Glenwood Avenue One-Way a Bad Idea

 

Tom Lisy, RPBG Director
Spring, 2022

 

 

For at least the last 40 years, residents and drivers on Glenwood Avenue have complained about conditions on the two-way street. In past years, residents routinely folded their side mirrors when parking to avoid having them damaged by passing cars. Later years only saw the problem increase as cars became larger and wider. Finally, the increase in bicycle traffic in the current century added additional users to a street already considered by many to be far too narrow for safe travel.

Proposed solutions to the problem have ranged from widening the street, eliminating parking on one or both sides of the street and making the street one way. All three of these proposals have been rejected over the years as being unworkable and/or undesirable.

Much of the existing problem is rooted in our evolving view of how streets should be designed and what they should be used for. In the early twentieth century, when Rogers Park began being actively developed, automobiles were a novelty, horse drawn wagons were still common and other than messenger boys, bicycles were rarely used for getting to work.

As the century progressed and automobiles proliferated, the local streets became more congested and a web of rules and regulations came into being. Stop signs and lights governed intersections, parking areas were regulated and – my favorite – drivers were officially prohibited from striking pedestrians!

Much of the existing problem is rooted in our evolving view of how streets should be designed and what they should be used for.

Finally, in 2013, The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) officially stated its modern street user ranking in COMPLETE STREETS CHICAGO: DESIGN GUIDELINES:

“All transportation projects and programs, from scoping to maintenance, will favor pedestrians first, then transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles.”

In the roughly 100 years of its existence, the automobile has been relegated to last in the hierarchy of urban street users.

This isn’t necessarily a crisis for automobiles and their drivers as long as their bottom ranking isn’t used to banish autos from city streets altogether. It does, however, precipitate problems when century old streets are expected to simultaneously host multiple modes of transportation such as delivery trucks, ride share vehicles, motorized scooters and bicycles.

Because of this evolution, modern day local planners trying to re-purpose old streets are faced with the dilemma of having many more potential users than our streets can safely accommodate. You can call this the “ten pounds in a five pound bag“ problem, making comprehensive solutions elusive and often leading to partial schemes that leave everyone unsatisfied.

According to CDOT data, the lack of a comprehensive solution has led to growing problems on Glenwood. From 2017 to 2019, CDOT noted 28 crashes occurred on Glenwood from Devon to Pratt, two of which involved pedestrians. And from 2019 to 2021, CDOT noted 45 crashes along this same stretch of Glenwood, four of which involved pedestrians and two of which involved pedalcyclists.

The report states, “the primary crash type along Glenwood was parked car and sideswipe crashes which accounted for 56% of total crashes along the corridor. The latter crash types are associated with narrow roadway width and cut through traffic.”

CDOT states that Newgard “has the capacity to absorb this additional traffic.” This is probably small comfort to the residents along Newgard.

These six years cover basically the entire existence of The Glenwood Greenway, as the bike route from Foster Avenue to the Evanston border is officially known. It’s obvious from these CDOT studies that, however dangerous residents considered Glenwood to be in past decades, the danger increased significantly when shared lanes were introduced to an already congested street.

Another sign of a lack of comprehensive solution is when problems are merely pushed elsewhere. CDOT reports that average daily traffic (ADT) on Glenwood was 1,450 southbound and 1,700 northbound with southbound ADT of 850 on Newgard, one block to the west. Converting Glenwood to a northbound one-way street would push 60% of southbound traffic to Newgard and the remaining 40% to other surrounding streets.

CDOT states that Newgard “has the capacity to absorb this additional traffic.” This is probably small comfort to the residents along Newgard who are not pleased with the prospect of a doubling of traffic along their street to considerably more southbound traffic than Glenwood currently has.

It is interesting that, in a letter to Alderwoman Hadden dated October 29, 2020, CDOT recommended against converting the street to one-way between Devon and Pratt. Then, sometime between October 2020 and a subsequent CDOT letter, dated April 5, 2022 letter, CDOT’s position changed. Although Alderwoman Hadden has said it is unclear what the final arrangement will be, CDOT stated in the April 2022 letter that it would “support the one-way conversion proposal if a contraflow bike lane is also installed in tandem to calm traffic and provide an option for biking both northbound and southbound.”

CDOT’s proposal would create two (2), 7”0” wide parking lanes, one (1), 6’0” wide southbound bike lane and one (1), 10’0” wide “Sharrow” lane, so-named because both northbound cars and bicycles will share the lane as they now do.

Obviously, this is only a partial solution. Northbound cars and bicycles will still be left to jockey for position behind stopped delivery trucks. In fact, delivery trucks will become an even greater problem since they will use the northbound lane for deliveries on both sides of the street.

Can the CDOT supported “solution” be considered comprehensive when all it really does is shift the burden of southbound traffic to a nearby street that is ill-prepared to handle it? Why not consider (or reconsider) some other possibilities:

  1. Shift the bicycle lanes to Newgard between Pratt and Devon. Cyclists in both directions can already easily jog over to Newgard and back to Glenwood to continue proceeding their journey. Installing stop signs at Devon and Newgard would allow them to safely move back to Glenwood. It may even be feasible to move the stoplight at Devon and Glenwood to Newgard and replace the light at Glenwood with four-way stop signs. Residents on Newgard would almost certainly prefer bicycle lanes on their street to a massive increase in car and truck traffic.
  2. Widen the street. This is perhaps the oldest option and it has been routinely rejected out of hand due to the assumption that the parkway trees would have to be eliminated. However, this might not be correct and it may in fact provide an additional opportunity. The CDOT standard for minimum parkway width is 4’0”. The parkways in the subject area are much wider than this, with tree trunks that are at least 7’0” clear of the curb. Taking 6’-0” of parkway on each side would allow for two bike lanes.
    Currently, the safest part of the Greenway is just south of Devon where this is exactly what has been done. Contrary to popular assumption, most of the trees would not have to be cut. Even if the street widening caused the removal of a few trees, they could easily be replaced with more environmentally friendly species than we have now. The long-term lack of care for our parkway trees and the spread of serious diseases is already causing the demise of our aging oaks, elms, locusts and catalpas. Possibly locating the bike lanes between the narrowed parkway and parked cars would vastly improve safety conditions which is the main point of this entire project.
  3. Do nothing. Admittedly, this is no solution at all but it may make sense. If we, as a community working with our civic officials, can’t achieve a solution that is both practical and fair to residents and travelers and that doesn’t overly burden one particular group (Newgard residents in particular), then we shouldn’t be in a hurry to pull the trigger on a bad solution. Unfortunately, we would still be left with a public safety problem.

There may well be other possibilities. But it’s hard to see how the CDOT solution will alleviate the escalating crash danger. Although southbound traffic will be eliminated, northbound traffic will be further congested. Riders in the southbound cycling lane can be expected to face additional danger from northbound automobiles and cyclists entering their lane in an attempt to pass stopped delivery trucks. While some automobile collisions may be eliminated, accidents involving cyclists may well increase.

And there is no reason to believe that adding more southbound traffic to Newgard would contribute to safer travel, despite Ald. Hadden’s promise at a March 11, 2022 Town Hall meeting that she would not go ahead with the Glenwood project unless traffic calming devices could be installed on Newgard. That only means that the approximately 1,720 cars coming to Newgard would drive more slowly.

And so the “ten pounds problem” continues. Forty years of talking about it has failed to yield a consensus solution. Meanwhile, the problem has only gotten worse due to the expanding popularity of bicycling. As bike use has grown, so understandably has the political influence of bikers.

It’s hard to see how the CDOT solution will alleviate the escalating crash danger.

But it isn’t clear that the cycling community is enthusiastic about this change. Several of my friends who are avid cyclists have told me that they consider the Devon to Pratt section far too dangerous for regular travel and haven’t seen any proposals that would change that. In fact, in a recent survey featured in Ald. Hadden’s April 8, 2022 newsletter, approximately half of the 331 respondents said that they drive this area every day or very often. In contrast, only about a third of respondents said they bike the area every day or very often. Of those, only about 25 said they bike it every day and 85 respondents said they never bike it at all.

The survey reinforces the fact that this area is crucial to drivers but not to cyclists. The survey also says that “a plurality 48.9% of residents support the proposal in its current form.” This is a head-scratcher since the Alderwoman said at the Town Hall meeting that no complete proposal exists. The survey, sent to residents two days later, may have left respondents unclear about exactly what they were voting for.

Using public funds to push forward a bad solution is worse than doing nothing.

You could argue that the CDOT proposal is suitable for the Devon to Pratt stretch because the same design already exists on Glenwood between Foster and Ridge. However, this ignores the fact that traffic on the south-of-Ridge section is much lighter due to the proximity of Clark Street and Ashland Avenue. This section of Glenwood simply isn’t the critical neighborhood artery that the Devon to Pratt section is.

While the plan to convert Glenwood to one-way isn’t a fait accompli, we know that it is getting close to approval. Ald. Hadden has publicly stated her support for the project, stressing at her Town Hall meeting that this is not just a CDOT project but is her project also. She also suggested that the only hold-up to making this one-way a reality is a lack of funding.

Prior to making the change, the Alderwoman will have to introduce and pass an ordinance with the support of the full City Council. This would presumably be the last chance for the public to make its voice heard. Property owners and residents will be greatly affected this change, a change that will clog traffic and shift unsafe conditions to nearby streets. Using public funds to push forward a bad solution is worse than doing nothing.