Effectually Ineffective Bike Trails: Design is Keeping Bike Trails from Living to Their Full Potential

The opening of the first phase of the North Branch Trail’s southern extension, completion of the Skokie Valley Line, and the construction of the first phase of the Weber Spur all signify a growing interest in the development of dedicated bike infrastructure in northern Cook County; this is especially so on the Northwest Side of Chicago and nearby suburbs. Cheers to that! There’s just one little catch: beyond their design as recreational trails, they offer very little in terms of other functional uses. This is rooted in a design problem that stems from subtleties that seem to suggest the trails are saying “don’t use me”. Alterations can be made to mend this, but the planning put into these trails needs to begin addressing this from the outset.

This much is true–among the general public bike trails are popular. They provide residents recreational facilities for sport biking, jogging, and walking plus green space access. Additionally, the trails are important pieces of the region’s wildlife infrastructure. They are green conduits that provide wildlife safe passages between larger green pockets like parks and forest preserves.

That said, because they are treated exclusively as recreational paths they end up designed with a certain engrained uselessness. The problem lies in their isolation, which is part of “the engrained uselessness” design (even where that design is unnecessary). By designed isolation I mean that the trails are designed to exist in insolation of other infrastructure and solely in the context of being recreational. There is no connection to the contextual needs of the communities even when that would inform more useful design. A perfect example of this is the first phase of the North Branch Trail’s southern extension, which will eventually end at Gompers Park in North Park.

On the North Branch Trail extension there are examples of this design problem at Forest Glen and Central Avenues in Forest Glen and Edgebrook respectively. Here, the trail parallels the main roads and is closely adjacent to the main roads, making them ideal for shared recreational and transportation purposes. Additionally, they are near transit and fully built out residential areas and commercial districts. In neither case though is there any semblance of design the encourages users to leave the trail, enables users to connect to other bike routes, or easily use the trail if trips cross the path of the trail. This is the isolated design I am talking about.

These North and Northwest Side projects (Weber Spur, North Branch Trail, Skokie Valley Trail) exemplify this issue of designed disutility; examples abound on the extension of the North Branch Trail. Throughout the project area the path runs immediately adjacent to residential streets, but the lack of access points make it useless expect for people biking long distances for sport and not at all useful for somebody who could bike the short half-mile trip to the local Metra station.

The solution includes a mix of spurs and better crossings and entrances to the bike trails. Take the segment along Forest Glen: the bike trail parallels the street, which is also a designated bike route, for about three blocks before it turns north and south. At the southern approach, the trail is two blocks from the Metra’s Forest Glen stop on the Milwaukee District North line and Elston Avenue, a major bike route. The northern approach opens onto Forest Glen where the designated bike route continues across Cicero into Sauganash and north along the boarder of the Forest Preserve into Edgebrook. Along this stretch, there are no proper paved access points to the trail from side streets nor is there a paved access point to the southern end of Forest Glen, making it a useless piece of infrastructure for people using Forest Glen for trips that pass the trail. The lack of barrier protected bike lanes or trails also forces users onto poorly designed streets where they must compete with autos for use.

A well designed trail would have included more access points and at the very least a spur to create an uninterrupted connection between Elston Avenue, the Metra stop, and the trail. Furthermore, the need for spurs is vital, because they better connect residential and commercial areas adjacent to the forest preserve, but not the trails, to the trails. They would transform the trail into reliable pieces of transportation infrastructure. They would open the trails up to the neighborhoods as opposed to being wholly within the forest preserves.

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Existing trails and those under construction or proposed for the North and Northwest Sides would have increased utility for all cyclists if they included better design and integration into the larger bike network including improved access and spurs connecting trails to commercial districts and other transit infrastructure. Likely trail extensions and spurs with dedicated bike lanes are shown with solid red lines. Dashed red lines show routes that could use additional improvements or upgrades to bike infrastructure. Transportation nodes are circled.

It would be useful to see spurs, built as dedicated, barrier-protected bike lanes, included in the design and build out of the trail system. This includes spurs north and south of the North Branch trail along Forest Glen from Cicero to Elson, and perhaps a spur north into Edgebrook along the forest preserve that could become its own path. Additionally, a spur south of the North Branch trail to Elston or Milwaukee Avenue along Central Avenue from Indian Road and along Bryn Mawr east (and possibly west) of the intersection of the Skokie Valley Line (Sauganash Trail) and Weber Spur would be useful. This is particularly important if the Weber Spur is extended all the way to Mayfair, bringing Sauganash within 10 minutes of the CTA’s Blue Line stop at Montrose and the Metra Milwaukee District North Line stop at Mayfair.

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The trails–existing and proposed–do bring more areas into closer proximity by bike, but a recreation-oriented design may discourage use for transportation purposes.

While north of Devon Avenue the trails cut so deep into the forest preserves that the possibility of their use for transportation purposes diminishes greatly, the slow expansion of the trail south and other extensions of the system continues and brings them closer to businesses and residential areas their potential as transportation corridors increases dramatically. Yet, in their current state, use as utilitarian transportation infrastructure is almost expressly discouraged.

Hopefully, this kind of design will slowly be encouraged and supported. These are incredibly important recreational projects, but biking as a form of transportation will not take off if the design of bike infrastructure is held back by a view that the bike is only a piece of sporting equipment or child’s play thing.