09 July 2010

The Bicycle Commuter's Blues

Despite the complaints I leveled in my last post, riding a bike in Chicago is mostly not so bad. There are the maniac cabbies, the summer humidity, the winter ice, but 95% of the time it's a breeze. But every cyclist has their own personal donnybrooks...those spots where all rules of the road go out the window in a quest for survival. The route I follow from home to downtown and back again uses Milwaukee Avenue, possibly the most heavily trafficked street by Chicago cyclists, and as good a candidate for a cycle superhighway as ever there was one. Just because it's the street of choice connecting downtown with points northwest doesn't mean it's always optimal, however. I give you the top seven worst cycling locations from my commute.

1. Milwaukee & Kinzie/Desplaines

Let's start at the end of the line, where Milwaukee ends and feeds you onto Kinzie and into River North & the Loop.

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This is by far my least favorite intersection. Car traffic is generally heavy, especially during rush hour, and getting across to the turn lane is sometimes nearly impossible. The left turn signal cycle is exceptionally short for such a broad intersection, only enough time for one bike to make it across legally. Unsurprisingly, the bicycle crash density in this location is quite high.

Solution: Bike box for left turns and Amsterdam-style traffic signals giving priority to turning bikes.

2. Milwaukee & Elston

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What happens when two diagonals meet? My problem here is on the northwest-bound side of Milwaukee as you approach Elston. The lane for cars turning onto Elston is very short and cars must often cross the bike lane at the last minute to merge. Once again we see a high density of crashes.

Solution: Disallow street parking on the north side of Milwaukee between Chicago & Elston to give drivers more space to change lanes.

3. Milwaukee & Wood/Wolcott

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This intersection is a mess for so many reasons. The odd angle and the placement of the traffic lights make for confusion on the part of many drivers, cyclists & pedestrians, and once again, a high density of crashes.

Solution: I like what Norsman Architects has proposed, bulb-outs to slow traffic and a realignment of Wood & Wolcott so they meet one another head on. (Incidentally, this is also the location of the Walgreens store which I have discussed in previous posts.)

4. Milwaukee between Wood & North

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Just beyond that intersection things get pretty dicey during rush hour. The street narrows slightly cutting the amount of clearance for bikes. Automotive traffic is usually backed up quite some distance and cars are parked all along the right side, making it feel like riding through a canyon. Parked cars are constantly swinging open doors and jaywalkers dart out from between them. Bike traffic also usually gets bottlenecked in this stretch. To make matters worse, delivery vehicles often double-park in the bike lane.

Solution: Dare I say it? Eliminate parking and install a separated bike lane.

5. Milwaukee & Western

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Not such a bad intersection really, except for the entrance to the McDonald's parking lot on Milwaukee. Drivers come in and out with no regard to the bike lane or pedestrians on the sidewalk, and honestly I can't see any good reason to have a parking entrance so close to a major intersection.

6. Palmer & Humboldt/Sacramento

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I have no idea what the city traffic engineers were thinking when they adapted Palmer Square for automobile use. The city has recently painted a nice bike lane around it, but the westbound entrance to the square still poses problems. If you are traveling west on Palmer and wish to continue on doing so, you have to watch out that somebody isn't coming around the little half-roundabout and deciding to cut over at the last moment to make a right onto Sacramento. You on your bicycle are all but invisible to them, since there are cars parked in the middle of the street at nearly all hours.

Solution: Cars shouldn't be allowed to park in the middle of the street!

7. Logan Square

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Not actually part of my daily commute, but I have to deal with it all the time since I live nearby. If you enter any part of the sort-of roundabout on a bike, it is very confusing which lane to use, and drivers are less than forgiving. There's been talk by the city of rerouting Milwaukee to make it a true roundabout, I'll believe that when I see it. Anyhow, it doesn't quite answer the question of how to ride safely southbound on Kedzie, or eastbound from Wrightwood to Logan/Milwaukee.

Solution: Integrate bicycle infrastructure such as separated lanes in any redesign scheme.

Easy right? Anybody else care to share their least favorite places to cycle?

03 July 2010

Everybody Loves the Sunshine

Everything old is new again. Was flipping through one of those Taschen photo books at a friend's house recently and this caught my eye. A quartet of young Berliners enjoying their "green roof" in 1926. Enjoy the long weekend, everybody.

01 July 2010

The World Laps Chicago

Since the World Cup is on it's two-day break before the quarterfinals begin, I have a chance to think about things less important. A few years back, Chicago was held up as a shining example of what big cities could do with bicycle infrastructure when the civic elites set their minds to it. Then, apparently, Mayor Daley got distracted by his dreams of Olympic glory, selling off the rights to the city's parking meters, inventing new ways to use the English language and who knows what else. Nowadays, a lot more is happening in New York, London & Mexico City than here at home.

I've been reading about what transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is doing in New York for the last couple of years with great envy. It wasn't until I finally booked myself a trip to London later this year that I realized how much we've slipped. As we all know, London is a sprawling metropolis, and as excellent as their transit system is, I've grown so accustomed to getting around by bike that I figured it would help out my patience and my wallet to do so during my visit. They don't have an ideal system in place just yet, and reading the comments on various posts on the Guardian's bike blog would indicate that there is still a very, very long way to go. But let's run down what's coming down the pike just this summer...400 bike share stations throughout the center city and completion of the first two "cycle superhighways". All under the aegis of a Conservative mayor in need of a new hairstyle who rides a bike to work. The city is spending £110 million just this year, a big chunk of which is coming from Barclays, who get naming rights to the programs and even get to put their logo on the maintenance crew's uniforms. But what impressed me more than anything is that the city's bicycle plan is totally integrated within the framework of Transport for London (TfL), the government body charged with running the Tube and double-deckers. Go to TfL's website and you can find an entire section with information on bike sharing, route planning and even a page where users can upload their own routes into a Google Maps mashup.

Again, the system isn't perfect, one of the largest flaws being that bikes aren't allowed on subway trains and only on buses "at the driver's discretion". However, it really got me thinking about the RTA here in Chicago. Public transit planners worldwide struggle with the dilemma of the "last mile". Including bikes in the equation would make transit a lot more attractive, especially in the suburbs, but of course only if adequate infrastructure exists to ride them on. This is something London really isn't too far ahead of us on, traffic has decreased since congestion pricing went into effect, but it's still pretty horrendous. And those streets are narrow, some London streets could fit into a single lane in a place like Schaumburg.

Speaking of lane width, I remember hearing an anecdote once about how the Mexican government promised to double the total mileage of the Mexico City's freeways by the end of a certain year. Money for the project either dried up or was siphoned off and the authorities simply doubled the number of lanes by remarking the roads and claimed it as a success. Nowadays I guess we would call this a road diet. The effect of these sorts of actions just made room for more cars, and now the city government is attempting to undo some of the ill effects, notably the infamous air pollution. A few years back they introduced the hoy no circula scheme, which restricts drivers from using their cars on a certain day each week based on the last number on their license plate. Now, the local government is pushing bikes as the ultimate solution and has begun by expanding bike parking, installing ramps down stairs into Metro stations, bike boxes, pedestrian bollards, bike sharing, all that good stuff.

None of this stuff is all that difficult. Chicago had a deal in the works for a bike share program a couple of years ago that fell apart, and is now tentatively moving forward with 100 bikes at six stations. Six. Compared with 400 in London, where stations will be no more than 400 meters apart, which do you think will be more successful? Despite Complete Streets design measures being passed by the city, county and state, I've seen very little in the way of new bike lanes, bike parking, bike anything over the past couple years. There has been some stirrings of support for bike boulevards and the like, but it seems like the grassroots support falls on deaf ears at CDOT, possibly because the agency just named it's sixth commissioner in five years? Mayor Daley set a very ambitious course five years ago with his Bike 2015 Plan...unfortunately, the amount of work left to do is daunting.