Does Cycling In Chicago Have A Future?

Thursday, November 14, 2013
by Brendan Kevenides

Source: Chicago Bicycle Advocate

(RedEye illustration )

(RedEye illustration )

I am worried about the future of cycling in Chicago.

CDOT commissioner, and avid daily cyclist, Gable Klein is stepping down.  Long time Chicago Bicycle Program leader, Ben Gomberg, is gone and has not been replaced.  The city’s bicycle infrastructure – while better than what we had before (nothing) – seems stuck in beta.  Far from world inspiring, ours is not even the best cycle-specific infrastructure in the Midwest. Chicago bicyclists continue to face considerable hostility on our streets.  I for one am growing impatient at the speed of the change that so many bicycle advocates, including this one, have praised.

These are not popular sentiments, I know.  We are told to be thankful for what we have now and just wait; it will get better the City promises.  More bike lanes are being built.  More people are biking in the city than perhaps ever before, increasing awareness among drivers.  Both of those things are plainly true.  But it is not enough.  I am staring at shelves full of carnage, bicyclists hit by cars, injured, often very seriously. “Between 2005 and 2010, there were nearly 9,000 crashes involving bicyclists, with 32 bicyclist fatalities,”  according to the City of Chicago 2012 Bicycle Crash Analysis.

The architects of how far we have come as a cycling city are Gabe Klein and Ben Gomberg.  Commissioner Klein has accomplished a lot in the short time he has been here.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s choice of an innovative outsider to become CDOT commissioner is to be applauded.  There were no protected bicycle lanes, really no focus on making Chicago bicycle friendly, until Klein got here.  And make no mistake, Klein is someone who gets it.  He is a daily cyclist.  I know because I have seen him on his Masi commuter numerous times around the city.  I have also had the chance to speak with him about biking in the city.  I remember one conversation in particular at a fundraising event at SRAM headquarters last summer.  I was needling him a bit about how the law should be changed to allow cyclists to treat stop as yield, when he admitted that that might make sense and that even he sometimes took that approach at intersections when riding the city.  Now Klein is leaving for the private sector, and I am worried about whether growth of our cycling infrastructure will continue.  It is unclear who his replacement will be.  Whoever it is will they demonstrate the same commitment to cycling that Klein did?

Also gone from CDOT is Ben Gomberg, another real deal bike guy who worked for decades with the City to advance safe cycling.  Often I saw Gomberg riding Milwaukee Avenue in his bright yellow safety vest on my ride into the Loop.  His small framed, red Giant mountain bike was locked to a street sign outside of 30 North LaSalle Street nearly every day.  (I always wondered why he did not lock up to a bike rack.  I never asked him.  Perhaps he did not want to take rack space away from a civilian.) Gomberg was head of the Chicago Bicycle Program, an initiative within CDOT charged with implementing and directing bicycle infrastructure changes, bicycle parking and rider safety and education.  Earlier this year, Gomberg was also put in charge of launching Chicago’s very successful bike sharing program, Divvy.  Now, he too is gone.  The new head of the Bike Program is Janet Attarian.  She is a long time City employee and architect by trade. She also rides her bike to work.  However, she is not just Bicycle Program director.   Actually, the Program itself has been transformed.  At the beginning of the year, the City combined several programs into what is now the Complete Streets Program.  Those programs include the Pedestrian Program, the Streets Keeping Sustainable Design Program, the Green Alley Program, the Green Streets Program and the Bicycle Program. Attarian now oversees all of that.  No longer is there someone whose focus is exclusively on The Bicycle Program.  That is troubling.

I commute by bike to my office on State Street from my home in Logan Square every day.  Generally, I take Milwaukee Avenue.  As I share that well bike traveled road while being passed by CTA buses, cement mixers and other vehicles that may squash me if I make a mistake, I am reminded that Chicago has a long way to go.  The City is well aware that Milwaukee Avenue is one of the busiest and most dangerous bicycle corridors in Chicago.  The City of Chicago 2012 Bicycle Crash Analysis states, “The largest concentration of bicycle injury crashes were located within and north of downtown Chicago.  There were also large pockets of crashes on primary diagonal streets that serve the Loop area, including Milwaukee Avenue.”  The study went on to note that Milwaukee Avenue (along with Lincoln and Clark) has the highest rates of dooring incidents in the City.  Mayor Emanuel himself recently witnessed first hand the dangers cyclists face on Milwaukee Avenue, coming to the rescue of a woman run down by a large truck at the intersection of Milwaukee and Ogden.  Despite this knowledge, the City is not doing nearly enough.  Milwaukee Avenue, between North Avenue and Division does not even have a dedicated bike lane, only faded sharrows lamely direct motorists and cyclists to “Share The Road.”  Presently, Milwaukee, between Ogden and the expressway overpass, is torn up due to roadway construction.  Extensive road work sometimes needs to be done.  Okay, but the City and/or its contractors have made no accommodations for bicyclists using Milwaukee Avenue during construction.  Cyclists, cars, buses and large trucks are fighting for space on that bumpy, treacherous stretch of Milwaukee.  This is unacceptable.  A temporary bike lane should be created for use during the construction project so that the cyclists, mostly commuters to and from the Loop, can pass safely on this street that they have come to rely upon.

Mayor Emanuel has said that, “One of my top priorities as mayor is to create a bike network that allows every Chicagoan – from kids on their first ride to senior citizens on their way to the grocery store – to feel safe on our streets.”  Ride Milwaukee and see that we are nowhere close to that.

Can we please stop saying that Chicago is a great cycling city?  It is not.  Yeah, yeah, we have come a long way.  But there was really only one way to go.  Going from nothing to something is technically progress, but I wish the City would stop patting itself on the back.  We are not even the best city for cycling in the Midwest.Minneapolis is generally regarded as one of the best, if not the best, cycling city in the United States.  In terms of innovation, Indianapolis is kicking our ass.  Recently that city completed an eight mile biking and walking path through the heart of the city that is just gorgeous.  Called the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, it separates bicycles and pedestrians from motor vehicle traffic with pleasant looking, sustainable planters.  In most places, cyclists and pedestrians are separated from each other as well.  This is not some recreational path either, a la the Chicago Lakefront Trail.  It connects people to places they actually want and need to go. There simply is nothing like it in Chicago.  The Dearborn bike lane comes closest, but really is not on the same scale.

Aside from the crashes and the injuries, the general hostility cyclists face riding on Chicago’s streets is bad.  It could always be worse, but that is no excuse.  Consider, for example a video that emerged this week of a young woman who accidentally found herself riding a Divvy bike on Lake Shore Drive.  The video, displayed with unseemly glee by the media, shows one driver and his passenger, and many others who do not seem to care, mocking a cyclist in serious danger.  It is not pretty.  As one person noted on The Chainlink, a stray dog loose on LSD would have received more kindly attention and help.  This attitude is not surprising and the media likes to fan it.  On Monday, Crain’s Chicago Business tried to stoke anger between cyclists and drivers with an article titled, Why everyone hates bicyclists — and why they hate everyone back. Cyclists do not hate drivers.  We just want to ride with a little space and be left alone.  Stop telling us we need to grow up and stop running stop signs.  Anecdotes about the occasional scofflaw aside, bicyclists obey traffic laws where they make sense.  Where they do not we do what has to be done to stay safe.

We are at a crossroads.  The low hanging fruit has already been plucked with regard to the creation of bike lanes.  The first few miles of protected bike lanes have been around for a while now.  Get over it.  Painting the street next to the gutter green and placing some collapsible plastic poles just will not cut it anymore.  City planners wanted people on bikes and now they have got them.  Chicago’s efforts to create a truly viable cycling city must move on to the next level.


In the comments section of this thread appears this:

Ezra HozinskyNovember 14, 2013 at 4:12 PM
Several things need to happen:

  1. Populate the streets. Daily cyclists must evangelize transportation cycling to those on the fence about commuting. Explain how low the barriers are to getting on the saddle and direct people to a good commuter-oriented bike shop.
  2. Open more small, independent bike shops. Reduce the recreational cycling attitude and shift it to transportation. I just opened Green Machine Cycles, a cargo/commuting/touring-oriented shop at 1634 Montrose Ave. I can think of no better way to regularize cycling in the city than to populate it with small shops. Make them as ubiquitous as gas stations.
  3. Provide frequent, widespread, free seminars/practicums on safe, efficient urban cycling. Pitch them strongly to high school-aged kids and explain cycling as an appealingly rebellious activity, not because you get to race and run red lights, but because you’re building self-sufficiency, gaining a community, and rejecting wasteful, dangerous car culture.
  4. Eradicate the snobbery and arrogance that keeps curious and ignorant people off of bikes. A culture of acceptance and support among cyclists and bike shops will go a long way toward increasing ridership, especially among women, who comprise only a small percentage of all cyclists.
  5. Within reason, don’t let infrastructural constraints choose your routes for you. My shop is on Montrose Ave., which is not a marked bike route, yet more people use Montrose on their daily commute than any of the nearby marked routes because it’s the organic choice, the most sensible path of least resistance, despite its lack of being “sanctioned” by the city.
  6. Talk to everyone you know about transport cycling and be proud of it. You’re not crazy for cycling in the city, or with kids, or in the winter, or at night, or on main arteries, so long as reasonable precautions are taken. It’s a normal thing, just like clipping coupons or anything else that makes economic and health sense.
  7. At long last I totally advocate separatism in cycling. I would much prefer a network of dedicated cycle tracks linking nodes in all parts of the city to any sort of heroic, over-engineered, road-sharing infrastructure. After 30 years of cycling here I no longer want to be threatened by jackass motorists who think it’s funny to punish me for having chosen a more vulnerable mode of transport.

Thoughts On What Needs To Happen

Having grown up as a Evangelical Christian and believing that overseas mission work was a very high calling indeed the sense of messianic fervor that is expressed here is no stranger to me. In fact I recognize in many of the worlds religions this same “we can save the world” fervor that sometimes ends in “we need to slaughter them to save them“. My sense is that the tragedy of 911 would never have happened if it were not for this fervor taken to a fever pitch. So my point here is that sometimes one has to re-evaluate just how strong that fervor is and whether it is consistent with a Democracy.

The West is given to the ideal of having a choice in all things, even in terms of choosing what might not be best for you. Take for instance the notion of eating meat. I am a vegan, and I firmly believe in avoiding animal products in my diet. I do this primarily for health reasons. Do I feel that others should also follow my instincts? Yes. Do I preach this to them ad nauseam, no. In the same vein, I do not feel it wise to do much more than let my personal actions declare my religious faith. Anything beyond that borders (to my mind) being over-bearing.

So I can agree with the notion of having more people on the streets riding bikes. And I especially like the idea of more bike shops. Competition in Capitalism is a good thing, but more important it means that folks riding bikes can get mechanical support when they need it. And I especially like the idea of the seminars and practicums to bring a bit of educated understanding to cycling’s fence sitters. Where I draw the line is at the kind of social propaganda being suggested here.

If you want to have your ideas taken seriously it cannot be at the expense of everyone else’s. This is what characterizes the current political landscape and its news outlets. I reject the notion that teaching people about cycling has to be done in a format that more resembles Fox News or the Rush Limbaugh Show than it does Charlie Rose.

What is interesting here is that in the next point we learn that “snobbery and arrogance” are to be avoided. But pushing your agenda by dissing the other’s guys ideas is exactly that. While I dislike Fox News, I feel that the best option is to understand their point of view and then develop cogent arguments for my views that take into account the competition. There is a distinction between that approach and launching an “I hate this or that” campaign. If what you believe has any ultimate value to society people will see that without you attempting to poison the well of the opposition.

The notion of choosing your own routes regardless of whether they have PBLs is wise. In fact that is at the heart of the Vehicular Cycling Approach. As would any motorist you can choose a path to your destination based on your needs and comfort. Letting the existence of lanes (or not) dictate where you can ride is silly.

Pride is not really a sentiment that I feel akin to when it comes to bicycle usage. I am indeed proud of hitting personal goals (like riding a marathon) but the act of riding a bicycle is certainly not something to feel proud about any more than I would for riding my car. It is a form of transportation and nothing more.

The idea of separatism is mind boggling when it comes to anything in this society and for me lies at the root of my dislike of the approach being taken by the Cycling Community. It in fact conflicts with the previously stated position on not being to particular routes based upon their lack of infrastructure. As people who ride bikes we are far too eager to speak of people who drive cars as jackasses. In that one sentence you are undoing all of the goodwill you were engendering about cycling. Once I know that you agenda is to belittle the folks who do not see the world your way then I am reminded of how some religious zealots treat anything Western and once again 911 pops into my head. We need less messianic fervor when it comes to cycling and a lot more welcoming fervor to those simply bent on getting from Point A to Point B. What we are talking about here is not more special than using a vacuum cleaner to maintenance a living room rug.

Cycling like plant-based eating should never be elevated to the status of a religion.