A cyclocross race in Big Marsh in October 2014. Advocates want the city to build safer cycling routes into the park. Credit: Friends of Big Marsh

Last month, under sapphire skies and with temperatures in the upper 60s, more than 1,000 people turned out for the grand opening of Big Marsh, the 278-acre southeast-side nature reserve and bike park located on the east side of Lake Calumet. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Park District superintendent Michael Kelly, and Tenth Ward alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza were there along with activists from Slow Roll Chicago, which promotes cycling in underserved communities, and We Keep You Rollin’, an Altgeld Gardens-based bike group. After cutting the ribbon, Emanuel grabbed a bike and pedaled around the path that circles the “pump track,” a series of dirt hills and jumps for BMX riders.

Cycling advocates are generally thrilled with Big Marsh—which will eventually include facilities for mountain biking, cyclocross, and casual trail riding—but have repeatedly expressed concerns about how dangerous it can be to ride to the park, because nearby roads have high-speed traffic and/or large numbers of trucks. (Big Marsh isn’t directly accessible by public transit.)

Now, however, there’s some good news on this front. At last week’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting at City Hall, the Chicago Department of Transportation announced plans for bike lanes on some key roadways leading to the reserve.

Next year, buffered bike lanes will be installed on Cottage Grove Avenue between 93rd and 115th, a route that’s somewhat useful for cyclists approaching Big Marsh from the north. Then, in late 2017 or early 2018, Stony Island, which skirts the east side of Lake Calumet and provides the only direct access to reserve’s entrance, will get bike lanes between its intersection with Doty Avenue (on the west side of the lake), just south of 103rd, and 122nd, in conjunction with a repaving project. And as early as 2018, Torrence Avenue—part of the most direct routes to Big Marsh from the Altgeld Gardens area to the southwest and Hegewisch to the southeast—will get bike lanes between 100th and 126th.

CDOT is also planning to add bike lanes to the two-lane stretch of 103rd Street from Michigan Avenue west to Vincennes at a yet-to-be-determined date.

“[The bike-lane construction] is never as fast as anyone would like it to be,” says CDOT staffer Mike Amsden, who manages the agency’s bikeway program. “But it is a priority for us.”

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

During the meeting, Friends of Big Marsh director Jay Readey said that his group’s ultimate goal is to connect the four corners of the reserve to off-street paths such as the Major Taylor Trail, the Burnham Greenway, and the Cal-Sag Trail via safe routes.

One problem area, Ready noted, is the connection between the Pullman neighborhood and Doty. This requires cyclists to pedal up and down access ramps for I-94 at 111th or 115th in order to cross the highway. That’s a dangerous—and technically illegal—maneuver.

“We’ve got to figure out some kind of protected-lane solution,” Ready said.

Big Marsh was built on a former steel mill slag-dumping site. The roughly 44-acre bike park opened this year on the most heavily polluted portion of the property, and environmental remediation is still under way on the remaining 234 acres, a patchwork of open water, marshes, prairie, and woodland.

While Big Marsh is sure to attract cyclists and nature lovers from across the Chicago region and beyond, it’s also intended as a recreational and educational resource for residents of nearby neighborhoods. These are mostly low-income African-American and Latino communities with low rates of car ownership.

Transportation advocacy groups thus applauded the city’s bike-lane announcement as a step towards making Big Marsh fully accessible to nearby residents.

“[The bike-lane construction] is never as fast as anyone would like it to be, but it is a priority for us.”

—CDOT staffer Mike Amsden

“We’re very heartened to hear the plans by CDOT to improve conditions for biking on surrounding streets,” says Active Trans advocacy director Jim Merrell. “Ensuring local communities don’t have to rely on driving to access Big Marsh and other new parks is a big priority for us.”

“I was extremely happy to hear that there are plans to add a bike lane to Stony Island,” says Slow Roll’s Dan Black. “We have done many rides within the surrounding communities of Roseland, West Pullman, [the Altgeld Gardens area], Hegewisch, and South Deering, and throughout those rides we’ve been aware of the lack of bike resources in these communities.”

In the more distant future, the Big Marsh Access Action Plan, which Active Trans created last year with input from Slow Roll and the Pullman Porter Museum, calls for building side paths along 130th and 103rd Streets near Lake Calumet and constructing a bike-and-pedestrian bridge across the lake near 115th Street. The latter strategy would provide a significant shortcut from the west and would eliminate the need for cyclists to share the road with trucks on Doty and Stony Island. This won’t be an option, however, until the lake, which is bordered by the Port of Chicago and the private Harborside golf course, is officially opened up for public recreational use.

The access plan also recommends creating an eastern entrance to the park, which would shorten travel time for those approaching from Torrence.

Black says Slow Roll will continue to work with southeast-side organizations and advocates to make sure that people who live near the reserve—and who stand to potentially benefit the most from it—have safe access.

“Any work we do around Big Marsh will first prioritize equity and community ownership of the planning process,” Black says, “as well as a healthy respect for the communities, culture, and history that have made Big Marsh the treasure it is today.”

It’s great that the city has finally responded to calls for equitable access to the newest gem in Chicago’s biking crown. But a lot more work remains, and it’ll likely require persistent advocacy to make sure it all gets done.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.