AUSTIN — The city’s attempt to improve traffic safety and bike access in Columbus Park has come with unintended consequences, creating a traffic calamity for the people who live near there, residents said.
The Chicago Department of Transportation built a protected bike lane this winter along Jackson Boulevard between Central Avenue and Austin Boulevard — but neighbors and even a West Side cycling advocate said officials proceeded without input from locals. To create the bike lane, which only extends 10 city blocks, the city narrowed two traffic lanes in each direction along Jackson down to one lane each way.
That roadway is a busy yet narrow thoroughfare that cuts through the northern part of Columbus Park and connects Austin with suburban Oak Park.
The reduced lanes have caused constant traffic jams along Jackson Boulevard that worsen during rush hour, school dismissals and when the No. 126 bus stops at any of the four stops inside Columbus Park, residents said. Bicyclists rarely use the lane, residents said, which only links to a .5-mile stretch of shared-road bike lane on Jackson between Central and Laramie, according to the city’s bike map.
“Why would they do this? It’s absolutely horrible. It’s made it so congested I try not to even go down that way anymore. I go all the way around. And I have yet to see one bike there,” said Mildred Salone, a resident and member of the 100 South Mason block club at the northern edge of the park.
Many residents of Austin and suburban Oak Park rely on Jackson Boulevard to reach the Central Avenue onramp for the Eisenhower Expressway. But getting to the expressway is “total chaos and confusion” with the fewer lanes, Salone said. Drivers making a right turn on Central to get on the highway now get backed up behind drivers going east on Jackson and can’t make the turn on a red light, she said.
Salone dreads the situation worsening when traffic picks up as more people flock to the golf course and more youth programs begin at the park as the weather gets warmer.
‘This Is Not What We Discussed At The Community Meetings’
CDOT built the bike lanes as part of its Vision Zero initiative to use roadway improvements to eliminate traffic fatalities. The project is “an effort to make Austin more accessible and safer for everyone,” spokesman Michael Claffey said.
“Austin is a high-crash community area, which means it is a focus traffic safety investments,” Claffey said.
The Vison Zero designated Austin as one of the eight communities in Chicago where the roads are most dangerous. Austin had 357 traffic injuries or fatalities per 100,000 residents, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation data from 2010-2014. The citywide average is 302 injuries or deaths per 100,000.
The lane reduction makes it much easier for pedestrians in Columbus Park to cross Jackson Boulevard, Claffey said. In addition to bike lanes, the project created concrete protections and pedestrian refuges in the median to shorten the distance for people crossing the street, Claffey said.
The project was also intended to prevent speeding in the area, and it resulted in a 10 percent speed reduction, Claffey said. The decrease “represents a significant safety improvement,” and data collected from speed enforcement cameras doesn’t suggest major congestion or slowdowns, he said.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said he doesn’t like the design of the lanes, but he recognizes why the reconfiguration may have been necessary, he said.
“The goal is to reduce the number of cyclists that are being struck and harmed or even killed by motor vehicles each year, and even the number of pedestrians,” Taliaferro said. “For me, I have to put the safety of others first.”
Bike lanes generally are a good investment for the city, said Oboi Reed, founder of mobility justice group Equiticity, a West Side group rooted in racial justice that is building a cycling culture on the West Side.
Communities with better cycling infrastructure tend to be healthier, more vibrant and safer since people can more easily bike to job centers and to local businesses. Bike lanes make people feel physically safer riding on the street and also reduce the risk of getting hassled by police for biking on the sidewalk, Reed said.
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But it’s not enough to build bike lanes just anywhere: They have to be built in places that are useful for residents and cyclists, Reed said.
“When the bike lanes drop out of nowhere … people are just turned off,” Reed said. “People have to feel ownership and excitement over it.”
Gentrification is an evergreen concern among Austin residents, and those worries play a role in people’s resistance to the new bike lanes, neighbors said.
Not many Austin residents cycle and hardly any bike along Jackson, residents said, and some fear the bike lanes are not designed for legacy Austin residents and were installed to attract newcomers or to benefit those living in affluent Oak Park on the west edge of Columbus Park.
Residents are most incensed the city spent taxpayer money on bike lanes nobody requested without informing residents or gathering feedback on where the bike lanes should be placed, Salone said.
Neighbors living around the park had a long list of priorities for improving street safety and walkability. They’d requested speed bumps and better lighting at community meetings held by the local chamber of commerce and park committee, Salone said.
“This is not what we discussed at the community meetings,” Salone said. “They don’t listen. They put what they want and they didn’t give us anything we asked for. We voted for what we wanted and we got nothing.”
The transportation department’s spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the department did any community outreach to decide where to put the bike lanes.
Though traffic safety is a worthwhile investment in Austin, “the community should always have a voice in what happens in their neighborhood,” Taliaferro said.
Even the Columbus Park Advisory Council was not informed or consulted on the plans to narrow the street and install bike lanes, said Chairman Bernard Clay.
Had residents been consulted, they might have suggested the city build the bike lane on Lake Street, Washington Boulevard or Madison Street, where the roads are wider and better connected to other cycling infrastructure, Clay said.
“It bugs me that they spent that kind of money, but they didn’t hold any community meetings, they didn’t ask anybody. We would’ve told them. It’s just ludicrous,” Clay said. “It’s a bike path to nowhere.”
Jarrie Brown, who lives down the street from the park, said she has never seen a bicyclist along Jackson. Many residents in the area are organized into block clubs and “the word usually gets out” about major changes like this, but she and her neighbors were blindsided by the reduced lanes and the issues it caused, she said.
“No one uses it. What a waste of taxpayer money. Put it in a place where it’s going to be used. We could’ve thought of a lot of other ways to spend that money,” Brown said.
When residents don’t have a voice in planning public infrastructure, they are less likely to use the bike lanes because they weren’t designed to serve the community’s needs, Reed said.
“When people don’t even know about it, it creates this adversarial reception of the bike lanes,” Reed said. “There could be people who, had it been done the right way, they could have been enjoying these bike lanes. But because it was done the wrong way, they’re turned off.”
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