and keep late night cyclists from weaving into car traffic. Because these main bikeways in places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam are safe, people there ride bikes often. They feel safe. In cities with less protection, there are fewer riders.

New York has put in some good lanes though it's not like Amsterdam:

Broadway NYC protected lane. Parked cars, lots of space
3rd Ave NYC protected lane. Concrete, cars.

Here in Chicago, CDOT will build some Protected Lanes with parked cars or tree planters between car lanes and bikes (or might they consider steel, concrete, or stone bollards, or Jersey barriers?). I’m looking forward to riding on these. But CDOT also calls lanes “protected” that are just divided from traffic by plastic posts, which (as on Kinzie or 18th St) are easily destroyed or removed by CDOT. Unfortunately, Streets for Cycling includes a lot more of these lanes. And they don't plan to fully protect the main routes, even with plastic. New riders won’t feel safe and they’ll stay away. The new Protected Lanes need to offer real permanent protection, with separation by concrete, steel, parked cars, or trees.  

They took out most of the plastic sticks in May.
Will concrete barriers be coming?
The Kinzie lane had lots of posts when it went in.
Protected by parked cars, this is OK.

Buffered Lanes: they sound better than they are
These are on-street bike paths like the existing ones in Chicago, but with a wider painted “buffer:” a double white line, a foot or two wide, with stripes inside. What’s keeping the driving, texting teenager away from the woman biking her grandson to the park? Only paint. Paint wears off and you can’t see it under snow. It’s not enough.  
If CDOT can put the same painted lines between parked cars and the curb, though, the lane can become truly protected. I don't buy CDOT's argument that there isn't room. If there's no room they should use a different street.

from the CDOT site. Would your friends who are afraid to ride take their 8 year old on this? 

Painted Bike Lanes: They Don't Keep Families Safe
There are many of these already in Chicago, the ones with a single white line. This class of lanes also apparently includes “sharrows”, regular car streets with occasional bike symbols painted on them. CDOT is planning hundreds of miles of these because it makes the network look big cheaply and achieves their goal to get a lane within 1/2 mile of everywhere. 
But seriously, would you like to take your 8 year old on a “Bike Lane” like this? It’s a lot like taking her out on a regular street without a “Bike Lane.” How will that increase ridership? Save the paint, CDOT, and build me another mile of real protected lane with a solid barrier. 

In Summary, The Plan Lacks The Needed Safety
The planned bike lanes, except for solidly protected ones, are not safe enough to convince new riders to start taking bikes. It is clear that the stated goals, accessibility for every rider from 8 to 80, and increasing to 5% of trips under 5 miles, are not even offhandedly addressed with the current draft of the Streets for Cycling plan. 

Other Quibbles
Though the network does extend commuting routes into new areas, which is great, again it favors young healthy fearless riders by using simple unprotected lanes like the current ones. CDOT spent a great deal of time at the meeting discussing branding to make this more appealing. “Bicycle Superhighways”?  “Four Star Routes”?  “Spoke Routes”? — they will have banners and decorated posts, but not much protection.  This branding isn’t a good use of resources. If the lanes are safe, well-designed travel spaces, they won’t need catchy names; they’ll just get used by everyone all the time. The ones that feel safe to a grandparent going shopping or a mom with three kids headed to the park will be a success; the others will be a waste of funds and public goodwill, with or without banners.

A lot of people have put a lot into this plan...
It’s inspiring that public input has identified the streets that people want in the network. Many people have put time, energy and money into bringing the draft network as far as they have. There is a lot of input there, but maybe not enough from families yet to make something that will bring parents and kids out to use bikes as transportation for those trips 5 miles and under that CDOT is aiming for. 

It’s disappointing that the most important riders for building bicycle usage — women who are afraid to ride now — have to be heard more. The design looks like it was made by people who haven't regularly transported kids, or ridden with aging parents, or run errands on a properly designed bike network — though the engineers are doing good work translating people's input into infrastructure, they still haven't heard about these things enough to build us a network we can all use. 

As a result, the draft doesn’t meet its own goals. The Streets for Cycling plan was intended to get everyone — not just enthusiasts — out on bikes, but it simply won’t unless we change it fast.

So what can I do about it?
Bring your friends to the upcoming meetings, write to CDOT on their website, talk to your alderman and talk to other people you know, bicyclists or not. The non-bicyclists might be more important to the success of this project than the cyclists. The network must be made safe enough for everyone to want to use it. Make CDOT fix this now.

Upcoming CDOT meetings to review Streets for Cycling 2020 Draft Network plans:
(maps from the CDOT site at this link: )

Gary Comer Youth Center - Exhibition Hall, 3rd floor
7200 S. Ingleside Ave.
Thursday, May 31st, 2012
4 – 8 p.m., presentation with Q&A at 4:30 & 6:30p.m.

Douglas Park Cultural and Community Center - Ballroom
1401 S. Sacramento Dr.
Wednesday, June 6th, 2012
4 – 8 p.m., presentation with Q&A at 4:30 & 6:30p.m.

Open House
77 S. Dearborn – Building Lobby
Saturday, June 9th, 2012
10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Webinar #1
June 11th
12 – 1 p.m.
Reserve your Webinar seat now at:

Webinar #2
June 13th
6 – 7 p.m.
Reserve your Webinar seat now at:


  1. You seem to have discounted the local bikeways (i.e., neighborhood greenways or bike boulevards) as an acceptable bicycle facility type for slower riders.

  2. Neighborhood greenways / bike boulevards were mentioned only in passing at the CDOT meeting, while they were describing the 320 miles of neighborhood bike routes in general. It seemed that very few miles of neighborhood greenway are planned in comparison with sharrows, etc. I would be very happy to see bike boulevards, neighborhood greenways, 30 km zones, play streets, or other forms of traffic reduced bicycle spaces ,but CDOT really didn't emphasize them. Ask them about them!

  3. Let me add, page 21 of the PDF of the plan is the only mention of greenways, and the image shows sharrows. The child hit this week on Hirsch was on a similar low traffic street, though perhaps a school bus wouldn't have taken it if it were traffic calmed.
    Routes for children to take to school using this type of traffic calming seem to be concentrated almost exclusively in the north of the city, which seems inequitable to me as well.
    I agree with your comment, that neighborhood greenways should be considered more, but I think the most benefit comes from a main network of protected spaces that people feel confident enough to put their children on.

  4. According to the network map (, half the miles shown in the plan (320 miles total) are neighborhood bike routes. I assume most of these will be neighborhood greenways, but who knows? Regardless, low volume streets are family friendly, but obviously not 100% fool proof (as shown by your crash on Hirsch). The geographic distribution looks equitable to me, especially when considering population density and existing ridership.

  5. Well, that they will be mostly neighborhood greenways is quite an assumption to make, considering CDOT's relative silence on the matter. They claim to "prefer" them, but the image they use is an intersection with sharrows and pedestrian islands, so it's unclear how they are defining neighborhood greenway/bike boulevard. There were no images of big serpentine bumpouts for cars to negotiate as cycle lanes move directly past, for example. A truly traffic calmed area to ride would be great, but this requires a greater commitment to inconveniencing automotive road users than I have perceived so far. If neighborhood greenways/bike boulevards in the full sense of the term are planned, and people too scared to ride their bikes today will want to take their kids on them, CDOT has my full support. Especially if the routes are too inconvenient for the bus drivers as on Hirsch to choose them, too.

    The geographic distribution considering population density is not equitable even using CDOT data - the heat map they used showed a hot spot in or near West Lawn/Brighton Park/Gage Park/Chicago Lawn and this is even more supported by a population density map of children in Chicago (which is arguably an even more important measure) visible at
    but these Southside high density population areas are among the least-served in the Streets for Cycling plan. In fact, one of the few blank areas NOT served by lanes within a 1/2 mile appeared to be in the middle of this high population density area. Unless I'm reading something wrong, the data does not appear to support the argument.

    Considering existing ridership gets us into a chicken-or-egg argument that I think is not relevant. There is existing ridership in areasthat are now more conducive to comfortable bicycling. For example, cyclists in the high ridership north may be traveling to the only protected cycletrack in the city, the Lakefront Trail, and commuting to the loop. If Archer Ave were as desirable a route as the LFT wouldn't you see more riders in Little Village? Make the network serve an area well and they will come, I think.

    Thank you for your really thought provoking comments; there is a lot to be gained now from having this discussion. It would be exciting to see your thoughts about the plan- Is there a particular strong or weak point you think is worth mentioning?

    I hope you will also use the opportunity to discuss these issues at an upcoming meeting, and perhaps bring some friends who don't bike or a Dutch friend with you. The next one is Thursday night at the Gary Comer Youth Center at 7200 S Ingleside Ave.

  6. "If the lanes are safe, well-designed travel spaces, they won’t need catchy names; they’ll just get used by everyone all the time. The ones that feel safe to a grandparent going shopping or a mom with three kids headed to the park will be a success; the others will be a waste of funds and public goodwill, with or without banners." absolutely!

    I avoid taking anything but side streets when I'm biking with my kids in our cargo bike. This makes a lot of trips very difficult. I hate riding on Milwaukee---currently a very heavily-bike-use street with bike lanes and sharrows. I ride on it by myself because I can be nimble enough to avoid being doored etc on a street with heavy, fast moving car traffic, but I almost never ride on it with my kids. Even sticking to neighborhood side streets though, at least every couple days someone roars past me at way over the speed limit, irritated that a bike has invaded their path of travel because I'm picking my way around potholes when they zoom up behind me. Even within the boulevard lanes around Logan Square drivers will blow past bikes with inches to spare. Anyone who thinks this is "family friendly" doesn't have a family they are riding a bike with...

    Going to try to make at least one of these meetings!

  7. Great - show up and bring some friends if you can, and make sure the designers from CDOT understand your concerns. The more input they get the more they will be able to design a system Chicagoans will be able to really use. If you can't make it to a meeting you can write them a note at .


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