Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Choosing the low-stress routes when riding a bike

by Michelle Stenzel

When you drive a car from one place to another on the north side of Chicago, you usually take the most direct route. This mostly involves major arterial streets like North Avenue or Halsted Street, which may have too many stoplights for your liking, but when traffic is light, you can drive fast and get to where you’re going in minimal time.

When you ride a bike from one place to another, you could also take the most direct route and use major arterials if you’d like, the same as if you were driving. However,  the advantages to a major street for a driver – fast speed of motor vehicle traffic – is a huge detriment to a person on a bicycle. Unless you’re in a bike lane that is separated from motor vehicle traffic with a physical barrier, fast-moving cars, buses and SUVs whizzing by you on the street are nerve-wracking, to say the least.

This part of Lincoln Avenue has a full-width bike lane, but in other sections, there are only "sharrow" markings, and it makes the street feel too stressful for many bike riders. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
To make your bike trip more pleasant and relaxing, you’d be better off choosing quieter streets with fewer vehicles that are moving at slower speeds. These might be secondary streets like Sedgwick and Webster, or better yet, very quiet neighborhood streets like Cleveland or Dickens. The route that you patch together to avoid main arterials may mean that you’ll have to cover a slightly longer distance than you would on the more direct route, but you’ll arrive in a happier, more relaxed state.
Bicyclists riding on Altgeld Street, a calm east-west route through Lincoln Park. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The best route to take on a bicycle may be very different from the one you’d choose if you were driving. This seems like a very basic idea, but honestly, it took many years for it to occur to me, so I’m writing about it now in hopes of encouraging others to consider the concept, and perhaps inspiring you to plan a low-stress route yourself.

To give you a concrete example, this spring I'm travelling regularly to pick up or drop off my daughter at a theater near Diversey and Ashland. That intersection is in the very northwest corner of Lincoln Park, and we live near Lincoln and Wells, in the southeast corner, a distance of just over two miles. I’m planning to use our tandem bike for these trips as much as possible.

Here’s the route we would take driving:  

The route that I would take in a car is direct, because Lincoln and Diversey are low-stress routes for drivers.
That’s definitely not the route I would take with my daughter on the tandem. Lincoln Avenue is narrow and full of cars regularly exceeding the posted 25 mph speed limit, and even more so when they overtake bicyclists. The marked bike lane is on-again, off-again, and the many potholes require a bicyclist to swerve often. Although I ride Lincoln by myself on my own bike, I consider it too risky to do so with my daughter. Diversey is not a good choice in any circumstance, with no bike infrastructure to speak of.

So to minimize stress, here are the routes we take by bike:

The green route is how we get to our destination by bike, and the blue route is how we ride home. The green route is Lincoln Park West, Wisconsin, Mohawk, Dickens, Seminary, Altgeld, Marshfield. The blue route is Marshfield, Wrightwood, Greenview, Belden, Cleveland, Wisconsin, Lincoln Park West.
First, note that none of the two-mile route is on major arterials. The busiest of these segments is the three-block stretch on Wrightwood near Ashland that we take on the way home in order to cross Ashland before turning onto Greenview. (And those three blocks are the least pleasant of the trips.) All the rest are on calm, pleasant, tree-lined streets that are mostly a pleasure to experience. 
Cleveland Street has very low volumes of car traffic, and is therefore a calm north-south route through Lincoln Park. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Also, notice that the route to get there and the route to get home share nearly no streets! This would be pretty unusual for a driving route: if you take your car on Lincoln and Diversey to get somewhere, you pretty much take Diversey to Lincoln to get back. But it’s different on side streets, influenced mainly by the fact that so many side streets are one-way only.

Note that our route includes short segments in which we’re going “against the flow” on a one-way side street. This isn’t optimal by any means, but sometimes it’s just hard to avoid. There’s always plenty of room for us on the street, but I recognize that other street users are not expecting contra-flow vehicles to appear, and so in those cases, we stick to the right side and proceed even more slowly and carefully than usual.

Finally, I’d like to point out that the reason some of these streets have low volumes of car traffic is because there is some obstacle to motor vehicle traffic that discourages drivers to use those streets, and encourages them to go onto the larger arterial streets. Many of these obstacles, however, aren’t barriers for bicyclists, and in fact make the route even more pleasant.

For instance, on Dickens west of Larrabee, drivers must turn off onto Howe Street, but bicyclists can continue through the path on the edge of Lincoln Park High School’s campus and Oz Park:

This path between Oz Park and Lincoln Park High School links sections of Dickens Street for a nice east-west route for bicyclists and pedestrians, but not motor vehicles. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The DePaul University quad prevents drivers from continuing through on Seminary, but it makes a great route for bicyclists:

The DePaul University quad serves as a nice north/south route through Lincoln Park via Seminary Street.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Finally, I've noted that it takes an equal amount of time driving or riding a bike for this journey, even though it's a slightly longer route on bike. The benefit of riding is that by the time I've made the 15-minute trip four times in a day, I've enjoyed an hour of exercise seeing our lovely neighborhood under sunny skies, instead of wasting a frustrating hour feeling stuck in car traffic. (I won't even boast about how I avoid pouring one pound of carbon dioxide into the air with every one mile I refrain from driving, although there, I just did.)

So, when you’re considering whether to ride to a destination on your bike, don’t think like a car driver, think like a bicyclist!

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