"Wider is better."
- car tire commercial
Grandparents stroll leisurely along with grandchildren spinning in delirious candy-fueled circles behind them, dogs lurch at each other as they pass in opposite directions while still clotheslined to their owners, roller bladers whiz past so close you can feel their sweat, swimmers and volleyballers dart across to get a fresh churro or bottle of water, joggers pass each other without looking behind to see if they're stepping into traffic, then there's trikes, bikes, strollers and the presence of party-goers on warm (or warmish) days - welcome to Chicago's lakefront trail, the most dangerous place in the Chicago to ride your bicycle.
This week's Chicago Journal story introducing Gabe Klein, the new commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, talked about Klein's plans for making Chicago the next great commuter city for non-drivers.
As a cyclist, I'd like to introduce Klein to one of the most overused and unappreciated pathways in Chicago - the lakefront trail.
I've been a daily bicycle commuter for closer to a decade than a day but I swore off riding the lakefront trail years ago. The reason? It's simply too dangerous. I learned the hard way that it's safer to get hit by a car on Clark Street than it is to take on joggers/bladers/trikes/bikes when each one of them is wearing ear buds so they cannot hear you yelling "on your left!"
I've been in accidents with cars, cabs, potholes, other cyclists and errant dogs but the only accident that left me with permanent scars is the one with a petite jogger who knocked me sideways on lower Wacker above the Chicago River. My left pinky and ring finger still bear the scars of that accident years later.
So I was initially enthusiastic to read about the Navy Pier Flyover plan that the CDOT unveiled earlier this spring and came up in conversations last week among some cyclists I know.
As someone who has spilled his own blood on the lakefront trail and seen dozens of other accidents I was glad to hear that the congestion along the lakefront may be finally addressed by the city. However, I was stunned to learn that the $45 million project will actually narrow the lakefront trail in areas, particularly where it curves around the famous Lake Point Tower residences.
I have told newbie cyclists for years: "Do yourself a favor and avoid the lakefront path at all costs. There's simply too many people on the path who shouldn't be there. You will get into an accident. Cars are more predictable than individuals are."
It is easy to pick on the too old or the too young - basically grandparents mindlessly walking their grandchildren on what amounts to a freeway for non-engine vehicles - but it isn't the 8- and 80-year-olds causing the bulk of the problem. The problem is there just isn't any other "safe" area for joggers, cyclists, bladers, dog-walkers, trike-riders and the other outdoor enthusiasts to go. So the "safe" lakefront becomes overcrowded very quickly (usually by 9 am on the weekends) so that areas like the bend around the Theater On The Lake get choked to the point where cyclists, joggers, bladers and the like have to basically get in line to proceed.
The city of Chicago doesn't keep statistics for bike-bike or bike-pedestrian accidents so the actual number of accidents along the lakefront trail cannot be empirically proven to be on the rise. However, all it takes is trying to use the lakefront trail during the day to see that common sense is the backbone of this argument: the lakefront trail is already too narrow and with the city making a concerted effort to increase bike (and other non-vehicular) traffic the crowded conditions will only worsen.
By my measurements the lakefront trail is 6 feet wide for each lane. The new Navy Pier Flyover plan (see pg 5) calls for lanes to be 5 feet wide with a 3-foot shoulder on either side.
The lakefront trail needs to be expanded, not contracted. For $45 million I would think a better solution could be achieved than squeezing the "flyover" in between Lake Shore Drive and the Lake Point Tower residences.
"But what about the 3-foot shoulder?" You may ask. "Doesn't that make the path 8 feet wide in each direction?"
Only if you think that the shoulder really counts. As a cyclist, I do not. How many joggers actually use the shoulder that exists elsewhere? Very few. There's no empirical numbers to prove this, just experience. If you're in doubt, please go use the trail yourself to find out.
Cyclists only use the paved portion of the trail. The gravel shoulders are intended for joggers and dog-walkers. However, given the crowds along the lakefront trail the paved part of the trail is just as thick with foot traffic and joggers as it is with cyclists and bladers, which causes problems for everyone.
"If we just make it so that people can ride recreationally on Sundays on the lakeside trail, that's important, but we want people to walk and take transit and bike to work," Klein said in the Chicago Journal story.
Maybe Klein and other CDOT decision-makers need to learn to walk before they can run. If they took the time to walk (or preferably bike) the lakefront trail they would realize that the pathway is in dire need of expansion throughout the full length of the trail, but particularly between the Museum Campus and the northern end of the trail. The lakefront trail is easily one of the most beautiful paths in the Midwest, providing postcard view on clear days, however it's getting more dangerous with every passing year and every campaign promise of making Chicago one of the nation's leaders in non-vehicular commuters.
But like encyclopedia salesmen and MySpace before it, Chicago's lakefront trail is becoming a relic right before our eyes. The amount of traffic the lakefront trail was built to handle was eclipsed years ago (just like every other street, highway, train track and airport in the city too). However, that basic fact appears to be ignored by CDOT as Mayor Rahm Emanuel seeks to establish Chicago as one of the country's most bicycle-friendly cities.
Before pushing for a $45 million project that will only complicate the difficult Lower Wacker section crossing the Chicago River even more than it currently is, I would hope that some CDOT officials would actually try to walk or bike the lakefront path on a busy day and see if they are not convinced that the path isn't too narrow already.
Mayor Emanuel and Mr. Klein, please consider this an invitation to ride the lakefront trail with me any time you wish.
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