CHICAGO — Chicago workers are pushing toward the city’s goal to add or improve 100 miles of bike lanes between this year and 2022, but some transportation advocates are warning not all bike lanes are created equal and that improving bike safety is critical to getting more people to try travel on two wheels.
Additionally, connectivity is crucial for a bike infrastructure network to be useful for short trips within neighborhoods, commutes to work and longer leisure rides, advocates said on The Daily Line’s CloutCast podcast.
Transportation officials expect to use $17 million from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago Works capital plan to add 50 miles of new and upgraded bike lanes during both 2021 and 2022, representing “the largest growth in the City’s biking system ever over a two-year period,” according to a September 22 news release from the transportation department.
Still, only 12 miles of those lanes each year are planned as protected bike lanes, meaning they will be physically separated from car traffic by barriers like plastic bollards or raised concrete curbs.
“In 2021, Chicagoans will have benefited from the largest annual growth of protected bike lanes in recent years, with approximately 9 miles to be completed by the end of this year,” according to the news release.
“Our goal at CDOT is to make every day cycling safe, affordable and convenient for people of all ages and abilities, by connecting people to meaningful destinations and connecting neighborhoods to each other,” Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biaggi said in the release. “But there is no one-size fits all approach to growing our bike network. Every neighborhood has different opportunities, challenges, and perceptions of biking. This means different strategies are required for different neighborhoods.”
Jim Merrell, managing director of advocacy for Active Transportation Alliance, said funding and planning for the new bike lanes show “really exciting progress,” particularly “the investment in protected bike lanes.”
Having “dedicated local resources” for bike lanes in the capital plan is something Active Transportation Alliance has advocated for a long time, Merrell said. “It really enables the city to be a lot more flexible in figuring out how and where they can use those dollars,” he said.
But “when we talk about bike lanes and we talk about protected bike lanes, not all bike lanes are created equal,” Merrell said. “When you talk about the level of detail and the scale of the investment, it really is important to understand not only where the city [is] planning on putting these miles, but what types of improvements they [are] actually going to make.”
The city has seen “a lot of promises made around protected bike lanes in particular, which we haven’t seen met, starting back with the Emanuel administration,” Merrell said. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel committed to building 100 miles of protected bike lanes, but “we saw about one-quarter of those actually built,” Merrell said.
Now, Lightfoot’s administration has committed to building 50 miles of protected bike lanes, but “we haven’t seen a level of investment that’s going to meet that goal,” Merrell said, adding that dedicated funding for bike infrastructure in Lightfoot’s capital plan does mark “a big step forward for the city.”
But even the levels of protection offered by the so-called protected bike lanes can vary, as it is often easy for a large truck to drive over plastic posts meant to separate the bike lanes from car traffic.
Grade separation — when the bike lane is on a different level than car traffic — or vertical separation with a curb or another permanent “hard element” is the ideal level protection, Merrell said.
“But at the same time, there are very real and practical considerations city officials and planners have to make in terms of available budget” and how a bike lane network can be built out quickly “while still providing the highest quality,” he said.
The city has recently relied on a “post and paint” strategy for creating protected bike lanes, which involves painting the ground and using hard plastic posts “to build out protected bike lanes as quickly as possible with the intent of going back and upgrading them to more permanent infrastructure,” Merrell said, adding that not all lanes are ultimately upgraded to permanent protection.
Maintenance can also become a sticky issue with protected bike lanes, as some aldermen including Ald. David Moore (17th) and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) have noted bike lanes in their wards collect debris when they are not swept commensurately with the car portion of the road.
“There are maintenance and other issues with the current approach that if they’re not addressed, on an ongoing basis, can make the protected bike lane feel less comfortable and safe for people,” Merrell said.
While some people may oppose bike lanes protected by concrete curbs, Merrell said they “work around the world in all different settings.”
Still, aldermen often play “an outsized role in making a decision about the public right of way” making for a “dramatically uneven implementation of not just bike lanes, but other types of street improvements throughout the city,” Merrell said.
It is critical that residents understand who is making decisions about bike lanes and that there “aren’t a lot of the traditional Chicago gatekeepers shutting down projects before they can happen,” Merrell said.
“Ultimately, why are we talking about protected bike lanes? It’s not just because we think they’re cool, but it’s the kind of safe and comfortable infrastructure that’s going to actually shift behavior and give people who might be interested in riding a bike” the option to use the two-wheeled mode of transportation for daily trips, he said.
“If we’re creating that safe, low-stress, all-ages and abilities network, we can actually help unlock a lot of sustainability, equity and health benefits that less car-centric mobility can bring us,” Merrell said.
Another aspect of the city’s bike infrastructure expanding is its Divvy bikeshare program, which set new single-day ride records three different times in 2021. In addition to expanding the bike-share network citywide, the city is also adding 3,500 electric-assist bikes this year.
“These programs allow people to gain experience using a bike in a way that they might not do if they had to go out and buy their own personal bike,” said Daniel Comeaux, associate transportation policy analyst for Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, adding bike-share programs were particularly helpful amid the bike shortage brought by the pandemic.
Programs like Divvy expose people to bicycling as a mode of transportation while also allowing people to bike to destinations and use a different mode of transportation, like public transit or walking, to get home.
“We’re supportive of ways to find more options for the region’s travelers, and so having Divvy and other bike share systems…they’re assets both for their transportation value, but also because they can help people experience bicycling.”
“The investments that we make to support programs like Divvy in terms of new bike parking … bike lanes, can also support people using their own personal bicycles,” Comeaux said.