Two protected bike lanes intersect at Randolph and Dearborn Credit: John Greenfield

In some ways, 2016 was a rough year for those of us who care about sustainable transportation in Chicago. Six people were fatally struck while biking in the city this year—an average number according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. However, several of these were high-profile cases that shook the cycling community, including the nation’s first bike-share fatality, deaths on popular bike routes like Milwaukee Avenue, and a hit-and-run case that’s still unsolved.

In the wake of these deaths, it was a bit of a head-scratcher when in September Bicycling magazine named Chicago the best U.S. city
for biking.

“Objectively, Chicago is not really the nicest place to ride in the country,” editor Bill Strickland acknowledged when I spoke to him after the announcement. “But what we’re really looking for is the big, important metropolises that have made a huge change and are leading the way for other cities. We feel like Chicago is the most important cycling city right now.”

Strickland’s logic is subject to debate. Still—and despite the deaths this summer—Chicago chalked more transportation wins than losses in 2016, with many positive developments for biking as well as for walking and transit. As he did in 2015, this year Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut the ribbon on a number of shiny new sustainable transportation amenities. And thanks in part to the mayor’s need to rebuild his image in underserved communities after the Laquan McDonald scandal, the city officials implementing these projects seemed to pay more attention to social justice concerns than they have in the past.

The most obvious example of an equity-minded infrastructure improvement was the expansion of Divvy. The bike-share network added 1,050 new bikes and 85 new docking stations in 2016, mostly in underserved communities on the south and west sides, bringing the grand total to 5,800 bicycles and 580 stations. Meanwhile, the Divvy for Everyone initiative, which offers $5 annual memberships to lower-income residents, reached about 1,700 members this year, up from roughly 1,100 by the end of 2015, the program’s inaugural year.

Another milestone came in November, when Big Marsh, a 278-acre bike park and nature reserve, opened next to Lake Calumet on the southeast side, providing this underserved part of the city with a venue for BMX, mountain biking, cyclocross, and casual trail riding. Earlier this month, after much lobbying by groups like Slow Roll Chicago and the Active Transportation Alliance, CDOT announced plans for new bike lanes to improve access to the park from the nearby neighborhoods, most of which are lower-income black and Latino communities.

In addition, last month an elegant new bike and pedestrian bridge opened over Lake Shore Drive at 35th Street, in the mostly African-American Bronzeville neighborhood. Unlike the rusting, 75-year-old span it replaced, the new bridge—funded with $18 million in federal dollars and $5 million more from the state—is wheelchair accessible.

On the other hand, this year there was a growing awareness among Chicagoans that transportation-related investments can have the unintended (some would argue intended) consequence of jacking up housing costs and displacing longtime residents. As a result, some bike- and transit-friendly projects were met with skepticism, or even acts of civil disobedience.

“Chicago is not really the nicest place to ride in the country . . . [but] we feel like Chicago is the most important cycling city right now.”

—Bill Strickland, editor of Bicycling magazine

In March the mayor announced plans for the Paseo, a four-mile walking and biking trail that will be built on largely abandoned, street-level railroad right of way that winds through Pilsen and Little Village. The corridor will feature landscaping, gathering places, and public art that celebrates Latino cultures. But southwest-side residents who have witnessed the real estate feeding frenzy that’s been taking place near the Bloomingdale Trail are calling on the city to be proactive about preserving neighborhood affordability so they won’t get priced out.

And although the city’s transit-oriented development boom hit its stride this year, developments along Milwaukee Avenue were accused of accelerating the gentrification of Logan Square. Groups like Somos Logan Square called for a higher percentage of affordable units in these developments, at lower rents; members went so far as to chain themselves in front of TOD construction sites to make their point.

Moreover, Emanuel didn’t always have equity in mind this year, judging from the fact that he front-burnered a project to create high-speed rail service between the Loop and O’Hare that’s geared toward well-heeled business travelers. In February the city awarded a $2 million contract to an engineering firm to start fleshing out the plan. Critics have argued that the express line would likely cost well over the $1.5 billion the CTA estimated back in 2006 and would be a financial trainwreck that would divert resources from improving neighborhood transportation.

Still, overall the city’s transportation efforts were on the right track. Here are a few other major milestones to round off the list:

  • In August the $43 million Union Station Transit Center opened across the street from the Metra and Amtrak hub, easing bus-train transfers, and a new bus lane was recently added on Canal. The CTA is also testing prepaid bus boarding at the Madison/Dearborn Loop Link bus rapid transit station, which could significantly cut travel times if it’s implemented at all eight BRT stops.
  • In early October the last three sections of the city’s wildly popular Riverwalk extension opened between LaSalle and Lake Street.
  • Later that month, the CTA released a draft environmental impact study for the $2.3 billion Red Line extension, finally making some traction on a project that south-siders have wanted for decades.
  • And on November 30, the City Council approved a new tax increment financing district that will help fund the $2.1 billion Red and Purple Modernization Project, which includes new track structures and stations, plus the controversial but necessary Belmont flyover.

We shouldn’t take this bounty for granted. Federal transportation dollars that were so plentiful under President Barack Obama are likely to dry up after Donald Trump takes over next month. As I discussed in a previous column, the Republican platform essentially calls for defunding all forms of travel that don’t involve cars, trucks, or planes. And Trump, a noted Chicagophobe who frequently used our city as a whipping boy during the election, is unlikely to show our city much grant-money love as president.

So enjoy the good news while it lasts. This will likely have been the best transportation year Chicago sees for a while.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.