28 April 2011

Better Bike Routes

In discussions with Chicago friends who would like to bike in the city but do not, one thing I invariably hear is that they "don't want to ride in traffic". A lot of this has to do with non-cyclists' conceptions of safety, but still, I can't say that I blame them. In spite of what the vehicular cycling lobby would have you believe, most normal people would rather not cruise along next to several tons of careening steel. I've been on two wheels for primary transport for a few years now and often still get a little antsy when thrown into the mix against some of the most aggressive, least-forgiving drivers I've ever encountered (and I've driven in Tijuana). The city's official bike routes recognize this fact, which is why certain busy streets like Western or North Avenues are advised against. And yet a street like Milwaukee Avenue, which in it's current alignment only is wide enough for a shared lane, is a recommended route, with the highest concentration of cyclists. It is also where I have had most of my closest calls with being doored. Most of the time, Milwaukee's really not so bad. While I do subscribe to the "safety in numbers" argument, get out there during rush hour with idling cars backed up for a couple blocks in that narrow little gap between the parked ones, with a dozen or so other cyclists hot on your tail, and there's not much room for error.

I've lived in Chicago for going on eight years now, and I've resided that entire time west of Western Avenue, in various parts of the Humboldt Park, Avondale and Logan Square neighborhoods. This area easily has one of the highest rates of cycling per capita in the city, but only a fraction of the infrastructure that you would find further east. One part of the problem is the damage inflicted on the built environment by the Kennedy Expressway. Many side streets which used to have throughput now dead-end at a 300-foot-wide wall of concrete and congestion. As experience has shown, this has a deleterious effect on local traffic flows, forcing more cars onto fewer surface streets. As the traffic on those streets has gotten heavier, the conditions for cycling on them have deteriorated in hand.

So as a person who simply wishes to reach his destination without being flattened, and while breathing as little exhaust as possible, I often take to the side streets. It's easier than it sounds, what with Chicago being on a neat, tidy little grid and all. But finding quiet streets that intersect busy ones at places where it is possible to cross them is rather trickier. Illinois motorists are required by law to stop if you're in a crosswalk, but I've yet to see many people actually do so. But breathe easier, timid near-northwest side denizens! I've done the work so you don't have to. Behold, a new map to get you where you're going in one piece:

As you can see, I focused primarily on the Logan Square, Avondale and West Town community areas, as that is the section of the city I have the most familiarity with. You may also see that Lincoln Park already has a much more extensive network than the lower-income neighborhoods west of the river. 

It is certainly not perfect, this is still very much a work-in-progress and subject to many future revisions. I apologize that I was unable to include labels on this version, due to it's small size. I am open to any suggestions that any of you may have. The red lines indicate current, CDOT-approved routes, the yellow ones are mine, and the orange are where they overlap. Many of the streets are one-ways, which could make a case for the city building more contraflow bike lanes (we have a grand total of ONE so far) or bike boulevards. Many of these side streets have speed humps or pretty awful potholes in some places, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to make for the sake of having the entire street to myself for blocks at a time. I have steel rims, anyhow.

Another issue is access over the Chicago River (link to Steve Vance's map of "untreated" bridges). Diversey is an official route, but personally I hate using that bridge on a bike. Webster and Kinzie are much quieter in terms of traffic, and make for good bike routes, but they are open-grate bridges which always feel like they are going to shred my steel-belted tires. Cortland is the only bridge across the North Branch with the combination of relatively low speeds and a surface safe for bikes, but that doesn't do you much good if you have to go a mile out of your way to get to it.

Much work needs to be done to provide citywide routes safe enough for people to overcome their fears and get onto bikes. Ultimately, I'd love to see separated infrastructure all over the place, but realistically it could be decades. But with this guy coming in to head Mayor Emanuel's version of CDOT, we might just get lucky.

UPDATE: 4/28 6:32pm

I've fixed the kml layer that was at the base of the map, no small feat as Google Maps constantly crashes on me. My own fault for not labeling it as I was going along. So now, a version with labels. You're welcome. Full size available here.

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