A Slow Roll winter ride to Big Marsh. Heavy truck traffic makes biking into the park a risky proposition. Credit: John Greenfield

Last week I rode the Red Line to 95th Street with my cruiser bike in tow, then pedaled about six miles to the future site of Big Marsh Bike Park, just east of Lake Calumet. Boosters say it will be a world-class, family-friendly venue for BMX riding, mountain biking, and cyclocross racing that will also provide recreational and economic opportunities for residents of low-income southeast- side neighborhoods near the park.

The bike park will lie within Big Marsh, a 278-acre expanse of open space that the Chicago Park District acquired in 2011. Environmental remediation is currently under way, since the area was formerly a slag-dumping site for steel mills, and the Park District expects the facility will open in late fall.

But my ride from the el station would have been traumatizing for novice cyclists. It was comfortable at first—a bike lane led south on State Street, then another took me east on 103rd. But after I passed under the Metra Electric tracks at Cottage Grove, the bike lane disappeared and 103rd ballooned into a four-lane highway with fast traffic, including several 18-wheelers.

Next I rode south on Stony Island toward Lake Calumet, but things weren’t much better on that stretch of road. Although Stony and Doty, the two streets that circle the lake, offer scenic views of the remediated landfill, with its tallgrass, ponds, and a variety of wild birds, they’re also frequented by fast-moving trucks headed to and from industrial businesses. I got spooked by a huge gas tanker thundering by even though I spent six years of my life working as a bike messenger on the mean streets of the Loop.

A roadside memorial at Woodlawn and 103rd, a wide road with fast traffic that leads to Big Marsh. A local man was killed here in a May 2015 car crash.
A roadside memorial at Woodlawn and 103rd, a wide road with fast traffic that leads to Big Marsh. A local man was killed here in a May 2015 car crash.Credit: John Greenfield

Getting to Big Marsh is equally arduous if you’re coming from the Roseland and Pullman communities to the west, the East Side, South Deering, and Hegewisch neighborhoods to the east, or the Altgeld Gardens housing project to the south. There is no direct transit access to the park, although several CTA bus lines terminate at a bus garage a 2.5-mile bike ride from the park.

While the bike park should attract cycling aficionados from across the city and the region, for it to succeed in its mission of revitalizing the surrounding communities it also needs to be accessible to all nearby residents, including those who don’t drive.

“Friends of Big Marsh doesn’t just want to be the friends of people who drive 45 minutes with their multithousand-dollar bikes to ride the trails,” says Steve Buchtel, a member of the coalition that supports the development of the park, who also leads the advocacy group Trails for Illinois. “We also want to create a world-class park experience for the people who live close by.”

Last year Oboi Reed, cofounder of Slow Roll Chicago, which promotes cycling on the south and west sides, told the Chicago Tribune that the access problem is also an equity issue. “The idea that people can just drive there is exclusionary,” he said. “Many low-income people don’t own cars.” (Reed is also a Streetsblog Chicago board member.)

A rendering of some of Big Marsh's proposed bike amenities.
A rendering of some of Big Marsh’s proposed bike amenities.Credit: Friends of Big Marsh

Fortunately the access problem seems to be on the city’s radar. While CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman said there are no plans for direct bus service to Big Marsh, the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Mike Claffey noted that the department has been working with residents and community leaders to identify priority bike routes on the far south side. At bikeway hearings in the East Side and Pullman last month, residents made it clear that they want safe routes to the bike park and let CDOT know which streets they’d like to see improved.

Some asked that existing bike lanes on 103rd be extended farther east, and for side paths to be added to make it safer to get past the Bishop Ford Expressway access ramps.

Another intriguing idea was to build a car-free east-west bike route on an existing land bridge across Lake Calumet at about 114th Street, which roughly bifurcates the lake. Not only would this be safer than sharing the road with trucks, it would also be a significant shortcut for riders coming from Pullman and Altgeld Gardens.

Although CDOT plans to build buffered lanes on Cottage Grove between 93rd and 115th (a route that’s somewhat useful for cyclists approaching Big Marsh from the north) as soon as this fall, it looks like the department won’t be striping additional bike lanes in the area before the park opens. Doing so could take years—Chicago bikeways are usually funded by federal grants that require a multiyear approval process.

A map of proposed improvements to cycling infrastructure around Big Marsh.
A map of proposed improvements to cycling infrastructure around Big Marsh.Credit: Active Transportation Alliance

Still, Peter Taylor, a leader of the predominantly African-American Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago (named for the renowned turn-of-the-century professional bike racer—no relation to Peter), says he thinks CDOT got the message. “Right now Big Marsh is pretty much cut off by distant transit and convoluted and unfriendly [routes for cyclists]. Certainly where there is no simple and facilitated access there can be no success.”

The Active Transportation Alliance recently collaborated with Slow Roll and the Pullman Porter Museum on a Big Marsh access study that recommends some short-term interventions such as adding wayfinding signs, patching potholes, and clearing debris from the shoulders of streets like Doty, Stony Island, and 122nd. In the future, these routes could be upgraded with protected bike lanes. The report also recommends giving “road diets” to and installing bike lanes on 115th, Torrence, and other roadways that have more lanes than traffic.

“The big question is, How can we move access to Big Marsh and Lake Calumet up the priority list for decision makers to make sure it will be taken care of in a timely manner?” asks Active Trans campaign manager Jim Merrell.

“I feel CDOT and the Park District have made a good effort with this so far,” says Friends of Big Marsh director Jay Readey. “Whether there’s continued energy towards improving access—not just by the city but also by the advocates and citizens—that’s going to be the real test.” v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated the name of the street on which some southeast-side residents hope to extend a bike lane. It’s 103rd Street, not 130th Street.