There’s an increasingly popular slogan and hashtag among bike advocates, “Paint is not protection.” It’s basically a factually true statement: Bikeways that consist of road markings, with no three-dimensional barrier or grade separation between people driving and folks on bikes, do not physically prevent the former from striking the latter.
Here in Chicago, the catchphrase is regularly used by advocates ranging from fairly left-leaning folks like the person who runs the Milwaukee Avenue Bike Lane Twitter account, to the relatively non-radical, Chicago Department of Transportation-friendly Active Transportation Alliance. The implication is that when city officials install paint- or thermoplastic-only bikeways, they’re short-changing bike riders, generally due to the officials lacking the guts to take more space away from motorists.
— Active Trans (@activetrans) September 25, 2020
With increasing frequency, Chicago cycling advocates express disgust on social media when they hear of plans for new non-protected bikeways. For example, if a non-protected conventional or buffered bike lane is going in on a street with curbside parking, they’ll ask, why aren’t the parking and bike lane positions being switched to create curbside, parking-protected bike lanes?
The answer may be that doing so would require removing some parking spaces at intersections to ensure turning drivers and cyclists in the curbside lane can see other, and on dense retail corridors with heavy parking use, merchants are often opposed to eliminating those spaces.
In addition, it’s unsafe to install curbside parking-protected bike lanes unless there’s enough right-of way to install a wide (three or four feet) striped or concrete buffer between the parked cars and the bikeway. If you’re riding in a bike lane striped to the left of parked cars and someone opens a car door on the driver’s side, if necessary you can merge into the travel lane to avoid it. In a curbside parking-protected lane without a sufficient buffer, if someone on the passenger side opens a door in your path, basically there’s no way to avoid it except slamming on your brakes or hopping the curb.
In many cases CDOT opts not to install parking-protected bike lanes because creating safe ones, with a sufficient buffer, would require removing car parking from one side of the street to make room. More on that in a moment.
Many advocates are particularly annoyed by the dashed bike lanes CDOT has installed on several streets in recent years, starting in 2017 on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. Other streets that have gotten or are getting this treatment since then include Clark Street in Andersonville; Armitage Avenue in Logan Square and Hermosa; and Montrose Avenue between Kedzie Avenue and Clark.
Dashed bike lanes are even less robust than non-protected, non-buffered bike lanes with a solid line, because drivers are legally allowed to impinge on the dashed lines if necessary. The department has installed these on streets that are skinny enough that putting in more robust bikeways would narrow the travels lanes such that they technically wouldn’t be wide enough for CTA buses or large trucks – unless a lane of car parking was removed.
Now, there are precedents for stripping parking on a main street to make room for bike lanes in Chicago. Starting in 2013, further southeast on Milwaukee in River West, where there’s less retail and parking demand, the department removed 15 car spots to accommodate the bikeways. The situation was complicated by Chicago’s awful 75-year parking contract, which requires the city to compensate the concessionaire for any lost revenue due to space removal. In this case most of the spaces were replaced with new diagonal spots on the nearby side streets.
In 2017 CDOT eliminated 92 on-street parking spaces on a relatively sleepy stretch of Milwaukee between Addison Street and Irving Park road to make room for new buffered bike lanes. In summer of 2020 the department removed parking from one side of Milwaukee in Logan Square to accommodate new plastic curb-protected bike lanes (over loud protests from a couple of local merchants.) And later this summer CDOT plans to remove some of the curbside parking from the car-centric stretch of Clark in Edgewater, which has plenty of off-street parking, to make room for protected lanes.
That said, on dense retail corridors where on-street car spaces are heavily used, stripping car parking to accommodate bikeways is much easier said than done. For example, the Active Transportation Alliance proposed removing a car parking lane on Milwaukee in Wicker Park to make room for robust bike lanes, but some local shop, restaurant, and bar owners argued that doing so would hurt their business, so the idea ultimately went nowhere. And, again, the meter contract is another major hurdle to parking removal in Chicago.
So on other dense retail corridors where CDOT and/or the local aldermen opted to go with dashed bike lanes instead of a more robust treatment, presumably stripping and/or relocating parking was seen as a non-starter.
Personally, I view dashed lanes as a small upgrade from nothing at all. They advertise the presence of cyclists, and encourage motorists to drive closer to the center line, leaving more room for bike riders to stay out of the “door zone” near parked cars. I find Milwaukee in Wicker Park and Clark in Andersonville to be a bit more pleasant to cycle on since the dashed lanes went in.
But lots of Chicago bike advocates disagree with me that dashed lanes represent any kind of improvement. Some even argue that they make things worse.
I lived on this stretch of Milwaukee when the change happened, and now i don’t ride on it at all. Before i’d ride in the traffic lane to stay safe, now since we “have a lane” motorists get angry when you enter the traffic lane to avoid doors and double parked cars…
— RestingBikeFace™ (@lisasoverino) August 23, 2021
So do dashed bike lanes represent a pragmatic, better-than-nothing approach on relatively narrow, dense retail streets where stripping a lane of car parking would involve major political and logistical hurdles, and many would argue it could hurt local merchants?
The new dashed bike lanes on Montrose west of Damen, a relatively narrow 2-lane street with a bus route, where the curbside parking gets a lot of use. Many “paint is not protection” folks hate this sort of thing. What do you think?@stevevance #bikeCHI pic.twitter.com/tg1SgX4KL9
— John Greenfield (@greenfieldjohn) August 23, 2021
Or do they represent a depressing surrender to car culture, when city officials should be doing whatever it takes to provide physically protected or grade-separated bikeways on retail streets? Judging from the responses to the above tweet today, many local bike advocates take the latter position.