Deadly stretch of Milwaukee Avenue raises concern among cyclists as the season gets underway

When cyclists cruise along Milwaukee Avenue in Old Irving Park on the Northwest Side, they whiz by the never-ending construction and bike memorials as familiar, yet unsettling, backdrops.

This half-mile stretch, from Kilbourn Avenue to Addison Street, has become one of the deadliest for bikers to ride in all of Chicago, some cycling advocates say, with its heavy car traffic, a major Metra reconstruction project, and little protection for bikers and pedestrians. With summer looming and gas prices continuing to surge, advocates fear that a busier than usual bike season could be a lethal one without better safeguards for bikers.

“This stretch of Milwaukee (Avenue) has a lot of major traffic arteries and there’s just a lot of traffic and speeding cars, and no safe signs,” said Amanda Marien, a safety advocate who lives in the neighborhood. “But the ones that suffer this the most are pedestrians, bikers and the people that live in this area.”

Earlier this month, Nick Parlingayan, 22, of Chicago, became at least the third bicyclist fatality in the city this year when he was killed near Milwaukee and Kilbourn avenues in a hit-and-run car crash. The driver later turned himself in to police at the urging of his mother. Meanwhile, Carla Aiello, a 37-year-old high school counselor, was killed near the same intersection when the driver of a dump truck made a right turn from Milwaukee onto Kilbourn.

Two memorials for the cyclists now sit across the street from each other: a ghost bike for Aiello, and flowers, candles and photos of Parlingayan. They are among the latest victims in an area with a long history of bike and car collisions, records show.

“Every bike plan the city has ever put out has identified Milwaukee Avenue as a key route,” said Kyle Whitehead, managing director of public affairs for Active Transportation Alliance. “And the most recent bike plan that the city had, which was developed in 2012, called for protected bike lanes all along Milwaukee Avenue.”

However, only 13% of Milwaukee Avenue has protected bike lanes, he said.

Chicago Department of Transportation officials maintain that there has been a nearly 30% decrease in bike crashes with major injuries in the past 10 years, even with a “great increase of bikers in the city since the pandemic.” But cycling advocates paint a different picture.

Ken McLeod, policy director of the American League of Bicyclists, based in Washington, D.C., said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that Chicago has had an average of about six bicyclist deaths per year since 2016.

“(Chicago) had an average of nearly 47 pedestrians killed each year,” said McLeod. “In 2020, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Chicago had eight bicyclist deaths, which is the most that it’s had from 2016 to 2020. … And if you ask me, that is a big number for a city.”

For the Chicago biking community, the statistics feel overwhelming.

Avid cyclist Lena Reynolds Guerrero, 34, of Jefferson Park said she was “absolutely horrified” to see history repeat itself when Parlingayan was killed in the same spot on Milwaukee Avenue as Aiello.

“It feels really personal because I take that route so often, living in Jefferson Park, and so that could have been me, right?” she said.

‘I don’t ride a bike because I’m too afraid’

Marien, 33, moved into Old Irving Park in 2017. Her house is one of 48 single-family homes that were completed that year in a complex along Milwaukee Avenue.

In the past six years, she said she’s been awakened to a series of nearby traffic crashes in her neighborhood, from broken fences to fatal collisions. She and her neighbors have witnessed cars jumping the curb, drivers veering into bike lanes during rush hour, cars slipping on snow and late night drag racing.

As president of the housing association for the complex, she said she’s seen and heard it all.

“I don’t ride a bike because I’m too afraid of that,” she said. “That’s why I prefer driving, but I’d probably like cycling better if I felt safer here.”

In her neighborhood, there was the October 2019 fatal hit-and-run of Vincent Tran, who had been biking on Irving Park Road, when a black vehicle struck him and knocked him off his bike. Then a couple of months later, in February 2020, an SUV driving down Milwaukee struck a pothole and lost control of the vehicle that veered straight into the Concordia day care, crashing the whole window storefront lobby, police said. Since it happened before opening hours, no children or staff were present when the crash occurred.

Marien said over the years her community has tried to persuade the various aldermen that have represented their neighborhood to make it safer for bikers and pedestrians. While they’ve been mildly successful with some requests — a new crosswalk was installed in 2019 near Schurz High School, between Milwaukee and Waveland avenues — Marien said it’s not nearly enough.

She said cars rarely stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk because it’s not an “actual stop sign.”

“They don’t think (cars) have to stop for pedestrians to cross legally,” she said. “(This area) needs protected bike lanes as well or something more to get people from Wicker Park to Six Corners. Even so, some stretches with plastic bollards remain dangerous because they get taken out during the winter time or, even when they are on, cars hit and bend them frequently.”

In 2020, then newly-elected Ald. Jim Gardiner, 45th, ordered a traffic study after a crowded meeting with concerned residents at the high school. But after months of waiting, Marien said the embattled alderman refused to release the results of the study, which was completed Oct. 1 of that year.

“I kept asking the alderman basically if the traffic study was done yet and he would just ignore me or say they were waiting,” Marien said. “Then I finally was like, oh well I can (file a Freedom of Information request) and then I won’t need him, so I finally did it. And the study had been completed.”

Marien received the study on June 22, 2021 — over eight months after it was completed. It showed recommendations for another crosswalk, a stop sign, and possibly a flashing radar or speed signs. Marien said she told Gardiner she’d received the results of the study.

“And the only thing he could do at that point was sign it, you know, like I had all the evidence in front of them,” she said.

Gardiner, who did not return multiple calls from the Tribune for comment, signed the plans for the crosswalk and stop sign on April 15, 2021. In July of that year, he also made a request for a speed camera to be installed on Milwaukee between Kilbourn and Addison. Although Gardiner had announced on his Facebook page that the camera would be installed by Aug. 31, a camera has not yet been installed, and a CDOT spokesperson told the Tribune there are no current plans to do so.

The neighborhood was recently taken out of Gardiner’s ward in the latest remap by City Council.

Meanwhile, the stop sign and crosswalk were installed earlier this month — days after Parlingayan was killed.

A patchwork of protection

“It’s kind of a patchwork and that’s really the problem,” said Whitehead of Active Transportation Alliance. “The same problem (as in Milwaukee Avenue) exists on key corridors all across the city. There are segments of three- to four-block stretches with a protected bike lane and it’s safe and comfortable, but then you’ll hit a stretch where there is no bike lane or the bike lane has faded and disappeared. Most bike rides are longer than three to four blocks, so what we need is protection.”

Whitehead said that this “patchwork” approach leaves the city with dangerous locations where people on bikes are vulnerable: “Even if they might have felt comfortable earlier in their ride, you know, a few blocks later, they’re put in a dangerous situation.”

Whitehead points to protection on Milwaukee, closer to downtown and the Near North Side, where there are concrete curb bike lanes, which are what “quality infrastructure” looks like, he said.

“It’s concrete. It’s impenetrable. You can’t drive over or park on top of it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the plastic bollards the city puts elsewhere are second rate, he said.

“These plastic (bollards) are better than just paint but, as you may have seen, often times people drive over them, people pick them up and pull them out of the ground,” he said. “They’re just not durable, especially given the weather that we have here in the various conditions throughout the year.”

Michael Keating, an attorney who specializes in bicycle law and rides Milwaukee Avenue every day on his way to work, said the city’s bike lane safety features aren’t really safe at all.

“We have noticed a pattern of what the Chicago Department of Transportation refers to as ‘infrastructure’ in many places is just paint on the roadway,” he said. “Obviously, if a motorist does not respect the bike lane and drives on that paint, it’s not going to protect the bicyclist.”

In the stretch of Milwaukee near where Parlingayan was killed, a $36.1 million Metra construction project is ongoing to replace a 122-year-old railroad bridge that goes over the avenue for the adjacent Grayland Station.

The new Metra plan will include a protected bike lane with a physical curb separation on the southbound channel. However, the bike lane on the northbound side of the street — the side of the avenue where Parlingayan’s fatal crash happened — will only have a paint divided bike lane.

“There is not enough room on the north side to add a protected lane and maintain the current configuration of the sidewalks,” a Metra spokesperson said when asked about the lack of a protected bike lane on the northbound side under the bridge. “We are looking into whether that configuration can be altered, but we do not yet know if that is possible.”

Again, for residents, it’s not enough, said Marien.

“Something needs to be done,” Marien said. “This is not a coincidence that two bicyclists were killed in the same exact spot. We can’t treat it like it’s an accident.”