Bike lanes explained: Tragedy reminds us it's time to review the rules of sharing the road

Sometimes a news story catches my eye. Sometimes it chokes me up. The death of a 3-year-old riding in the rear carrier on her mother's bike evoked strong emotions with the merging of two passions - biking and parenthood.

An early June biking fatality on Chicago's Leland Avenue prompted this column.

According to various media reports, a ComEd truck illegally parked in a bike lane forced the mother into the traffic lane next to a stopped semi.

As it moved, the mother was knocked off balance, the 3-year-old was thrown off the bike and under its wheels, and the father, pedaling behind, witnessed the tragedy.

This column may be long overdue. Devoting space to bike lanes while describing their purpose has been an idea rattling around my head for a while.

Passage of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill means even more roadway sharing as future funding funnels down to local biking projects.

I'm not delusional. Simple knowledge about bike lanes - dedicated, shared, buffered, etc., and their safe, proper usage by everyone - won't prevent biking fatalities.

Like any good starting point, however, one hopes it means more awareness, more protection, fewer casualties.

Dedicated, shared and buffered

Most Chicago suburbs provide some type of biking infrastructure - sidewalks, trails, side paths, “sharrowed” streets. Many even have on-roadway options, painted lanes separating motorists from bikers.

Most common are bike lanes dedicated solely to cycling.

Typically located on the road's right side between traffic lanes and a curb, road edge or parking lane, they are separated from vehicles by solid white striping. Bike travel flows directionally as vehicle traffic, emphasizing the legality of right-side cycling.

The familiar bike logo plus arrow, painted inside, visually reminds motorists of the lane's exclusive use by cyclists.

Its four-foot width from a road edge, five feet from a parking lane, is too narrow for vehicle parking, also emphasizing its restricted biking use.

By defining road space, dedicated lanes increase predictability of cyclist and motorist positioning and interaction.

Wider shared lanes are found where on-street vehicle parking exists. Bike logo and double chevrons are painted outside the stripe, alerting motorists that cyclists may need to skirt around parked vehicles into the traffic lane.

Buffered lanes are bike lanes offering additional space from left-side traffic or right-side parking.

A second solid white line marks the buffer boundary with diagonal cross-hatching or chevrons painted inside if the buffer is three feet or wider.

Solid boundary lines are meant to discourage, but not prohibit, vehicle crossings.

At driveways, bus stops and intersections, lines are frequently dashed, or missing altogether, indicating vehicles may cross over.

Colored pavement - green in the U.S. - highlights dedicated bike lane corridors or sections designated only for cyclists.

Bike lane parking violation July 13 on southbound Dodge Street in Evanston. Courtesy of David Barish

Where illegal parking is prevalent, coloration reinforces priority for cyclists.

Green bike boxes are one special roadway section found at intersections with traffic signals.

Bike boxes extending across the traffic lane(s) provide safe areas for left-turning cyclists to position themselves, helpful in dense traffic like Chicago's. Motor vehicles are prohibited from encroaching.

Protected bike lanes provide physical separation from motor vehicle traffic.

Flexible posts, aka bollards, are stanchions placed at intervals inside buffers to separate traffic from cyclists.

Though unable to withstand a sideswiping vehicle, they offer more protection than painted striping.

Raised concrete curbing, as along the Howard Street bike lane in Niles, offers even more separation between cyclists and motorists.

Raised curbing and flex posts protect the bike lane on westbound Howard Street in Niles. Courtesy of Charlie Saxe

This video of the signal-activated Howard Street crossing by the North Branch Trail shows several examples of protection - signals, paint, logos, curbing and bollards - integrated for safety of all users:

Protection is relative

Physical protection, however, is a relative concept. Cycling near moving vehicles always involves risk.

Roadway paint, sniff many cyclists, offers hardly any protection at all. Buffers are no guarantee either. Vehicles can swerve, flatten bollards and jump curbs, not to mention park inside bike lanes.

Ordinances restricting vehicles in bike lanes are rare. Chicago, Evanston and Cook County are among the few regional jurisdictions with bike lane parking ordinances. Offending motorists risk fines and possible towing for violations.

With just one bike lane on North Addison Avenue, Elmhurst interim Police Chief Michael McLean notes, a vehicle stopped or parked blocking the marked bicycle lane would be violating two parking-related codes, and may be issued a citation. “Additionally, parked vehicles obstructing traffic qualify to be towed to reopen the roadway to vehicular and bicycle traffic.”

Municipal code research of nine other suburbs having roadway bike lanes reveals no ordinances similar to Chicago's or Evanston's. However, as Arlington Heights and Batavia suggest, visible reminders may be more effective than some ordinance hidden inside a municipal code.

Arlington Heights Police Sergeant Russ Mandel points out, “Sigwalt is the only street with a marked and striped designated bike lane. The route is signed 'no parking,' and is enforced under Local Ordinance 18-201(B) (1) and is a $25 fine.”

Deputy Police Chief Eric Blowers notes, “While the city of Batavia doesn't have an ordinance specific to parking, stopping or standing in designated bicycle lanes, all our roadways with designated bicycle lanes are clearly signed and posted with 'no parking' signage along each bicycle lane. This signage is police-enforced and exists for the entire section of roadway with a designated bicycle lane.”

As bike lanes become more common, all of us sharing the roads need to practice safety to avoid regretful incidents that can't be undone.

Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

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