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Parking in the Bike Lane

The growth of bicycle lanes is one of the most significant improvements in bike infrastructure in Chicago. Currently, the city has more than 280 miles of on-street protected, buffered and shared bike lanes. And this number is growing; Cycling Plan 2020 calls for a 645-mile network of biking facilities to be in place by the end of the decade.

Nationwide, numerous cities have implemented a significant number of on-street bicycle lanes. ​All of this investment and infrastructure is wonderful for biking and bike commuting. And yet, in Chicago we have a significant problem with the usage of the bike lanes.

A Dangerous Situation for Biking

Typical situation on the Dearborn bike lane in Chicago. Photo: ZappaWheels.

From a cyclist's perspective, one of the scariest and most dangerous things to do is swerve out of the bike lane to avoid a parked car. Picture it, you're riding along with traffic, mindful of parked cars and opening doors, scanning for potholes with moving vehicles passing by your side. Suddenly, there's a obstacle in front of you: a double-parked car or truck, an Uber or taxi that has pulled in front or even a construction barricade. At best, you have a few seconds to glance to your side, find an opening and merge into faster moving traffic before hitting the obstruction.

Sadly, several local cyclists have been killed as a result of negotiating this maneuver. And yet, with the rampant number of cars, trucks and obstructions in the bike lanes, it has become an unavoidable practice. ​

Abdication of Law Enforcement?

In the city of Chicago, it is illegal to park, idle or drive in the bike lanes. Per the city's website, "Motorists found parking or idling in a bike lane or marked-shared lane will be issued $150 tickets and may have their vehicles towed. The same penalty applies to motorists driving in bike lanes."

Van completely blocking the southbound bike lane on Wells Street while a cyclist tries to navigate around the obstruction. The van is not turning - it's parked! Photo: ZappaWheels.

The number of individuals violating the law is unprecedented and the streets have become more dangerous. In my 12 years of bike commuting in Chicago, I have never seen anything like it. It seems that the city and the police have stopped enforcing the law. Beside the increased danger, I am completely puzzled that the city has not seizing upon the opportunity to generate revenue. On a typical ride home, there must be at least a dozen cars, taxis, trucks, blocking the lane. At that rate I could issue $1,800 in citations going to work and another $1,800 riding home.

A Call to Action

Fortunately, others are taking note of the situation. Last week, the non-profit Active Transportation Alliance launched a campaign, Clear the Way, to help promote awareness and spur action. If you are a bike commuter in Chicago, here's your opportunity to make a difference. You can document the obstruction which will be compiled with other reports and delivered to the city at the end of September. ​

If you are a motorist, of which I count myself at times, you are probably wondering, "what if a driver only pulls over for a few seconds to drop off someone - what harm is that?" Well, actually it creates a dangerous situation for the biker(s) who have to avoid your car. For the more frustrated, you may think, "these bikers are breaking the rules too, so what does it matter?"

Well yes, there is bad behavior by cyclists on our streets. And the laws regarding cycling on the

streets should be enforced as well. That said, the old adage, two wrongs don't make a right definitely applies.

​Here's photo sequence that shows how far we have to go in Chicago. Bad behavior all-around. A cyclist is riding the wrong direction on the Dearborn bike lane which is obstructed by an illegally parked truck. As he passes around the truck, what could possibly go wrong?

A Broader Perspective: Urban Biking in New York, Portland and Atlanta

This entire situation made me wonder if blocked bike lanes are an issue in other cities. For instance do other large, urban centers like New York or noted bike-friendly cities like Portland have this issue? What about up and coming biking locales like Atlanta?

In May, the New York Police Department announced an initiative to crack down on drivers who do not play by the rules. NYPD Commissioner William Bratton stated, "We are focusing on violations that can endanger our city's cyclists," he said. "And making sure New Yorkers can safely travel on bike lanes throughout the five boroughs." According to WYNC, In fiscal year 2014, the city issued over 55,000 tickets for blocking a bike lane, The following year, the number increased by about 40 percent, to about 77,000. Clearly, enforcement of parking in the bike lane violations is occurring. Despite these efforts, I found numerous initiatives to capture photos or instances of bike lane violations including this crowd-sourced map. In a city with 400,000 daily bike rides, parking in the bike lane is clearly an issue.

Conversely, the problem does not seem nearly as pronounced in Portland, OR. In an interview with the Oregonian, Nolan Mackrill, Portland Parking Enforcement Division manager said, "city drivers are pretty good about avoiding bike lanes." The article went on to point out that of 244,039 parking citations in fiscal 2012-13 in Portland, only 431 were for parking in bike lanes. Only 431! This number in a population where 7.2% of commuters bike to work. And among 16,955 requests for service, only 112 were bike lane complaints. For comparison, the city got 1,792 complaints about blocked driveways. It seems too that strict enforcement is helping. Earlier this year in Portland, 83 cars were ticketed $80 each for parking in the bike lane during a street festival.

Earlier this year, the Atlanta Regional Commission approved a regional bicycle and pedestrian plan. It is part of the Atlanta Region’s Plan and allocates $1.9 billion through 2040 for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. This up and coming bike region plans to grow to more than 200 miles of bike lanes. Sadly, even in this city with only 45 existing miles of bike lanes there are challenges. For example, there is a Facebook Atlanta Bike Lane Parking that individuals can use to post picture of offending vehicles.

Lessons from Biking in Portland

So what is Portland doing differently to mitigate this problem? And what lessons can be applied

elsewhere? The answers to these questions are probably multi-faceted. Enforcement of the laws clearly matters. However, one factor that stands out for me is the ratio of bike riders to car drivers in Portland. It is much higher than any U.S. city. Has the density of riders somehow changed the dynamic between cyclists and motorists? Perhaps the culture on the streets of Portland really is different? One of mutual respect between motorists and cyclists. ​Something for all of us in urban areas to ponder.

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