The logjam on the lakefront

Carrie Sloan, who commutes by bike from Edgewater to downtown every day, has had her share of near-collisions on Chicago’s lakefront path.

Pedestrians and cyclists crowd the lakefront path. Photo by Erin Drewitz
"I fear disaster every time I ride north on the trail from downtown," said Sloan.

Cyclist Brian Hopkins compares his lakefront rides to a challenging video game.

“Every time I play, I know there will be things out to get me,” he says. “An acceptance that poor decisions by others will threaten your safety is an inherent part of cycling on the lake front trail."
Every day, thousands of cyclists, inline skaters, dog-walkers and joggers take to the miles of paved trail that line Chicago’s scenic lakefront. They form a hazardous, commute-clogging mix of obstacles that cries out for a solution.

But fixes for the lakefront trail are few and far between -- and the many are likely to make path users cringe.

Trail design expert Troy Scott Parker of Boulder, Colo.-based Natureshape, LLC says his preferred solution would involve dividing the trail by use, with separate areas for cyclists, bladers and pedestrians.

“But that would be hard to do that because of the current width,” he says. “You're stuck with congestion unless you can get the money to change the trail physically and make it wider.”

Making the trail wider would, of course, involve uprooting hundreds of trees as well as sewage and water lines.

American Trails chairman Bob Searns favors a speed limit and strict enforcement.

“Someone needs to have the power to ticket those going at excessive speeds, and a speed limit, perhaps fifteen miles per hour, needs to be established,” he says.

Cyclists, however, adamantly oppose slowing the path down.

Chicago Bicycle Foundation's Randy Warren says that his organization is "strongly opposed” to speed limits. The current rule, which is that cyclists must maintain a safe speed for conditions, is the favored approach.

His organization, along with the city’s Bicycle Ambassadors program and the Chicago Area Runner’s Association, are focusing more on educating path users about safety.

Runner's Association executive director Betsy Armstrong says her group works to make sure pedestrians understand the dangers of walking pets on long leases.

“We all share the same mission—we want everyone to enjoy the path, and it’s a question of educating people about the best way to do it,”  she says.

Armstrong’s group and the Chicago Bicycle Federation have both worked to install more safety signs along the path.

But the park district has been somewhat hesitant, says Warren, "because they are worried about having too many cluttering up the lake front with little effect." 

The city is also working to make bike commuting on the street easier, with more lanes dedicated to cyclists, and special green paint to ensure motorists are aware of them.

The bike lanes may ultimately be the best choice for cyclists looking for a fast way to work.

“Bikers interested in higher speeds,” says  Searns, “need to be in the street."