Friday, August 16, 2013

Chicago's Bike Infrastructure

This past weekend I headed up to Chicago with Bike Polo Guy. We spent 3 days in the City, then he went on to Minneapolis for the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo championship, and I took the train back to Cincinnati.

It was really interesting to see all of the bike infrastructure that the City of Chicago has installed over the last few years, particularly the Kinzie Street, Dearborn Street and Milwaukee Avenue cycle tracks, since Cincinnati will be doing something similar on Central Parkway next year. (A cycle track is a bike lane that is physically protected from traffic with some type of physical barrier, most often a plastic paddle.)

Kinzie is a two-way street and has a one-way cycle track on each side of the street going in the same direction as other traffic. As an added bonus, there is a chocolate factory nearby, so the lanes often smell of chocolate as you ride through!

Kinzie Street cycle track

Dearborn is a one-way street and has a two-way cycle track on the left side of the street. They used green thermoplastic to highlight the major driveway crossings (we are planning to do this on Central Parkway as well).

Dearborn Street two-way cycle track

They use signage and “LOOK BIKES” pavement markings to warn pedestrians to look before stepping into crosswalks that intersect the cycle tracks.

The left-turn bike box is a cool idea. It’s aligned so that it’s protected by parked cars on two sides (ahead and to the right), so it gives the cyclist a safe space to wait when making a left turn across the oncoming one-way traffic.
Left-turn box for bikes

We saw the SLOW pavement marking installed in the cycle track in front of several buildings (like this theater) that I assume have a large number of pedestrians entering and exiting.

They put these plates in the cycle track over the bridge to create a smooth surface for cyclists. I wonder if we could get Kentucky to install these on some of our bridges… 
Cool bridge cover

This one-way cycle track on Milwaukee Avenue has a passing lane on part of it so that faster cyclists can safely pass slower cyclists (like me). CDOT’s counts showed that there were over 500 bikes an hour using this street during rush hour – hence it made sense to install the passing lane. Can you imagine seeing 500 bikes an hour anywhere in Cincinnati?!
Passing bike lane

This “flipped” bike box puts right-turning cyclists ahead of right-turning cars at the red light. Typically bike boxes are used when there is not a dedicated right-turn lane, and the short part of the L is going the other direction (in front of the thru/right lane). I assume Chicago improvised this to work with the dedicated right-turn lane - very creative.
Bike box

Apart from the cycle tracks, there really were A LOT of traditional bike lanes too. It was an incredible feeling to be in a bike lane, make a right turn onto another street and see another bike lane waiting for me. There's only one place in the entire City of Cincinnati where two bike lanes intersect - Dana Ave and Madison Rd. In Chicago we could actually try and plan our routes to include as many bike lane streets as possible without going too far out of our way. Amazing.

This buffered bike lane has partial transverse lines next to the parked cars. I’m guessing it shows cyclists where the door zone is.
Buffered bike lane with door zone marked

We saw bike racks on every block, and lots of bikes utilizing them. 

Chicago’s bike share system Divvy was launched earlier this year. Bike share is different than traditional bike rentals in that bike share is intended to be used for a much shorter period of time. The first 30 minutes are free in most US cities. Cincinnati is hoping to launch a bike share system in the summer of 2014.
Divvy bike share station

Infrastructure aside, I noticed some pretty significant cultural differences between Chicago and Cincy cyclists. First, Chicago cyclists are fast! It didn’t matter where we were, or what time of day it was, every cyclist we saw was booking it. I got passed by grandmas and little kids alike. It was a totally different vibe than my typical leisurely rides through Downtown or Over-the-Rhine! I think Chicago could use a little Margy and Mel slow ride attitude...
And then there were the red light “head starts.” Every cyclist starts across the intersection while the light is still red. They start maybe 2 seconds before it turns green, so that by the time the light is green they’re already in the center of the intersection. I witnessed this everywhere we went, from every cyclist - old, young, hipster, professional, whatever. I understand the rationale of getting in front of the cars in order to be more visible, but the law-abiding Cincinnatian in me felt totally uncomfortable running the light. Especially if we were in a bike lane or cycle track anyway and not competing with cars for space.
The last part of my trip involved taking the train from Chicago back to Cincinnati. You can’t beat the price - $50 for me, plus $25 for my bike. I think this is comparable to the Megabus, but the train had a lot more leg room, and of course you can’t take bikes on the Megabus. It was a bit awkward getting the bike into the station; I was able to squeeze through the front doors, but then Bike Polo Guy had to carry the bike down the escalator for me. Maybe there's another entrance somewhere?
It did take a little time to get the bike boxed up too, so it’s a good thing we arrived early. In order to purchase the box we were directed down to the basement “Baggage” area. Rick, a very helpful Amtrak employee, took my money ($10 for transport, $15 for the box), and brought me a box and put it together for me. I had to bring my own tools (pedal wrench and multi-tool), and I had to remove the pedals and turn the handle bars sideways. 

Removing the pedals

Locking the handle bars sideways

Ready for the box

After the bike was ready, Rick helped Bike Polo Guy and I roll her into the box, and then he taped it up, we wrote my name on it, and she was ready to go. Amtrak took care of loading her onto the train for me, so I didn’t have to lug the gigantic 30 pound box anywhere. Pretty easy, really. When I arrived in Cincy I had to wait for them to bring all the baggage up (about 30 minutes), they helped me unload the box from their cart, then I just used my car keys to rip the tape off the box and rolled the bike right out. Overall, it was pretty easy getting the bike home, and I assume that $25 is less than I would have paid to rent a bike for three days.
All in all, I had a great time checking out Chicago's bike infrastructure, and I can't wait for Cincinnati to catch up!


  1. Kinzie Street, Dearborn Street and Milwaukee Avenue do not a bike city make. Did you bike anywhere else? If not it's kinda' like all those other Midwestern tourists visiting "Viagra Triangle" and claiming they've experienced The Windy City.

    1. Katnerg, I’m not making any claims about Chicago - just pointing out some of the things they’ve tried that put them ahead of the game compared to Cincinnati. But yes, we did bike around several other neighborhoods as well.

    2. What Mel highlighted here seems to be the highlights for most cyclists, but certainly there is much more to the city than that and it sounds like Mel also got to check some of that out.

      Having lived in Chicago for the last 1.5 years, I would say it is quite bicycle friendly. The streets are flat and there are a lot of actual bike lanes, not just sharrows. The addition of Divvy is incredibly nice and this article doesn't even touch on the Lakefront Trail or the now funded Bloomingdale Trail.

  2. I like taking Amtrak a lot...I just wish there was daily service between Cincinnati and Chicago. You can tell there are the customers there as Megabus alone is now offering three daily trips between the two cities.

  3. What a great idea! I would LUV to take my bike on the train for a trip to Chicago. Thanks Mel!

  4. Late reply, but, yes, there is an easier entrance for bikes down to Union Station. There is a large driveway heading under Union Station at the northeast corner of Clinton St. and Jackson. You have to walk your bike around the pillar then take the sidewalk down. No stairs, just ramps all the way. Super easy, I took my bike on Amtrak for the first time last month and saw many people using this route. Thanks for posting about how to do the bike box option. My route didn't require it but I'd like to take more trips in the future.