Safety improvements to a “high-crash corridor” along Milwaukee Avenue would defend cyclists from auto collisions and make street crossings less perilous for pedestrians, officials said at a community meeting this week.
The office of First Ward Alderman Daniel La Spata hosted the online meeting, entitled “Milwaukee Avenue Safety Improvements,” along with David Smith, bike and ped program manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation. Officials outlined a proposed project, part of the Chicago Complete Streets initiative, to improve safety along Milwaukee Avenue between Western and California avenues. The project’s proposals include protected bike lines and other measures to put distance between drivers and the cyclists and pedestrians traveling Milwaukee.
“The concept for making sure that Milwaukee Avenue is safer, more comfortable, more accessible for everyone no matter how you’re moving around, no matter your age or ability is an idea and a project I’m really excited about,” Smith said.
He added that community input is welcome for the next two weeks before this proposal is finalized and installed later in the summer. The community meeting took place over Zoom on Wednesday, June 24.
Protected Bike Lanes and New Crosswalks
Smith shared a rendering of Milwaukee Avenue facing the California intersection, with a plastic-protected bike-lane curb running down Milwaukee and pedestrian bump-outs built into intersections at new crosswalks. The rendering showed parking spaces consolidated on one side of the street away from the curb, to provide another barrier between cyclists and motorists. Smith stressed that no bus stops are removed in this proposal and no changes are made to one-way streets, residential parking or loading zones.
CDOT also wants to gather public input on where pedestrian crossings are most needed in the corridor, Smith said. He showed a figure revealing a 625-foot crossing gap between California Avenue and Prindiville Street and a 900-foot gap between Maplewood and Armitage avenues.
The first part of the installation will focus on pavement markings, during which time streets and businesses will remain open and uninterrupted. Next will be curbs and posts for the protected bike lanes. Last will be concrete elements, including new crosswalks and a potential bus-boarding island, both installed later in 2020 or early 2021.
Meeting a “Citywide” and Local Need
The project “has a real citywide, a local and a personal significance,” said La Spata. “From a citywide perspective, we know we need to do more, based on sustainability concerns, congestion concerns to really have a range of transportation options for our residents to feel comfortable and safe.”
La Spata added that planners want to ensure that their approach to transportation improvements takes into account bikers’ and walkers’ needs. “We really want that to include walking and biking for everyone who lives in Chicago. From a local perspective, for the First Ward and for Logan Square, this is really about bringing Milwaukee Avenue in line with how people already use Milwaukee Avenue.”
The safety-improvement plan addresses a big need in a part of the neighborhood with increased bike and pedestrian use — along with heightened dangers for those users. Smith identified this stretch of Milwaukee Avenue as one of 43 “high-crash corridors” in the city, with disproportionate numbers of severe crashes between cyclists and motorists.
CDOT found 446 crashes in the corridor over a five-year stretch. La Spata added that crashes are likely vastly underreported. About half of the injury-producing crashes involved cyclists.
The department found, from data collection and public input, a major reason for the dangers along Milwaukee: Too many motorists are exceeding the speed limit. Speeding is the largest determining factor of major injury or death in accidents in this corridor, Smith said. CDOT found that over half of motorists exceeded the 20-mph speed limit in the corridor, with the fastest captured speed clocking in at 60 mph. Over a 24-hour window studied, 500 motorists went over 30 mph. Massive gaps between crosswalks in this corridor make the disproportionate risk worse for pedestrians, Smith said.
“With this project we want to make infrastructure changes that support that 20-mph speed limit,” Smith said.
Milwaukee “Spoke Route” Sees Explosion in Biking
Amid those dangers, more and more Chicagoans are hopping on bikes in the area, Smith said. “Bicycling is growing incredibly fast in the city of Chicago. It’s growing at a faster rate than any other mode of transportation, per census data. For people living on and near Milwaukee [Avenue], it’s growing at a much higher rate, three times faster than the rest of the city.”
Citywide Chicago census data from 2013-2017 shows annual increases in trips on bicycle-sharing system Divvy, a 4.4% drop in “auto mode share” and a 23.5% increase in “biking mode share,” Smith said. In Logan Square, biking grew by 74% over the same period; in the project corridor, biking grew by 83%. Smith added that the data is limited in showing only biking-to-work data and not all biking.
In addition, Smith identified Milwaukee Avenue as a Spoke Route, a key path that connects cyclists to multiple communities and commercial corridors.
Smith said such bikers in other parts of Milwaukee Avenue have already benefited from similar safety projects, with car speeds falling.
“We’ve implemented other types of improvements on Milwaukee Avenue to the south and to the north of this section. So last fall between California and Sacramento, we lowered the speed limit to 20 miles per hour,” he said. “We implemented more pedestrian space at intersections. We changed the shared lane markings to a new concept called a dashed bike line to provide a little more delineation for people biking, to narrow down the travel lanes a little further.”
The new project will bring similar same improvements to Milwaukee between Western and California. Smith listed more accessibility to the street and Blue Line and safer conditions among the other benefits of the plan. He also referenced the higher spending power of bicyclists; they visit businesses more often and spend more money than people driving through.
Other proposed improvements to benefit those bikers will take advantage of some unused space in the area, Smith said: Many on-street parking spaces on Milwaukee are underutilized.
“We feel that there is an opportunity to reallocate space from unused parking to safety improvements for people walking and biking,” he said. Of the 171 parking spaces in this corridor, only 46% are occupied during the week and 63% are occupied on Saturdays. The streets intersecting Milwaukee in this corridor see 73% parking occupancy during the week and 80% occupancy on Saturdays.
The proposal won’t affect “any residential parking or any changes to where residential permit parking exists,” Smith said.
Chicago Complete Streets Wants Your Input
La Spata shared his hopes for the project’s success and highlighted the universality of bike use along Milwaukee, referencing its “Hipster Highway” nickname and “the many people of color” using the corridor. “Everyone uses Milwaukee Avenue for cycling purposes. So we really want you to feel safe and comfortable while you’re biking down this street,” he said. “Personally, it’s a street that I’ve ridden my bike on daily for the last 10 years. It’s also a stretch of street that I myself had a crash on that is directly tied to the lack of separation for cars and cyclists on Milwaukee Avenue.”
Both La Spata and Smith emphasized that the city wants public input on the plan. Smith said the department had received supportive emails and phone calls recognizing the need for changes to this stretch of Milwaukee. CDOT walked door to door and met with more than 30 businesses to introduce the project, learn how businesses in the area operate and listen to concerns. “We’re still in the process of talking to folks. Those conversations aren’t done, but we really have made a big effort in talking to every single business along the corridor.”
La Spata thanked the CDOT for its partnership in the project and spoke about his office’s effort to talk to businesses, the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce (2808 N. Milwaukee Ave.) and the public to get input. “This is not the final draft. This is a meaningful, deliberative community meeting where we really want to get your feedback and your questions so that we can make this the best possible project for the community.”
View Smith’s slide deck here.
Featured photo: Erin Hegarty