Bicyclist riding through a downtown Chicago intersection
The intersection of the Randolph and Dearborn protected bike lanes Credit: Barry Kafka

In some ways the city’s surprise announcement last month that it’s spending $17 million in funds from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago Works infrastructure program to build or upgrade 100 miles of bike lanes in 2021 and 2022 was welcome news. But there are also some disappointing aspects of the plan, which I’ll get to in a minute.

First the good stuff. It’s laudable that most of the new bike lanes are going to lower-income and working-class African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the south and west sides, helping to address Chicago’s lopsided bikeway map. In the past, cycling infrastructure has been concentrated in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods where local advocates have clamored for it.

The Chicago Department of Transportation is currently using a saturation strategy in Austin, Belmont Cragin, and North Lawndale, which are the focus of this year’s Divvy bike-share expansion, crisscrossing these communities with 45 miles of bikeways, incorporating input from local community members. Oboi Reed, leader of the mobility justice group Equiticity, said he appreciates the plan’s “targeted focus on primarily Black and Brown neighborhoods where cycling and bicycles are needed the most.”

Ribbon-cutting for new bike lanes and Divvy stations in Belmont Cragin last August. Credit: John Greenfield

It’s also positive, at least in a vacuum, that CDOT is building 12 more miles of protected bike lanes, a nearly 50 percent increase from the current 25 miles. Bikeways that are physically protected or separated from moving cars are crucial for making cycling a safe, appealing transportation option for people of a wide range of ages and confidence levels, especially, studies show, women.

Roscoe Village Kidical Mass rides in the concrete curb-protected bike lanes installed on Campbell Avenue this summer. Credit: Rebecca Resman

But viewed on a macro level, the city’s plan is less of a moonshot than more of the same. It lacks, as famed local architect Daniel Burnham might have said, the magic to stir Chicagoans’ blood.

At a bike lane ribbon-cutting in West Pullman last month, transportation chief Gia Biagi said, “We want to have the most connected bikeway network of any city in the country.” But CDOT’s plan perpetuates the long-term trends that explain why, 30 years after Richard M. Daley launched the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, Chicago still doesn’t have a cohesive grid of bike lanes, let alone protected ones.

Aside from the three Divvy expansion neighborhoods, in many cases CDOT is installing short stretches of bike lanes in a piecemeal fashion, in spots that are logistically and politically easy, rather than creating multi-mile routes on corridors where people actually need and want to ride. For example, Archer Avenue, the most direct route between the southwest side and downtown, isn’t getting any new bikeways. And most of the Trump-friendly parts of Chicago on the far southwest and far northwest sides, where there historically hasn’t been much support for bikeways, will still have few or no facilities.

CDOT’s 2021-2022 bikeway project map. Courtesy CDOT

I’m not the only one who noticed these shortcomings. “There’s still no clear strategy to build a citywide network that will get people riding bikes from point A to point B safely and comfortably,” wrote Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead in a blog post.

Whitehead added that while our city will have 37 miles of protected bike lanes after CDOT completes the work, that’s chicken feed compared to the Twin Cities, which have over 50 total miles of protected lanes despite having a fraction of Chicago’s population, and New York City, which built 120 miles in six years. “Chicago is still too often compromising with painted bike lanes that have little impact on safety and won’t get nervous riders to hop on a bike.”

Fellow transportation advocacy group Better Streets Chicago noted on Twitter that CDOT didn’t come anywhere close to the stated goal of its Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, published in 2013 after an extensive community input process. That document called for a 645-mile bike network by last year, but our city still only has 350 miles of bikeways. “We want a new plan that shows robustness,” Better Street tweeted. “That demonstrates lessons learned from past failures. That expresses real commitment to protection and timeliness. This isn’t any of that.”

So that’s what I’ve tried to do with the map below: depict the kind of focused, citywide protected bikeway network Chicago should actually be building. Granted, at about 300 miles, it’s an audacious plan. But that’s how not-traditionally-bike-friendly cities like Seville, Spain and Paris recently grew their bike ridership exponentially within a few years, by swiftly building out a complete bicycle transportation network.

It takes bold leadership, such as Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has demonstrated, and a somewhat top-down approach. Reallocating lots of space from driving to biking certainly won’t please all Chicagoans. But, hey, the planet is burning and Chicago’s beaches are disappearing due to climate change, so the time to get serious about remaking our transportation system is now.

I should note that my map is a rough proposal, intended as a conversation starter, and not meant to prescribe exactly where CDOT should build protected lanes. Residents would need to vet the final network, although we shouldn’t let the plan get watered down or killed by autocentric opposition. So if you see a street on here that strikes you as a total deal breaker, don’t freak out.

My goal was to ensure that every Chicagoan lives within a mile of a protected bike lane or off-street path, without having too much redundancy. That’s why Milwaukee and Clark are on there, but not nearby and roughly parallel Elston and Lincoln.

While many bikeways CDOT calls protected are merely delineated by flimsy plastic poles, the new lanes would be shielded from traffic by concrete curbs, Jersey barriers (low, modular wall sections that artists can paint), or some other kind of physical barricade. Even better would be Copenhagen-style bike lanes, where the bikeway is located above the street, but below the sidewalk. Whatever design is used, scrupulous maintenance to keep the lanes free of garbage, broken glass, and snow will be key.

A raised bike lane on Nørrebrogade, a main street in Copenhagen. Credit : John Greenfield

Unlike the Reader’s Mellow Chicago Bike Map, which emphasizes chill side-street routes, this one focuses on making arterial streets bikeable, so cyclists can use direct, intuitive routes across the city, just like drivers. To keep things simple, my map calls for two-way routes on a single street, instead of using one-way couplets. In some cases this would involve a bidirectional bike lane on a one-way street, à la the current setup on Dearborn and Clinton streets. These main streets often have excess travel lanes that can be converted from car space to bike space. In many cases the protected bike lanes could be combined with “island” bus stops and car-free bus lanes for rapid CTA service, as was done on Washington for the Loop Link system. After all, fast and reliable transit is at least as important to our city as safe, convenient biking.

The Washington protected lane is located behind “island” stations for Loop Link buses. Credit: Barry Kafka

On streets where converting travel lanes isn’t an option, parking can be stripped to make room if necessary. Granted, that’s complicated by Chicago’s horrible parking meter deal, which requires the city to compensate the concessionaire for lost revenue. But there are workarounds, like creating new diagonal spots on side streets. Or the city could take Streetsblog contributor Michael Podgers’s advice and get out of the contract by any means necessary.

Sure, some local motorists will grumble at having less asphalt to drive and park on. But the reward for converting lots of car trips to bike rides will be a safer, cleaner, healthier, and more efficient transportation system.

Admittedly, the cost of 300 miles of physically protected bikeways would be nothing to sneeze at. CDOT didn’t respond to my request for a recent cost estimate, but in 2016 the half-mile stretch of curb-protected bike lanes the department built on 31st near IIT cost about $400,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about a million dollars a mile in today’s dollars, or roughly $300 million total for my scheme, which could be funded by Chicago Works; Illinois’s recently created bike/walk infrastructure fund; and/or federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants.

Still, we’d be creating an entire climate change-fighting bicycle superhighway system for less than half the cost of the smog-generating $790 million Jane Byrne Interchange project in the West Loop. I’d call that a bargain, the best we ever had.