Curb-protected bike lanes

RedEye reporter Rachel Cromidas bundles up in bubble wrap to illuminate the pedestrian, cyclist and motorist hazards associated with cycling on Chicago streets. (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye / August 5, 2014)

A new style of bike lane proposed for Clybourn Avenue could accomplish what local motorists and cyclists alike have struggled with: keeping cars and bicycles out of each other's way.

Transportation officials and bike advocates are hoping Chicago's planned curb-protected bike lanes will make a stretch of Clybourn safer for cyclists and drivers.

"One of the things that contributes to a less stressful experience on the road is being able to anticipate where other people are going," said Jim Merrell, the campaign director for local transportation advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance. With a curb-protected bike lane, "traffic can move more fluidly because everyone is in synch. It helps bring more order, more harmony, to the street."

If the city and state sign off, the bike lanes are expected to be installed in 2015 in each direction on Clybourn between North Avenue and Division Street, city transportation officials say. The lanes will go next to the existing curb and will be defined by a second curb separating the bike lane from traffic or parked cars. 

Curb-protected bike lanes have been cropping up for years in cities such as New York City and Seattle, which often are cited as some of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, and the structure also is popular in Europe.

Curb-protected lanes are considered one of the safest urban cycling paths within the cycling community, and some street designers also favor them for their aesthetics.

"We look at this as much more than just putting in bike lanes," said Mike Amsden, assistant director of transportation planning at the Chicago Department of Transportation. "We want to make the street a great street."

To date, the city has installed more than 53 miles of protected bike lanes, which include the use of painted buffer lines and plastic posts that aim to separate car and bike traffic. But the curb-protected lane, a first for Chicago, is more durable, looks better and more clearly shows cyclists and cars where to go, Amsden said.

EXTRA: Breaking down Chicago's bike lanes

The city and state worked together on the proposed bike lanes and are taking public comment through Thursday on the proposal. Those wanting to comment may email the state at DOT.D1.ClybournPBL@illinois.gov. In the past, the state has balked at installing bike lanes on state roads—which Clybourn is.

Neither state nor city officials would say whether curb-protected lanes are the future of Chicago street design.

"What we want to do is take a closer look at the impact, specifically in Chicago, on state routes, to get a better understanding of how they would operate," said Guy Tridgell, an Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman. Amsden echoed those sentiments.

In other cities, criticism of curb-protected bike lanes mostly has come from motorists concerned that the bike lanes would increase congestion and take away parking spaces, according to Christopher Monsere, a professor at Portland State University who has researched the effectiveness of various urban bike lanes.

Indeed, if the curbed bike lanes are installed on that stretch of Clybourn, parking could be reduced to one side of the street, eliminating close to half of the on-street parking, according to planners.

But, Monsere said, in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere, some motorists and cyclists say they feel the curb-protected bike lanes have made their commutes safer.

"We've looked at studies in Portland and [Washington,] D.C., and people have a perception that things will get worse, but if you look at the data, it hasn't," Monsere said. "Many motorists report that the protected bikeways help them. They like the separation between bikes and cars. It makes bicycle travel more predictable."

Monsere pointed to studies of traffic on Kinzie Street on the Near North Side, which showed that travel times decreased on the street following the installation of a protected bike lane there.

EXTRA: New bike lanes in the Loop?

Once the curb-protected lanes go in on Clybourn, transit officials are hoping to reduce the rate of motorists going faster than the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit, which is at 65 percent now. They also want to reduce the chance of collisions for the roughly 100 cyclists who use the road during its peak hours. The proposal notes that the approximately 1-mile stretch where the lane would be installed also saw more than 400 crashes in five years, and the death of cyclist Bobby Cann, who was hit by a car while biking home from work in the northbound lane in 2013.

Officials said they are optimistic that the state will move forward with plans to construct the curb protection, which would cost an estimated $500,000, but they also presented an alternative plan for buffer-protected bike lanes, which are created using paint, but no barriers, and would require cutting only a few parking spots.

Julie Hochstadter, 35, of Ravenswood, a regular bicycle commuter who takes Clybourn to her job in River North, said she thinks the new curb-protected bike lane would make her feel safer by preventing cars from idling or parking in the bike lanes.

"This is the first time where they're really making it obvious to cars that this is not your place," she said. "A lot of cars in Chicago don't get it."

Hochstadter, who is the director of the Chainlink, an online forum for city cyclists, said she also is hoping the curb-protected lane proposal will inspire more bicycle infrastructure improvements, both on city roads and roads that fall under the purview of IDOT.

"I want to see whatever they can do to minimize conflicts between parked cars, moving cars and cyclists," she said.

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