It was an unseasonably warm 61 degrees just before midnight last Tuesday, and there was the best kind of rain for bicycling, a refreshing mist that was too fine to soak into my jacket, but one that gave the streetlights a dreamy glow.
Beneath the dull roar of the Kennedy Expressway, I approached the eastern trailhead of the Bloomingdale Trail, also known as the 606. I was about to do something the Chicago Police Department insists is a fineable offense: pedal on the 2.7-mile elevated greenway during the city’s 11 PM-to-6 AM park curfew.
Representatives of the Chicago Park District, which manages the trail, and the Trust for Public Land, the national nonprofit that’s spearheading its ongoing development, disagree with police on this matter. They say it’s perfectly legal to commute on the 606 at night, and cite a clause in the Park District code that allows for nonstop after-hours travel through the city’s green spaces.
Police officers are currently shooing all cyclists, joggers, and strollers off the path at 11, and may show up to oust them at other times if a neighbor calls to complain.
Nonetheless, plenty of people are using the trail to bike home from work or play late at night, which is only common sense. Some 80,000 Chicagoans live within a half mile of the path, which provides an alternative to sharing the road with cars on busy Armitage and North Avenues, the two nearest parallel main streets.
Recently though, bad actors have taken advantage of the late-evening path traffic and the relative isolation of the linear park. In the wake of three recent muggings of bike riders, it’s time for the police to step up their patrolling of the Bloomingdale and start allowing 24/7 commuting. A higher number of legitimate users at all times of night would mean more eyes on the trail and safety in numbers.
As I spun west on the gently undulating path last Tuesday, there were a few people out on bikes, foot, and skateboards, despite the gentle rain and the curfew. One of them was Jessica Dickerson, 31, who was pedaling a black fixed-gear bike home to her apartment near Central Park and Cortland, a block north of the trail.
Dickerson says she prefers to ride to her job at Logan Square’s Dill Pickle Food Co-op on the street, in order to avoid daytime congestion on the 606. But at night she usually takes the path.
“It feels safer,” she says. “There’s no car traffic or drunk drivers to worry about.”
“But I also feel a little wary riding on the trail at night, because there aren’t many people,” she adds. “It’s empty, so you feel vulnerable.”
“This is a 24-hour city, and we think we should have a 24-hour active transportation network.”
—Active Trans campaign director Jim Merrel
Recent attacks suggest there is cause for concern. On Friday, February 19, at about 11:30 PM, a 25-year-old man was biking home from work on the Bloomingdale Trail when he was jumped by four assailants near Kedzie, police said. After tackling and beating him, they fled with his bike, wallet, and cell phone.
According to a police bulletin, there were two similar muggings of bike riders on the 606 earlier this month, both of which occurred on between Maplewood and Rockwell. The first took place on Tuesday, March 1, at 11:15 PM. The second occurred on Thursday, March 3, at 10:30 PM.
Officer Nicole Trainor from CPD’s Office of News Affairs told me the first two victims shouldn’t have been up on the Bloomingdale in the first place. “The 606 hours are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., which will be strictly enforced,” she said via e-mail. “If anyone is on the trail after 11 p.m., they will be issued a citation for trespassing.”
But Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner told me last week that the Park District code applies to the elevated path, including the following language:
“Persons and vehicles may pass through . . . parks without stopping on the more direct walk or driveway leading from their point of entrance to the exit nearest to their point of destination.”
Beth White, the Trust for Public Land’s Chicago director, seconded Maxey-Faulkner’s interpretation of the trail rules.
Due to the above clause, nonstop walking, running, and biking is also legal on the Lakefront Trail during curfew hours. And while I haven’t heard of police shooing commuters off the shoreline, a few Streetsblog readers have written to say they were booted from the Bloomingdale Trail while biking home after hours. The officers were friendly and polite, they said, but warned them that tickets would be issued next time.
It’s likely police have a different attitude towards the 606 because, unlike the Lakefront Trail, it’s abutted by many houses, apartments, and condos. Before the elevated path opened last June, several residents had expressed concerns that the heavy foot and bike traffic would lead to a spike in crime. But other than the recent robberies and occasional tagging incidents, that fear hasn’t materialized.
The Active Transportation Alliance argues the Bloomingdale Trail should be open during the wee hours to accommodate shift workers and other late-night commuters. “This is a 24-hour city, and we think we should have a 24-hour active transportation network,” says campaign director Jim Merrell. “People walking, biking, and using transit should have safe, comfortable commuting routes just like everyone else.”
There is hope that, with enough lobbying, advocates could win 24/7 access to the 606. Until recently, the entire Indianapolis greenway system, including the popular Monon Trail, was closed from dusk to dawn, and after-hours users were sometimes ticketed. After the bike advocacy group Indy Cog collected thousands of petition signatures last July, the local parks department changed the policy to allow 24-hour access.
Active Trans director Ron Burke says he has contacted city officials about allowing 24/7 commuting on the 606. “If the answer is no, we might do a petition,” he says.
Until police are persuaded or pressured to drop their misguided enforcement policy, the Bloomingdale Trail will likely continue to be a somewhat lonely and dangerous place late at night. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.