Let’s build better residential streets

December 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Too many of Chicago’s residential streets are wide, one-way thoroughfares that are unsuitable for our neighborhoods. 14-foot streets are only designed to handle one car in one direction at a time give way for fast-moving traffic on quiet streets.

Hermitage Avenue looking south from Wilson Avenue, Chicago. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Hermitage Avenue looking south from Wilson Avenue, Chicago. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Hermitage Ave, pictured above, is really wide – and also a one-way street. There are no speed bumps along this two-block stretch from Wilson Ave to Montrose Ave, meaning many (but not all) drivers take the nearly-18 foot lane at a high speed, barely stopping at stop signs.

Something that bothers me is “sharrows” or even painted bike lanes on major streets. I do not always feel safe riding a bike on busy streets like Clark, Montrose, or even Damen. I definitely do not feel safe on streets like Irving Park (no bike lane), Lawrence, or Lincoln (with some bike lanes). Often, though, this is where the powers that be decides bike lanes (or worse – “shared lanes“) are best placed. Residential streets just a block or two away from major streets are often quieter and safer, but dead-end or are plagued with stop signs. Vehicles have major streets for fast travel through the City, but they’re often only fast and safe for vehicles. There are few thoroughfares that cross so many neighborhoods that are safe for people on bicycles.

I wrote a while ago about “complete residential streets,” which I think are a good way to get more people using a bicycle as a form of transportation. It’s hard to get busier streets narrowed or to move the parking away from the curb in order to create protected lanes. Even when it’s done, drivers still block the lane, water collects (and could freeze in winter), or there’s just too many conflict points at large intersections. It still makes people nervous.

So why not take some of the residential streets adjacent to these major streets and make them into priority biking streets? It won’t work everywhere – many of these streets don’t run for more than a few blocks – but it would work in many places and could create an excellent network of streets that are very safe for biking and are still close to everywhere people need to go. Traffic calming measures would be implemented to slow down traffic and make it easier for bike traffic to flow through, much in the same way that streets like Broadway speed up automobile traffic and make traveling easy. What’s more, according to research at UC-San Diego, people riding bikes on busy streets may be inhaling a lot of unhealthy pollutants — and biking just a block away from a major street could reduce the health risk of busy streets. This is where retrofitting our residential streets would create several benefits.

Better Residential StreetsThe only major modification is moving the curb (in this case, on the right side) in by two feet to accommodate the bike lane. On streets that are wide enough, this may not even be necessary to maintain a 10′ driving lane. This was to ensure that parking could be maintained on both sides of the street and the roadway would still be wide enough for emergency vehicles. In the event that the curb could not be cut (because of utilities or trees, for example), the bike lane could be elevated to the same height as the sidewalk instead.

When possible, traffic circles at intersections of two residential streets would ensure that traffic moves cautiously through the intersection. Raised sidewalks and curb bump-outs would elevate pedestrians. At intersections of a residential street and a secondary street (like Wilson Ave), four-way stops with a raised intersection would ensure that cars slow down before continuing. And at intersections of a residential street and major street (like Irving Park), a traffic signal would feature a bike signal – giving people on bikes their own chance to go. During periods of rain or snow, pedestrians and people on bikes could get slightly higher priority at these lights (extending a green using pavement sensors, for example).

Building a world-class bicycle network should include features that make users feel comfortable. Creating more equitable streets is the most important goal. In order to get more people using bicycles as transportation, the environment has to be comfortable and safe. It’s politically difficult to make our major streets more equitable (make no mistake, opposition about lost parking spaces would surface on residential streets, too), so why not start with residential streets that are already low-traffic and shouldn’t have automobile traffic moving more than a few blocks in the first place?