If you are a cyclist who regularly rides from Pilsen or Chinatown to the South Loop, you probably know what it’s like to ride on 18th Street.
It’s not too bad at the beginning of the ride, but as you continue to head east, you will encounter an open metal grate bridge. The grooves of the bridge can make riding slippery, almost treacherous, especially in snowy or rainy weather.
Chicago cyclist and writer Steven Vance has written in great detail about open metal grate bridges in Chicago that lack panels to make riding on bridges safer. The 18th Street bridge is one of them.
“It’s not safe to ride over the bridge now in its current state,” said Renee duBois, a 35-year-old Pilsen resident and avid cyclist who rides year-round. duBois rides the 18th Street bridge as part of her daily commute to work. “I ride all over the city, in traffic that most people can’t deal with, but riding that bridge is risking your life.”
Not long after you ride past the bridge, four lanes of traffic abruptly narrow into two lanes of traffic. Bikers are forced to squeeze in between motorists in order to continue their ride down 18th — no easy feat, since part of this route requires riding under a viaduct, which does not provide much room for multiple motorists or cyclists.
The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) hopes to allay some of the above concerns with its current project, which aims to install the city’s second set of protected bike lanes along 18th Street by the end of this year. The project will include installing bridge plates over the open metal grates of the 18th Street Bridge in 2012. The city’s first set of protected bike lanes were completed in July, along Kinzie Street, between Milwaukee Avenue and Wells Street. The protected bike lanes on 18th Street will be installed between Canal Street and Clark Street, in order to better connect the Pilsen, Chinatown and University Village neighborhoods.
These bike lane projects are part of Mayor Emanuel’s push to make Chicago more bike-friendly. He has said he hopes to eventually install over 100 miles of protected bike lanes in the city.
CDOT Bikeways Project Manager Mike Amsden explained that one of the reasons 18th Street was chosen as the next spot for protected bike lanes was because it a project that could be completed quickly.
“18th Street was one of those streets where there was definitely room for lanes,” Amsden said. “We’re trying to do locations that we know we can do quickly, where we’re not going to face resistance or run into complex engineering issues.”
CDOT studies found that there are high rates of motor vehicles speeding on 18th Street, especially over the bridge. A 24-hour traffic count taken by the CDOT this past August between Canal and Wentworth found that 49 percent of vehicles out of 10,243 exceeded the speed limit. Installing protected bike lanes will require CDOT to remove a lane of traffic on both sides of the street, which will eliminate high amounts of motor vehicle traffic.
Amsden said less traffic will lead to less speeding, less aggressive driving, and will better organize traffic.
“Ultimately, it’s a safety improvement project for bicyclists, but it also slows down motor vehicles,” Amsden said. “It’s all about trying to balance our roadways for all users.
“We look at the projects holistically. It’s not just a bike improvement project,” Amsden added. “We call them ‘safety improvements’ because it’s about improving transportation for all motorists.”
Still, others are critical of the areas CDOT has chosen for its first protected bike lanes. Some cyclists, such as Jerod Walz, a 27-year-old biker from Humboldt Park and sales lead at Rapid Transit Cycleshop on Halsted, are skeptical about protected bike lanes in general.
Walz said he fears that protected bike lanes could make casual riders more complacent. His worry is that it will be harder for riders to anticipate unexpected dangers when they assume they are entirely protected by the new lanes, especially in situations when a car pulls over to the side of the road and into the protected bike lane, even though it is against the law to do so.
“More than a protected bike lane, I would rather see money spent educating both sides,” Walz said. “A lot of the trouble I’ve had as a biker comes from a lack of understanding between cyclists and motorists. I would rather see a shift in thinking than a shift in available bike lanes. I can find a shoulder and ride on it. Pay for education.”
Chicago bicycle attorney Brendan H. Kevenides, author of the blog The Chicago Bicycle Advocate, has high hopes for what protected bike lanes will do for cyclists in the city. However, he thinks if protected bike lanes are going to work, police will need to do a better job of ticketing motorists who do not respect them.
“It certainly makes bicyclists angry,” said Kevenides, a bicyclist who cycles to work every day. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we finally got something that’s ours, to keep everyone out’, and now you have this cab stopped in the bike lane. I’ve seen it several times on Kinzie. I think what you need there is more enforcement.”
Kevenides said he thinks there will definitely be motorist backlash to the new protected lanes, but it will be “a negative we can live with.”
“I think motorists will get over it,” Kevenides said. “I think some of these motorists will turn into cyclists once we get more lanes that can get you from Point A to Point B entirely on a protected lane. I think motorists will soften to the idea. I suppose that’s my hope, anyway.”