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City says Dearborn bike signals keeping cyclists in line

Chicago to tweak protected bike lanes to improve safety, awareness of pedestrians

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

June 10, 2013

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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.

Proper biking etiquette and common sense still need attention though.

During a light rain Thursday morning, your Getting Around reporter observed a bicyclist holding an open umbrella in one hand over his head as he pedaled south in the Dearborn bike lane near Washington Street. He veered to avoid striking an oncoming cyclist with the umbrella, but his oversteering nearly resulted in a collision with pedestrians waiting at the curb to cross the street.

Frequent conflicts and near misses between cyclists and pedestrians spurred the management of the Trattoria No. 10 restaurant, just south of Washington at 10 N. Dearborn, to place signs last month between the bike lanes warning bicyclists to stop for pedestrians. CDOT sent an inspector and ordered the signs moved out of the lanes, explaining they created a hazard.

But the signs were stolen before they could be taken down, said Dan Rosenthal, the restaurant's managing director.

Rosenthal said changes are needed because the situation is potentially perilous for his restaurant's patrons and other pedestrians on the northbound street that has two-way bike traffic.

"It's not part of pedestrian psyche to look to the north to see if traffic is coming south," Rosenthal said. He said the risk of collision there is greater because Trattoria No. 10 is the only restaurant to offer valet parking on Dearborn, requiring passengers to walk across the bike lanes.

"There are all kinds of issues that the city in its wisdom did not address," Rosenthal said.

Klein agreed that it is a difficult location to navigate, but he said pedestrians should be more mindful to stay out of the bike lanes, except when crossing at intersections with a "walk" sign.

"That's an area where there is no car parking, and people naturally walk illegally across the street," he said.

"Some pedestrians are using the bike lanes as a refuge space," Klein said. "We have stenciled 'LOOK' in the crosswalks, with arrows pointing in both directions, to remind pedestrians they are crossing active (bike) lanes of traffic.

"The bottom line is that we all have to share the same right of way," Klein said.

One of several upcoming tweaks will be to paint the bike lanes green near alleys and driveways to point out potential conflicts and make the lanes more visible to pedestrians and drivers, said Mike Amsden, CDOT's bike program project manager.

In addition, at some midblock pedestrian crossings, "SLOW" markings and thick striping that functions like a rumble strips will be laid down in the bike lanes to alert cyclists to the possibility of pedestrians, Amsden said.

Existing pavement markings that are faded will also be refreshed, he said.

Getting Around observed another problem while biking on Dearborn: puddles in the bike lanes. CDOT and the city water department are working to improve drainage, officials said.

The protected bike lanes and the addition of left-turn signals for turning vehicles have resulted in fewer conflicts among drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, CDOT monitoring suggests.

Some 92 percent of drivers are complying with the sensor-activated left-turn signals on Dearborn, officials said.

The flip side, however, is that almost 10 percent of left-turning drivers aren't waiting for the turn arrow and are basically driving through a red arrow.

Before the signals were installed, vehicles turning off Dearborn would face solid waves of crossing pedestrians, officials said. Now the pedestrians get a "Don't walk" signal to allow cars to turn.

Despite the new traffic tools, newspaper vendor Robert Nance said he has witnessed "a lot of impatience" among drivers over the left-turn arrows. "I've seen several times cars almost run into each other," said Nance, 53, who sells papers at Dearborn and Randolph streets.

"It says left on green only. Unless you are blind or you don't know how to read, both of which cases you don't need to be behind the wheel, you will have drivers sitting there, cabbies especially, blowing their horn like, 'Move on!' Move on for what? You can't move on until the light changes. I see a lot of that."

Tougher laws now on the books may help everyone go with the flow, if the laws are matched by enforcement. The Chicago City Council last week increased fines for bicyclists who flout traffic laws. Current fines of $25 for all minor traffic offenses will increase to between $50 and $200, depending on the violation.

Motorists who endanger bicyclists also face stiffer penalties under the amended traffic laws, officials said. The fine for leaving a vehicle door open in traffic doubles to $300. The fine for opening a vehicle door in the path of a cyclist also doubles, to $1,000. Some 250 "dooring" accidents were reported in the city last year.

Last year in the city, 1,675 crashes between vehicles and bicycles were reported, police said.

CDOT is set to begin another experiment on Friday — a bicycle-sharing rental service aimed at putting more bicycles on city streets, in part to provide a new option to commuters making connections at CTA and Metra rail stations.

The program, called Divvy, will start with 40 docking stations downtown, expanding to 75 stations by the end of June, 300 by the end of August and a total of 400, including in some city neighborhoods, by next spring, CDOT said.

"Knowing that one of the biggest fears many people have about riding to work is the feeling it's less than safe to bicycle in the Loop, we wanted to have a major thoroughfare for bikes ahead of the bike-share launch," Klein said.

He said the city has a heightened responsibility to provide safe routes for cyclists with the introduction of bike-sharing, which will be managed by a private contractor, Alta Bicycle Share Inc.

More protected bicycle lanes are scheduled for installation this summer, including on heavily biked sections of Milwaukee Avenue and Clybourn Street, according to CDOT.

The city currently has about 30 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes, more than 130 miles of standard bike lanes marked by pavement stripes and about 40 miles of marked shared vehicle-bike lanes, CDOT said.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.