Come on, Chicago – let’s build some real bike lanes

November 14, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I read several blogs that have to do with transportation news and ideas. One of the best sources for all things transportation and biking in Chicago is Grid Chicago, which featured a post today about the new buffered bike lane on Clark Street. When asked why the bike lane is only a buffered lane and not protected by parked cars on both sides, CDOT responded that the roadway is only 51′ wide, and roadways need to be 52′ wide to accomodate a completely protected bike lane.

So 1 foot is exactly what makes the difference between having a safer, more complete street safe for people on bikes. Since Clark St is a busy artery through some of Chicago’s most popular and dense neighborhoods (and I’ve made this point before), it makes no sense why the street shouldn’t be made all that it can be.

In the response to the Grid Chicago post, CDOT also cited the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide (link to page about one-way protected cycle tracks) as a guide for the buffered bike lane on Clark St. If there’s one thing we can learn from the oceans of empty suburban parking lots, its that guides are guides, not law – they need to be adapted to suit the environment. If that means shaving off 1 foot (6 inches per side) from the buffer zone or the bike lane to accomodate the 51′ roadway with standards for 52′ roadways, then let it be!

While there are some small parking lots and entrances to parking garages along this stretch of Clark St, that doesn’t mean nothing can be done to make the street safer for everyone. The argument CDOT looks to be making is that if it can’t be done without hurting drivers, it won’t be done, which seems terribly out of step with the city’s goal of being more bike-friendly by 2015.

Clark St near Wellington Ave. There’s plenty of room for parked cars, but there are in fact no parked cars. Credit: Google Maps.

Clark St near Diversey Pkwy, just a few blocks south of the photo above. Credit: Google Maps.

I can’t imagine that area merchants would cry foul at the removal of some parking on the street, after all, many of the larger retailers (the shopping mall pictured above, on the left side), Trader Joe’s, Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and TJ Maxx all have their own parking garages, and the other businesses can’t possibly subsist on the customers solely coming by car. Even so, someone would cry foul about removing some parking to accomodate a more livable street, which reminds me of this article I saw today in Bikeyface:

Credit: Bikeyface.

The parking on the street is very low-cost, and the parking on many side streets is free of charge to anyone. Drivers get a low-cost or no-cost parking as a subsidy paid for by everyone, but people on bikes get hardly more than a few strips of paint because the roadway is “too narrow”? This is not what cities should be encouraging when it comes to transportation.

The whole neighborhood around this area is full of people walking and biking. Why not make its streets safer for everyone? We can’t pretend that implementing bike lanes, even if they’re “protected” by a few feet of paint, means that we’re making a “bike-friendly” community.

Which one feels safer? The lane at the top, still adjacent to moving traffic, or the lane at the bottom, protected by stationary vehicles. Credit: NACTO.

Key in making biking safer and more attractive is successful infrastructure that suits the environment. Just because Clark St has some parking lots, valets, and driveways doesn’t mean that safer bike lanes are a lost cause. Come on, Chicago – let’s build some truly bike-friendly streets.