The lack of better bike lanes: I just don’t get it

Streetsblog Chicago did a great job again today of keeping two-wheeled Chicagoans informed as to what is going on with the city’s improving bike infrastructure. One of the newest additions to the city’s growing network of buffered bike lanes is the half mile stretch along Noble Street between Augusta Boulevard and Erie Street near Eckhart Park. Pictured below, the freshly painting bike lane and newly paved street looks great, but I really can’t help but ask why wasn’t this route turned into a barrier protect or curbed bike lane?

This bike lane includes a nice buffer along the right-hand side adding room between cyclists and cars helping to prevent safety hazards for cyclists such as drivers opening car doors directly into the bike lane. This is a much welcome improvement to the types of stripped bike lanes Chicagoans used to know well, which had the bike lanes flush up against parked cars.

This bike lane includes a nice buffer along the right-hand side adding room between cyclists and cars helping to prevent safety hazards for cyclists such as drivers opening car doors directly into the bike lane. This is a much welcome improvement to the types of stripped bike lanes Chicagoans used to know well, which had the bike lanes flush up against parked cars.

Here’s my thinking: if you look at the buffer on the right side of the bike lane, the width of the street, and consider the obviously low traffic flow along Noble, there is no reason to think that this half mile stretch through a relatively dense residential area wasn’t ideal for a bike lane that was either barrier protected or built up on or with a curb to physically separate it from automobile traffic. The space was clearly available and the disruptions to parking or car traffic would like be little to none. So why just implement the simpler solution?

This is a barrier protected bike lane in Amsterdam. Just glancing at the photograph it is clear a bike lane like this isn't much wider than the bike lane along Noble Street in Chicago, While the barrier is a bit wider than the space available in Chicago this image goes to show that a barrier protected bike lane need not be particularly extravagant.

This is a barrier protected bike lane in Amsterdam. Just glancing at the photograph it is clear a bike lane like this isn’t much wider than the bike lane along Noble Street in Chicago, While the barrier is a bit wider than the space available in Chicago this image goes to show that a barrier protected bike lane need not be particularly extravagant.

While I recognize that it is significantly easier and cheaper to put in buffered bike lanes with paint I really am beginning to wonder as to the reason why all these buffered bike lanes aren’t just taken to the next level in the first place? While more expensive to build than the example we see along Noble, a protected bike lane is still significantly cheaper than other transportation options and really is one of the keys to getting more people out of cars and onto bikes. Shouldn’t that be a priority in a city that is trying to ease its collective environmental impact, make itself more livable, attract middle-class families and young professionals, and ease car congestion on its streets?

While this is a point of frustration for me, I do recognize that buffered bike lanes, even if only made out of paint, are a big step in an American city and one we should be proud of. As we expand Divvy and look towards biking as a reliable alternative to cars as well as a key player in developing a truly intermodal transportation network, we have to stop relying on the crutch of buffered bike lanes and begin building more barrier protected and curbed bike lanes. I can’t say whether it is a financial bottom line, cultural resistance, even laziness on the part of CDOT to go further that results in the bike lanes we have, but when are we really going to make this a true biking city and get past to model we’re currently using for most bike lanes?

Here is another Dutch lane (presumably in Amsterdam) that includes a barrier adjacent to parking spaces for cars. The bike lane appears to be a bit wider than the images above, but what is exemplified here is that protective barriers need not be extravagant either. Here they consist mostly of space between parked cars and the bike lane created by a slightly raised curb and differently colored and textured paving surfaces.

Here is another Dutch lane (presumably in Amsterdam) that includes a barrier adjacent to parking spaces for cars. The bike lane appears to be a bit wider than the images above, but what is exemplified here is that protective barriers need not be extravagant either. Here they consist mostly of space between parked cars and the bike lane created by a slightly raised curb and differently colored and textured paving surfaces.

None of this is to say I don’t welcome the expansion of buffered bike lanes in Chicago. It is great that CDOT and the mayor support such projects and expanding bike infrastructure has long been a goal of the mayor’s office that thankfully continues. But what gets me is how the city has for so long plodded along content with its merely acceptable bike infrastructure despite a desire to make Chicago the most bike-friendly big city in the United States.

The mayor’s office and CDOT just showed how easily they are capable of missing great opportunities to put in better bike infrastructure with the example of the Noble Street bike lanes. I realize high quality bike lanes are not possible in every part of the city, and in some places we will need to remain content with stripped lanes or plastic poles, but it is the few opportunities to build world-class bike infrastructure that we are missing out on that will prevent us from 1) becoming a truly bike-friendly city and 2) create that first example of what really could be that will help grow support for high quality bike lanes.

Even the Dutch have to share bike lanes with cars sometimes. Notice the use of different colors to make the different spheres as clearly visible as possible though.

Even the Dutch have to share bike lanes with cars sometimes. Notice however the use of different colors to make the different spheres as clearly visible as possible.

I kind of see it like the city is somebody going on a jog: they do 5 miles every day and are doing really great getting to that 5 mile mark, but they keep stopping there just because that’s where the jog is supposed to end rather than going that extra mile or two or three even when the momentum and energy is there and ready. This may be just a peep in the larger conversation about transportation infrastructure in Chicago, but perhaps if enough people start talking about the need to really begin taking things to the next level, and city-wide for that matter, the ball will get rolling and better bike infrastructure will make an appearance all over. The Netherlands is famous for its bikes for a reason. Wij zullen een voorbeeld aan ze nemen.