How does the city decide where to put new bike lanes?

David Smith, complete streets manager at the Chicago Department of Transportation, sat down for an interview recently to answer cyclists’ most pressing questions.

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City contractors begin work on new bike lanes on North Milwaukee Avenue near North California Avenue in September of 2020.

City contractors begin work on new bike lanes on North Milwaukee Avenue near North California Avenue in September of 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

When WBEZ asked Chicago cyclists to sound off on biking in the city, one question kept coming up: How does the city decide where to put bike lanes?

As biking season gears up, WBEZ posed that question and more to David Smith, complete streets manager at the Chicago Department of Transportation — and an avid biker.

David Smith of CDOT

David Smith of CDOT


Smith’s team at CDOT handles the bulk of the planning and design work around bike lanes, pedestrian improvements, transit projects and overall traffic safety.

“The philosophy behind complete streets is to design our streets so that everybody can move around safely and comfortably, regardless of your age, your ability or your mode of transportation,” he said.

Here’s an edited interview with Smith:

How does the city decide where to add lanes?

We’ve got a couple of different programs that we’re working on to build out the city’s bike network. One [is] called the neighborhood bike network effort. This is something that we started in 2021 with the communities of Belmont Cragin and Austin and North Lawndale. ...

We started with a ground-up approach, identifying the places that people need to get to within the neighborhood and then from there worked with folks in the community to figure out which streets make the most sense to connect people to those places.

We’re also looking at ... either converting existing bike lanes to protected bike lanes or enhancements to existing protected bike lanes [and] filling in gaps within the network.

What does the city do to maintain existing bike lanes?

We restriped existing bike lanes and things like the delineators [the flexible posts that cordon off some bike lanes] get replaced if those are damaged. We’re doing things on certain streets like ... installing [a] concrete curb to provide a bit more separation from people biking and people driving.

Something that we’re rolling out this year that we’re really excited about is a focus on bus stops and bike lanes. ... [We’re] providing more space for people who are using transit to wait at the bus stop and to more easily access the bus, while at the same time increasing the level of separation for someone biking.

What are the consequences for blocking a bike lane? And how is that enforced?

Well, it’s illegal to block a bike lane. I don’t know offhand what the penalty is or what the fee is, but it’s very clear that it’s illegal to park or to stand or to drive in a bike lane.

Is there somewhere that bikers could report that if a bike lane is blocked?

We really encourage people to report that into the 311 system., which is the city’s formal official tracking database.

One thing that we heard a lot from our survey is that cyclists felt like there are not enough east-west bike lanes.

Our vision is to have a connected network across the entire city so you can go north, south, east, west. East-west there are some kind of unique barriers in the river and the expressway that provide some challenges and connectivity issues.

How does the city address biking safety concerns?

One of our big focuses right now is building out a network of low-stress bicycle infrastructure. By low stress, we’re talking about protected bike lanes, neighborhood bike routes and ... off-street trails.

We’re going through a number of streets and lowering the speed limit to 20 miles per hour, and we’ve done that on both neighborhood residential streets and some commercial streets.

We look at how these neighborhood routes [and ask], do they get you across a busy intersection? Is there a traffic signal or an all-way stop to get you across? And we found that by coupling protected bike lanes on commercial streets and arterial streets with these neighborhood bike routes, it’s really the recipe for making everyone feel comfortable and making cycling a realistic option for more.


A biker uses the then new protected bike lane near North Milwaukee Avenue and North Washtenaw Avenue in Palmer Square in October 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Are there plans for more protected bike lanes in the future?

Yes, absolutely. Last year, we installed about as many protected bike lanes as ever in the city. The number of low-stress routes, protected bike lanes plus neighborhood greenways is increasing dramatically. We’ve never done more than we are right now and that trend is going to continue.

Where can people find the most up-to-date information on bike lanes ?

On the city’s website, we produce an annual bike map, which will be coming out in the next couple of weeks for 2022.

What do you imagine the future of bike infrastructure looks like in Chicago?

It’s been very exciting over the last decade to see the demographic of who’s riding a bike expand incredibly. That really is a testament to the infrastructure, to the success of our bike share system, to various policies and programs. I think having cycling as a really reliable, comfortable option for everyone across the city is where we’re headed.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.

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