Raised bike lanes to be installed in Chicago to better protect cyclists

Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said Chicago’s cycling plan is “a decade old” so it’s time to update it.

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A “Copenhagen style” bike lane in Melbourne, Australia.

Chicago wouldn’t be the first city to copy Denmark’s bicycle lanes. This is a “Copenhagen style” bike lane in Melbourne, Australia.

Wikimedia Commons

If Copenhagen can install raised bike lanes to prevent motorists from invading space reserved for cyclists, why can’t Chicago try it?

Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi asked essentially that question on Tuesday during a virtual address to the Rotary Club of Chicago, then answered it in a way that delighted her fellow cyclists.

Biagi noted Chicago’s cycling plan is “a decade old.” It’s high-time to “update the technology, think differently about it and get some of those measures and policies in place where we can do the carrot and the stick at the same time,” she said.

“Our curb management planning will be taking on these issues. Whether it’s enforcement. Whether it’s some street design that we can do. How do we set the conditions so we’re actually creating places where pick-ups and drop-offs — there’s a way that it’s less of an impediment,” the commissioner said.

“We’re also experimenting with raised bike lanes, by the way. You see those in Copenhagen, one of my favorite cities to cycle around,” Biagi said.

“We’re not Copenhagen,” she added, but the city is exploring ways to “embed into the infrastructure” bike lanes that keep cars out. It also makes enforcement easier: “It’s very clear: I don’t have to be here to ticket you. You can’t even use this space.”

Audrey Wennink, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, said raised bike lanes “should be an option in the tool kit.” But Chicago desperately needs more protected bike lanes of all types, whether they’re raised or separated by bollards, curbs, parked cars or other barriers.

The Streets for Cycling Plan identified about 645 miles of “different levels of bike lanes” to be delivered by 2020. So far, the city has installed “about half of them,” she said.

“If we want to have people of a range of ages cycling, they need to feel safe. And a lot of people will only choose to ride in protected lanes. So we need to offer more of that,” Wennink said.

What the Metropolitan Planning Council really wants to see is the “build-out of networks of bike lanes” to make cycling viable, Wennink said.

“We see a lot of patchworks of installations that are often related to aldermanic priorities,” she said.

“You need to have bike lanes go a certain distance — connecting all the way from neighborhoods to downtown. If you want people to ride their bike to work, they need to have a safe pathway all the way from where they start to their destination.” 

Kyle Whitehead, a spokesman for the Active Transportation Alliance, agreed Chicago “needs more protective bike lanes” — not necessarily raised bike lanes.

“When we provide physical separation between people on bikes and cars and trucks, then more people ride and everybody is safer,” Whitehead said.

A biker uses the new protected bike lane near North Milwaukee Avenue and North Washtenaw Avenue in Logan Square Friday afternoon, Oct. 2, 2020.

A protected bike lane along Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago’s first protected bike lane was installed on Kinzie Street nearly 10 years ago. That was followed by what Whitehead called a “burst of activity” during the first two years of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, then a dramatic slowdown.

“The last few years, we’ve had very few new miles of new protected bike lanes. That’s a priority for us as an organization. I don’t think that technology needs to be updated. We know what needs to be done. The city needs to be working more aggressively to build out this infrastructure in communities across the city,” Whitehead said.

Biagi said she would like to do “protected lanes everywhere,” but it “doesn’t work in all situations,” particularly not in “retail environments” where street parking is a necessity.

She noted Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to add 100 miles of bike lanes and the city will reach that benchmark later this year. Still, “I’d rather have one mile of the best connections — of filling in the gaps in the network — than the big muscly statistics.”

During a question-and-answer session Biagi also talked about the problems posed by having CDOT responsible for removing snow from bike lanes and the Department of Streets and Sanitation plow city streets.

“What you had this year was, our friend at Streets — they plowed the road and the snow would go in the bike lane. We plowed the bike lane and the snow would go either in the bike lane or the road. And they’d plow it back in the bike lane,” she said.

“We’re working on that. We have recently bought bike sweepers. They’re sweeping machines so we can get at those lanes. It’s definitely something that, as we expand the network, we [need to] continue to do better.”

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