In August 2014, the city of Evanston introduced the Sheridan Road improvement project. One of the project’s priorities was the addition of bike lanes. But almost three years later, the bike lane construction plans are still just that – plans. After the death of Northwestern freshman Chuyuan “Chu” Qiu, who was hit by a cement truck while biking on Sheridan Road in September, the question re-emerged: why are there still no bike lanes?
According to Sat Nagar, project manager for the Sheridan Road improvement project, there was a lot to consider when figuring out how to improve one of Evanston’s “major arterial roads.” Connecting North Shore neighborhoods with Northwestern and downtown Chicago, Sheridan Road sees a lot of action – in 2014, the city estimated that an average of 1,000 cyclists, 10,000 pedestrians and 12,000 to 18,000 vehicles use the road every day.
The city had also deemed Sheridan Road a “high-crash corridor,” engineering jargon that surprisingly isn’t difficult to understand. Along with a bike lane, the improvement project included traffic signal upgrades, resurfacing, restructuring and intersection improvements.
First, the city formed a steering committee, which held a series of meetings to provide guidance, examine findings and help create project priorities. Then, it hired consultants to help determine the best way to redesign Sheridan Road to accommodate its many modes of transportation. The city’s aldermen also began to meet with Northwestern students and staff, Evanston bicycle clubs and other constituents.
City documents from August 2014 show that construction was scheduled for the next year, in summer 2015. But a month later, on Sept. 29, 2014, the city council voted to push parts of the construction back to 2017, delaying the implementation of the bike lane as well as the traffic signal upgrades, resurfacing and other street improvements.
“It needed more analysis, we wanted to make sure it was done right,” Nagar says. “We had to make sure we paid attention to everything.”
Sheridan Road is considered a “multi-modal corridor,” Nagar says, as it supports cars, buses, pedestrians, bikes and taxis. Because of its importance to so many different stakeholders – from commuters to Northwestern students to bus drivers – Nagar and other city officials believed getting Sheridan Road right was more important than getting it done quickly.
In addition, Green Bay Road was already under construction, and Nagar says that simultaneous projects on Green Bay and Sheridan would have caused too much traffic congestion. A “lengthy” engineering process with Federal Highway Administration and Illinois Department of Transportation also contributed to the delay, and Nagar says the city did not want the construction to interfere with Northwestern’s school year.
When Qiu was killed in September, the bike lanes that remained scheduled for construction became a focus of campus attention. Northwestern mourned her loss, but many students and community members also wanted to act. By December, Evanston reduced the speed limit on Sheridan from 30 to 25 mph, largely due to the efforts of Communication senior Emily Blim. As a member of both Northwestern’s triathlon team and an Evanston cycling team, bike safety hits home for her.
When Blim saw an email about the accident on her cycling team listserv, she made a petition demanding Evanston reduce the speed limit on Sheridan. It garnered over 600 signatures from concerned students, parents, alumni and Evanston residents.
“Ideally, they would turn Sheridan into a two-lane road: one lane going each direction, which would minimize the speed-track mentality that drivers get,” Blim says. She also says she would prefer the speed limit be reduced to 20 mph, the speed limit for school zones in Evanston. Not all city officials agree with Blim, as Ald. Brian Miller (9th) argued in September that a lower speed limit could create more traffic and actually make Sheridan less safe.
Other groups also demanded changes. In October, Northwestern’s Faculty and Associated Student Government senates passed resolutions calling for lowering the speed limit. ASG created a task force of students, administrators and professors to talk about transportation issues and potential safety changes and distributed 330 bike helmets. The University later took on this expense and began issuing bicycle helmets, locks and lights to students who registered their bicycles.
“I’m a biker,” says ASG President Christina Cilento, who helped organize and advocate for these changes. “I don’t always wear my helmet, don’t always put on my lights and often think that I can weave in and out of traffic as I please, so Chu’s death really struck me and I realized that there’s probably tons of students on campus that could have happened to.”
At the time of Qiu's death, Nagar says the improvement project was under Illinois Department of Transportation review. Deciding on a two-lane bike path with a raised curb, bikers would be able to travel from around Patten Gym all the way down to Allison and continue on Chicago Avenue through Davis Street – safely, separated from car traffic. North of Northwestern Place, by Garrett Seminary, the city also planned to reduce the number of lanes, creating a three-lane cross-section to slow traffic and reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross. While there’s no way to know for sure if these changes would have prevented Qiu’s death, Evanston Chief of Capital Planning Lara Biggs says that she feels the changes will definitely make Sheridan Road safer.
“It may very well have improved the situation simply by reducing the number of interactions between cars and bicyclists,” she says. “By going to this two-way protected bike lane, there are fewer places where bicyclists can cross Sheridan Road, the crossings are going to be controlled into just a few locations and there will be places with traffic signals.”
Biggs says that the construction of bike lanes on Chicago Avenue between Sheridan and Davis will take place between early April and mid- June of this year and that the construction on Sheridan between Chicago Avenue and Lincoln will take place mid-June to mid-September. In the meantime, students hope the changes will bring about some kind of positive impact.
“We’ve been looking at it from a preventative standpoint to make sure that we not only honored Chu’s death and remembered her,” Cilento says, “but did something so that in the future hopefully we would minimize those sorts of accidents.”