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Chicago’s Bike Lane Efforts Have Fallen Short For Decades. Can Lightfoot Help The City Catch Up?

About 359 miles of bike lanes traverse Chicago’s streets, a far cry from the 645-mile network a 2012 plan envisioned the city would have by 2020.

A cyclist rides past a decorated bollard on a Milwaukee Avenue protected bike lane.
Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago

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CHICAGO — About 359 miles of bike lanes traverse Chicago’s streets, a far cry from the 645-mile network a 2012 plan envisioned the city would have by 2020. And just more than 25 miles of those lanes are physically separated from car traffic, a fraction of the 100-mile goal city officials vowed to build by 2015.

After promising during her campaign to add 100 miles of new bike lanes, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said her administration is doubling down on adding and maintaining lanes, with plans to accelerate the build-out during the next two years using dedicated funding from a new capital plan.

But adding new bike lanes in Chicago takes more than a system laid out in plan after plan. It requires local political will and resources, and building out the city’s bike infrastructure can face sharp blowback from aldermen and local businesses.

Biking advocates say the city has not historically dedicated enough funding to biking and argue barrier-protected bike lanes are critical to protect cyclists from crashes, especially on the city’s South and West sides, where bike infrastructure is especially sparse.

And as the city continues to add and maintain bike lanes, advocates also argue city transportation officials must ensure equitable and safe biking all over the city, not just Downtown and on the city’s North Side.

But as Lightfoot and her transportation department led by Commissioner Gia Biagi try to make up for lost time, they face the same challenges that dogged their predecessors, including a dearth of funding, disputes over parking and aldermen who sometimes resist new lanes in their wards.

A 30-year history of ambitious plans

City leaders’ efforts to improve bike infrastructure stretch back at least to 1991, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley launched the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council. The council in 1992 released The Bike 2000 Plan, which recommended the city “‘develop a network of a minimum of 300 miles of bikeways’ including on-street bike lanes, signed routes, wide curb lanes, and shared-use trails,” according to a summary in the Chicago Streets for Cycling 2020 plan.

The goal of the seven-page Bike 2000 Plan was to “make Chicago bicycle-friendly by the year 2000.”

Released in 2012 by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, the Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 envisioned “identifying a 645-mile network of on-street bikeways that will encourage all Chicagoans to ride their bikes.”

The plan’s authors envisioned a network that would put all Chicagoans will be within a half-mile of a “bicycle facility.”

While the Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 was created under Emanuel, Lightfoot campaigned on the promise that her administration would “redouble Chicago’s efforts to build safe streets.” And the mayor’s administration plans to continue using the 2012 document as a guide moving forward, according to transportation officials.

The 2012 plan is based on melding neighborhood bike routes on residential streets, forging a network of low-to-moderate capacity roads and arterial roadways that make up crosstown bike routes and building “spoke routes” that connect far corners of the city to downtown.

The Chicago Department of Transportation’s Chicago Forward plan, released in 2012, also set a goal of “installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes by 2015.” According to a map from the department, the city currently has 26.7 miles of protected bike lanes, accounting for less than 10 percent of Chicago’s total bike lanes.

The Chicago Forward plan also called for installing “an additional 10 miles of bike lanes each year, installing 10 miles of neighborhood greenways by 2015, and launching bike share.”

The Chicago Department of Transportation launched the Divvy bike share program in 2013, and the department has since added dozens of new Divvy stations across the city.

The city released the Vision Zero Action Plan in 2017 and the transportation department identified 43 “High Crash Corridors” where safety improvements were needed to make the streets safer. The plan identifies improvements including lower speed limits, road diets, curb bump-outs, bicycle signals, transit-only lanes and protected bike lanes as some ways to make streets safer.

Funding elusive for bike projects

Despite the numerous planning documents, bicycle advocates still see room for improvements in the citywide network of bike infrastructure and funding for bike lanes.

Alex Perez, advocacy manager for the pro-bike advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance, said plans like the city’s Complete Streets policy, the Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, and Vision Zero have fallen short of their goals because of a “lack of dedicated funding source.”

Perez said he thinks city leaders “could be doing more” to build new bike lanes, but they face a “budget constraint” holding back dollars from going specifically to bike lane infrastructure. But he is hopeful that could change with funding for Lightfoot’s capital plan (O2020-5749) approved by the City Council 41-8 in November.

Lightfoot’s five-year capital plan includes a dedicated $8.5 million in 2021 and another $8.5 million in 2022 “to support additional bike lanes, bike racks, and bike parking areas,” according to the plan. The 5-year plan budgets a total $37 million for the bike lane, rack and parking area improvements over its duration.

“Chicago has a national reputation as one of the best large cities in the United States for bicycling. The City of Chicago has achieved this goal by investing in bicycling infrastructure and promoting education, awareness, and advocacy,” the capital plan says.

The funding is a “major infusion” and “is more than double the previous levels of funding and allows us to build significantly on the success [of] our bike program,” according to transportation department spokesperson Michael Claffey.

Lightfoot administration vows to pick up the pace

During the 2019 mayoral campaign, the Active Transportation Alliance lauded Lightfoot and other mayoral candidates who supported building at least 100 miles of new bike lanes in the city, at least 50 miles of which would be protected lanes separated from cars by more than just paint on the street.

City transportation workers last year added 29 miles of bikeways to the city’s network, doubling its previous year’s progress, and re-striped 50 miles of lanes, five times the amount it did in 2019, according to Claffey.

Of the nearly 30 miles of new bike lanes the city added in 2020, 17 miles were added on the Far South Side. The city also added 2.4 miles of new barrier-protected bike lanes. The city also added 55 new regular Divvy bikes share stations and 12 new e-bike stations to cover the city’s Far South Side and expand the program’s reach by nearly 60 square miles.

Claffey said the department aims to eventually expand the network to span 800 stations and 16,000 bikes.

The city also lowered the car speed limit to 20 miles per hour on 17 miles of new bikeways. And a new stretch of protected bike lane along the busy bicycle corridor of Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square and Bucktown came to fruition after years of community, city and aldermanic planning.

Additionally, the city added 899 bike racks and 19 new bike corrals to its stock last year, and currently has 400 new bike racks and 10 corrals “in production for the spring” with a goal to add 1,000 new racks this year, according to Claffey.

Claffey said the city is working with “community stakeholders” on plans for new bikeways and expects the city both this year and in 2022 to surpass the 29 miles of new lanes added last year, putting the city on track to exceed 100 miles of new bike lanes added under Lightfoot by 2023.

City officials continue to follow guidelines in the Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, and “the ultimate goal is to create a bike network that puts all Chicagoans, no matter where they live, within four blocks of a bicycle facility,” Claffey said.

Transportation officials are also working with aldermen and community activists “through the winter” to develop plans that would expand bike lanes on the city’s Southwest, West and Northwest Sides, according to Claffey.

Additionally, the Vision Zero program is rolling out two new “community-focused and engagement efforts” to slow cars in high-crash areas, Claffey told The Daily Line.

The Active Transportation Alliance looks to the Vision Zero corridors as important guides in “making sure those streets get the priority of bike lanes,” Perez said. The now-protected stretch of Milwaukee Avenue was one of those corridors identified in the Vision Zero plan.

What gets in the way

Looking at a map of city bike infrastructure, it becomes clear that the North Side is full of options for cyclists, while lanes on the South and West sides are fewer and farther between.

“There are areas of the city on the South and West Sides where safe transportation by bicycle is a real issue of equity, where there are other neighborhoods in the city of Chicago that have many bike lanes and are very well maintained and protected,” said Michael Keating, a bicycle accident attorney.

Underlying the transportation department’s work in expanding and maintaining bike lanes is an equity focus, Claffey said, writing in a statement that department leaders “firmly believe that where you live should not determine whether you have access to quality transportation options, including streets with bike infrastructure.”

But the mayor’s administration alone can’t provide the resources and a plan to build new bike lanes—  it takes political buy-in from local elected officials as well.

“A lot of that comes down to aldermanic prerogative,” said Christina Whitehouse, founder of Bike Lane Uprising, a crowdsourced platform where bicyclists can report bike lane obstructions. “There’s been quite a few alders that have stonewalled bike lanes.”

Some aldermen have also attempted to remove existing bike lanes in their wards, Whitehouse said.

Cycling advocates have sharply criticized Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) for fighting city plans to add new bike lanes along Stony Island Avenue in her ward.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), whose ward added the new protected bike lane along about a ¾-mile busy stretch of Milwaukee Avenue, didn’t dispute the role aldermen play.

“I would say for better or worse all aldermen are still gatekeepers in the facilitation of infrastructure in their own wards,” La Spata said. “You can see how that is reflective sometimes in infrastructure in some places.”

New bike lanes: North Side vs South Side

One of the new bike lanes city workers added in 2020 runs along Loomis Street on the city’s South Side, partially in Ald. David Moore’s 17th Ward.  The lane begins at Marquette Avenue on the edge of Ogden Park and stretches south to 98th Street. A portion of the Loomis bike lane is in the 17th Ward, and the section from 71st Street to 76th Street is protected with bollards, or white poles.

Moore said he didn’t have a problem with the location of the bike lane, but he said the lanes can be difficult to keep clean. He also suggested removing the physical barriers because the bike lane is not used often.

“Any given day you see three bikes,” he said.

Moore takes issue with the placement of bike lanes in communities “where bikes have not been highly used and where residents don’t even want them.” The alderman said he has seen bike lanes in those instances cause “traffic issues” including motorists driving in bike lanes to get around near schools.

“The previous administration, they just placed bike lanes without even consulting the aldermen,” he said.

At the same time in 2020, the city’s North Side saw protective bollards added to the popular Milwaukee Avenue bike lane from California Avenue to Western Avenue.

The lane traverses La Spata’s ward, and he said bringing it to life was a collaborative process among his office, city transportation officials and the community. The approach was “data-driven,” the 1st Ward alderman said.

The department “had done the work and shown us there had been 580-something crashes along just that stretch of Milwaukee Avenue over the past five years, most of which involved pedestrians or cyclists,” La Spata said. “It would have truly been irresponsible of us to not make some kind of improvement to infrastructure so everyone could use the streetscape safely.”

While the protected bike lane creates a safer route for bicyclists, La Spata said he has heard critiques of the new configuration from drivers who say they “have to drive slower” and “pay more attention” — but those conditions create “more safety for everyone,” La Spata said.

In addition to aldermen playing a role, business owners also factor into the mix of adding bike lanes, as putting the new infrastructure in could mean giving up nearby street parking spaces.

The owner of Gillman’s Ace Hardware located along the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue where the protected bike lane was added told the Sun-Times in October he opposes the bike lane, saying the loss of parking spaces led to a drop in business.

Making up for lost parking spaces represents a hurdle to adding or modifying bike lanes in a busy corridor like Milwaukee Avenue.

“Any paid parking space removed had to be replaced somewhere else,” La Spata said, adding he tried to listen to concerns of businesses in relocating the parking spaces.

More recently, during a January virtual meeting with city planners, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said the bike lanes proposed as part of the Fulton Market Innovation District would be “a challenge and a concern,” according to a Block Club story on the meeting.

City transportation officials have set goals for the city’s Fulton Market district including bike lanes along Hubbard Street and adding new bike lanes on Randolph Street and Racine Avenue, in addition to filling gaps on Halsted and Ogden streets.

Still, plans for the area remain conceptual, and the new proposed bike lanes require additional studying by the transportation department, according to the draft planning document.