Bikers, Pedestrians, and Jerks: How To Design Lanes For a New Lakefront Path

The city is redesigning its lakefront path. No matter how perfect it is, you can’t force everyone to be polite.

Photo: Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune

Chicagoans tend to think we can engineer our way out of problems. Aspects of our history support that idea. The problem of the sewage-filled Chicago River flowing into Lake Michigan, whence we get our drinking water, was solved by engineering. Reverse the flow of the River—problem solved.

Now, the city and state are looking into rebuilding the north section of Lake Shore Drive, and perhaps aspects of the landfill parkland to its east. According to reports in both the Sun-Times and the Tribune, users of the parkland who participated in public meetings are anxious to engineer a solution to another problem of flow: Conflict between different users of the Lakefront Trail.

One widely supported plan is to create two separate paths: One for bicyclists and one for pedestrians. (Some people consider “slow” bikers to be at pedestrian speed; for the sake of this post, I’m thinking cyclists en toto v. pedestrians.)

At first glance, this seems like a great idea—Lycra-clad cyclists get to zoom along in their own space and at their own pace, while runners and walkers can amble on foot safely on their own pavement.

But a few moments’ thought raise some questions about how well this would work.

First, where do skateboarders and rollerbladers go? Something tells me that runners will say on the bike path (They have wheels!) and bikers will say on the footpath (They are not riding bikes!). A third path for these folks seems a bit extreme. Or how about a third and a fourth path? Can skatefolk and bladers really get along?

Let’s stick with just two paths and sort out these sorts of sub-questions later.

More vitally: How will the different uses of the two lanes be enforced? What would stop pedestrians from walking on the bike path, or bikers from riding among the walkers? Signage would help, of course, but that’s not enforcement.

Conflict on the Lakefront Trail, and in other Chicago spaces from sidewalks to the El, comes not from the way the space is engineered or signed, but from the way people behave despite engineering and signage.

To cite just a few examples familiar to anyone who uses our parks regularly:

  • The path clearly has two clearly marked lanes, northbound and southbound. Yet large groups of people routinely walk six or more abreast, blocking the path in both directions, not infrequently responding to “On your left” with obscenities and threats of violence.
  • Bikers stop mid-path to chat or fix flats or talk on their cell phones.
  • People with earbuds surgically implanted in their heads don’t hear anything but their music.
  • Parents ignore their toddlers toddling into the path of cyclists and runners.
  • Dog-walkers let their extendable leashes extend entirely across the path.
  • People checking their smartphones do dumb things like turning 90 degrees to their left without looking first.

Such behaviors don’t just lead to conflicts between bikers and pedestrians. In more than 30 years of riding the Lakefront Trail, I’ve seen collisions between just about every combination of person/vehicle short of a motorized wheelchair and pogo stick.

It’s not the path that needs engineering, it’s human behavior. Good luck with that.

Even radical physical solutions would fall before human nature. And even if the bikers and walkers were on separate paths, walking paths going east-west would still intersect with the bikers’ high-speed zone, obviating any improvements separation might offer.

But perhaps that Chicago “City Beautiful” idealism might work here: You want to separate those reckless cyclists from the rest of the users of the path, the ghost of Apocryphal Daniel Burnham tells us to Make No Little Plans.

Here’s my idea:

Elevate the bike path and make those crossings pedestrian viaducts. The city is already planning to spend $44.5 million on the Navy Pier Flyover (despite a much cheaper alternative plan). Let’s spend $150 million for a Velo-Flyway (copyright/trademark/patent-pending) from Ardmore to 57th Street, with on and off-ramps every half mile or so. Hell, extend it out over the Lake to Howard and South Works—it might be a bit icy in winter, but we must think big. Such an engineering solution would separate cyclists and pedestrians forever. Problem solved.

But human nature guarantees that, even if such a thing were built, pedestrians would ignore Bikes Only signage and go up to check out the view. Other knuckleheads would set up picnics at the bottom of off-ramps, and be outraged when cyclists flew down through their potato salad and hot dogs.

And some cyclists—acrophobes?—would ride along the ground-level pedestrians-only path nonetheless.

The real conflict is not between two wheels and two feet, it’s between two types of people: People who are observant and considerate of others, and people who are oblivious and/or rude. You can find both sorts walking or riding, and no rebuild of the Lakefront Trail will change that basic reality of human nature and Chicago life.




12 months ago
Posted by JordanWhoRuns

What is the point of the sarcastic tone of this article? Why not actually make a recommendation that will make people think more broadly? People not paying attention and not obeying the "laws" of the bike path is an issue, but how well are those "laws" communicated? As someone who frequents the path regularly I have never seen substantial signage to change the habits of those who use the path. There are the intermittent SLOW DOWN markings on the path, and those aren't really needed because the path is already to clogged to speed up.

Separating bikers and runners/walkers is the key issue, and needs to be done. I am sure bikers would be quite pleased to have their own space to bike at speeds upwards of 20 miles an hour. They have their own set of signals and protocol to maneuver around each other. Bikers and runners/walkers don't work well together.

12 months ago
Posted by donaldgordon

Hey Bill,

Bill, Don here. I had the opportunity to attend the Gil Park presentation and dropped a few times the recommendation to create bike paths that are Separated, Elevated, Marked and Partitioned.

Separated, meaning by enough space so that runners/pedestrians wouldn't "glide" over.

Elevated, at least 6 inches, to make it appear as a different path and difficult to simply turn into if you're a runner.

Marked, regularly every 1/8 mile with a large cycling logo and the entire path painted a different color.

Partitioned with embedded lights flush to the slightly raised partition (about 2-3 inches) on both sides to illuminate the path at night (solar) and to further delineate the path as being different.

Will it be perfect? Nah. There will be some "violators" but as time goes on fewer and fewer because they will recognize the risk. The key, though, is to also make the running path so attractive as to encourage the runners to stay on it. Those conditions are separated, surfaced, marked, accommodating and functional.

Separated so that cyclists don't move into it when they're trying to pass other cyclists.

Surfaced so that it drains when rains, plowed when it snows and stable and giving to the pounding of running.

Marked with bi-directional lanes, so that large groups understand that they shouldn't take over the entire path.

Accommodating to at least 2-3 side by side in both directions - so up to 6 runners wide minimum.

Functional in that water stations are more frequent - at least every half mile - and are designed to be kept on through the end of November and open at the beginning of March.

BTW, speaking as an avid life-long runner and cyclist, I can tell you that bladers are the LEAST of our worries. If you can mitigate and nearly eliminate runners from cycling paths, then feel free to bring on the bladers. :-)

11 months ago
Posted by dkittaka

Bill, like Jordan I don't understand your sarcastic, negative tone. I agree that when you put large groups of people together in a small space some bad things can happen. Add cars, bikes, blades, cell phones, GPS watches, pets, etc. and you get a really interesting situation. I would also agree that no amount of paths or signage will make people more or less courteous though perhaps more aware.

That said, I think it's generally a positive thing that the City and other groups are interested and invested in renovating these problematic spaces. While there may not be a perfectly harmonious solution, these plans represent a belief in something better and motion towards making this reality. This is an ideal many runners and cyclists can agree upon regardless of other differences.

11 months ago
Posted by m. softleaf

It's important to remember that the discussion is not about the current configuration of paths but encompasses the whole of Lake Shore Drive. We have a lot of people who belong to categories of users we want to encourage due to their low-impact, healthful use—walkers, runners, cyclists, those using mobility devices, children, dog walkers—in conflict over a limited amount of lakefront space. At the same time we have given over most of our precious lakefront land to very high-impact vehicular traffic, most of it private cars. This is an inversion of the clearly stated priorities of Chicago's Complete Streets guidelines, which specify the following order of hierarchy: 1) Pedestrian 2) Transit 3) Bike 4) Car. When you look at the amount of space relative to that order of priority, as well as assess the priorities of Chicago's Sustainable 2015 Plan, it's clear that Lake Shore Drive can no longer be a highway and its lane space needs to be reconfigured to reflect our goal of being a sustainable, transit-oriented, healthy city.

It's worth noting, too, that where streets are quieter, "bad" behavior such as the author describes seems to occur considerably less frequently. Countless quiet residential streets in Chicago attest to this, even ones with high-density housing. It's purely anecdotal, but my sense is that the roaring of 8 lanes of traffic—and perhaps even the effects of the associated chronic carbon monoxide inhalation and noise overload—overloads and distorts human capacities in a way that is reflected in negative behaviors at some points on the north lakefront. It's interesting to note that the portions of the Lakefront Trail that are considered most enjoyable by users and where the most users from all different walks of life interact peaceably—specifically, along the Uptown lakefront—also offer the greatest physical distance from the Drive as well as the most natural coastal environment.

11 months ago
Posted by crosspalms

I was surprised by the Sun-Times editorial insisting that moving cars efficiently should be the most important part of any LSD makeover. Well, that part's easy: reduce the number of cars. Whether by improving transit, encouraging bike/pedestrian travel, lowering speed limits, imposing tolls -- cut the number of cars and you'll raise the efficiency.

And something similar applies to the lakefront path. Just as LSD was originally a boulevard, not a highway, the lakefront path is a recreational path. It's not for people who want to train for a sport or event. Those people need separate facilities (we're already thinking this way with skate parks). How about putting them in the middle of the drive as part of the landscaped median? Or steal a lane from the inner drive where that won't work?

Lots of opportunities here, as the other commenters have noted.

11 months ago
Posted by m. softleaf

Absolutely Crosspalms—using Inner Drive lanes creatively could also make for much better year-round bike commuting since the lakeside path is so subject to rough winter weather & ice. And doing that would also prevent turning the lakeside path into a mini street with lots of signage, lighting, & traffic rules. It's nice to have a place accessible to all that really feels in keeping with "forever open, clear and free".

11 months ago
Posted by urbanist

Anyone who has attended University of Illinois in Urbana has seen separate bike / ped lanes work well. The only thing you need to control the use is local social control.

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