Engineering Safe Streets: A Cyclist’s Perspective

WBK Engineering Transportation Design Engineer Matt Cave describes the issue in simple terms: “Cities are primarily designed for cars, and cyclists are frowned upon. Too often there aren’t even shoulders on roads, so cyclists must share the lane with vehicles. Cyclists don’t like it because they’re worried about getting hit, and motorists don’t like it because they get slowed down. It’s a lose-lose for everybody.”

As Matt rides his bike to work most days, he knows this firsthand, and safety is forefront in his mind.

“We’re like 1/20th the size of a car so it can be scary sometimes.”

Matt Cave, Transportation Design Engineer, WBK Engineering

More Bikes on the Road

The main goal of a traffic project is simple. “The mission is straightforward,” says Matt, “for everyone to get from point A to point B safely.” This has become increasingly important as commuters who bike to work increased 61% from 2000 to 2019, and in a recent survey, 10% of respondents answered that they’re more likely to bike to work post-COVID.

Dave Simmons, Executive Director of Ride Illinois, a non-profit organization committed to cyclist infrastructure and safety, has seen the growth firsthand. “Interest in biking for both recreation and transportation has definitely increased,” states Dave. “The challenge for advocacy organizations is keeping interest level high so riding a bike becomes second nature for more and more Illinois residents.”

“One of our goals is to convince more people to integrate riding a bike into their lifestyle, not just for recreation. If one asks, ‘Can I bike there?’ and the answer is ‘yes’, we encourage them to hop on their bike and go! If the answer is ‘no’ because infrastructure is subpar or there isn’t parking at the end location, we encourage them to raise their concern to decision makers.”

Dave Simmons, Executive Director, Ride Illinois

Increased commitment to biker safety comes as a result of increased cyclist fatalities, due in large part to unclear markings and driver inattention. Naturally, this has forced municipalities to quickly rethink safety measures on their busy streets, partnering with civil engineering firms like WBK to redesign traffic for all to share the road.

“There are a variety of different bike safety designs to choose from,” explains Yemi Oyewole, PE, WBK Transportation Practice Manager, all with advantages and disadvantages. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach as needs and available space vary from town to town. The key is collaborative partnership to determine the right solution for the specific situation of the community.”

The Evolution of Bike Lanes

Bike lanes started as simply unprotected lanes on the shoulder of a busy street. While this is still the case in many areas of the country, especially in rural areas, urban centers have strived to go further to protect cyclists from their much larger counterparts and to clarify rights of way and traffic laws for both parties to travel harmoniously.

Regardless of the approach to bike lanes, municipalities have seen success in traffic-calming techniques such as narrowing the lanes for automobile traffic, which naturally causes drivers to slow down as the space between them and other vehicles is reduced. This creates roads that feel less like wide-open racetracks through the city and more like pathway of slower travel. Lane narrowing also creates space for cyclist-only lanes, of which there are a variety for municipalities to choose from.

Buffered Bicycle Lane

Example of a buffered bicycle lane.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

As a cyclist and transportation engineer, Matt Cave has a unique perspective of the options available. “At the very least, a buffered lane provides some space between cyclists and cars as it is specifically for cyclists, with a visible boundary, often painted crosshatches, between it and the closest car lane,” explains Cave. This increased separation provides adequate space for both types of transportation, but still allows potential risk at intersections and by parked car doors opening along the buffered lane.

Separated Bike Lane

Another best-practice Cave recommends to clients is a separated bike lane which, as the name implies, includes some type of barrier physically separating the bike and automobile lanes. This can be as simple as orange cones or as complex as an elevation change. “While a curb naturally discourages automobiles from getting too close to cyclists, much more so than cones,” says Cave, “any separation is safer than a simple painted line.

Example of a one-way, parking separated bicycle lane.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Bicycle box

Example of a bicycle box at an intersection.

Image from Urban Bikeway Design Guide, by NACTO. Copyright © 2014 National Association of City Transportation Officials. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Buffered lanes and separated lanes are effective safety measures while moving along a roadway, but intersections remain dangerous areas for cyclists in terms of being seen as well as understanding of rights of way by motorists. To this end, Cave recommends a concept called bike boxes, designated areas in front of all traffic at stops serves to guarantee bicycle visibility by drivers. Automobiles are required to stop behind the bike box, allowing cyclists to wait at the front of traffic. “This is especially important in cases where the motorist is taking a right turn,” comments Cave, “which requires them to travel through the designated bike lane.”

Simmons explains that simply designing a better solution isn’t enough. “When new road infrastructure, such as a bike box, is installed there is a high likelihood that the general public may be confused,” emphasizes Simmons. “Planners, engineers, and municipal staff must include outreach to the public, prior to installation, so the public knows how to properly use the new infrastructure.”

Cycling from City to Nature

While finding safe solutions for scenarios involving city roadway traffic tend to take the spotlight, ensuring safe passage for cyclists travelling on independent paths is important as well, as uneven material such as gravel and crossing over roads and railways can cause hazards for biker safety.

For the Fox River Trail Project within the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, WBK provided engineering services to transform a 7-foot-wide gravel path into a 10- to 12-foot-wide paved pathway with rails that connects the Fox River Trail to the Virgil Gilman Nature Trail. The highlight of the new trail is a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over the Fox River constructed of four spans of pre-engineered steel truss structures supported on reinforced concrete substructures. The overall trail improvement project, designed and managed by WBK, includes 6,000 feet of bicycle path along the west bank of the Fox River, including increasing safety and visibility for three roadway crossings, incorporating solar-powered lighted yield signs for drivers.

“Being able to work with local municipalities to help them better serve the people in the communities in which we live and work is gratifying. Projects like the Fox River Trail enable us as engineers to see the difference we make in helping people to move about safely and to interact with the environment because movement throughout has been made possible.”

Yemi Oyewole, PE, Transportation Practice Manager, WBK Engineering

Pride of the Fox: St. Charles Riverwalk

Pride of the Fox: St. Charles Riverwalk
Pride of the Fox: St. Charles Riverwalk

The Fox River begins just west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and runs 200 miles south before converging with the Illinois River. On its path south, it flows through downtown St. Charles, Illinois, where it has undergone a transformation to become a focal point and resource for the city.

“It wasn’t long ago that grocery store loading docks backed up to the Fox.. Now we have apartment balconies and community spaces that overlook it,” explains WBK Engineering President Greg Chismark. “It’s been quite the change.” This change didn’t happen by accident or overnight and represents a concerted and organized effort by the City of St. Charles to transform Fox River from its past as an industrial resource to a modern, community-based vision of the river as the center of the city’s commerce and community.

Before After

Fox River, 2008

Fox River, 2021

Making this vision a reality was no small task, and a comprehensive plan in the early stages was key. WBK was contracted by the City to review the Fox River flood model and engineers determined that there was an opportunity for additional development along the river, making expanded community spaces a possibility like never before. This remapping of the floodplain and floodway facilitated the City’s plans for a riverwalk along the Fox.

Connectivity of the riverwalk was important to the City and Chismark explains, “Pedestrian circulation is important from a public use standpoint. Paths are more likely to be used when there’s a perceived loop to easily return to where you started. It also has the added benefit of allowing people to discover new areas they might not usually explore, simply because the riverwalk loops through those locations.”

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles

“It wasn’t long ago that grocery store loading docks backed up to the Fox.. Now we have apartment balconies and community spaces that overlook it.”

Greg Chismark

WBK’s responsibilities were wide-ranging, including creation of the construction documents, structural design of the retaining walls along the river, landscape design of planters, seating areas, brick pavers, and a rail along the riverwalk to protect the public from high river levels and fast-moving water. WBK collaborated with the City’s Electric Department to install a series of pedestrian lights for added security, safety and to extend the riverwalk’s accessibility into the late evening.

The Riverwalk has been effective in bringing more people downtown, allowing the adjacent First Street project to grow as both a commercial and residential area. By showcasing the river as its center, the City and WBK have infused new energy into downtown St. Charles, creating a focal point for the region.

Russell Colby, St. Charles Director of Community Development, describes the City’s partnership with WBK. “They’ve provided critical guidance and assistance over the years as the City has progressed on the First Street Redevelopment project, with a focus on planning for functional public spaces that can be efficiently constructed, and meeting standards and permit requirements for impacts along the Fox River.”

The Riverwalk is a point of pride for St. Charles, says Bob Rasmussen, construction manager collaborating with the City on development of the Riverwalk. “I spend most evenings on my balcony overlooking the riverwalk with its various elevations, planting areas and walkways. The design is truly special to our downtown and I could not be happier with the final layout. I am very proud of the work we performed together with the City of St. Charles and believe our citizens have benefited greatly from the design of this critical area in our downtown.”

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles

"[The path] also has the added benefit of allowing people to discover new areas they might not usually explore, simply because the riverwalk loops through those locations.”

Greg Chismark

The First Street public/private partnerships have become successful, with talented professionals coming together and overcoming challenges to solidify the city’s identity as a thriving river town.

Another significant element of the revitalization efforts has been the addition of plazas on the east and west sides of First Street, creating dining opportunities, a performance area, festival and event venues, and space for art right in the heart of the city. Future expansion of public plazas is anticipated along with improved connectivity from Main Street to the First Street riverwalk. Marty Serena of Serena Sturm Architects has been integral in developing the vision to close 1st Street from Main Street to Walnut Street to create additional pedestrian and public space.

“The Plaza has become the central gathering place of our community,” comments Serena, “showcasing the vibrant core of our civic, economic and ecological qualities for our entire community and visitors to enjoy.”

“I am very proud of the work we performed together with the City of St. Charles and believe our citizens have benefited greatly from the design of this critical area in our downtown.”

Bob Rasmussen
© 2022 WBK Engineering

WBK is again collaborating to provide civil engineering expertise for this future improvement, including  managing the relocation of utilities, additional landscaped planters, structural design and replacement of existing retaining walls, management of drainage and coordination with significant architectural elements – all with a focus on sustainability.

The first phase of this future plaza began when the City purchased the former Manor Restaurant site in 2020. The restaurant building had been demolished, except for a portion of the exterior foundation along the river. The existing wall was determined to be unsuitable for future plaza construction. Rather than remove the wall, which would have been costly with potential environmental impact, WBK developed a soldier pile wall solution allowing a cast in place concrete wall directly adjacent to the existing Manor restaurant wall. This concept minimized cost, permit time and maximized public space for the future plaza.

The concrete wall has the same aesthetic treatment as the riverwalk wall to the south, consisting of a rock faced form liner and stained concrete to emulate the existing stone river walls.  The project was recently completed by Martam Construction.

© 2022 WBK Engineering

“[WBK has] provided critical guidance and assistance over the years as the City has progressed on the First Street Redevelopment project, with a focus on planning for functional public spaces that can be efficiently constructed, and meeting standards and permit requirements for impacts along the Fox River.”

Russell Colby

It’s experience like this that Colby finds value, “The City has relied on WBK’s expertise to effectively navigate the regulatory steps and develop plans that the City has been able to execute. They are a valuable and reliable partner for the City’s development-related engineering work and have offered creative design solutions that have helped make 1st street a standout downtown project.”

The space won’t remain empty for long, as it has been filled in to bring it to ground level, and efforts have begun to create an inviting green space to gather in between shopping, dining and otherwise exploring the vibrant downtown area. Future plans for this space include an expansion of the existing plaza, solar pergolas, permeable pavers, and additional art installations.

Additionally, a portion of 1st Street will transition from a roadway to a pedestrian walking mall and community space to gather, shop and relax. WBK Engineering developed civil and structural plans on behalf of Serena Sturm Architects, and Martam Construction was tasked with making it all happen.

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles

The momentum of redevelopment has spread from First Street on the west side of the Fox River to the east side of the river. Kurt Hurst of Frontier Development has invested in downtown redevelopment opposite the First Street project on the east side of the river. “I’m very excited for what’s happening to downtown. It’s a revitalization of an area that’s been around for a long time.”  Frontier has engaged WBK Engineering to assist with a variety of redevelopment projects relying on their experience with floodplain management, urban site design, and utility planning.

“WBK has been a wonderful partner and a pleasure to work with on the First Street Plaza endeavor,” says Serena. “Greg and his team are quite talented, knowledgeable, and very conscientious in their efforts. Quality design is a dance between art and technology, and we very much appreciate our partnership with WBK in the development of the plaza. We truly feel that their work will push this project to high levels of creative engineering and execution of our work.”​​

The First Street project has revitalized downtown St. Charles living up to the City’s motto “The Pride of the Fox”. Chismark shares the same pride for WBK’s contribution. “It’s extremely gratifying to create meaningful public spaces and private opportunities, no matter the location. But there’s an extra feeling of pride when you’re able to make a positive impact and see it on a daily basis. Much of this work is right outside the doors to our office, and it’s not uncommon for our employees to spend their lunches or after work in these same spaces we helped develop. We appreciate the opportunity to be a partner with the City, culminating in special projects that have a positive impact on the region.”

Courtesy of the City of St. Charles