Separate Lanes for Bicyclist and Pedestrians on the Lakefront Trail: How Practical, How Effective?

The Chicago Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. first addressed this issue last June, specifically discussing the risk of injury along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. Since last year, the controversy over whether to implement a more defined design approach, which divides paths and trails based upon user type has continued to be a highly debated topic. Ongoing concerns over trail congestion and user safety prompted the Active transportation Alliance’s December 2014 petition, urging Chicago leaders and officials to consider enhanced pavement markings and separate paths for bicyclists and pedestrians in the trail’s most congested areas.

 CDOT originally announced that it planned to separate bicyclists and pedestrians through a single yellow-division-line, much like are used along roadways to separate traffic traveling in opposing directions. Many argued that this approach, while an improvement, still failed to fully address safety issues, given the diverse array of specific user types. Earlier this year, as reported by the Tribune, the CDOT subsequently confirmed that the plan will now include “two lanes in each direction — a 5-foot-wide inner lane marked for bicyclists and a 3-foot-wide outer lane marked for runners and walkers.”

Note the word “marked,” however—essentially this approach creates four lanes separately only by markings on the pavement. Although this may be more cost-effective, than say a barrier-separated approach, how effective and practical of a solution is this really?

 Consider a typical summer day along the trail, which peak usage estimates show is used by 30,000 or more on a daily basis. Amongst these users are of course bicyclists and pedestrians, however if you have ever traveled along the trail, you might find difficulty in neatly categorizing all user types into one of these two categories. This is because along trails and pathways, particularly the Lakefront Trail, the terms ‘pedestrian’ and ‘bicyclist’ have much more expansive meanings.

In example, a pedestrian could be a small child, teenager, adult, or elderly person that is a walker, runner, or jogger using the trail for the purpose of recreation/exercise; tourism/ sightseeing; or commute/travel, that may be pushing a stroller; walking a dog; using a wheelchair or motorized mobility device; casually strolling; chasing small children; rollerblading; running in a group; skateboarding; and even those that stop mid-trail to converse, hangout, or enjoy the scenery. Each of these pedestrians must share 3 feet of space. This same concept can also be applied to bicyclists that use the trail, which can vary from resident commuters; serious recreational cyclists racing through at high rates of speed; tourists making use of bike-sharing programs; and children just learning how to ride, to name just a few. Each of these bicyclists must share 5 feet of space.

 Now, consider the plan to separate bicyclists from pedestrians in light of all types of users. If you were a serious cyclist, would you only use the bike lane, or would you cross over lanes upon encountering a slow-moving group of bicyclists? If you were a parent, would you want your child, who is just learning to ride a bike, using the bicycling lane, or would you allow them to ride in the pedestrian lane? If you had a toddler and were a visitor to the city, would you even know that if your child crossed over into the bike lane that they could be seriously injured, or even killed?

In theory, the plan for separate bicycle and pedestrian lanes has many safety benefits to offer—in implementation, though, many concerns remain. In order for lane divisions to be effective, all users must be informed of trail lane usage rules and regulations, as well as comply with them. Users must also remain aware of unexpected accidental occurrences, such as a fallen cyclist, wandering child, or dog that breaks free from its owner. Without knowledge, compliance, and awareness, Lakefront’s trail separation plans may do little more than create a false sense of security along what essentially is just a multi-use trail with some pavement markings.

To continue reading, more on this topic, see: ‘Paths and Trails: To Divide or Not to Divide?’