Thursday, November 14, 2013

Does Cycling In Chicago Have A Future?

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.


  1. We desperately need a culture shift. We need people to stop feeling that it is a burden to NOT drive your own car. We need to create spaces that are safe, pleasant and convenient to walk int. We need more and faster public transportation. We need people to recognize that it is not a loss to not have your private car with you when you go to dinner or go to work or out with your friends.

    With the proper infrastructure, appropriate incentives, and the right physical spaces, we recognize that it's nicer not to have to circle around looking for/paying for parking. It's better not sitting in gridlock. It's simpler to get on the bus or the train. Our neighborhoods are prettier without cars lining the streets and without traffic jams at every intersection. It's much easier to pick a place to live, if you're not trying to figure out where you're going to park every day.

    Without the proper infrastructure, though, people will not recognize (and will not experience) the benefits of not driving everywhere. It's not about telling people that CAN'T drive; it's about building systems and spaces that show you that you don't WANT to drive.

    Whether you take up cycling or not, making it better for the people who choose (or can only afford) bikes as their means of transportation does not take anything away from people who drive. It makes our public spaces calmer, safer and better.

    1. Than you Kevin for writing this, and excellent reply Lizzy. Around the same time I submitted the following to the ATA page—no reaction to date, so wonder if anybody actually reads this stuff, and what it would take to help initiate the culture shift.

      Wide streets, narrow minds
      Submitted by Sebastian Huydts (not verified) on Sat, 11/16/2013 - 6:06pm.

      Chicago is car-congested and numerous reports tell us that it's costing us. Bicycle ridership is increasing, but as a percentage of all transit it's too low to be economically significant. Its current infrastructure makes the city bike-tolerant at best, while the car-based community’s patience with the bicycle "invading its roads" seems to be wearing thin. I don't own a car, and, like too few other hardy Chicagoans, do pretty much all my transportation by bike, which means daily commuting (12+ miles each way), shopping and leisure. On a daily basis I am confronted with the following (a few select examples):
      —Lack of safe East-West routes, especially on the north side;
      —Bad road surface, usually worse where bikes ride;
      —Lack of bike lane enforcement;
      —Bike lanes that suddenly are no longer there, have worn off, are broken up or blocked for whatever reason;
      —Constant fear of dooring (it has happened about a dozen times to me now, so far always have been lucky);
      —Busy roads with speeding cars cutting me off (usually the SUV kind, one texting/calling person max. per car);
      —Intersections that are designed for cars without consideration for bicycles;
      —Chronic lack of bike parking.

      For Chicago to become "bike-friendly" (what does that mean, really?), it needs to:
      —Unleash a sustained media and PR blitz to make its citizens understand what they are loosing out on by maintaining the status quo and how the bicycle is a solution rather than a nuisance. Without broad public and business support this is going nowhere. I recognize ATA's role here, but am afraid it may be perceived as preaching to the choir—stronger medicine is needed;
      —Build and maintain adequate infrastructure beyond the few adapted roads with painted bike-lanes here and there. We need a cross-city connected network of dedicated lanes that are treated with the same priority the automobile gets now, lanes that even the skittish would like to bike;
      —Make downtown truly bike-ready (or face Divvies on the already narrow and crowded sidewalks, or, worse yet, on LSD). Michigan needs and can accommodate a bike path, certainly south of the Art Institute). Chicago's streets are wide, but our minds appear narrow;

      I recognize the good intentions of many. Unfortunately, most proposals go the way of New Year's resolutions. I left out the impoverished Cinderella's Travel Attempts, and the plight of pedestrians. I focus on the bike, because—in spite of my rant— it’s a workout that gets me where I want to be faster and more reliably at a substantially lower cost than either car or CTA can provide; a pleasure I wish many more could and would share.

  2. 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.

    1. "Talk to everyone you know about transport cycling and be proud of it."

      I've been doing that for years and have encouraged several people to start riding for their commutes, general transportation or both. I also lead a variety of rides and encourage people to explore neighborhoods across the city by bike.

  3. any one know where Ben Gomberg landed?


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