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.