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Emanuel checks bike paths off the list

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In his transition plan for the city, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he wanted to plot out two miles of protected bike lanes by his 100th day in office. It’s part of his larger goal of making Chicago part of a "world-class" bike network--a goal he announced before he stepped into his City Hall Office.

"I announced in the campaign that we're going to do 25 miles of bike lanes a year," Emanuel said. The Mayor said he wants 100 miles of these lanes before his first term ends.

The new lanes put bikers directly between the curb and a parking lane divided by plastic barriers. The Mayor promised the city would select a pilot location--emphasis on the select--for the first two miles of the project. The transition plan outlines that locations would be selected based on "high community demand and cycling activity combined with sufficient physical room to create protected lanes."

WBEZ Producer Susie An and News Desk Intern Lauren Chooljian decided to take a ride down Kinzie to see the project for themselves. They started on Navy Pier, and headed down Grand Avenue toward Kinzie and Milwaukee--the start of the protected bike lane. The contrast between Grand and Kinzie was quite stark. Grand only has painted bike lanes, and cars and buses are able to get pretty close, while the protective barriers on Kinzie keep bikers at a safe distance from motorists.

According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, there were more than 1400 reported bike accidents in 2009 in the city, with only a fraction of them happening on Kinzie. There were also few accidents on Jackson, between Damen and Halsted--the site of the next stretch of protected bike lanes. The Mayor's office announced this summer that the city would soon install 1.5 miles of protected lanes by the United Center.

According to CMAP the intersection of Milwaukee, Ogden and Chicago had the most bike accidents in the city between 2005 and 2009. (The Chicago Department of Transportation doesn’t have it's own bike accident data.) The city says there aren't plans for a protected bike lane there yet.

"Kinzie was chosen as the first project--there was ample available right of way, we quickly developed a plan to put in an installation that would have maximum benefit for a minimal financial cost," said Brian Steele, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

The half-mile stretch in the River North neighborhood cost $140,000 to install, according to the city. Taxpayers paid for all but $10,000 of the construction costs, as cycling company SRAM made a donation to the project. The path runs from Milwaukee to Wells and includes a fiber glass cover over the Kinzie Bridge.

Joe Schwieterman, transportation expert from DePaul University, says the costs of these projects aren't trivial.

"It adds up when you start talking about dozens or even 100 miles of bike lanes," he said.

According to Schwieterman, the projects are relatively cheap when compared to other infrastructure investments, but the cost of a bike lane isn't just about the installation.

"Unfortunately, though, it does mean for every lane of bike you put up, you eliminate something for another program—that’s where Rahm’s going to have to play his hand here pretty soon," Schwieterman said.

Steele says CDOT plans to build the Jackson bike lane during an upcoming resurfacing project in September. He says his office doesn’t have a cost estimate for the project, because the design hasn't been finalized, and each individual location will have its "own associated cost."

So, technically, the mayor met his 100 day goal.

But the selection doesn’t satisfy all Chicago cyclists. Steven Vance, writer for the bike blog Grid Chicago, is pleased that the city is getting protected bike lanes. However, if he could do the 100 days over again, he said he "would keep the Kinzie bike lane, but I’m not sure I would keep the Jackson bike lane."

Vance said he wants to know more about the selection process—he thinks there are other city streets that need a protected lane more than Jackson. For Vance, it's not just about throwing bike lanes in when the street is already being worked on--there are a lot of factors to be considered. He recently put together a map of accident data from the Illinois Department of Transportation. His records show only three accidents occurred in 2009 where the Kinzie lanes are now, and where the Jackson lanes will be.

Brian Steele says CDOT does look at a myriad of factors: he mentioned bike traffic and available right of way (or width of the road) as major considerations.

Schwieterman calls the bike lanes on Kinzie and Jackson easy victories—projects that residents can actually see but ones that may have the least transportation significance.

"Kinzie is a little like that, it runs laterally across downtown--to get the real bang for the buck so to speak you may have to go to busy arterials and that’s where traffic moves a little faster, you have more pressured intersections, people making turns, and that’s where not having a history of bike culture is going to make us move up a real learning curve," Schwieterman said.

There's already been evidence of this learning curve just a month after the Kinzie lanes opened. Some drivers have complained about added traffic congestion on Kinzie. Postal trucks have been spotted driving down the bike lane, and during Susie and Lauren's ride, they also saw a few confused drivers --one car was even parked in the lane.

And remember, the Mayor wants 100 miles of these lanes by the end of his first term--Schwieterman says that’s pretty ambitious.

"Well, 100 miles is a lot. I mean let’s not kid ourselves, for a city that’s having trouble fixing pot holes to do 100 miles of streets. When you have new ideas like this you need to lay out the plan so people can understand what the end game is. And I think our city has been accused often of setting the bar too high then we accomplish nothing,” he said.

Schwieterman says the city’s budget is squeezed as it is so it’s going to be hard to make the case for bike lanes. But Steele says CDOT will be looking for funding from the state and the federal government to help with these projects.

Although Mayor Emanuel can check another thing off his 100 day check list, the real challenge lies ahead in the next 98 miles.

Susie An contributed to this report

Music Button: Genji Siraisi, "Monkey Proof" from the CD Censorsh!t (Expansion Team Records)

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