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City’s Concrete-Protected Bike Lanes Delayed, But Still Happening, Officials Say. But Advocates Ask: Is It Enough?

Cyclists say the plan won't make Chicago's most dangerous bike lanes — the unprotected ones — more safe. “We need big changes," one activist said.

A cyclist rides along a stretch of protected bike lanes on Elston Avenue north of Division Street on July 26, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Nearly a month after the city announced it will overhaul 25 miles of protected bike lanes, construction delays have slowed the process — but the goal of adding concrete barriers to all protected lanes by the end of 2023 remains.

In late June, the Department of Transportation announced plans to add concrete barriers to all existing protected bike lanes by next year and add 10 miles of new protected lanes before the end of this year, “vastly outpacing previous years,” according to a news release.

Though the city planned to start installing the barriers that week, CDOT spokeswoman Erica Schroeder said the department hit a snag “due to a minor delay with the contractor.” 

Schroeder said the first concrete barriers will be installed in a few weeks along Kinzie Street between Milwaukee and Wells, followed by several other corridors around Chicago.

The delays will not impact the larger timeline of the project, Schroeder said. The rest of the protected lanes will be upgraded to concrete by the end of next year through funds from the Chicago Works Capital Plan. 

Schroeder said the pre-cast concrete curbs are faster and easier to install because the pre-cast concrete is poured offsite, and they don’t have to “wait for perfect weather to install them.”

“Whether pre-cast or traditional pour-in-place, the standard for new protected bike lanes in Chicago will be concrete,” Schroeder said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A cyclist rides along a stretch of protected bike lanes on Elston Avenue north of Division Street on July 26, 2022.

‘Hopefully, Protected Bike Lanes Will Help’

For the most part, Chicago’s cycling community was thrilled with the June announcement — though many said they wish the city would go even further to protect them from cars.

Kyle Whitehead, a spokesperson for the Active Transportation Network, said using concrete for protected lanes “makes a real difference in preventing crashes, saving lives and getting more people riding bikes — which is ultimately our goal.”

“Most people don’t feel safe riding on the street next to high-speed car and truck traffic, even if they’re protected by plastic posts,” Whitehead said.

With concrete protection, people are much more likely to feel safe and comfortable biking, Whitehead said. 

“It’s really exciting news,” Whitehead said. “We and many other advocates have been craving and waiting for a high-impact initiative like this that shows signs of real, tangible progress. … Right now, most or all of a bike trip in Chicago is not in a protected bike lane.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A cyclist rides along a stretch of protected bike lanes on Elston Avenue north of Division Street on July 26, 2022.

Rebecca Resman, founder of Chicago Family Biking, said she’s “really excited” to see the city commit to a safer and more permanent approach to bike lanes.

“This is the kind of infrastructure that really does encourage more people to bike, especially families with children,” Resman said.

In Chicago, kids 12 and older are not legally allowed to ride on the sidewalk. Resman said her daughter is 9, and “it’s terrifying” to think of the day she’s no longer allowed to use the sidewalk.

“For our children to safely navigate our streets, we must install protected bike lanes everywhere that kids need to go, like schools, parks, libraries,” Resman said. 

While using concrete barriers is a step in the right direction, Resman hopes the city abandons its ward-by-ward approach to these upgrades and instead develops “a consistent and equitable bike network” citywide.

“We have a lot of miles of streets, and we have a lot of work to do to ensure that we have a consistent and robust network for everybody, especially our future kiddos,” she said. 

Credit: Izzy Stroobandt/Block Club Chicago
Neighbors gather for the “Walk and Roll for Safe Streets” event June 12, 2022, demanding the city enact broad changes to protect bicyclists and pedestrians after toddlers Raphael “Rafi” Cardenas and Elizabeth “Lily” Grace Shambrook were killed.

‘An Incredible Amount Of People Have Been Killed’

While the concrete barriers are welcome, critics want to know what is being done about the most dangerous bike lanes — the ones with no protection.

“I want to be positive,” said Christina Whitehouse, founder of Bike Lane Uprising. “We definitely want to welcome improvements, but it really feels like it’s a too little too late type of a solution. We need big changes.”

At least 17 pedestrians and five cyclists have been killed by drivers this year alone, including 2-year-old Raphael “Rafi” Cardenas, 3-year old Elizabeth “Lily” Grace Shambrook and 11-year old J’alon James.

Last month, hundreds of people marched in Lincoln Square to demand safer streets after the children were killed. A 75-year-old man was killed just hours after the march when a driver hit him as he crossed the street.

“An incredible amount of people have been killed, tons more have been hit, and [the concrete barrier announcement] feels like a Band-Aid for campaigning,” Whitehouse said. “It’s not addressing the unprotected bike lanes, and it’s not addressing connecting the disconnected infrastructure.”  

Of the 4,500 miles of streets in Chicago, just less than 400 miles feature bike lanes city-wide, and the vast majority are marked only by paint. Under the new CDOT plan, 28 miles would have concrete barriers by late 2023 — which “is actually not a lot of miles,” Whitehouse said.

Courtney Cobbs, one of the founders of Better Streets Chicago, said CDOT’s plan is “a good step forward,” but “very few bike lanes in the city will be impacted.” 

“I don’t know what their criteria was, I guess it makes sense to upgrade where we already have plastic posts. But, again, what’s the plan for the bike lanes that are just paint-only?” Cobbs said.

Kyle Lucas, who co-founded Better Streets Chicago with Cobbs, shared similar concerns.

“We’ll take the upgrades, we will take the concrete — I’m not going to be bummed that they’re doing that. But we need more,” Lucas said. “Our demand remains the same as it has been: We need a citywide protected network of bike lanes.”

Whitehead hopes the announcement is just a taste of what the city has planned moving forward.

“We’re going to continue to push for a protected and connected network and neighborhoods all across the city, and that fight is certainly strengthened by this initiative and this announcement,” Whitehead said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Cars drive past a stretch of protected bike lanes on Elston Avenue north of Division Street on July 26, 2022.

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