When WBEZ asked Chicago cyclists this spring to sound off on biking in the city, one question kept showing up: How does the city decide where to add bike lanes?
As the warm weather finally arrives in Chicago, biking season is gearing up — at least for those not interested in braving the elements year-round. So we posed that question and more to David Smith at the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Smith, an avid biker who has worked on transportation planning in the city for more than a decade, is the department’s complete streets manager. That means his team handles the bulk of the planning and design work around bike lanes, pedestrian improvements, transit projects and overall traffic safety.
“The philosophy behind complete streets is to design our streets so that everybody can move around safely and comfortably, regardless of your age, your ability or your mode of transportation,” he said.
Here’s what else Smith said in response to your questions, which spanned everything from frustrations over navigating east to west in Chicago to bike safety. Some questions and responses were edited and condensed for clarity.
WBEZ: How does the city decide where bike lanes are and where to add them?
Smith: We’ve got a couple of different programs that we’re working on to build out the city’s bike network. One [is] called the neighborhood bike network effort. [A neighborhood bike network is a series of connected bike lanes in a neighborhood to help people easily reach places by bike, according to the city.] This is something that we started in 2021 with the communities of Belmont Cragin and Austin and North Lawndale.
We really wanted to get a good understanding of perceptions of bicycling, the culture around cycling and just how people are viewing public spaces. Through those efforts, we identified really important destinations within a community. So we started the process a little bit different than a traditional bike network process. We started with a ground-up approach, identifying the places that people need to get to within the neighborhood and then from there worked with folks in the community to figure out which streets make the most sense to connect people to those places. So we’re building out a bicycle network that’s reflective of how people are moving around the community on a day-to-day basis.
We’re also looking at a number of upgrades to existing networks. So either converting existing bike lanes to protected bike lanes or enhancements to existing protected bike lanes, we’re filling in gaps within the network.
What does the city do to maintain existing bike lanes when it comes to things like posts, painted markers and snow and debris removal?
Every year we restripe a number of bike lanes. The number of bike lanes that have just been refreshed and restriped this last year, I believe was the largest number that we’ve ever done. So we’re continuing to invest really more than ever, in terms of the bicycle network for both new lanes and maintaining existing lanes.
So we restriped existing bike lanes and things like the delineators [the flexible posts that sometimes cordon off bike lanes] that you mentioned, get replaced if those are damaged. … We’re doing things on certain streets like existing protected bike lanes that have the delineators coming back and installing concrete curb to provide a bit more separation from people biking and people driving.
Something that we’re rolling out this year that we’re really excited about is a focus on bus stops and bike lanes. We’re making enhancements to the bus stop so that we’re separating the bike lane from the bus stop, improving transit operations, providing more space for people who are using transit to wait at the bus stop and to more easily access the bus, while at the same time increasing the level of separation for someone biking.
What are the consequences for blocking a bike lane right now? And how is that enforced?
Well, it’s illegal to block a bike lane. I don’t know offhand what the penalty is or what the fee is, but it’s very clear that it’s illegal to park or to stand or to drive in a bike lane.
Is there somewhere that bikers could report that if a bike lane is blocked?
We really encourage people to report that into the 311 system, which is the city’s formal official tracking database, and then that information goes to city agencies who compile that data, identify locations where this is happening, and then they’re able to enforce those areas.
One thing that we heard a lot from our survey is that cyclists felt like there are not enough east-west bike lanes. Is that something you hope to address?
Our vision is to have a connected network across the entire city so you can go north, south, east, west. East-west there are some kind of unique barriers in the river and the expressway that provide some challenges and connectivity issues. East-west can be challenging just from a physical barrier standpoint, but that’s something that we’re doing right now is identifying key routes to get people across those barriers.
How does the city address biking safety concerns?
One of our big focuses right now is building out a network of low-stress bicycle infrastructure. By low stress, we’re talking about protected bike lanes, neighborhood bike routes and continuing to develop and make progress on off-street trails.
So we’re doing a whole lot in terms of design and policy. We’ve been lowering speed limits on a number of bike routes that we’ve been implementing. We’re going through a number of streets and lowering the speed limit to 20 miles per hour, and we’ve done that on both neighborhood residential streets and some commercial streets.
We’re very strategic in how we choose these neighborhood bike routes, because we want to make sure that they provide connections to important places and across some of the barriers that we discussed earlier. So we look at how these neighborhood routes [and ask], Do they get you across a busy intersection? Is there a traffic signal or an all-way stop to get you across a bigger street or a busier intersection? And we found that by coupling protected bike lanes on commercial streets and arterial streets with these neighborhood bike routes, it’s really the recipe for making everyone feel comfortable and making cycling a realistic option for more.
You mentioned protected bike lanes. Are there plans for more protected bike lanes in the future? (Editor’s note: Protected bike lanes separate bikes from cars with posts, concrete curbs or parked cars.)
Yes, absolutely. Last year, we installed about as many protected bike lanes as ever in the city. That trend is going to continue. The number of low-stress routes, protected bike lanes plus neighborhood greenways, is increasing dramatically. We’ve never done more than we are right now and that trend is going to continue.
I want to go back to safety a little bit: What can cyclists do to encourage cars to keep a safe distance from them?
Well in Illinois, there is a three-foot rule. So as a driver, you are required to provide space and separation from someone biking. We do have a program called the SAFE ambassadors. And SAFE is an acronym for “streets are for everybody.” So we’re doing a ton of work all over the city to connect with people biking, people walking and people driving to talk about how to operate on our streets safely and to offer tips for people no matter how you’re getting around.
Where can people find the most up-to-date information on what bike lanes exist in the city?
On the city’s website, we produce an annual bike map, which will be coming out in the next couple of weeks for 2022. So that’s updated every spring with the existing bike network. We also have some information on the website as new routes are being implemented.
What do you imagine the future of bike infrastructure looks like in Chicago?
I think the future of cycling in general in Chicago is a future that is open to everybody. It’s been very exciting over the last decade to see the demographic of who’s riding a bike expand incredibly. That really is a testament to the infrastructure, to the success of our bike share system, to various policies and programs. I think having cycling as a really reliable, comfortable option for everyone across the city is where we’re headed as a department and as a city.
Is there something you love or hate about biking in Chicago? We want to hear from you! Share your thoughts on social media using #WBEZBikeBetter.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.