Friday, December 14, 2012

What makes a bike lane good?

After news of a handful of heartbreaking cycling accidents here in Chicago, a little pneumonia (but still plenty of riding), we have been thinking a lot about what is it to be a family rider here in Chicago.  The city now promises huge changes and brings a new rush of lanes and plenty of boasting about how many miles they are building.

Family riders, the older and the not bold have a different need for what makes a bike lane safe and usable than a hypothetical 22-38 year old male strong rider. Attracting this huge segment of bike traveler - people like us - is the constant mantra of the major cycling organizations in the country— including in Chicago. It follows that lanes which comfortably accommodate the largest swath of potential riders are the best long term investment for our city.  Good lanes speak for themselves. They get used without fanfare all over the United States.

In honor of the debut of the Dearborn Lane tomorrow here is our own yardstick from a family rider perspective for measuring the new lanes erupting in Chicago. It just so happens that we really do have riders in the family from 8-80!

Is the new lane...
     Protected enough?
     Likely to leave you hanging?
     Connecting useful destinations?

A protected lane should be so protected from other traffic (and car doors) that your 8 year old nephew can ride it with you and tell you all about Star Wars without making you nervous. In other American cities (except e.g. Washington DC) and in other countries, this usually involves concrete. A concrete wall, car-proof barrier, or at least a curb keeps the teenage texting driver away from your kid, and vice versa. This is much better than a little plastic bat or simple paint as generally used in Chicago. Trees or planters or steel barriers are also strong enough to protect lanes.
Here in Chicago the gold standard protected lane is the Lakefront Path, which is separated by an entire park from traffic along much of its length.
A truly protected lane is also durable enough to last for years without much upkeep. If the bike lane is divided from the other traffic with concrete Jersey highway barriers it'll last a lot longer, be safer and be cheaper than one divided by paint or plastic bats, even without upkeep. You can't see paint under dust and snow or after it's worn away. You can see concrete.
Summary: Lanes get full marks if drivers can't drive into the lane; plastic bats and bollards are, um, protected-ish? Paint is just, well, paint.

Won't leave you hanging?
If Grandma and Junior are headed off to school on the bike lane and it only goes halfway before stopping and spilling them out into car traffic, like (among many examples) Kinzie at Wells, the lane doesn't make riding easier; it increases their chance of scaring them off their bikes. Lanes have to go the whole way somewhere without stranding riders in the middle of nowhere. A lane that is hard to get on and hard to get off is not helpful.
Summary: No good lane is an island.

Connecting useful destinations?
If a lane doesn't go near where normal casual family riders need to ride, it isn't that useful. A lane on Elston is nice but few families can use it to go anywhere efficiently. Why not put car traffic back on Elston and block off half of Milwaukee for bikes instead? Schools and shopping and train stations and so on should all be linked by the bike path network, not just factories and empty lots.
Summary: Simple routes to popular places.

All we wanted for the holidays was a nice bike lane in the Loop. We can't wait to try out Dearborn tomorrow and see what is in the box!


  1. Looking forward to seeing you on Dearborn today!

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  3. Us too! We had a great short ride. More is coming once we both get a chance to get out on the lane this weekend. I especially liked the bike stop lights! We had a great ride and hope this heralds great things. J.

    p.s. if you are testing it out this weekend with kids take care --the bridges are not bollarded/ barricaded nor most importantly plated yet.

  4. It does seem that in order to reach its prolific 100 miles by 5/2015 protected lane goal, the city has fiddled with their definition of what is "protected". I don't know anyone who would argue that paint is protection and a buffer is just as much of a barrier to new riders as a sharrow.

  5. We find that the double painted line lanes are very dangerous for our small people.
    There's a post in this lurking in the drafts but just briefly the guys are not visible from the parked car drivers side mirror sometimes as two of them just reach the top of a window on most cars, (SUVs of course have trouble seeing all of them.) The double lines are basically also totally ignored by cars on the left of the lanes who then push our kids into the door zone.

    Note CDOt's bike program photo of a child with training wheels on this type of lane. We don't advocate using them with children. I am very thankful for all the work the bike program does. But not for that picture.
    ps. Ash we have a commenter on the cargo pike post durious about front box bikes and madsens- looking for advice from experienced users... hint, hint.

  6. Thanks for the great cargo bike comment Ash!


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