The Lakefront Trail separation was officially completed this past December—meaning we’re entering our first full season where path users will have the opportunity to navigate 18.5 miles of newly defined space. By and large, the trail separation has been a success with both cyclists and runners getting their own devoted paths. However, with the length of the city to traverse, beachfronts, and new trail geography—not to mention as many as 100,000 users per day during the summer—there are a few things to bear in mind when heading out to enjoy the new and improved LFT.
Let’s start with the wonderful improvements: trail separation and bridges. The vast majority of the new LFT offers near-complete separation of pedestrian and cycling paths. Among the best of these new separate sectors are along the North Avenue Beach Volleyball courts. Cyclists are now able to completely bypass foot traffic by sticking to the reroute that removes them from the beachside. From both a speed, safety, and people-flow perspective, this development is top-of-the-list.
A very close second is the new Navy Pier Flyover bypass bridge that allows you to skip the foot and vehicle traffic under Lake Shore Drive, turning that downtown section of trail from a nightmare into a joy with a great view. And speaking of bridges, check out the new pedestrian overpasses at 35th and 41st Streets in Bronzeville. Not only are these additions architecturally beautiful, but they provide long overdue access points on the southern end of the LFT.
Potential Problem Areas
However, as with all brand new ventures, there are some kinks that still need to be worked out—particularly as it relates to signage and trail transition areas. The old LFT might have been congested, but at least in theory you knew where on the pathyou were supposed to be. Just like driving a car, you stayed in the right lane (unless passing) and a dashed line delineated the center of the trail. Unfortunately, there are a number of new LFT sectors that leave much of these common sense rules in a state of limbo.
There still remains the dashed lines in the completely separated spots, but now added to the mix are solid lines and unmarked shoulders in very high-traffic areas. Most of the LFT sections where the cycling and pedestrian paths come together are marked by solid lines that separate the conjoined lanes (See: the sectors around Theater on the Lake or Kwanusila, the totem pole, by Addison). These sections on their own are straightforward: there’s a curve and lots of people of different modalities. Stay in your lane until the section ends. However, the transitions connecting these sectors and the separate trails are mostly unmarked and the result is straight-up confusing.
Take for example the transition between the separate paths by the Belmont entrance and the combined sector by the harbor. Four lanes suddenly become…two? There are solid lines delineating two center paths, and very large (unmarked) shoulders, but it’s deceptively unclear as to whether they are officially part of the path or not. As result, you often see cyclists and runners confused: do they continue to stay to the right? Or maybe the two marked lanes in the center are for everyone? Or maybe those are for the ‘fast’ traffic and walkers should be to the outside? Or maybe this section hasn’t been completed? Regardless of the real-time internal conversations taking place as to which lane may or may not be the appropriate place to be, the result is a dangerous and discombobulated collection of people at these poorly marked sectors.
Similarly, the stretch between 57th and 63rd Streets on the South Side suffers from the same unmarked path vs. shoulder problem. Unfortunately, the issue there is exacerbated because it’s a straightaway with cyclists coming at you at full speed, in unmarked (and potentially) opposite lanes and shoulders. The lesson at all of these areas is keep your eyes and ears open.
Finally, cyclists and runners ought to remain wary when using the paths that are situated in between parking lots and beaches or parks. The reroute design around North Avenue beach is great, but the separate paths by 31st Street Beach now mean that pedestrians have two paths to traverse to get to the beach, and the tennis courts by Lincoln Park continue to pose cross-traffic issues. Similarly, the cycling trail north of Montrose now redirects users through streets, underpasses, and park areas not traditionally associated with LFT traffic.
Be sure to be on the lookout for cars, pedestrians, and park users in those areas. Just as LFT users are getting used to the new rules of the road, as are those who operate around it.