The road diet pilot in Humboldt Park (posed photo)
New “road diets” aim to beef up safety by slimming down streets, but will bicyclists get their piece of the pie?
by John Greenfield
[This article also appears in Time Out Chicago magazine, www.timeoutchicago.com.]
Cities across the country are seeking to improve safety through the so-called road diet—narrowing or removing street lanes to calm traffic and create more space for pedestrians and bicyclists. “A major benefit is reducing vehicle speeds and focusing attention on the other public-way uses,” says Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) spokesman Brian Steele.
Now the city is planning to give Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square and Humboldt Drive through Humboldt Park a traffic tummy tuck. “It’s a shift in the way [the city is] thinking about streets,” says Active Transportation Alliance’s Adolfo Hernandez. “The aldermen for both projects have been very supportive. Taking away a lane of traffic is not easy to do—it takes political will.”
The $12 million Lawrence streetscape project, tentatively scheduled to start next year, stretches between Western and Ashland Avenues and will slim the avenue from its current four travel lanes to one lane in each direction with a center turn lane, Steele says. This “four-to-three conversion” will provide space for wider sidewalks, curb bump-outs, pedestrian refuge islands and new bike lanes.
This is what Lawrence currently looks like.
This is what Lawrence will look like after the road diet is implemented.
The streetscape also will provide more space for sidewalk cafés and make it easier to pedal to the lake, says Dan Luna, 47th Ward chief of staff. “Lots of people have been contacting our offices requesting safer bike routes,” he says.
Eric Holm, manager of On the Route Bicycles (2338 W Lawrence Ave), applauds the change. “Lawrence is pretty intimidating for beginning riders,” he says. “Adding bike lanes means more people will be riding past our store and shopping here.”
The Humboldt Park road diet is proving to be a bit more controversial. Since August 23, CDOT has been working on Humboldt Drive from North Avenue to Division Street, the high-speed roadway dividing Humboldt Park. It temporarily changes the four-lane street into two travel lanes with a center lane used as a combination left-turn lane and pedestrian refuge area, using orange traffic barrels to keep moving cars out of the center lane. After CDOT analyzes the effects on traffic speed and behavior, Steele says, the changes may become permanent next year.
Roberto Maldonado, 26th Ward alderman, helped push for the project after his office received many complaints about speeding traffic and difficulty crossing the street, says Maldonado’s chief of staff, Kathleen Oskandy. “A lot of them were from young moms with baby strollers,” she says. Although residents proposed adding stoplights, stop signs and speed humps, Oskandy says federal constraints on the historic boulevard limited those options.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the experimental setup, which, unlike the Lawrence road diet, does not include the addition of bike lanes. Oskandy says there was initial talk of including them, “but the first plan of attack was to slow down the traffic, so bike lanes might have added to the confusion.”
Drivers we talked to felt comfortable with the new configuration, but cyclists didn’t. During a half-hour period on a recent Tuesday afternoon, a handful pedaled on the asphalt paths that run parallel to Humboldt Drive, but no one attempted to ride in the newly slimmed street. “I’m a little afraid to bike in the street now,” said Jim Stablein, 58. “Cars can’t squeeze by you.”
Jim Stablein (posed photo)
Although the city-issued Chicago Bike Map designated this segment of Humboldt Drive for years as a cycling-friendly street, CDOT removed it from this year’s edition, recommending a stretch of nearby Kedzie Avenue as the safer route. As a result, the two-mile stretch of Humboldt (called Sacramento Boulevard south of the park) between Armitage Avenue and Franklin Boulevard is virtually the only segment of Chicago's 28-mile historic boulevard system that is not recommended as a bike route. Since Humbolt is no longer a recommended route, it's not under consideration for bike lanes, says CDOT bikeways engineer David Gleason.
That’s unfortunate, says Todd Gee, president of the nonprofit alt-transportation org Break the Gridlock. “The new travel lanes aren’t wide enough for cars to safely pass bicyclists. It’s fantastic they’re doing something about speeding and making it more pedestrian friendly, but it’s disappointing that they’re not accommodating bikes.”
Ash Lottes, who takes her son to pre-school by bike via the park, says she met with Maldonado on September 21 to discuss the possibility of adding bike lanes and sidewalks along Humboldt. She provided the alderman with blueprints for alternate street configurations that would include bike lanes.
“He told me that he has no intention of adding a bicycle lane or any other accouterments on that stretch because ‘the road is too dangerous for pedestrians,’” she says. Lottes recently posted on the local bike website thechainlink.org, asking members to lobby Maldonado for bike lanes on Humboldt. “To me the road seems too dangerous for pedestrians because there are no sidewalks, crosswalks or bike lanes.”