Coming Clean With American Cyclists

Background Reading

Problem Statement

European Example of Separate Bicycle Infrastructure

American cycling advocacy groups have undergone a change of late. They are taking on names that connote a much broader set of concerns that simply bicycle transportation. Much of this new emphasis comes from the fact that there really is a bigger picture than just bicycles. Motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists are all vying for a seat at the table where funding is concerned. Bicyclists are the obvious minority in this triumvirate. So it behooves cyclists to show that they understand the needs of the majority members at the table while trying to state their case for inclusion in any plans going forward.

When you listen to or read information that describes the ultimate aims for cycling the names of the cities of Amstersdam and Copenhagen surface as examples of how the future should look. These cities have managed to forge an infrastructure change that does more than merely include cycling as an alternative. Cycling has become an equity partner in the deliberations and has the infrastructure to show for its troubles.

But what is seldom said of these meccas of cycling is that they have built upon a model that eschews among other things: Vehicular Cycling, Cycling Clothing and Helmets. The most important of the three at present is probably the notion of eliminating the emphasis on preparing cyclists with strategies for riding in motorist traffic. The European notion of Vehicular Cycling is that is represents a distinctly American version of ‘running with the bulls’.

GridChicago’s Cheaper Alternative to the Navy Pier Flyover

Vehicular Cycling is 180 degrees opposite the view espoused in what I will call Bicycle Heaven (i.e. Copenhagen and Amsterdam). In Bicycle Heaven the mantra of choice is ‘separated infrastructure’. What exactly does this mean? From the point of view of a person like John Forester the author of Effective Cycling whose seminal ideas were the basis for Vehicular Cycling, it means opting for bicycle paths over being integrated into motorist traffic.

What is not being said however is that this approach is not the one necessarily being considered here, primarily because creating a separate infrastructure for bicycles is costly. There is a certain chicken vs. egg controversy that exists. Cycling advocates suggest that if you build more cycling infrastructure it will attract more riders. So the aim has become to show an increase in cyclist participation by means of demonstrations like Critical Mass (which Bicycle Heaven advocates view as somewhat counterproductive due to its aggressive style). By getting together a large number of cyclists each month you demonstrate to the powers that be the level of committment to cycling in the general population.

In the meantime you have an entire population of suburban and rural cyclists who were weaned on Effective Cycling and are unaware that its precepts are dismissed by those in Bicycle Heaven as outmoded and indeed harmful to cycling. Helmet use in the cycling community here is an established fact. We print out thousands of waivers for cyclists who participate in invitational rides with clear requests that helmets be worn. Docent-led rides here in Chicago not only require helmets but in some instances loaner helmets are provided for those without them.

So why the disconnect between the vision of cycling held up as Bicycle Heaven and the reality of cycling currently being practiced in the U.S.? And more precisely why are groups that pushing for increased cycling infrastructure and holding up Bicycle Heaven as the goal reluctant to point out our differences with our European brethren?

The Lakefront Trail Flyover : A Case In Point

Current Navy Pier Traffic Pattern

There is a portion of the bicycle infrastructure near Navy Pier that mixes pedestrian and bicycle traffic in dangerous ways. To make matters worse there are two intersections at the bottom of the bridge portion of the trail which bring automobile traffic into the mix in yet more dangerous ways. But a proposal to apply a Bicycle Heaven separate infrastructure solution was funded to the tune of $45 millions. That is a lot of money and is frankly a glimpse into what it will take to implement the ideal of ‘separate infrastructure’ used in Bicycle Heaven here in the States.

GridChicago offered up a less expensive alternative as a reaction to the obvious expense of the flyover. And what this shows is a reluctance of even those who champion the ideals of Bicycle Heaven to implement them in our current fiscal environment. The alternative is a hybrid approach to bicycle infrastructure which does not solve the problems of multiple-use traffic needs but only postpones them.

Navy Pier Flyover Drawing – Mixed Cycling and Pedestrian Usage

The GridChicago alternative does not address the problems of motorist, pedestrian and bicycle interaction at the two intersections at the bottom of the bridge area depicted above. It merely provides a protected bike path for the length of the pedestrian walkway. The flyover solution that has been funded would be applauded loudly by those in Bicycle Heaven.

It represents the pinnacle of infrastructure design because it separates motorist and cyclist traffic. But is it very expensive. And while expense is something to consider when proposing new infrastructure this situation is well beyond the proposal stage. It has been funded and is ready to be built. The only question is why hesitate now?

Is there a disconnect between our aspirations to build a version of Bicycle Heaven on American shores and the realities of such an ambitious venture? Are we having second thoughts about the efficacy of jettisoning Vehicular Cycling over Separate Infrastructure? And if that is the case why not let the cycling public in on the deliberations? At present organizations are happy to continually request our monies to help with the business of lobbying for cycling but there appears to be a half-hearted attempt at creating the infrastructure being offered as the ideal.

Artist Rendering of Navy Pier Flyover as view from Lake Point Towers.

Pros and Cons of Hybrid Solutions

A good deal of money was spent on the protected lane project along Kinzie earlier this year. But like the cheaper alternative proposed by GridChicago to the Navy Pier Flyover construction it creates more problems than perhaps it solves.

Kinzie Street is an example of a hybrid and not a separated infrastructure solution. Where it fails most miserably is at intersections. Because the so-called protected lane is on the curb side of the roadway motorized vehicles executing right hand turns can deal ‘Right Hooks’ to cyclists that can be lethal.

What was done does help to eliminate the problems created by having the bicycle lane to the left of parked vehicles in what is known as the ‘door zone’.

A Separate Infrastructure Gem

In stark contrast to the rather kludgy hybrid infrastructure examples we talked about earlier there is the DuPage River Trail. It connects downtown Naperville with Whalon Lake Park to the south. This trail would feel right at home in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. It closely parallels the main artery (Washington Street) that leads into downtown Naperville. It can accommodate at least two riders abreast in either direction. For its entire length there are about a half dozen or so intersections with cross streets but in virtually every instance a crosswalk signal allows even novice riders to negotiate them without incident.

The problem with paths like this is that they are not only separate infrastructure but more specifically have a limited use for riders who do not reside close to access points on the trail. But if such a trail as this were linked to its longer cousin the Illinois Prairie Path you could reach all the way from Whalon Lake Park to downtown Oak Park! And that is the sort of grand vision that the Europeans have when they talk about separate infrastructure.

Because the cyclists share the pedestrian crossing signal it helps to avoid interference from turning automobiles. In fact pedestrians are in a few instances cross (by design) on a red light. It is something of an improvement for those who might be commuting from Bolingbrook into Naperville over the streets. But again it has limited utility if you instead wish to reach a point west of the downtown section of Naperville.

Whalon Lake Loop Videos


I find the notion of Bicycle Heaven as the impetus for the hybrid bike lanes currently under development in Chicago a bit disingenuous. Truly separate infrastructure would look more like the DuPage River Walk and far less like Kinzie Street’s protected bike lane. The latter actually creates problems that were not there to begin with.

To make the claim that these hybrid bike lanes are going to resolve the issues that urban cyclists have with their respect for stop signs and stop lights is false advertising in my opinion. When the Chicago elevated train system was installed decades ago it used a multilevel transportation model that is far more elegant than hybrid bike lanes. Raising bicycle travel above the streets would isolate it from the traffic below and about the only additional services needed would be escalators to carry bikes and their rides up to and down from the elevated platform.

This notion of elevated transport is precisely what the Navy Pier Flyover provides. I applaud its original design and give a thumbs down to the cheaper alternative proposed on GridChicago. That alternative is not what the Bicycle Heaven planners would accept. They would instead applaud the original design, in my opinion.

Finally, let us be honest with our cycling communities about the trending in European away from Vehicular Cycling. It would be an act of transparency to let Americans know that Bicycle Heaven is devoid of helmets and depends on the kinds of bicycle paths that are represented by the:

  • Chicago Lakefront Trail
  • DuPage River Walk
  • Fox River Trail
  • Old Plank Road Trail
  • and other notable trails

By coming clean on the differences in outlook and assumptions between the Europeans and Americans we can make more informed decisions about whether or not to accept cheaper alternatives to the separate infrastructure so prized in Bike Heaven.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.