Chicago: Getting Ready for the Green Lane ‘Breakthrough’

August 31, 2012

John Greenfield

Last week dozens of engineers and planners from across the Chicago area converged on the Sears Tower to learn about green lanes and other new developments in bike facility design. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s official planning organization, hosted this workshop, ?Designing for Bicycle Safety,? led by veteran transportation engineer John LaPlante.

The Green Lane Project’s Martha Roskowski flew in from Boulder to deliver the keynote address, helping to get the audience excited about the brave new world of protected bike lane design. And Randy Neufeld, a leader in promoting sustainable transportation in Chicago and internationally, gave an update on green lane efforts in the Windy City.

During the six-hour seminar LaPlante, a former head of the Chicago Department of Transportation and current director of traffic engineering for T.Y. Lin International, discussed strategies for safe and effective bikeway design. The talk included an overview of the new Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Topics covered bikeway marking and signing, intersection design, multiuse paths, bicycle boulevards, bike boxes, parking and more.

To kick off the discussion, Roskowski provided background on the Green Lane Project, a two-year campaign to help six U.S. cities build world-class networks of protected bike lanes. The project, which is working with local leaders in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Austin, Memphis, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, is an initiative of Bikes Belong, a national advocacy group funded by the cycling industry.

?Just over a year ago, Randy and I started talking about protected lanes and their ability to really transform cities,? Roskowski said. ?Along with bike share, they are one of the two things that cities are doing that really change the landscape and quickly get more people on bikes. So we had this idea to do a two-year campaign to work with the cities that were making the most progress.?

Although only 32 cities were invited to apply for the six slots, there was enough interest in the project that 43 cities sent in applications. ?What was really exciting those was that it wasn’t just the normal cities that you think of as being progressive on bikes, you know, Madison and Portland and Boulder,? Roskowski said. ?It was Omaha, and Wichita and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Dallas and Salt Lake City that were all saying, ?We need to change how we’re doing things.??

She discussed different ways the Green Lane Project is providing support for the six participating cities. One strategy is to engage local decision makers in the campaign. For several years Bikes Belong has been taking officials from U.S. cities over to Europe to show them how separated bike lanes work in places like Amsterdam and Seville, Spain. In June the advocacy they took delegations from Portland, San Francisco and Chicago to Denmark.

One of the Chicago politicians who went was Alderman Pat Dowell from the city’s South Side. ?It was great to have an alderman like Pat Dowell there because she came into it fairly skeptical,? Roskowski said. ?The department of transportation wanted to put a protected lane through her ward and she said, ?I have concerns about this; I?m not sure it’s going to work.? And she came back saying, ?I need a bicycle so I can bike from my home to my office, and I want to make sure that the city is investing in the South Side.? She really came back seeing the benefits of biking and committed to being an ambassador in her community.?

Since green lanes are a new phenomenon is this country, Roskowski said transportation professionals who are being asked to build them don’t have a lot models to emulate. ?We can go to Europe and look at how they do it but we have a different regulatory structure and we have different engineering guidelines,? she said. ?So the engineers and designers are really hungry to talk to each other and figure out how to create better facilities.? Here the Green Lane Project can help out by helping disseminate info about intersection treatments, bike-specific traffic signals, bollards, how and when to use green pavement marking, and other topics.

Next Roskowski provided a rundown of what’s happening in the Green Lane Project cities. ?Portland is leading right now on how to do protected bike lane design on a very, very low budget,? she said. ?Everybody has financial woes but Portland is figuring our how to do these on the dime.?

A lawsuit by a disgruntled driver stalled San Francisco’s bike projects for five years. ?But now the injunction has been lifted and they have some bond money so they’re going great guns,? Roskowski said. ?They?re looking at how they can do innovative pilot projects on some of their major streets. They recently did one through Golden Gate Park along JFK Drive where they flipped the position of the parked cars and the bike lane, something that a lot of cities are doing.?

Memphis is a particularly interesting case, she said. ?They are a poor, southern city,? she said. ?There isn’t much bike infrastructure yet but they?ve got huge streets, so they have a lot of space to work with.? She showed a slide of a ?guerilla? green lane on a Memphis roadway. ?Folks went out and painted a protected lane three years ago and the city never took it out. It seems to work well. But now they’re envisioning a really cool protected lane to connect their major park to a new rails-to-trails path that’s really popular.?

Washington, D.C., is working on a handful of projects. ?It’s more like downtown Chicago where you have high-traffic streets,? she said. ?They?re still figuring out how to do protected bike lanes, especially what to do about intersections, how to get the bicycle through traffic and the turning cars to all play well together. They?re also looking at building a protected lane right by Union Station.?

In Austin, a new two-way protected lane opened this spring on Rio Grande Street, a one-way roadway near the University of Texas campus. ?They?re cutting the ribbon on another new project on Bluebonnet Lane, even as we speak,? Roskowski said. ?It’s three-quarters of a mile long and it goes by a public school, so the parent group was really supportive of it. It only cost $10,000 to do the striping and the bollards. That’s a pretty cheap way to provide much better bike accommodations.?

Roskowski said Chicago is currently the national leader in building green lanes. ?Mayor Emanuel has promised 33 miles of these by the end of the year,? she said. ?They have close to ten on the ground today. And I?ve been biking around a little bit with Randy for the last day or two. There’s something we call, the ?Aaah Factor.? Which is when you?re biking through downtown Chicago and it’s like, ?Ooh, I?m going to die!? And then you get on one of these protected lanes and it’s like, ?Aaah! OK, I can relax a bit.?

Afterwards Neufeld, a former director of the local advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance and current head of the SRAM Cycling Fund, detailed Chicago’s plans to put a two-way green lane on Dearborn Street through the Loop downtown business district. ?Chicago has done some of these protected bike lanes and they’re pretty exciting,? he said. ?But two Sundays ago the mayor announced they’re going to do Dearborn, and that’s going to be game-changing. It will be a very complex project. But more than that it’s going to be a big advertising splash for this kind of thing. It’s going to affect the character of the Loop.?

?Now when you do something that’s that big it’s exciting and it’s really hard,? Neufeld continued. ?It’s got a whole set of complex signalizations. The engineering is much more difficult than anything they?ve tried before. And it’s also affecting all these different stakeholders. It’s going to attract a whole bunch of new bicyclists and they’re going to have to figure out where to park. So it’s exciting and complex.?

?And if you want a breakthrough you?re going to have to think about that one street in your community that is going to change the story,? Neufeld continued. ?There are examples all over the country. Long Beach, California did a major cycle track along their main drag. Missoula, Montana did too, and there are a bunch of communities that have done that kind of thing.?

?But it’s not going to be easy, so you?re going to need help,? Neufeld said. ?When you do something hard you?re not going to be able to push it from the engineering and planning level. It’s going to come from elected officials and city council and it’s going to have to come from the community.?

?There’s a lot of help around, and there’s a lot of potential to put a team together on these kind of things to give us a breakthrough,? Neufeld concluded. ?Are you ready for a breakthrough??

(Top photo of  Chicago’s Kinzie Street protected lane by Serge Lubomudrov. Photo of JFK Drive protected lane courtesy of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Photos of Alderman Pat Dowell and Randy Neufeld by John Greenfield.)

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