Can Something be Done to Reduce the Risks for Accident and Injury along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail?

As Chicago continues to make strides in promoting cycling, there has been a notable rise in the use of bicycles throughout the city and neighboring suburbs. However, along with this, comes not only an increased presence of bicyclist that occupy our streets and roadways, but also more cyclists along trails and off-road pathways.

And while we have seen a multitude of improvements along bike routes that are shared with motorists-whether newly implemented, underway, or planned/proposed future projects-we must not forget the safety concerns that exist along multi-use paths. Stated differently, the city continues to make advancements in separating, or otherwise protecting bicyclists from motorists along roadways-but, what about protecting pedestrians from bicyclists along trails?

Chicago’s 18-mile Lakefront Trail is perhaps the city’s most heavily occupied multi-use path. According to city estimates, as many as 30,000 individuals use the trail on an average weekday, with weekend usage increasing to nearly five times this amount. As we previously discussed in ‘Bike Path Accidents,’ scenic routes, in particular, often vary both in quantity and type of user. One needs not travel far along the trail on a Saturday or Sunday to observe speeding bicyclists; runners or joggers; persons on rollerblades/skates, skateboard, or scooter; tourists casually walking and enjoying scenery; intoxicated beachgoers; and moms, with babies in strollers, or wandering toddlers, all sharing the same trail space.

Active Transportation Alliance http://www.activetrans.org/sharetheshore offers the following safety tips to “Share the Shore:”

Share the trail. Run, walk or bike only in single file or in two-wide pairs, and slow down when the trail is congested.
Shift to the side. Stay to the right if you’re traveling slowly and move off the trail when you are stopped.
Speak up. Call out “on your left” before passing other trail users who are traveling more slowly.

Although safety initiatives, aimed at promoting awareness, can provide some beneficial impact, such efforts are generally about as effective as safety campaigns that encourage the use of seatbelts or helmets. In other words, some will listen some will not-and some, such as visitors and tourists, may be altogether unaware of the risks and dangers associated with using the trail.

While a seemingly commonsensical approach might be separating lanes for bicyclists and other users, an undertaking of this magnitude would not be a simple endeavor. In addition, there are several reason, why, realistically, this approach is unlikely to work-not only for this 18 mile stretch of trail, but for the hundreds of other miles of existing or planned trails. While we support the notion of ‘separated bike-path lanes,’ we are compelled to take into consideration other factors such as, difficulty in construction; expense; trail width/ lack of space; and general diminishment in trail beauty.

Further, implementing separated bike path lanes, whether along the Lakefront Trail or other paths, requires the additional consideration of lane assignment for each and every type of trail user. While bicyclists would clearly use the bike path lane, which lane would persons traveling via other wheel-propelled devices, such as rollerblades, roller-skates, skateboards, or scooters, use? If these other users were assigned to the bike path lane, then the risk of collision with a bicyclist is not eliminated. Likewise, if such users were assigned to the non-bike lane, then the dangers to pedestrians, at least in part, will still remain.

Perhaps the most important consideration is whether or not trail users would even abide by the lane separation rules. This concern extends not only to local residents, but also to tourists and visitors that are making use of the city’s bike-sharing programs.

In sum, separated bike path lanes would be difficult, expensive, and may not be an effective means of protecting all trail users. For now, a more practical solution, which might result in at least some improvement, might be to make appropriate changes to local bicycle ordinances and focus efforts on providing trail users with notice of the consequences of trail use violations. Increasing fines for violators has been shown to have a deterrent effect on many issues surrounding shared roadways, and could do the same for shared trails, if done in a manner that is specifically tailored to address trail-related issues.