Chicago’s Next Infrastructure Projects, pt. 1: Biking the Boulevards

There has been a recent spurt of news in Chicago about new infrastructure projects reaching completion, beginning construction, and as many new proposals as German goals against Brazil. To say it simply: Chicago’s infrastructure is starting to get some serious attention, but if we want to keep up the good momentum, the city’s citizens and community and planning organizations need to generate ideas for what’s next. There is a layer of projects that are long forgotten as well as new ideas that deserve attention too and this series over the next few weeks will looks at some (very preliminary) ideas for what we should start planning next. The projects do not included proposals by the City of Chicago, CTA, Active Transportation Alliance (that is, none of this include Transit Future projects) etc… The attempt is to be as original as possible and indeed offer a critique to some more serious ideas already out there to add to the conversation of what our priorities should be as well as what’s plausible. Also, the proposed projects try to mix cheap projects that could be feasibly proposed, planned, and completed in a 2-5 year period as well as projects that may have been much further in the future, but warrant consideration. Now is the time to start this, because the energy for infrastructure improvements is there.

Much like boulevards, the Ringstraße in Vienna, which encircles the city center, provides space for a mix of uses: its green space, has broad bike lanes, sidewalks, trams, and room for automobiles. This is more the image Chicago should embrace for its boulevards.

Much like boulevards, the Ringstraße in Vienna, which encircles the city center, provides space for a mix of uses: its green space, has broad bike lanes, sidewalks, trams, and room for automobiles. This is more the image Chicago should embrace for its boulevards.

The first of these projects looks at bike connectivity in Chicago. Take a gander at the bike routes on Google Maps and one of the most obvious things is despite the large number of routes, the overall connectivity of the entire system is feeble–at best. There are a few consistently long stretches of street that included a dedicated bike lane (Lawrence on the Northwest Side, Damen in Wicker Park, and Halsted through Lakeview and Lincoln Park). Other than these though, few major bike routes extend from one end of a major street to another with dedicated lanes in some form (an exception is Elston, which is in a rather dire state the further north one bikes) and most cyclists must contend with serious gaps in bike infrastructure to move between neighborhoods or even continue along a single street.

While the City and CDOT have done a great job of implementing improved biking infrastructure in the city the gaps in infrastructure are pretty severe. The city’s fantastic grid system and boulevard system are not being taken to full advantage though, and these offer some of the best solutions for improving infrastructure as a whole, but also vasty improving cycling connectivity.

Dedicated bike lanes have been a huge improvement in Chicago, but the city has been slow to embrace protected and curbed bike lines like those more common in places such as Paris or Amsterdam, where extensive bike infrastructure is pervasive throughout the city. Certainly there is truth to the fact that expanding curbed bike lanes would be more expensive and difficult in some places simply because of space availability; what is unfortunate is how the city and CDOT have not taken advantage of a system of streets planned a century ago that provide the space, physical beauty, and calmness to support vastly more extensive bike lanes such as barrier protected or curbed bike lanes: the boulevard system.

This map shows how the city's system of boulevards, which create an arch around the city center from north to south through the West Side could create an until now untold amount of connectivity within the city. The boulevards are particularly ready to be redeveloped with curbed and barrier-protected bike lanes. Additional extensions into surrounding arterials would bring more people to the boulevards and park system.

This map shows how the city’s system of boulevards, which create an arch around the city center from north to south through the West Side could create an until now untold amount of connectivity within the city. The boulevards are particularly ready to be redeveloped with curbed and barrier-protected bike lanes. Additional extensions into surrounding arterial streets would bring more people to the boulevards and park system. New curbed and barrier-protected bike routes are shown in orange.

Building a barrier-protected bike lane or curbed bike lane between Logan Square and Lincoln Park would complete a boulevard bike system that arcs from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park and brings the Logan Square  neighborhood closer to Lakeview and Lincoln Park as well as the lake.

Building a barrier-protected bike lane or curbed bike lane between Logan Square and Lincoln Park would complete a boulevard bike system that arcs from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park and brings the Logan Square neighborhood closer to Lakeview and Lincoln Park as well as the lake.

These are bike infrastructure gold! Their width and the broad planted medians which separate local traffic from the faster center running traffic have plenty of room to accommodate biking and walking paths. The system’s size would bring high-quality bike infrastructure to a huge part of the city too and make the boulevards the park-like thoroughfares they were planned to be. The beautifully planned medians would be like those in Paris or Vienna, which double as community green spaces and plazas and don’t simply fall into the realm of the decorative. Additionally, some of Chicago’s best parks would be easily connected by bike and foot, turning the boulevards into a true web of parks simply by bringing them within reach by means other than the car.

Like in Vienna, the Parisian Boulevard de Clichy near Montmartre includes space for cars, buses, pedestrians and bikes and other activities. Here it is more similar to Chicago though, with large medians as opposed to the wide edges in Vienna.

Like in Vienna, the Parisian Boulevard de Clichy near Montmartre includes space for cars, buses, pedestrians and bikes and other activities. Here it is more similar to Chicago though, with large medians as opposed to the wide edges in Vienna.

Unlike in Paris or Vienna, Chicago's boulevards are relatively quiet although they offer large swaths of space for playgrounds, small athletic facilities, cafés, food cart stands etc., which would liven them up. Bike lanes and walking paths could bring the human density to sustain such activity.

Unlike in Paris or Vienna, Chicago’s boulevards are relatively quiet although they offer large swaths of space for playgrounds, small athletic facilities, cafés, food cart stands etc., which would liven them up. Bike lanes and walking paths could bring the human density to sustain such activity.

Connectivity within the city would take a huge leap forward by utilizing the boulevards as spaces for advanced bike lanes, but such lanes would necessarily have to move beyond the borders of the boulevards to achieve a more interconnected end. While the boulevards would bring places like Humboldt Park, Logan Square and even Hyde Park within closer reach of each other, expanding dedicated and protected bike lanes, particularly curb protected bike lanes, to additional streets in a larger system would dramatically increase the city’s bike infrastructure and instigate a huge step forward in turning Chicago’s bike lanes into a system comparable with cities like Paris or Berlin. This starts with Diversey Boulevard.

This map shows an early 20th century view of Chicago's lakefront parks and the 'emerald necklace' of parks and boulevards that encircle the city.

This map shows an early 20th century view of Chicago’s lakefront parks and the ’emerald necklace’ of parks and boulevards that encircle the city.

While Diversey Boulevard only has two traffic lanes and two parking lanes the street seems relatively wide. Not wide enough to make it a three or four lane street, but certainly wide enough that a bike lane could be added there (at least in Logan Square) and perhaps even wide enough for a curbed bike lane. Adding one here would do a few things. It would complete the full arch of a boulevard bike system ending at the lake in the north and south; it would also create the most direct bike connection between Lakeview and Lincoln Park to Logan Square. Diversey straddles the border of these two neighborhoods and bringing them within better reach of Logan Square would mean connecting some of the city’s more popular neighborhoods. It would also be a potential boon for Diversey, which has a cluster of restaurants now, but certainly needs a little push into the realm of fully developing into a great street. Other options include extending this boulevard system along Ogden from California to where it meets with Elston, along Archer from Pulaski to Chinatown and west along Fullerton to Cicero.

Chicago’s boulevards are a forgotten vestige of 19th century planning and urban beautification. They are a beautiful and rich addition to the city’s urban landscape, but they also provide fantastic potential for biking in the city than most other streets right now. While expanding bike lanes else and the expansion of Divvy to more parts of the city is commendable, rethinking the way we use the boulevards could offer a keystone to constructing a city-wide, comprehensive, and interconnected bike lane system in Chicago. Thinking about the boulevards differently in terms of bikes could be the stepping stone towards reinventing them as a whole: they have the potential to be a greenway through the heart of the city that mirrors the lakefront parks. They offer potential to add streetcars back to Chicago’s urban transportation, and bring new It bring myriad neighborhoods together in one well-knit web of vitality and life to an often overlooked. They forgotten system of green space and urban planning genius that should get some much needed attention beginning with bikes.