Dottie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Commute

Wanna hear my story? Don’t worry – no dotties or bicycles were harmed in the making of this commute.

Monday and Tuesday I had to work at a satellite office on the west side instead of my office downtown. From my starting point the satellite office is four miles straight west on one street, Belmont Avenue. See the yellow line highlighted on the bike map below? That’s it.

This should have been a simple commute. However, as shown on the map, I had to cross a river and an expressway. No side streets cross both, only arterial streets. I avoid arterial streets due to the heavy and relatively fast traffic. I tweeted for route advice and the general consensus (thanks!) was to avoid Belmont Avenue. After studying the bike map, I decided on a circuitous route to stay on quiet neighborhood streets most of the way, riding on arterial streets only to cross the river and the expressway.

The ride started fine and I crossed the river fairly easily, although mixing it up with the fast traffic got my blood pumping. Back on the neighborhood street, I rolled along happily for a couple of miles, but when I tried to cross the expressway, I kept coming upon dead ends. I had ridden too far and backtracked down several side streets – all dead ends – until finding the big street again.

Time for the next obstacle. Traffic entering and exiting the enormous expressway is fast, aggressive and not looking for bicyclists, so I cautiously road on the sidewalk until I safely crossed over. Not only did I ride on the sidewalk, I also went against a red light. I saw that no one was coming and knew that as soon as the “walk” signal appeared, the cars waiting to my left would turn right onto the expressway with absolutely no regard for lil’ ol’ me. Something about expressway ramps makes drivers insane.

After crossing I had to pull over to get my wits about me. I couldn’t remember which side street I was supposed to take next and called Mr. Dottie for directions, grumbling about traffic and the time. Soon I found the side street that I thought would take me straight to my destination.

Wrong!

The street suddenly ended and dumped me back on the arterial street. By this time I was already late for work, so I sucked it up and pedaled as fast as I could with traffic, an activity not for the faint of heart. Also not for the faint of heart: stopping in the middle of an arterial with no turn lane while waiting to turn left.

Finally, I arrived at my destination – stressed, sweaty and 15 minutes late. But alive!

For the ride home I decided to take a more direct route down a nearby arterial, Diversey Avenue. This route was simple and better than the morning nightmare, but called for some serious vehicular cycling, moving fast and taking the right lane. I was the only bicycle out there, making me long for companions, regardless of whether they stopped at the red lights. This street is busy and relatively fast, but has a bike lane for part of the way and is a marked bike route on the Chicago map.

Just as I was thinking positively about the route, two SUV’s almost hit me while I was crossing the river, one right after the other. They were stopped in traffic in the left turning lane, I was going straight in the right lane and they did not look before impatiently gassing it out of their lane and straight into my path. That was it for me – bike car traffic city sensory overload for the day.

The next morning I took the Belmont Avenue bus, which carried me straight to work with no stress. I stared out the window and read Anna Karenina. I did not regret my decision.

The city needs to do some serious work to make safe east-west routes, because the current set up is absurd. Lucky for me, I can now return to my usual commute downtown.

After I returned home from my bus commute, I set out on my bike to a board meeting a few miles away. En route, rain started pouring. I pushed on until thunder and lightening showed up, then I admitted defeat, turned around and attended my meeting over the phone. Sigh.

So this brief period of time will go down as the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad commute. I guess everyone has bad commutes sometimes.

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58 thoughts on “Dottie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Commute

  1. Lucas says:

    yes, this is true… unfortunately. Good that you survived, though!

  2. Vee says:

    Oh my that sounds so stressful. thank goodness that day came two + years into for you you know! And thank goodness for the bus. having back up is real nice.

  3. Maggie says:

    Good for you for sticking it out! Sometimes commuting by bike can be hard, but overall the benefits outweigh those bad days! If only more people would ride, the streets might be a little more bike friendly…

  4. Oomph, sorry!
    This reminds me of my commutes here in Vienna, whenever I need to go somewhere that is not covered by the bike path system. I have no problem cycling on the road in Boston, but most of the city streets here are lined with trolley tracks and trolleys pass by very frequently. I can’t handle it: between the fear of getting my wheel stuck in the track and the fear of getting run over by a trolley, it’s just too much!

  5. Ipstenu says:

    two SUV’s almost hit me while I was crossing the river, one right after the other. They were stopped in traffic in the left turning lane, I was going straight in the right lane and they did not look before impatiently gassing it out of their lane and straight into my path.

    THIS happens to me almost every day. I take my folding bike on the train to Ogilvie, and go down Clinton to my office. Every day this takes me past Union Station, and if it’s not the pedestrians not looking before they cross against the light (today), it’s someone taking a right turn on Adams without looking (Monday), or it’s a BUS cutting in front of me and braking to get to their stop on the corner (yesterday).

    Downtown, high traffic, city cycling requires a whole different set of nerves and a strong stomach than some of our nicer neighborhoods too the north.

    I still have to find a better all-the-way-home bike route, since I can do Lake Shore to the northside, but it dumps you out by Sheridan, and some half-wit thinks that bicyclists enjoy speed bumps and Devon Ave. *head-desk*

    • Andrew Duthie says:

      I was going to quote this exact paragraph, for a similar reason. This particular car-bike configuration is the one that causes the most motorcyclist deaths in two-vehicle collisions. Not much different for bicycles, it seems.

      As always: assume every other road user is actively trying to kill you. Respond appropriately to avoid them.

      I’ll be working the same logic into a 3-mile commute I’ll be making in Atlanta for the next 10-12 months. Seeing it from cars and motorcycles, Atlanta doesn’t appear to be very bicycle friendly. Time will tell.

      • Traci says:

        Riding in Atlanta all depends on where you live and work. Since you stated that you’ll have a 3 mile commute, if that 3 miles is in the actual city rather than a suburb, most likely you won’t have a problem. In the city, you can usually find a route to avoid the worst streets, especially if you only have to ride 3 miles (although could make the commute slightly longer). In my opinion, the hills in Atlanta are the worst part of biking, along with the horrible heat/humidity in the summer, but if you don’t mind either of those, you’ll probably be fine :) I’m trying to build up to biking 7 miles to work, but I don’t think I’m going to make it in the summer – I’d personally rather ride in 20 degree weather than 95+ degrees!

        • Andrew Duthie says:

          Commuting from Valleybrook Rd. to DeKalb Tech, so it’s all east side, old suburbs, no shoulders. I guess that’s Scottdale? If I lengthen the trip a bit, I can use the PATH trail for a while, so that should help. (It’s not direct, but might beat the regular roads.)

          As for the summer heat, I’ll be using my electrified commuter, so no problems there. Works great in Nashville heat, too.

          • Traci says:

            Yeah, that’s tougher than a commute within the city. I think my husband rides near that area quite a bit. Dekalb Tech is considered Clarkston, right? Sounds like the area you’ll be going through to get there is probably Decatur/Scottdale. I’m jealous of the electric commuter – this heat is killing me :)

          • Andrew Duthie says:

            Electric kit was under $300, plus a donor bike. It’s kludgy as hell, but it works!

          • Catherine says:

            Yay e-bikes! I’ve got one myself and love it–it’s totally changed my entire traveling life :)

  6. Ed L. says:

    So true . . . Belmont Avenue sucks, big time. But your post highlights another problem, which is the general lack of good in-city bicycle routes once you cross west of Western Avenue. Other than the diagonals – Lincoln, Elston, etc. – very few of the arterials are set up for low-stress cycling. There are some fantastic bike trials west just out of the city, but getting to them by bike can be a real harrowing experience.

  7. bongobike says:

    Well, thank God you’re fine. This morning I got on Facebook to find out that a friend’s husband was in a cycling accident last night and is in ICU with broken hip, ribs, vertebrae and lung damage! It will be a long recovery, I’m sure. Be careful out there!

  8. Maria says:

    So glad you made it OK and thank maude for busses!!
    That totally conjured up a little ptsd for me! LOL I had planned a day-long road ride around the cities MUPS trying a well known path I’d never ridden. The first 25 miles or so were fine but then I hit the cinder portion of the trail. My road bike wasn’t really ready for 10 miles of cinders and I kept thinking, it will end soon. I hopped off the trail numerous times to try and find some of the on-street routes on my bike map, but I was in this huge, posh residential area where the lots are massive and streets twist, turn and dead end. Ultimately I had to ride the sidewalk along a very busy main road for about three miles until I hit the major bike path which runs the south end of the metro area. And then….a massive front blew in and I biked the remaining 35 miles in a monster headwind. LOL!

    Yes…stress.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      I suspect this is a regional dialect thing [perhaps my region doesn't use the term, or perhaps I'm a bit dense ;)] but what is a “cinder” in the context of a path surface? Is it ash? I Googled and couldn’t find an adequate answer.

  9. spacemodular says:

    Hey Dottie,

    Welcome to the (wild wild) West Side!

    We have no lake front path here!

    I am glad you are OK.

    Your adventure that you described is another example of why I don’t think the whole Copenhagen Cycle Chic type of biking won’t gather much steam here in Chicago. The Mayor can love bikes all he wants, but until we get some real infrastructure out in the neighborhoods where the rich white people don’t live – it will all just remain a charade. Most of Chicago is extremely bike UN-friendly.

    The laws of physics trump traffic laws – especially with all of those stupid self centered animals behind the wheels of large automobiles. Safety first. Go ahead and run the light and ride on the sidewalk if you feel your safety is in danger. Too many people who drive in this town just don’t care about bicyclists.

    Take care!

    • Dottie says:

      Yeah, just like the city spends more resources improving parks and L stations in the more affluent neighborhoods, same with bike infrastructure.

  10. Cathy says:

    Some days, you just need to take a bus. Sorry your commute was so terrible.

  11. That sounds horrible! There are definitely some parts of the city that need to be more bike-friendly. The other frightening thing I’ve realized is there are so many drivers on the road who can’t get legal licenses and are just driving around without heed to laws or bikes. Just the other day I was walking to my school, in a school crosswalk with a the correct light, and a man nearly hit me. He actually hit the gas when he saw me, instead of the brake, and I was envisioning whether I should try to roll onto his car or step out of the way…then he luckily swerved and just took off. I’ve also seen a ton of cars, and even a city bus, on Damen just using that really nice bike lane as a second lane for cars. It is quite frustrating and frightening.

    • Joel says:

      I would phrase your “There are definitely some parts of the city that need to be more bike-friendly.” remark differently. I think there are a few parts of the city that are bike-friendly, but the vast majority is a nightmare. The handful of bike lanes on the south and west sides are nothing more than a place to throw garbage, pass cars on the right, double park, unload delivery trucks, etc. The city does nothing to enforce the fact that they are BIKE lanes. The mayor can proclaim Chicago to be a wonderful place to bike, but unless you live in a handful of neighborhoods, it really isn’t.

  12. Anthony says:

    Hey, as a suggestion for the future; you might want to take Belmont over the river, then left on Sacramento, then right on Wellington. Because you turn onto Wellington before the on/off ramps from Sacramento to the highway, it’s not as nuts, even though you have to go for awhile under an overpass.

  13. Jon says:

    Sounds horrible! As a former Chicago resident/cyclist now back in London, I am glad of this site for my local rides now: http://london.cyclestreets.net/

    I don’t think such a tool exists for Chicago though?

    I was fortunate enough not to have to venture West while riding in Chicago, I was too chicken and would usually take up the offer of a ride in a friends car/truck instead.

    Great blog by the way, I read often and I’m often left reminiscing about Chicago as a result.

    - Jon

  14. Cherilyn says:

    Glad you’re all right! Hope you had time for a glass of wine and a bath before turning in.

  15. Glad you’re OK. The GPS on my iPhone shows maps with current traffic patterns. Would something like that have helped?

    • Dottie says:

      Hm, that could be a good tool. Traffic is pretty much always heavy during the times I ride, though (rush hour). Unfortunately.

  16. cycler says:

    That sounds like a lot of my time commuting in Houston back in the day. I don’t miss it at all.
    Glad that the bus was an option for you, at least.

    Boston has a couple of giant geographical barriers (river, Turnpike, commuter rail train tracks) that funnel traffic onto arterials because it’s cost prohibitive to create infrastructure on the neighborhood streets (and the neighborhood streets would turn into arterials if they were connected!).

    It makes biking on those few connected arterials pretty scary though. Livable streets Alliance and others are trying to encourage Mass DOT to improve bicycle facilities as they re-build the bridges over the Charles, and I am hopeful that they’re hearing us and that progress will be made, but until then, there are whole parts of the city that I visit only under duress because the choke points are so horrid.

  17. cycler says:

    Oh, and I use my iPhone ALL the time when I’m trying to get somewhere new-it’s a huge help when you’re lost, although I’m not sure I’d completely trust the bike directions part of Google maps.

  18. Tinker says:

    So you gave us a photo of your tear and sweat covered bicycle? How sweet, no one’s done that before. More seriously, I’m glad you made it.

    Texas, years back had a DRIVE FRIENDLY campaign, and as a motorcycle rider, I translated it to the nearest equivalent, DRIVE PARANOID!

    You done good! as they say, here in Texas.

  19. Dave says:

    There are a few spots like that in Portland where a freeway runs through the middle of the city, and only arterial streets cross over the freeway. This is one of the reasons I think building freeways right through the middle of cities is a horrible idea.

    Thankfully, I’ve never had quite such a traumatic experience in these spots in Portland, but it can be kind of stressful, especially if you don’t know what to expect, and then you have to hunt around for a way to get over the freeway and if there aren’t through streets between arterials it can be really stressful just trying to find anywhere to go.

    I also concur that in my experience here, most of the times I find myself nervous about my safety on the road are near freeway on/off ramps. People either heading to or just exiting the freeway tend to drive considerably faster and more recklessly than others.

  20. Dave says:

    Also, I echo Cherilyn, hope you had a nice hot bath and a large drink when you got home :)

  21. dukiebiddle says:

    This is no substitution for adequate infrastructure, but when I have a scheduled ride necessary in an unfamiliar area sometimes I’ll pull up Google Maps Streetview and simulate all/most/parts of the route the night before. I’m actually checking out the neighborhoods for board-ups as much I am the road thruways and traffic conditions. It isn’t perfect but it can be really helpful.

  22. Michael says:

    Unfortunately freeways/expressways do excellent jobs of dividing communities and on multiple levels, not just from a transportation standpoint.

  23. Dave says:

    Thinking more about this, I think in the past, development of certain areas, particularly suburban or outer-city development was done with the specific intention of not being accessible without a car, because people who wanted to live in those areas didn’t want the poor, homeless or “unsavory” types going out there (part of why they were moving there in the first place), and they assumed that anyone who owned an automobile was a good, respectable, middle-class person. They also assumed that keeping people who didn’t have automobiles out would effectively keep out the poor, homeless, etc.

    I’m sure there’s still some of this motivation now, but I think more-so we’ve just gotten into a pattern of habits and have a really hard time breaking them.

    Freeways through the middle of the city were a way to accommodate this lifestyle, allowing the people living in places that were only accessible by automobile to still work in the city core, and to get there in the most convenient way possible. Unfortunately, as seen in NY, Houston and many other cities, it either created ghettos by isolating parts of the city, or turned the city core into nothing but freeways and parking lots.

    I continuously feel fortunate that Portland avoided most of this fate, backtracked from some of the building they had done in this direction, canceled a few plans before they got started, and have worked hard to make most areas of the inner part of the city (including downtown) places people want to live, work, eat, and play.

    That being said, there are definitely moments when the reality of the suburban lifestyle makes its presence felt on my mostly blissful urban existence :)

  24. I’m glad that you are OK! SUV’s are so scary when the roar past much to closely.

  25. Jeff says:

    Hi All,

    The best arterial streets for biking are usually those that have a lot of pedestrians, because the people walking across the streets force the cars to slow down to a speed more compatible with bicycle riding.

    The streets that attract pedestrians are those with small businesses, where it is possible to visit several stores, restaurants, etc. over a short (i.e., walkable) distance. Examples in Chicago would be Clark in Andersonville and Broadway in Lakeview. Both streets are very congested with cars, but nevertheless friendly for bikes.

    Conversely, neighborhoods with mostly big stores (think Walmart)normally have no pedestrian traffic along and across streets, because there’s usually nothing adjacent to the streets except ginormous parking lots and solid brick walls. Car traffic is fast. Drivers who might slow to pass us or let us change lanes risk being rear-ended.

    If you want a pleasant neighborhood for biking, keep the big stores out!

  26. Dottie's Gram Bev says:

    Hi Dottie,

    Glad you’re allright! ( scary thing for a Grandma to read )

    Love, Gram Bev <3

  27. Scott says:

    That’s a rough spot. I have done the Diversey->Logan Blvd->Milwaukee detour to avoid that area in the past.

  28. Yoinks! Sorry to hear about the horrific commute! I’m glad you made it through unscathed!

  29. Holly says:

    Glad you made it to work safely! That area is just whacked for bikes.

    Sometimes streets w/lots of pedestrians can be really hard because not a lot of the people popping in and out of their vehicles look for bikes before opening their doors.

    I know Chicago isn’t the worst city to ride in but I’m really not impressed–and less so every day. I’m usually on the road between noon and five. It’s terrible. Everyone is in some huge hurry to get somewhere. Usually right to a red light.

    I thought of you today because I decided to try a sweat free ride. It was nice. I’m still fresh as a daisy tonight.

    • Jeff says:

      Hi Holly,

      Yes, doors are a real hazard wherever there is on-street parking. It’s a little tiring to have to be constantly on the lookout for some numbskull throwing a door open without looking. But at least we have a little control over the risk – we can ride outside the door zone as much as possible, and be aware of our surroundings and be oh so careful (including slowing down) whenever we must ride near doors.

    • Dottie says:

      That’s something I hate about the city – everyone being in a rush all the time for no reason.

  30. [...] does it while riding at 55 mph, at least according to his bike computer. Dottie survives, barely, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad commute from hell; the Chicago Tribune says she could use a little help. Traffic meister Tom Vanderbilt [...]

  31. David says:

    Dottie,

    I live in Avondale (which is where it looks like you were headed to), and deal with the same questions of route whenever I am going from home to Lakeview or nearby areas. From where you live, I find Roscoe to be far nicer than Belmont or Addison. You can take this as far as just past Western. I imagine this is probably the route that you took. But from Western until about Central Park there really is no other choice than either Belmont or Addison. Between the two I prefer Belmont. From CP or so you can take School or whatever is between Belmont and Dieversey, but nothing is a straight shot due to Milwaukee. I’ll agree with you and some respondents that going east-west when west of Western is a bit less friendly. But if you are used to vehicular cycling it’s not bad. I’m used to it.

    • Dottie says:

      Funny, that’s pretty much the circuitous route I took in the morning. I still can’t decide which was better/worse – the morning round-about ride or the evening Diversey ride.

  32. David says:

    Also, on the subject of almost getting hit by that vehicle pulling out of the left lane on the Diversey bridge: this is a pretty classic risk and worth learning to watch for. Whenever I am in the right lane and see a line of cars backed up behing a left-turning vehicle, I always assume a reasonably chance of someone pulling out without warning.

  33. Ann says:

    Dottie, I’m glad you didn’t get injured. I’m also glad you’ve got a decent alternate form of transportation for the days you need to go to that satellite office. I spent most of my career in the D.C. area and gave up riding my bike on the streets due to aggressive driving. Instead, I’d put the bike on a rack on my car and drive to one of the many bike paths. I intentionally retired to a remote area to get away from congestion. Although there are things I miss as a city girl living in a rural location, traffic, congestion and rude behavior aren’t among them. I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful forest west of Glacier National Park and I ride my bike on the main roads and in the forest. You’re all invited to a tranquil forest ride where you don’t need to worry about 4-wheeled beasts, just stay alert for 4-footed wildlife. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh67LpShsp4&hd=1

  34. Zweiradler says:

    Marking such roads as “bike route” is ridiculous.
    I don’t think vehicular cycling education will get more people on bikes. I prefer the Dutch solution.
    Experiences like yours are the reason that I only ride on streets that I already know.

    Nico

  35. martha says:

    I live west of the Kennedy, and agree with the point that the entrance/exit ramps turn otherwise normal human beings in cars into monsters – I usually cross at Division (scary, dark, you get to ride past a ghost bike – I usually cave and ride the sidewalk), cortlandt (dark, but lots of bikes and pedestrians, so not too bad), Webster (not too bad for bikes, but god help you if you are a pedestrian coming out of the shadows of the overpass), or Chicago (likely the easiest, as you are above ground, and there are lots of bikes around). I have contacted the city, the Mayor’s bike program, etc. about these intersections, and would encourage everyone to speak up to your officials. Change takes time, and we are way, way ahead of where we were when I moved to Chicago in ’95.

  36. Karen says:

    Hmmm . . . Belmont Avenue makes me think of Ann Sather cinnamon buns. Makes me think I need some time in Chicago really bad. Again, that makes me think of Ann Sather cinnamon buns!

  37. Dottie, thanks for writing this up. I’ve had so many similar experiences. Now I know I’m not alone!

    I live in Sweden, and the car traffic is mostly civil if intimidating. There are bike paths almost everywhere, but they often don’t go anywhere because they’re only intended for people walking their dogs or for the children to play on. Even if they’re even joined up, they make you take really big detours. On top of that, it’s technically illegal in Sweden to cycle on the road if there is a cycle path.

    So I try to improvise and cycle along the smaller car roads instead. But even these routes can be ridiculously circuitous and dump you back on the arterial route just as you decribe. It drives me n u t s. The bike paths are really freaky and it doesn’t even help to look at the map.

    Older parts of town are usually much better because they have a logical street grid. It’s like the ads with the sober spider, the spider on alchohol and the spider on LSD. The people who built the suburban street grid were totally on LSD!

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