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Unsafe construction zones and trashed bike lanes are endangering cyclists

Popular biking corridors like Milwaukee Avenue have turned into dangerous places to ride.

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Cyclists ride by Logan Square’s "Twin Towers" transit-oriented development. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • Cyclists ride by Logan Square’s "Twin Towers" transit-oriented development.

This has been a summer of discontent for Chicago cyclists.

Most seriously, there were four bike fatalities in the city in the space of about two months, all involving commercial vehicles. Courier Blaine Klingenberg was struck and killed by a tour bus driver on June 15 in the Gold Coast and Divvy rider Virginia Murray was fatally struck by a flatbed truck driver on July 1 in Avondale.

Art student Lisa Kuivinen was also struck and killed by the driver of a flatbed truck in West Town on the morning of August 16. The next evening West Garfield Park resident Francisco "Frank" Cruz was fatally struck in the neighborhood by a cargo van driver who fled the scene and was still at large as of late last week.

Kuivinen's case drew attention to a problem that may not have been a factor in any of these fatalities, but has the potential to cause additional cycling deaths. That is, construction zones that block sidewalks and bike lanes, terrible pavement conditions caused by utility line work, and illegally parked vehicles blocking bikeways.

On the morning of the crash Kuivinen, 20, had been biking southeast in a green-painted stretch of the Milwaukee Avenue bike lanes in West Town, police said. Near 874 N. Milwaukee, truck driver Antonio Navarro, 37, veered into the bike lane while making a right turn onto southbound Racine Avenue, striking and dragging Kuivinen.

It appears that Navarro was on his way to a transit-oriented development construction site at 830 N. Milwaukee. The site can be accessed from an alley off of Racine.

Early news reports noted that southeast-bound bike lane is blocked by a fenced-off construction zone for the TOD project, which forces cyclists to merge into the travel lane. However, it appears this wasn't a factor in the collision, because the blockage is a few hundred feet past the crash site.

But in the wake of Kuivinen's death, some cyclists expressed anger about the construction blockage, as well as trucks and equipment parked in the bike lane near the work site. DNAinfo reported that on the day after Kuivinen died, a male cyclist intentionally smashed the windshield of a truck that was parked in the bike lane.

The memorial to Lisa Kuivinen at the crash site at Milwaukee and Racine. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • The memorial to Lisa Kuivinen at the crash site at Milwaukee and Racine.

Since then, there's been an uptick of cyclists posting photos of vehicles in the Milwaukee bike lanes and other bikeways on social media. They're using hashtags like #enforce940060-a reference to the Chicago ordinance prohibiting driving, standing, or parking on bike lanes or paths-and #lanespreading to draw attention to the problem.

Reached by phone the day after the crash, 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett said a Chicago Department of Transportation official told him the department was investigating the TOD bike lane blockage and would have a report by the end of the day. Although I made several requests to CDOT for an update, as of publication the department still had not provided one. 

Milwaukee Avenue is the city's busiest cycling street, sometimes seeing 5,000-plus bike trips a day during the summer, according to CDOT. But this season much of it has been affected by construction zones and associated parking issues. The ongoing gentrification of Wicker Park and Logan Square, along with the recent passage of the city's transit-oriented development ordinance, which reduces on-site parking requirements and allows for additional density in projects located near train stops, have led to a building boom along the Milwaukee Blue Line corridor.

On a bike ride along the 3.5-mile stretch of Milwaukee from Logan Square's eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument to Kinzie Street last week, I counted 18 different sites where construction or rehab work was going on. At least seven were for TOD projects.

Much of the work included significant impacts to the public right-of-way. In addition to the bike lane blockage near the Kuivinen crash site, there were several sites, such as the "Twin Towers" TOD near the California station, where sidewalks were closed, and plenty of construction Dumpsters sat in the curb lane.

One of the most problematic projects for cyclists has been the conversion of Wicker Park's Northwest Tower, aka the Coyote Building, into a boutique hotel. Since the construction required closing a length of sidewalk on the west side of Milwaukee, the developer provided a safe route for people on foot by building a pedestrian walkway in the street, surrounded by concrete walls.

However, the walkway eliminated the space southeast-bound cyclists used to ride in, forcing them to squeeze between a wall and car traffic. After Streetsblog publicized the problem, CDOT addressed the issue by stripping parking from the other side of the street and moving the center line of the road to widen the downtown-bound lane, but it's still a somewhat tight fit for bike riders.

"CDOT has strict rules that govern all permit requests that affect the public's access to the right-of-way, including requests that affect a bike lane or sidewalk," spokesman Mike Claffey said in a statement. "If the contractor fails to meet the requirement of the permit or the city's Rules and Regulations for Construction in the Public Way, they can be subject to fines."

Milwaukee Avenue hasn't been the only trouble spot for cyclists this summer. Kinzie Street in River North, where Chicago's first protected bike lanes were installed more than five years ago, is currently a mess due to trenches that were dug for utility work and filled in with concrete, forming a rough surface for bike tires.

Lousy pavement in the Dearborn two-way protected bike lane. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • Lousy pavement in the Dearborn two-way protected bike lane.

In the Loop, Randolph Street (a popular westbound bike route) and Dearborn Street (home to a busy two-way protected bike lane) are similarly torn up. CDOT says these streets will be repaved later this year, the Kinzie and Dearborn bike lanes will be rebuilt, and a brand-new curb-protected bike lane will be installed on Randolph.

There has been trouble on the Lakefront Trail this summer as well. Several sections were fenced off at various times for patching and resealing, with little or no advance notice. In general signed detours weren't provided, and in some cases TRAIL CLOSED AHEAD signs were placed only a few feet before the fences, forcing path users to backtrack.

Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner assured me that the agency is on top of the issue. "The Chicago Park District will provide more advance signage in Lakefront Trail improvement zones," she said, adding that residents can check the Park District's website and follow it on social media with the hashtag #ChiLFT for trail updates.

Still, the Active Transportation Alliance says more needs to be done to protect cyclists in these construction zones. "We feel things have really come to a head this summer with the obstructions of high-profile bike routes," advocacy director Jim Merrell told me. "We know that it's challenging for the city to coordinate all the construction projects and utility work, and we realize that in some cases sidewalks and bike lanes need to be closed. But the city's regulations say pedestrians and cyclists should be accommodated and safe alternatives should be provided, and in some cases private contractors aren't following these rules."

While the advocacy group has always encouraged members to call 311 to report right-of-way problems, last week it launched a new campaign called "Clear the Way," billed as "an all-out blitz to flood the city of Chicago's 311 line to report conditions that put people walking and biking in danger."

From now through the end of September, residents are urged to file 311 reports on unsafe conditions. Reports can also be made on the city website or via the mobile app Chicago Works. In addition, Active Trans is asking people to shoot photos of the sketchy situations and e-mail them to cleartheway@activetrans.org.

To keep things interesting, the campaign doubles as a contest. The most prolific 311 reporters and the best photographers will win awards.

In October, Active Trans will compile the results and submit them to Mayor Emanuel and aldermen. "We hope to encourage city officials and staff to take another look at this issue and see if more can't be done," Merrell said.

Hopefully by beating the drum about these problems, Active Trans will be able to convince decision makers that hazards and inconveniences for people walking and biking need to be taken just as seriously as those for people driving. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.


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