Off-Milwaukee: a bike route

Everybody loves Milwaukee Avenue — perhaps a little too much so. It’s the city’s busiest on-street bicycle route, with a bicyclist passing through Milwaukee, North, and Damen every six seconds during rush hour. 2009 counts indicate over 3000 a day (about 22% of all vehicles) at its southern end, a number that’s boomed in recent years. Besides all these bikes, it moves 15,000 cars and buses a day, and 70,000 passengers ride alongside on the O’Hare Blue Line.

It’s certainly the most direct route between the northwest side and downtown, but sometimes we cyclists want a route that involves less door zone and more trees. So, after years of living in Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park-Bucktown, and Logan Square, here’s one set of lightly trafficked routes which get me to and from downtown with minimum fuss (and often with stoplights as it crosses arterials). It’s 36% longer than a straight shot down Milwaukee from Logan Square to Wells/Monroe (22.7km vs 16.7km) and takes about 10 minutes longer.

route map

[A zoomable, turn-by-turn route can be found at Bikely.]

The route takes advantage of a few streets around Logan Square that were platted around Milwaukee’s diagonal axis, evidently before the gridiron was enforced. It also runs along the grid through scenic Ukrainian Village and the Kinzie-Carroll-Fulton industrial corridor on the near west side. For those times when a stop on the north side is necessary, I’ve found Kingsbury and Larrabee-Geneva to be good routes.

How can these streets become even better for bikes and for their residents? One approach, popular on the West Coast (and in the WPB plan!), is called the bicycle boulevard — radically traffic-calmed side streets that are optimized for bicyclists moving at a steady 10-15 MPH. They’re the mainstay of the bikeway networks in cities like Berkeley, Portland, and Vancouver, and take full advantage of the fact that Western cities have extensive street grids with good connectivity. Although they’re a key element of Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan, none have been implemented yet here. When they are, there’s plenty of guidance out there, like this new Bicycle Boulevard Guidebook. Local residents get calmer traffic with fewer inconveniences, cyclists get faster and better routes, and everyone wins with more safety — similar interventions in Europe have resulted in 50% reductions in injuries.

A few of the elements found along bicycle boulevards:

Traffic calming features like chicanes (twisting the path of vehicle traffic, often using planting or curbside parking) and low speed humps.

Bicycle boulevard entrance
Cut-out sleeves and other curb features allowing bikes to go two ways on a street, but restricting car traffic to one-way or altogether. (This simple feature, already implemented by Dearborn Park in the South Loop after years of effort, could make a lot of the new culs-de-sac around town much easier on bikes.)

Bicycle-friendly traffic signals give cyclists and pedestrians a protected way to continue where the bike boulevard crosses arterial streets. In some cities, like Brookline, Mass. and Davis, Calif., these are embedded sensors in the street; in other cities, like Vancouver (shown above), they’re pushbuttons by the road.

This still leaves the question of how to further improve Milwaukee Avenue for the thousands of cyclists who use it every day. After investing millions into the city’s busiest bike route, the Lakefront Path, some more attention should be paid to the city’s busiest inland bike route. Many incremental, and relatively cheap, improvements would improve bikeability on this street — improving safety for all users and further encouraging cycling’s amazing growth. A few relatively low-cost but high-impact ideas:
1. Perhaps there are enough cyclists — roughly half of peak-hour traffic, by some accounts — to justify creating timing the green lights so that bikes and other traffic at 12MPH gets a “green wave.” This has also been done in Denmark, downtown Portland, and San Francisco. I can never seem to hit the green lights in sequence, regardless of my speed; enhanced signal timing could speed the trip from Logan Square to Wicker Park by 25%. The “wave” improves safety by moving cyclists through intersections, which is where where conflicts and crashes occur, and by improving compliance with the law. (The usual argument against, particularly for CMAQ funds, is that the air quality benefits of encouraging bicycling rarely cancels out the AQ impacts of stopping cars/trucks, but perhaps we’ve reached a level of cycling where the balance has tipped into the bikes’ favor.)

2. At particularly complex intersections, a Leading Pedestrian Interval could dramatically improve pedestrian and cyclist safety. An LPI gives pedestrians a three-second head start over cars at an intersection (often used by bikes, but this could also be explicit), giving peds clear priority over turning vehicles. It’s like a mini-scramble signal, and it’s incredibly effective: a test in St. Petersburg, Fla. found conflicts diminished by 95%. The six-corner intersections have lots of turning movements and thus many conflicts; they’re also perhaps not best for scrambles, since few pedestrians would wait through the entire cycle to cross the street.

3. Speaking of turns, I would suggest that the protected left-turn signal phases (which I generally dislike: there’s no right to a left turn!) follow, not lead, the green phases. (Here’s another argument for it.) In other words, the left-arrow-green should come after the green light — which is, after all, usually when people sneak a left anyways (after getting stranded in the middle of the intersection by the “left turn trap“). Also, too often it seems that the drivers waiting in the left turn lane get distracted and don’t make their turns until their protected signal phase is almost over, which wastes precious signal time for everyone; this should be less of a problem with a trailing signal phase. Apparently, this is called “lag-lag (permissive-protected) left-turn phasing” in the traffic engineering literature, and I should probably ask a few engineers about it.

The above three signaling improvements could easily be accomplished within the scope of the upcoming Milwaukee Avenue reconstruction program, or even before. Perhaps they could together be called “Greenlight Milwaukee.”

4. I was going to write something about how more radical bike lane designs could revolutionize the way the street works and looks. Rue Rachel across Montréal’s Plateau, fits a bidirectional cycletrack, two-way traffic, and parallel parking into a ROW that could easily fit inside Milwaukee Avenue with ~10′ to spare, and these streets in NYC have protected bike lanes in streets with even less space and higher traffic volumes to work with. However, such approaches are impossible until the parking-meter contract ends; there’s no way to add much new bike space (or bus space, or pedestrian space) without subtracting at least some parking spaces. Oh well. File this one for the 2083 file.

In the meantime, the WPB plan offers up schemes for reclaiming excess road space at key intersections, which would slow down car traffic and make pedestrian crossings shorter and safer.

5. A while ago, I thought I saw a schematic plan for Logan Square which showed narrower roads, fewer crossings, and tighter curb radii, but I can’t seem to find it. It’s crazy that crossing the square requires crossing 20 lanes of 50MPH traffic at six different lights. There’s no reason whatsoever for the two-lane roads approaching the square to become four or six lanes through the square; the excess pavement could be returned as green space. In the future, the urban-fabric wounds left by the subway tunnel (the space over the portal, the principal subway entrance and the huge blank wall behind it, the underutilized former terminal [now Banco Popular and its parking lot], and the bus terminal) can be healed with new buildings or public amenities.

(All photos mine.)

3 thoughts on “Off-Milwaukee: a bike route

  1. 1. I don’t understand the second and third animations on the left turn trap page.
    2. Can you turn the image of bike/ped counts at MilNoDa into a text equvalent table?
    3. Check your email.

  2. The second animation is a repeat of the first one. The third, well, it seems a bit forced to me. I’m pretty sure that we have the M/N/D schematic as a table in the WPB plan.

  3. Hi Payton!

    Some responses to your ideas:

    1. I’ve been a fan of the green wave for some time and think Milwaukee would be great for it. If you set the wave for 11-13 mph, cars can go 22-26 mph and get all the same “wave” benefits without really making much difference to AQ. The big barrier though is interconnecting twenty-something signals (south of Logan Sq.) to make it all work. And it’s even a bigger headache when you consider some of the special timing plans already in effect at some of the triple intersections (e.g. Mil/Ash/Div or Mil/Chi/Ogd.) Hopefully some cheap wireless interconnects can come into play to make this happen.
    2. Yes.
    3. @Steven – The third animation lets waiting left-turners know on-coming traffic still has a green even though through traffic in turner’s direction has all red. This would be good for eastbound Chicago at Milwaukee.
    4. Don’t get me started on on-street parking.
    5. I think Tom S. had a hand in that plan if you’re ever in contact with him.

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