Monday, August 15, 2011

Who is advocating for Chicago's bike lane maintenance?

If you've ever looked at the city's bike map, you'll see that there are many miles of Chicago's streets that are designated as either "existing bike lanes" or "existing marked shared lanes". Either way, according to the map, there is supposed to be striping on the pavement to signal to the drivers that they should expect bicycles present.

But the reality on the streets is very different. Many of the bike lanes were striped five years ago or more, and never restriped. They're often faded, and sometimes even completely invisible.

If a street has a bike lane, but no one can see it, is it still a bike lane? Wells Street at 1700 North.  (Photo: BikeWalkLincolnPark)
Have you ever wondered why Chicago's bike lanes are in such a sorry state? The answer is a combination of how bike lane maintenance is funded, and how the city's ward maps are drawn up.

The funding aspect of this topic is nicely explained in this post on Grid Chicago, and we recommend that you read it for excellent insight. The bottom line is that new bike lanes are paid for by federal funds. However, those same funds don't cover maintenance, including re-striping of existing lanes. That responsibility is left to the city, but there is no organized citywide plan or budget to provide for  maintenance. Instead, it has been expected that each alderman allot some of their aldermanic menu funds to pay for bike lane re-striping. An alderman has $1.3 million per year, which sounds like a lot of money, but there are dozens of competing priorities within the ward for funds. Constituents ask aldermen to use their menu funds to pay for everything from installing street lights at an intersection to upgrading playground equipment in a neighborhood park, and much more. 

So who gets the grease? You know the answer to that.

Here's the biggest problem in all this: Unlike a single intersection or a park's playground, which are wholly contained within an alderman's district, a bike lane may stretch over miles, with only a small section  crossing through any given city ward. Most importantly, the people who use the bike lane the most and who would benefit from a bike lane's restriping, may or may not live within the ward, because they're only passing through. In fact, a majority of those who benefit likely live elsewhere, in adjoining wards or further "down stream".

Here's a concrete example. Let's say Biker Bob lives in Albany Park, close to Irving Park Road and Elston Avenue,  and commutes by bike southeast on Elston every day to his job in River West, near Chicago and Halsted. That's a five-mile ride and takes about a half an hour. He notices the sorry state of the bike lanes on Elston and as a concerned bicyclist and citizen, wants to take action. What should he do?

A five-mile bike ride down Elston Avenue in Chicago takes a commuter through five different aldermanic wards. 
If you look at the map, you see that in a five-mile ride on Elston, Bob passes over a jigsaw puzzle of five aldermanic wards: 33rd (Mell), 35th (Colon), 1st (Moreno), 32nd (Waguespack) and 27th (Burnett). Bob could call his own alderman, Alderman Mell, and work hard to persuade him to use menu funds to pay for restriping, but that only covers the segment from Addison to Belmont. After that, it's up to four other aldermen to step up and open up their wallets. But Biker Bob is not a constituent of the other aldermen, and the chance of them being responsive to a squeaky wheel who resides in another ward is quite low, to say the least. 

What are Bob's other options? Contact friends who live in the other four wards and care enough about bike lanes to raise a stink with their own aldermen? Stop other bike riders on Elston to ask where they live and rally them to take up the cause? Form an Elston Avenue Commuters United group to address the issue? This sounds like it would take huge numbers of personal connections and/or chutzpah, and definitely a heck of a lot of work.

So we have a public good from which many people benefit, but no alignment of political incentives to act to preserve the public good. This has to be changed. For new bike lanes that the city puts in, there must be a better plan in place to fund and maintain the bike lanes, or else the developing network of bike lanes will become useless within a few years.

We're lucky that in the eastern part of Lincoln Park, our former alderman, Vi Daley, did allocate menu funds for restriping of bike lanes, which is being done this summer by CDOT, as outlined in this  document. You may have already noticed the nice re-striping on Armitage or Halsted already completed. And to be fair, the sorry stretch of Wells Street north of North Avenue in the picture above is slated to be done soon as well. We thank former Alderman Daley for allocating money for this, and we are hopeful that our current Lincoln Park aldermen, Michele Smith and Scott Waguespack, are equally supportive of bicycle and pedestrian issues.

Many city wards are not as lucky to have supportive aldermen who see the importance of bike lane maintenance. The CDOT document above only reflects re-striping scheduled this summer in the 1st, 43rd and 49th (Moore) wards. That's three wards, out of 50.

If you live in Lincoln Park, contact us at to join our efforts. If you live in any of the other great neighborhoods in Chicago, think about organizing your neighbors to make sure bicycle issues are high on the priority list for your alderman, perhaps with the help of the Active Transportation Alliance's Neighborhood Bikeways Campaign. Your fellow bicyclists all over the city will thank you.

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