Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chicago's Dearborn Bike Lane: More of This, Less of That

I hate it when cyclists run red lights.

That statement may seem strange coming from someone who advocates for a change in the law, permitting bicyclists to treat stop as yield.  I have admitted publicly to being selective when it comes to halting at traffic control devices.  Like many cyclists, I make my choices based on traffic conditions, and usually when I stop and another cyclist chooses to go, I do not cast aspersions.  Riding in Chicago traffic is tricky and despite advances, most of the roadway infrastructure was not built and is not maintained with us in mind.  The individual bicyclist must make choices based upon his or her experience and the conditions at a given moment, notwithstanding what the law is.  (Warning:  Though I may not get all judgy about your conduct, if you get hit by a car while violating the law, you may be screwed when it comes to receiving compensation later.)

However, there is one place in the city where I find myself getting pissed-off when I see a cyclist running a red light, the Dearborn Bike Lane.  That is one bit of road that was built for us and actually feels like it, so let's be good boys and girls when riding in it.  It separates bikes from motor vehicle traffic and provides cyclists with two lanes so it can be used to go north and south.  Its location is great, right in the heart of The Loop so you can use it to get somewhere you really need to go, like work.  Its location does not feel like a scrap thrown at cyclists; like, Here's a mile of bike lane in a commercial dead zone.  To me, it has come to represent a real commitment by our city to change our infrastructure for the better.  Most of all, I love the traffic lights at the streets that intersect the lane.  They are designed and timed for cyclists.  A little green bicycle illuminates indicating that it is okay to proceed, while red arrows warn motorists that turning across the bike lane is a no-no.  It all makes sense, and that is important.  Because the design feels right I never feel the slightest urge to pedal through a red light.  Apparently, many of my fellow cyclists feel the same way.  Earlier in the summer The Chicago Tribune reported that since installation of the Dearborn Bike Lane's bike friendly traffic lights, the number of cyclists obeying the traffic signals increased by 161%.  In the piece, Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein observed that, "Cyclists will really abide by a signal if they have one."  Lee Crandell of the Active Transportaion Alliance added that, "It's important to have infrastructure that speaks to people who are biking. Otherwise, they feel the roadway was not designed for them."


The Dearborn Bike Lane is not the only new infrastructure in Chicago created for cyclists.  There are other protected bikes lanes.  But some of those lanes, or parts of them, do not make sense.  As a result I often see bicyclists who use them break the law, or, worse, get hit by a car while following the law.  For example, in the Kinzie protected bike lane there is a stop sign attached to the outer wall of the Merchandise Mart's parking structure at the T-intersection with North Franklin. Under the law, cyclists must stop at that sign.  None do, and none ever will.  There is no pedestrian crossing there and no reason for a motor vehicle to ever cross the Kinzie bike lane at that location. The sign is a vestigial appendage from before the bike lane was installed.  It should be removed. Every time a bicyclist runs it - which is often - nearby motorists likely view that cyclist as an outlaw.  That is not good for the growth and image of cycling in Chicago.  Another example of bike specific infrastructure design that does not make sense is in the protected bike lane at 18th Street and Wentworth.  That intersection is completely uncontrolled, but should be in order to protect cyclists.  A lot of motor vehicle traffic crosses the 18th Street bike lane at that location. Crashes and near crashes are apparently prevalent there.  Cyclists using the lane have reason to feel that at least that portion of the lane was not created with their safety in mind.  A bike friendly traffic light at that location, a la Dearborn, would go a long way toward fixing that problem.

Dearborn is not perfect.  There are problems that need to be fixed.  The pavement is chewed up in places and tends to accumulate water and, in the winter, ice.  Pedestrians still tend to wander aimlessly into the path of cyclists there.  A more permanent barrier between cars and bikes is needed to provide greater protection from motor vehicles that may wander into the lane.  Such fixtures may also provide greater awareness to pedestrians that a bike lane exists there.  The City is aware of these needs and has expressed a commitment to address them.  But despite the warts, Dearborn just feels like our place, a stretch of road - real road, not a path - for bikes.  So fellow cyclists, please do not run the lights there.  To the City:  More please!


  1. Why didn't Chicago paint it green, like San Francisco did?


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