Chicago's first two-way protected bike lanes have been in place for six months through the center of downtown on Dearborn Street, and the experience so far has led city officials to conclude that all cyclists really need to obey traffic laws are signals of their own, telling them that stop means stop.
Monitoring by the Chicago Department of Transportation shows that cyclists stopping for red lights has improved by 161 percent since cyclist-specific traffic signals, which glow with the image of a bike on the lens, were installed on Dearborn in December.
It marks apparent progress as the city on Monday launches the annual Bike to Work Week.
"Cyclists will really abide by a signal if they have one," Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein believes.
Added Lee Crandell of the Active Transportation Alliance: "It's important to have infrastructure that speaks to people who are biking. Otherwise, they feel the roadway was not designed for them."
Yet the whopping 161 percent increase in compliance on Dearborn also seems to highlight the blatant disregard many cyclists regularly show elsewhere toward the most basic rule of the road — stop on red — just as too many motorists are at fault for violations that include rolling through right turns on red lights or texting while driving, officials said.
The bicycle-specific traffic signals on Dearborn are part of a federally funded experiment involving the two-way bike lanes, which are protected from moving vehicle traffic by plastic posts and a parking lane over much of the 1.15-mile route between Kinzie and Polk streets.
The new layout has reduced speeding by vehicles too, officials said. The project cost about $450,000 and removed a lane for the 13,100 vehicles that on average use the northbound-only section of Dearborn each weekday.
Updated counts of average daily bicycle and vehicle traffic are being done, but officials say bike traffic has clearly increased, particularly during rush hours.
"Enforcement hasn't been necessary because people for the most part are obeying the laws," said Cmdr. Al Nagode of the Chicago Police Department's district that includes the Loop. "We've had a handful of citations that we've written both to drivers of vehicles and to some bikes when we see something egregious."
The Police Department has no reports of crashes between cyclists and vehicles or cyclists and pedestrians since the two-way bike lanes were installed, Nagode said.
"I'm sure there have been some close shaves here and there," Klein said. "Cyclists need to pay attention. You cannot drift into the other lane. I think it will take time for people to get used to the new traffic pattern, but so far it has gone pretty well."
Eighty-one percent of bike riders are departing signal-controlled intersections on a green light now, according to spot checks on Dearborn by CDOT.
The rate, though still not as high as officials would like to see, is up significantly, from only 31 percent of cyclists stopping for red lights before the bicycle signals were added, officials said.
Are the statistics plausible?
The preliminary data showing eight of 10 bicyclists obeying red lights on Dearborn is roughly about what your Getting Around reporter has observed during informal monitoring since the weather has warmed up and more people are commuting to work by bike. But with so many cyclists on the street, there are sightings of cyclists running red lights every few minutes.
To reiterate, drivers as a group aren't perfect either. But MASH tents would be needed at intersections to triage the wounded if 20 percent of drivers routinely blew through solid red lights downtown. Or worse, dealing with scofflaw drivers representing 69 percent of all traffic on Dearborn, which was the level of cyclists ignoring red lights before the customized bike traffic signals were introduced.
From 2006 to 2011, there were 1,140 reported crashes on this part of Dearborn, city records show. Pedestrians and bicyclists were involved in more than half of the accidents that included injuries.
Authorities and bicycling advocates expect accidents will decline on Dearborn and other streets that get protected bike lanes.
"People are no longer fearing for their safety riding bikes into downtown," Crandell said.