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Can Dutch Bike Experts Help to Make Wicker Park's Milwaukee Avenue Safer?

By Alisa Hauser | September 27, 2013 9:08am
 Dutch transportation experts joined CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein and transportation planners at a workshop in Wicker Park Thursday to discuss how to make the neighborhood's main arterial street (Milwaukee Avenue) safer for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.
ThinkBike Workshop in Wicker Park
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WICKER PARK —   Can Chicago learn from the Netherlands, one of the world's most bike-friendly nations?

Commissioner Gabe Klein, head of the Department of Transportation, thinks so — or at least that's the idea behind "ThinkBike," a two-day workshop which kicked off Thursday at 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.

"There's an opportunity to put high-quality Dutch infrastructure in when rebuilding the streets," Klein told a group of 70 planners and transportation experts. 

Sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in cooperation with the Dutch Cycling Embassy, the workshop zeroed in on two corridors: an 0.8-mile stretch of Milwaukee Avenue between Division and North, and downtown's Monroe Street between the Loop and the Lakefront Trail.

 Bikes are chained to a bridge across a canal on May 11, 2009, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The 750,000 people who live in Amsterdam own over 600,000 bicycles.
Bikes are chained to a bridge across a canal on May 11, 2009, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The 750,000 people who live in Amsterdam own over 600,000 bicycles.
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Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

At the workshop's culmination at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., Dutch and CDOT planners will propose redesigns for both corridors. 

Netherland's Ambassador Rudolf Bekink described the Dutch mentality on biking as "biking everywhere."  Here in Chicago, though cycling is on the rise,  the local pedaling scene is about "32 or 34 years behind the Dutch" by Klein's estimate.

The city has been moving toward a goal of installing 100 miles of protected and/or buffered bike lanes as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Bike 2015 Plan.

"We're surprised by the amount of cyclists we saw on the street when cycling down Milwaukee Avenue," said Dick van Veen, a senior city planner and traffic engineer from Mobycon, a consulting firm based in Netherlands.

Led by Klein, van Veen and workers from the Dutch embassy rode Divvys from their downtown hotel to Wicker Park, using Milwaukee Avenue, a busy corridor which sees as much as 40 percent of rush hour traffic from bikes.

After lengthy presentations on cycling in the Netherlands, Mark O'Neil, a civil engineer with Chicago-based EJM Engineering, asked Dutch officials about photos of their 12th and 13th century streets.

"In urban areas you have a lot of trucks, vans. I didn't see any of that in the photographs. How do you accommodate trucks?" O'Neil asked.

van Veen replied that in Amsterdam some bikes wait to allow for trucks and vans to park, while another official said that in some cities "truck deliveries are only permitted at certain times of the day."

Amsterdam is a city with just under 1 million people where nearly one-third of all trips are made on bicycles, according to van Veen.

Commuting by car is still the main way to get around Chicago, with six out of 10 commuters traveling alone in a car and 1.6 percent of commuters biking to work daily, according to a recent census on Chicago bike commuting.

Currently, Milwaukee Avenue has white bike lane pavement markings between Division Street and North Avenue but no buffers or barriers between cyclists and cars; only a "sharrow" — or shared lane for bikes and cars — exists.

The lack of space for cyclists has resulted in what some are calling "a dooring epidemic" with crashes between bikes and cars happening on a frequent basis.

After the two-hour workshop, O'Neil said he most recently helped the city design protected bike lanes on Halsted Street between 26th and Van Buren Streets near the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

O'Neil said adding protected or even buffered lanes on Milwaukee Avenue between North Avenue and Division Street would be challenging because the street is only 42 feet wide and can't accommodate "a road, a real [buffer or protected] bike lane and a parking lane."

O'Neil added that all of the parking along Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park is metered "and the city doesn't want to lose metered parking."

Uptown resident Walter Fisher, 61, was one of few workshop attendees who was not one of Klein's CDOT staffers, a consultant to the city, or from the Active Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group which was a co-supporter of the event along with CDOT.

Fisher said he has been "closely watching Milwaukee Avenue because there's a critical mass of people that want to make [protected/buffered lanes] happen here."

Fisher, who rode a Dutch bike to the workshop, said biking near the Milwaukee, Damen and North intersection makes him feel like cycling "is a state of mind," whereas when he cycles further south between Kinzie and Elston, where lanes and buffers were installed in June, "cycling is in the mentality of the street."

"The infrastructure is there, you feel protected," Fisher said.

Andy MacQueen, a 28-year-old Jimmy John's worker who delivers sandwiches by bike and was returning from deliveries as workshop participants mingled on the sidwalk, said he's been "doored" or injured twice on Milwaukee Avenue.

"It would be great to have a [protected] bike lane but not if it's so drastic that you get rid of parking in order to do it. Something needs to be done but what should be done is the real question," MacQueen said.

ThinkBike concludes with a "Report Out Presentation" from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., fifth floor.  Admission is free. For more information, visit activetrans.org/thinkbike.