Chicago Bike 2015: The future of bicycles in the big cities of tomorrow

December 17, 2012

Source: Worldwide Cycling Atlas

Striving to transform any large, car-centric metropolis into a world-class cycling city may seem a daunting task– perhaps even an impossible one. Yet there are very real hopes that it can be achieved in mid-west USA.

Bike 2015 Plan is Chicago’s ground breaking transportation platform, a broad and far-reaching vision to turn cycling into an integral part of daily life in the city. It aims to have 5% of journeys of less than 5 miles made by bicycle – considerable for a city of almost 3 million people – helping to create affordable transport, combat air pollution, reduce obesity and establish a more people-friendly environment to live in. It boldly strives to put bicycling firmly on the mainstream map, both as a practical tool for commuting and a fun and healthy leisure activity.

3269335063_8c5a8dc686_bIn the case of the Windy City, Bike 2015 Plan consolidates and expands upon its Bike 2000 Plan, and is inspired by the Spanish city of Seville, seen as a model for many US cities. The Andalucian capital demonstrated that in order to create a complete change in habit, a safe, comprehensive and usable bike path network is required. In the space of just five years, cycling was transformed from almost non-existent, with a meagre 0.4% mode share, to an impressive 7% slice of the pie, with hopes to double this by 2015. A bike-sharing program played a part, as did the rapid addition of a hundred miles of new bicycle lanes – the space for which came primarily from the removal of car parking spots and traffic lanes.

6892229829_099547f707_bInitiated in 1992 by Chicago’s previous Mayor, the longstanding and popular Richard M Daley, Bike 2000 Plan was ambitious in itself, establishing some 100 miles of on-street bike lanes, and 50 miles of off-street trails. Aside from safety, the importance of day to day convenience was recognised as pivotal in encouraging mainstream cycling – with 10,000 bike racks installed around the city. Multi-modal transport also plays a key role in coaxing people away from their cars, leading to an updated bike policy on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA); bikes were allowed on more trains and its fleet of 2000 buses fitted with racks.

6892227773_f13115280bIn addition, a detailed Chicago Bike Map was created, marking bike lanes, shared lanes and recommended bike routes, as well as bike shops and CTA stations that provide safe, indoor parking. Tying in with this, an impressively comprehensive series of guides were also introduced, advising on topics as practical as safely locking your bike, to the use of shared lanes and understanding traffic laws. By way of example, publications included student cycling booklet – complete with insights on purchasing a bike, set-up hints to ensure it’s comfortable, maintenance tips and even ideas about how to use it for cargo purposes.

5704216022_e502acf9ae_bLastly, Bike 2000 Plan’s education initiatives included Safe Routes to School. This outreach program met with thousands of Chicago students each year, teaching children about safe walking and biking behaviour, and its associated health benefits.

5703640741_d0f17203bd_bAll this is impressive enough. Not content to rest on its laurels, Bike 2015 Plan, first outlined in 2006, recognised the need to harness this initial forward momentum – to the tune of some $150 million dollars in investment. Coinciding with the end of his term, the political mantle has now been passed on to its new mayor, Raum Emanuel, whose manifesto reads: “In addition to providing a convenient alternative to driving, cycling reduces traffic congestion, promotes a cleaner environment, creates healthier communities, and improves the quality of life in our neighborhoods. That’s why, with your help, we can and will make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the country.”

5674043874_0fb1dca55a_bAs such, it includes expanding its bikeway network to 500 miles, covering specific paths and shared use roads, raised bike lanes, rush hour bike ways, signed routes and bike boulevards. The multi-pronged attack continues with a re-evaluation of the bicycle’s role in new roadway projects, particularly when building bridges, underpasses and intersections, as well as changing the design of streets to force cars to be driven more slowly. The theory: although cyclists should feel particularly welcome on the city’s bikeways, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t feel safe elsewhere too.

As of 2010, 1% of journeys were made by bicycle, with some 5% on foot and 26% with public transport – solo occupancy cars still make up 50%. To compete with its flexibility and range, Bike 2015 Plan sets out to improve bike access to CTA stations, and again, put cyclist’s needs at the forefront of their design. Trains are being adapted to handle more bikes and there are plans to create nearby bike stations with secure storage and changing facilities, as well as rental and repair services. In addition, over $27 million is being invested in what will become a 4000 bike, 400 station bike-share program across the city, slated to be launched next spring.

5673485427_89e15bfb2b_bBuilding on the education programs of Bike 2000 Plan, there are hopes to even integrate bicycle education into the school curriculum, with the available as a source of information for potential new cyclists.

Promoting the health benefits of cycling as a means of changing behaviour is also on Bike 2015 Plan’s agenda. Home to Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes, the potential is certainly there – its Chicago Lakefront Bike Path is an already popular 18.5 mile linear route that encompasses beaches, playgrounds and soccer fields, linking a variety of neighbourhoods. City centre streets will be closed to motorised traffic on Sundays – as is done in many parts of Latin America. The annual bike Chicago Festival will be expanded and Chicago will be marketed as a bike tourism destination. Additionally, the city is also looking into promoting the use of bicycles to deliver cargo and supporting its messenger companies – some 300 cyclists currently make an estimated 1.1 million deliveries a year.

It’s inspiring to hear of the political and social commitment to cycling Chicago has laid out in such detail. Given the challenging economic climate, we hope that all these plans come to fruition. With Bike 2015 Plan firmly underway and a mayor who has promised continued commitment to its goals, there’s a real hope that Chicago will indeed transform itself into one of the most bike-friendly metropolises in the United States. In doing so it’s sure to offer insights into the process, valuable for all key cities around the world.

Images: Chicago 2015 Bikeplan photos copyright Zoup, Saumacus and Active Transportation Alliance.