The backlash against the Marshall Boulevard bike lanes is a cautionary tale for planners | Transportation | Chicago Reader

The backlash against the Marshall Boulevard bike lanes is a cautionary tale for planners 

Community input and outreach are crucial for avoiding resentment from noncyclists.

click to enlarge CDOT downgraded protected bike lanes on Marshall Boulevard, left, turning them into conventional lanes, right, earlier this year. - STEVEN VANCE, PAOLO CISNEROS
  • CDOT downgraded protected bike lanes on Marshall Boulevard, left, turning them into conventional lanes, right, earlier this year.
  • STEVEN VANCE, PAOLO CISNEROS

Mayor Rahm Emanuel likes to brag that Chicago is one of the leading cities for protected bike lanes, with 22 miles installed to date. That figure helped us garner Bicycling magazine's award for America's best biking city last September.

But soon after we won that honor, Chicago Department of Transportation crews took out the half-mile stretch of protected lanes on Marshall Boulevard in mostly Mexican-American Little Village. Part of Chicago's historic boulevard system, Marshall lies a half block east of Sacramento Avenue and runs between 19th Street (the southern border of Douglas Park) and 24th Boulevard.

Workers ground out the white thermoplastic lines of the protected bike lanes, which had originally been located next to the curbs, with physical barriers shielding cyclists from moving traffic. Then they redrew the bike lanes closer to the center of the road, with no physical protection from traffic. This allowed for curbside car parking on both sides of the street and created about 30 new parking spaces.

The downgrading of the Marshall bike lanes was done at the request of residents who wanted more spots for cars and had other concerns about the facilities. But as the city strives to build more protected bikeways, this unfortunate episode underscores the need for CDOT to earn community buy-ins before construction and do extensive outreach afterward.

CDOT originally installed the Marshall lanes in November 2012. Previously Marshall had wide travel lanes plus parking on both sides of the street in most sections.

To make room for the bike lanes, about 30 parking spaces were stripped from the east side of the street. On the west side of Marshall, the parking lane was moved to the left of the bike lane so that the parked cars protected cyclists from moving vehicles.

But due to a lack of city outreach about the new configuration, some residents were confused about where to park on the west side of the street and left their cars in the bike lanes rather than in the new parking lane. Worse, CDOT didn't immediately install NO PARKING signs on the east side of the street. As a result, many neighbors didn't realize that it was illegal to park in the northbound bike lane, and many of them were ticketed or even towed.

Dan Korn, a computer programmer who lives at the Hub, a co-op building on Marshall that was founded by bike advocates, and an old acquaintance of mine, says he exchanged several e-mails about the sign problem with then CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein, starting shortly after the bike lanes went in. But the signs weren't replaced until June 2013, about seven months after the fact.

Unsurprisingly, residents gave CDOT staffers an earful at a September 2013 community meeting hosted by 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas. Deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton apologized for the "poor implementation and aggressive ticketing," and said the department would add 74 more public parking spaces by making minor tweaks to the protected bike lane design and removing some permit parking on nearby side streets. (According to CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey, almost all of these spots were later added.)

But in defense of the lanes, Hamilton noted that the "road diet" (as narrowing or removing travel lanes is called) had dramatically reduced speeding on Marshall. Before the protected lanes went in, 59 percent of drivers were exceeding the 30 mph speed limit on the stretch, with 12.5 percent doing over 40 mph-a speed at which pedestrian crashes are almost always fatal. Afterward, only 27 percent of drivers were speeding, with a mere 1 percent breaking 40.

But unfortunately, the CDOT presentation was only in English, and the CDOT staffers didn't speak Spanish. "This kind of thing doesn't help to combat the perception that cycling is a white activity, and that this bike infrastructure is being pushed onto the neighborhood by white outsiders," Korn noted.

While Little Village may have fewer outspoken bicycle advocates than, say, Logan Square, it does have a high rate of bicycling. The three census tracts bordering Marshall have 7, 9, and 12 percent bike-mode share, much higher than the city average of about 2 percent.

And ridership in the neighborhood is likely to rise in the future. A recent League of American Bicyclists study found that, nationally, bike-mode share among Latinos grew by 50 percent between 2001 and 2009, compared to only 22 percent for whites.

After the CDOT presentation, Cardenas spoke to the crowd, stating, "Your quality of life is more important to me than protected bike lanes." Neighbors then testified that they found it increasingly difficult to park in the neighborhood, and disliked parking to the left of the southbound bike lane. Others argued that the new configuration wasn't safe for children crossing the street, even though the bike lanes have actually shortened crossing distances for pedestrians.

Korn says he and one other bike commuter were the only attendees to voice support for the bike lanes, and he didn't hear much more about the issue until CDOT removed the protected bike lanes in late 2016.


—Little Village activist Chris Didato


Cardenas and his constituents requested the reconfiguration, and Liliana Escarpita, Cardenas's assistant, says that the alderman used $30,000 in ward funds to pay for the work. Although there were no additional community meetings after the one in 2013, Escarpita says her office continued to receive "general complaints . . . about parking scarcity," and complaints that leaves and garbage were accumulating in the curbside lanes.

Neighbors, she says, are pleased with the new layout.

"No one in the community supported [keeping] the original configuration," Escarpita says.

Of course, that doesn't factor in cyclists like Korn and his bike advocate neighbors at the Hub, or the roughly one out of ten nearby residents who bikes to work.

Longtime Little Village community activist Chris Didato says he was also disappointed by the change.

"As a biker, protected lanes make sense," he says. "[They] did make me feel safer."

Urban planning grad student and Pilsen resident Paolo Cisneros, who frequently used the Marshall protected lanes to bike commute last summer, was likewise bummed about the downgrade.

"The lanes provided an additional level of protection for people like me who aren't superconfident commuters," Cisneros said. "Now it's certainly a much more stressful ride. . . . You're being squeezed between traffic and parked cars." (The new bike lane design does include a striped buffer to help keep cyclists out of the way of car doors.)

Unfortunately, the Marshall rollout was indicative of CDOT's past problems with installing protected bike lanes south- and west-side communities of color. For example, opposition from Bronzeville community leaders killed a plan for protected bike lanes in early 2012. And protected lanes on Independence Boulevard in West Garfield Park were downgraded in December 2012 after residents complained about the layout.

That's not to say that opposition to protected lanes only occurs in communities of color. For example, in 2014 backlash from residents in majority-white Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park killed CDOT's proposal for a road diet with protected lanes on Milwaukee Avenue.

But installing bike infrastructure in underserved brown and black communities raises additional issues. On the one hand, the city has historically installed a lower density of bikeways in these areas than it has on the north and northwest sides. And residents of these neighborhoods stand to gain the most from the economic, health, and mobility benefits of bicycling.

On the other hand, as local Latino and African-American social justice activists have pointed out, longtime residents of these communities may view new bike lanes and paths as a frivolous waste of money, or even a harbinger of gentrification. When the facilities take away parking or travel lane space from cars, as protected lanes often do, that can exacerbate these issues.

"The community has to be onboard," says Didato. "The city didn't involve residents in the change to protected bike lanes [on Marshall], so a lot of residents weren't supportive."

Recently CDOT has been doing a better job of bike lane outreach, including a series of public meetings on the south and west sides last year to ask residents where the next round of bikeways should go. "We're always striving to do a better job," CDOT's Claffey said in a statement, "and make sure that bike lanes fit the needs of the community and that they're accepted by all people in the community, and that they make transportation safer for everybody."

But as the Marshall Boulevard mess demonstrates, the more neighborhood input taken before protected bike lanes go in, the better. And once the lanes are built, CDOT should make it obvious to drivers how to use them by immediately updating street signs; marking parking lanes with thermoplastic Ps; flyering cars with parking tips, rather than parking tickets; and adding temporary signage, such as sandwich boards. These strategies will help ensure a better reception to the lanes from neighbors who don't bike, so that the department won't have to downgrade any more bikeways in the future.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.


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