What’s still wrong with Dearborn?

March 21, 2014 at 7:00 pm

I have two clips in a short video to share:

These were just two incidents from tonight’s ride home. In the first you see a driver of some government vehicle in a thru lane of Dearborn cutting across to turn left, against the light. Could have really injured someone if there were a person riding a bike at the wrong moment. At least s/he used a signal, right?!

In the second you see several drivers preparing to turn left on the red arrow. I personally would not have tried to swerve around the turning car, but at least whoever was riding stopped to show the driver that there was, in fact, the most basic of traffic control devices that she ignored.

So why does this really matter? Dearborn is apparently the nation’s best protected bike lane! I think what it shows is that, despite having “great” bike infrastructure on a small part of a street in Chicago, many drivers still just don’t care. And it doesn’t matter if you build the protected lane like this, because the greatest conflict point is still at an intersection.

Drivers in Chicago still have too much reign of the city’s streets. There is not one that prioritizes other modes of transportation over the car. Not even the Berteau greenway, which supposedly puts bikes and pedestrians first. In reality, the street is still for cars first. Our streets are too wide, not forcing drivers to slow down and pay attention, and still permits fast, wide turns and speeding without regard for anyone else walking or biking the streets.

The answer to the not-uncommon incidents in the video above is partly better infrastructure design, which has never really been done in any North American city (to my knowledge). Dearborn does a somewhat decent job at this by staggering signals so bikes proceed first, followed by turning cars, but it’s not good enough (clearly). Is there anything else that really can be done?

If you’ve read this blog long enough you know I like the Dutch way of doing intersections, which makes riding a bike much more pleasant:

But even I’m skeptical that this would work in downtown Chicago. Even if it could fit in the space, would drivers care? No matter how many people are riding on Dearborn (like in warmer weather), I’ve still seen drivers pull some lawless, reckless stunts endangering everyone around them. The other part of the problem is our driving culture – in Chicago, many drivers just don’t seem to care. I’m doubtful that “better education” would work, because bad habits are hard to break, and there’s just too many drivers. I believe the answer lies in infrastructure, but not just bike infrastructure. All streets need to be narrower to reduce the feeling that fast speeds are acceptable. The Loop needs more streets where movement is limited only to non-motorized traffic so incidents like the above can’t happen at all. Outer neighborhoods need narrower streets that truly prioritize bicycle and pedestrian traffic, not just paint and a fancy title. Some of the most dangerous intersections could use all-red phases for motor traffic while allowing bicycles and pedestrians full reign of the street.

You can’t have a city that is friendly to cars and friendly to people, as former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa declared. This is important to the significant chunk of Chicagoans that don’t own a car at all. The answer to the problems we still face even when building “better” bike and pedestrian infrastructure is not to just make the single piece of infrastructure better. I believe we have to do it on a wide scale, to blanket the city with improvements so that one mode of transportation is not so dominant over all of the others. I think the real problem with Dearborn is that it’s isolated. It’s the exception to the norm of wide streets prioritized for drivers over all, and it’s time to change that in a meaningful way.