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Curb appeal: New barrier to protect cyclists

A bicyclist rides bike lane Kinzie Street.  |  Sun-Times files

A bicyclist rides in the bike lane on Kinzie Street. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: January 23, 2014 6:38AM

Chicago’s burgeoning network of protected bike lanes are about to rise to a whole new level of separation, safety and cost.

Instead of parked cars, delineators or striping, cyclists on the 3.5-mile stretch of State Street between 26th and 55th Streets will soon be separated from motorists by a concrete curb.

The same “curb separation” is being considered for the protected bike lane being planned for bustling Clybourn Avenue between Division and North.

The Clybourn project would be the first barrier-protected bike lane on a road controlled by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

IDOT authorized the project after months of lobbying by the city and the cycling community. The project includes the sight near Larrabee where a 26-year-old cyclist was killed last spring by a motorist suspected of driving drunk.

Chicago now has two kinds of protected bike lanes: those separated by a lane of parked cars and those separated by plastic delineators, or rods. The city also has buffered lanes with a double-stripe.

Managing Deputy Transportation Commissioner Scott Kubly acknowledged Friday that curb separation is a more costly way to go.

But he argued that it’s worth the added cost.

“Curbs are definitely the safest infrastructure we can put out there. We would like it to become the new standard where appropriate.

“It’s safer for all users. It separates the different types of traffic. It sort of organizes the road in a different way,” Kubly said.

“If you’re in a standard bike lane, sometimes the cars will encroach into the bike lane. A curb is a more permanent, more robust type of separation than a delineator. It makes it harder for vehicles to go through than a delineator. It protects cyclists from being encroached on and protects them from doorings as well.”

It’s not hard to find a cyclist who agrees. Earlier this month, after Chicago’s Dearborn bike lane was tapped the top new protected bike lane in the country for 2013, one frequent biker of it suggested Dearborn could be improved even further for cyclists with the installation of curbed dividers.

Sarah Dandelles, 43, said she’d like to see curbed bike lanes in Chicago because “I don’t want to get killed by a two-ton vehicle. They are in our lane.’’

Ald. Walter Burnett, whose 27th Ward includes the proposed protected bike lane on Clybourn, said he’s all for curb separation, so long as it doesn’t mean losing precious parking spaces.

He called parking “one of my biggest challenges” and a “necessity, especially closer to Division.”

A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman acknowledged that some spaces would likely be lost, but it’s not clear how many.

“When you see it in Copenhagen, you say, ‘Man, that’s cool. It’s so smooth.’ Their goal was to push cars off the street. They don’t have car manufacturers there,” said Burnett, who traveled to Copenhagen to get a first-hand look.

“We have car manufacturers that are very important to our economy.... We have to balance it out. Everything is good if you can keep a balance. If you try to hurt one to help the other, it’s no good.”

IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller confirmed that IDOT is discussing a pilot program for a protected bike lane on Clybourn, but it’s “still in the works so there’s not a lot of detail we are able to share.”

The city initially wanted to try out bike lanes in a “less permanent way” by using delineators, or plastic dividers that can be unscrewed from the street, and by painting the street with stripes that can be repainted, said Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance.

But with a few years of experience now under its belt, Chicago would be moving into a new phase of bike lane infrastructure by installing more permanent concrete-curbed bike lanes, Burke said.

He guessed that bike curbs would be “more than a couple inches” high, so drivers can see them. Some places even take the extra step of screwing plastic delineators into the curbs, he said.

“I think we are evolving to the point where the city understands bike lanes work for everybody,” Burke said. “We think this would be a big step in the right direction to make the city safer for bicyclists and others who share the street.’’

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