Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year on the New Dearborn Bike Lane

We have been ringing in the New Year playing with our exciting new present from CDOT and Mayor Emanuel, the newly opened two-way Dearborn protected bike lane.  Considering the huge heralding the lane received we wanted to take our time and ride the lane a number of times under mixed conditions with the kids, collecting experience with it before writing this post.  If you missed the fanfare, the lane is located right in the central business district of the Loop, two-way between Dearborn Station in Printers Row and across the river to Kinzie St, then it continues in its old form unprotected and northerly-only above that. Dearborn car traffic is one way going north for most of the route.

Two of us happened to be at the opening and it's possible our small guy was the first kid to roll down the lane after his mom high fived the Mayor himself.  It was either touching or irksome to listen to Mayor Emanuel speak at the dedication ceremony about wanting children to have the freedom to ride to school in Chicago. If we are going to hype kids riding to school we need to actually make lanes they can use. So let's cut to the chase. How does this exciting addition to the Loop work for kids and families? Remember, we are not reviewing the lane for strong, experienced, grown-up city riders, as there are plenty of those reviews out already.

Applying our trusty new yardstick for family friendly bike lanes, is the new Dearborn two-way lane...
Protected enough?      
Likely to leave you hanging?      
Connected to useful destinations?

Protected enough?
Safe bike lanes have to be protected enough for an 8 year old to ride them safely.

The Dearborn Lane's somewhat blocked to car traffic, but it's still pretty easy for cars to enter, unfortunately. And to park on, which they do.  It's protected by plastic bollards, not by concrete, or tree planters, or other car-impermeable barriers, and there is no central post at the ends of the blocks to keep drivers out. Look around the Federal Buildings or Daley Plaza to see how this might be done differently.
The more permeable nature of the plastic bollard style lane requires parents to be watchful as they ride the lane with kids on their bike or accompany children on their own bikes.  It 's wise to remind kids that though the barriers give a far far more protected feeling -- especially to children accustomed to city riding -- they need to be watchful as well.

For example, on our ride a couple of days ago, a taxi was waiting in the bike lane for a fare and some other guy had simply left his car there. He came out just after this picture was taken and drove off in the bike lane. The taxi guy moved too after we explained the bike lane concept - he was nice but the lane was confusing him. Will this improve as drivers get more familiar with the lanes? Whether this improves or is just a small permanent wrinkle in using the lane, children need to be aware they need to deploy plenty of caution when pulling around any parked cars to continue on the lane. Other cars possibly moving on or out of the lane cannot see smaller young riders negotiating parked cars.  

Riders can still be 'doored' while riding the new lane. While we were on it last week a woman opened her car door into it  -- it's protected a bit by the buffer strip, but her door would have hit a rider going northbound.  Being mindful of these issues makes for a much safer family ride, especially traveling northbound.

The bike traffic lights are a huge benefit for young riders, pacing them and helping teach traffic rules, especially if all traffic follows the signals. And the bidirectional lane design is great.  It should always be clear on a good lane how to get back, and this one makes it obvious. One of New York's best lanes, on Broadway, has this problem since it's one-way. We have been wondering why every lane is not bidirectional like this new one on Dearborn.

     Summary: Protected-ish.

No infrastructure installed
yet over the Dearborn Bridge.
Likely to leave you hanging?
Safe bike lanes link safely to other good bike routes without spitting young riders or their families out into car traffic when the protected area ends.

The Dearborn Lane isn't completely an island. It does connect a lot of downtown.  We rate it right now as more of an archipelago, though, a series of loosely connected islands, hard to reach for less city experienced family riders.

Though the lane makes a huge part of the Loop itself accessible, we have had to carefully mix sidewalk and off-main-route traveling to get to the actual lane. The other bike lanes that cross Dearborn all along its route are just painted, unprotected lanes in the midst of intense city traffic. We use them sometimes with our kids on our bikes when we have to, but we don't at all recommend them to other family riders or to kids on their own bikes.

At the north end of the new lane riders can't get to or from the existing protected bike lane on Kinzie without riding through nearly 3 blocks of no-bike-lane, sharrows only, downtown traffic. At the south end there isn't much infrastructure waiting for them either.

Importantly, the bridge over the Chicago river is not bollarded or plated at all yet.  (Riding an unplated bridge with children, whether on your bike or their own, is totally unwise. Kathy Schubert probably doesn't do it with Suzy Schnauzer on her bike either.)  We understand the plates are coming, but they don't exist yet. Currently we move right off of the street onto the sidewalk at the intersection of Wacker and Dearborn before crossing at the light moving northbound, continuing on the sidewalk of the bridge.

Our usual routes to the lane have involved the sidewalk from Harrison and UIC to the south section in Printers Row,  a sidewalk mix from the River Walk at Wacker, or the Kinzie lane to the Merchandise Mart, walking the bikes on the sidewalk 3 blocks to Dearborn, then after riding a block or two getting off again and walking over the unplated Dearborn bridge before continuing south riding the lane.

With your children along, you need to figure out a safe way to it and away from it, whether to the museums or just to the small streets toward your neighborhood, and these options are not yet in place.  We will be very excited to update this post in the future as these hoped-for protected networks emerge.

     Summary: Archipelago of loosely linked islands

Christkindlmarkt at Daley Plaza this year
Connecting useful destinations?
Good bike lanes go somewhere useful, connecting destinations that families want to get to.

How can families in the Loop best use this lane? Well, it gives a good north-south corridor through the main part of the Loop, it's only two blocks to the Art Institute, it's close to the quiet streets that lead to South Loop, and it's near Daley Plaza. It goes by Jones College Prep, right by the Chagall wall and the Calder sculpture, and connects the Post Office, Library, bookstores, and some of our favorite cafes, including the Intelligentsia at the Monadnock building. It gives us a second route, much better that our old one, connecting Harrison Street to the center of the city.  Though it does not go near the other attractions in town like the Museum Campus, it misses the Mag Mile, the Lake Front Path, and offers only a fair connection to Union Station, its connections are awesome. 

With a larger number of protected connecting routes it would be even more useful to inexperienced family riders.

     Summary: Jackpot!

If the safety and connection issues develop into cleaner connections the Dearborn lane is close to a veritable feast of good destinations and could become a really usable route for families as the larger network grows in Chicago.

Our rating:
Protected-ish safety level 
Archipelago but not a total island 
rich with great destinations, Jackpot!

We'll be on the new lane a lot. And as more miles are added to the Chicago bike lane network, with improved lanes to link residential neighborhoods, the lake and the museum campus, this new Dearborn lane will become a bigger and bigger asset for family riders.  The increased visibility of family and independent child riders in the heart of Chicago on the Dearborn lane would be a powerful message of how good bike lanes can empower riders and instigate change. We hope that the Dearborn lane heralds the hope of a new beginning.

The challenges of a relatively car permeable protected lane like this one are not hard for our family to overcome, but less experienced family riders, especially those with children on their own bikes, may find their first few rides to and from the lane itself too intimidating to continue trying.  Which bring us back to our usual mantra. The challenge for our city is not funding or political will -- from our perspective, the main hurdle to more families riding in Chicago is lane design.

Our Mayor, or the Commissioner of Transportation, or CDOT's designers seem taken by the plastic bollard style infrastructure. This model leaves lanes too open, though, so cars can infringe on riders. Traffic is the main barrier that prevents kids and non-bike-enthusiast adults from riding happily. If our Mayor is as competitive as he believes he is, he needs to take a ride on a concrete protected lane in New York or Minneapolis and see what else is out there.

Other North American cities are incorporating concrete into their lane designs, which makes riding safer and feel more comfortable. Their ridership is rising more rapidly. We hope the City's designers look again at alternatives to the plastic bollards. Chicago put planters in the middle of the main streets before, so why not now?  We are lucky to have funding and political will -- Mr. Mayor, thank you for this new lane, now bring on the concrete trucks!