Can Chicago hit 30 miles of green lanes before the snow flies?

September 17, 2012

John Greenfield

No one can accuse Mike Amsden of being lazy. Amsden, project director with the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) bicycle program, has the job of implenting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan of building 150 miles of green lanes (110 miles protected and 40 miles buffered) by 2015. This first struck me as a Herculean task, but the CDOT team has made significant traction already and Amsden says that if all goes well, by the of the year they’ll be on track to meet their target.

The first 150 miles will be part of the city’s grand scheme to create a 645-mile network of various types of bikeways within decade, which would ensure that every Chicagoan has a route, lane or trail within a half mile of his or her home. The proposal, called the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan, is the product of a robust public input process, with two rounds of community meetings held on all sides of the city. The final plan should be released in October.

Amsden took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to give me an update on CDOT’s progress installing the lanes, and what’s on the horizon, including the two-way protected lane on Dearborn Street in the heart of the Loop downtown business district that promises to be a game changer.

How many protected and buffered lanes have you built this year?

Approximately 5 miles of protected and 5 miles of buffered, about 10 miles.

And how many miles of green lanes are we up to in Chicago altogether?

Right now we’re at 6.5 miles of protected and just over 6 miles of buffered, 12.5 miles.

Realistically what are you looking to complete by the end of this year?

A lot of it’s dependent on resurfacing. We have a lot of resurfacing jobs that will be starting here shortly. So assuming that all goes according to plan with the resurfacing we’re looking at about another 8 miles of protected and about 10 miles of buffered, about 18 miles total.

What are some of the streets that would be included in that?

As far as protected bike lanes go, 31st Street is one we’ve been talking about for a while. That’s scheduled to be resurfaced this fall. The West Side boulevards are still moving ahead. Des Plaines Street in the West Loop. Dearborn, obviously we’ve talked about. And we’re still looking at trying to do something on Jackson Boulevard.

So the two-way bike lane on Dearborn might actually get done this year?

That’s our goal.

When does the construction season usually end?

The only date I know, and by no means is it official from CDOT, we stop striping around the middle of November. But that’s always dependent on weather so that can vary from your to year. Last year it went a little later than that.

October might be a really busy month for you.

Yeah, the rest of September and October will be very busy for us.

Well that’s very exciting. So do you have an estimates for how much a mile of conventional, buffered and protected bike lane costs nowadays?

These are very early averages and likely to fluctuate, but standard lanes cost about $50,000 per mile, buffered lanes are about $85,000 per mile and protected lanes are about $170,000 per miles. But they vary a lot at this point because all of our designs have been so different. We’re getting cheaper as we go along. Nowadays we’re using fewer bollards. And our designs have become a lot more uniform, whereas on Kinzie was the first time we ever did it so we had a lot of striping that we don’t do anymore. For example, now we’re only using green paint at conflict points, not at every intersection. We don’t use it at, like, four-way stops anymore, where you should inherently not have a conflict.¬†

So if you’re able to build everything that you want to build this year, what grand total will that bring you up to?

Just over 30 miles.

You were hoping to be at 33 miles this year?

Correct.

So that’s not too far behind schedule.

It’s right around there.

Obvious there are a lot of X factors in terms of weather and resurfacing and whatever issues might come up with the community.

There always are. [Laughs.]

An example of that was what we discussed with [3rd Ward] Alderman Dowell and King Drive in her ward. So is that still happening? King Drive is getting a buffered lane and State Street is getting a protected lane?

Correct.

Have there been any other unforeseen challenges in building the protected lanes?

I don’t think anything unforeseen. I think everything that we’ve encountered has been things that we’ve expected or challenges we heard about from other cities. A lot of is just that’s it’s a change, it’s so different, it’s taking out lanes, it’s consolidating parking. We’re learning as we go along in terms of how semi trucks can operate on streets, what kind of loading operations are needed, etcetera, but nothing really unforeseen.

Have you learned anything exciting while you’ve been doing this? Like have there been any unexpected cool things that have happened while you’ve been going through this process of getting the bike lanes installed?

I think it’s been pretty interesting to see the variety of reactions we’ve gotten from both bicyclists and non-bicyclists. It’s very true that some people love ’em and some people hate ’em. But I think it’s good to start that conversation. It shows that there’s demand for more infrastructure. It’s been exciting to roll something new out and educate people at the same time. And we’re trying to do something really quick, which hasn’t really been done before.

What’s the funding source for all of these lanes?

To date it’s been general operating money and then Tax Increment Financing money, and menu money [the $1.3 million in discretionary funds budget to chicago aldermen for projects in their wards] as well.

But eventually you’ll be using the $40 million federal [a nd local Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement] grant. So the Dearborn lane, that’s going to be a big deal.

Yes.

That’s already designed?

Not wholly, no. The striping is really the easy part for that project. It’s a pretty consistent roadway throughout the whole project limits. The biggest difference with Dearborn, and it’s something new, is that we’ll have bicycle traffic signals at every single intersection. So that’s what’s going to make it different from any other project we’ve done to-date. So that’s one more step in the design process.

That’s going to be on the left side of the street?

Correct.

Have you guys been doing much outreach with the nearby property owners who might be affected by it?

We will be. We’ve been working with the alderman’s office. We’ve been working with the Active Transportation Alliance [the local sustainable transportation advocacy group] to get names of businesses. Yeah, we’re definitely going to be doing some heavy outreach out there, starting very shortly.

But so far you haven’t really heard any opposition to it?

No, none to date. But I expect we’ll get some opposition as we move forward here.

All right. Any other thoughts about the process of protecting bike lanes here or what’s going on in the future?

The biggest change that we’ll see as we move forward is that people will soon start seing a network and continuity in the network. Right now it’s only been a year into it. It’s going to take a little bit of time to build that network. But in the near future you’re going to be able to ride from Elston Avenue and North Avenue on a protected lane down to Milwaukee Avenue [already a popular bike commuting route.]

We’ve been hearing, and we know, how much Milwaukee needs to be improved. So that’s one of our next projects to tackle, improving Milwaukee from Elston down to Kinzie. If we can do that we can get people on Kinzie over to Dearborn, down Dearborn through the Loop to Harrison Street. Then you can scoot over a couple blocks to the nice buffered bike lanes on Wabash Street to get you down to State Street. You’ll be able to head a long distance on, if not protected, then at least buffered bike lanes, for miles at a time. That will be a really big change and, I think, well-received, instead of just looking at looking at piecemeal projects.

What kind of treatment are they talking about doing on Milwaukee from Elston to Kinzie now?

We’re just starting to look at it. We’re not eliminating any possibilities at this point. We realize how important of a street that is, especially that stretch. So we’ve just started thinking about it internally. We don’t have anything done to-date. But you’ll be hearing a lot more about that as we move forward.

Photo of Mike Amsden in Amsterdam on a Bikes Belong-sponsored  fact-finding trip courtesy of Bikes Belong. Photo of crew painting the 18th Street protected lane green courtesy of the Metropolitan Planning Council. Elston Avenue buffered (and protected in other locations) bike lane by Steven Vance. Photos of (under construction) buffered bike lanes under a flag arch on the Paseo Boricua and the Kinzie Street protected lanes by John Greenfield.
See all Protected Bike Lanes blog entries

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