Just southeast of Oak Street Beach, there’s a bend in the Lakefront Trail where it turns south, hugging Lake Shore Drive. As you head downtown, there’s a wall on your right, and the path’s concrete surface slopes down toward the water’s edge, where there’s a sheer drop of several feet into Lake Michigan.
During the winter, this hump of land is pounded by waves. After it snows, the waves turn the path into an arctic wasteland of ice boulders, forcing bike riders to dismount and walk their steeds or detour to Inner Lake Shore Drive. At other times, the surf transforms the trail into an angled skating rink that’s also a serious hazard. The curve is especially dangerous for southbound riders, who often fail to see the slick conditions before they round the blind curve. By then it’s usually too late to hit the brakes.
When such conditions exist, the Chicago Park District, which is responsible for maintaining the bikeway, barricades the curve with sawhorses and sends out alerts on Twitter that the section of lakefront is closed. But bike riders like Joe DeCeault hope a permanent solution can be found to fix the most perilous spot on the 18.5-mile-long trail.
DeCeault, who works as a Web producer for WBEZ, knows all too well what a death trap the ice-glazed incline can be. In February 2012, during his first season of winter biking, he was doing a training ride on a skinny-tired road bike on a particularly windy morning.
Convinced by what he saw farther north that the curve would be ice free, he confidently rounded the bend at a high speed. Then he looked down and saw he was entering a long, slippery stretch. He realized he had to pump his brakes. “As I did, I noticed the wheels start to slide,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My body and bike tilted sideways. Shit!”
DeCeault fell from his bike and landed hard on his side and stomach. “It stung like a bitch,” he recalled. “I grabbed at the ground to halt my journey towards the lake.” He came to a stop, but when he lifted his head, he saw his bike continue to slide towards the edge of the path. “My bike kept going and going and going until—bloop—it dropped off the edge of the concrete and into the lake.”
DeCeault is far from the only local cyclist to crash due to perilous conditions at the Oak Street curve. An NBC Chicago clip from January 2014 showed 18 riders wiping out on black ice at the spot, sometimes two at a time, over the course of a few minutes.
The mayhem resembles something out of a Keystone Cops flick. “There goes another one, down, down, down,” chuckles the cameraman.
The persistence of this problem isn’t so funny. I checked out the path in the middle of last week, a few days after a couple inches of snow had fallen. The Oak Street curve was shellacked with ice and snow, and the trail was barricaded between the beach and the construction site of the Navy Pier Flyover. This $60 million elevated path will soar over Grand Avenue and Illinois Street, eliminating a dangerous trail bottleneck. Much of this stretch was impassable for bike riders, and treacherous for people walking and jogging.
In addition to the flyover, the city recently completed the $31.5 million Fullerton Revetment project, which built 5.8 acres of new lakefront parkland at Fullerton Avenue, and relocated a section of the trail so it’s less exposed to waves.
So are there any plans to fix the Oak Street curve problem in the long term?
Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner says there aren’t. However, she noted that this summer the Park District launched a planning process with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) to improve trail safety, including an online survey for residents.
Oh, and those cyclists in the NBC video? Maxey-Faulkner says the curve was barricaded at the time the video was shot, so those riders had disregarded the sawhorses.
“My bike kept going and going and going until–bloop—It dropped off the edge of the concrete and into the lake.”
—Cyclist Joe Deceault
“We ask that patrons respect and adhere to the signage for their own safety,” she says.
Accordingly, the CARA group runs take a detour off the lakefront when there are dangerous conditions, staff member Greg Hipp says.
“There’s not really a feasible way to address the problem in the short term,” he says. “Even if the Park District salted the trail, it would just get washed off by the waves, because there’s not really a way to block Mother Nature.”
Building a seawall at the edge of the path near Oak Street might be a potential solution to that problem, but such a change to the lakefront may require approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps might be open to such a project if it was initiated by the city or the Park District, says Lynne Whelan, spokeswoman for the corps’ Chicago office.
The expansion of the shoreline and rerouting of the path at Fullerton could serve as a good model for other parts of the trail, including Oak Street, Active Transportation Alliance campaign director Kyle Whitehead says. (Active Trans tweets about the condition of the trail at @activetransLFT and encourages cyclists to share updates via the hashtag #ChiLFT.) Local architecture firm VOA Associates has proposed widening the lakefront between Navy Pier and North Avenue via infill, which would create an estimated 60 acres of new green space.
Whitehead also noted that a solution for the curve could be brainstormed as part of the public-input process for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction study. Residents have identified the need to improve safety on the Lakefront Trail as a top priority for the highway overhaul, which could begin as early as 2019.
As for DeCeault, he was never able to retrieve his bike from its watery grave. By the time he returned to the lakefront with a grappling hook and rope, there had been heavy winds and high waves. Nearly the entire path near Oak Street was caked with a thick layer of ice.
“After some time in the windy, freezing cold, tossing the hook into the lake over and over and over again—looking a bit deranged, I’d imagine—I gave up,” DeCeault said. “I just decided to be glad that I made it out with a decent-ish story, and the knowledge not to ride too fast or too close to the edge during winter at that curve by Oak Street Beach.” v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.