One of Lima's boulevard bike paths Credit: John Greenfield

I biked my way through Lima, Peru, earlier this month, and while the streets are crazy congested, one of the features I enjoyed the most was the capital city’s extensive system of boulevard bike paths—an idea I’d love to see copied in Chicago.

Particularly in Lima’s cycle-friendly neighborhoods like hip Miraflores and tony San Isidro, the grassy medians of large streets like Avenida Arequipa (where the city’s car-free Ciclovía event takes place every week) often have cycling and walking routes running through the center. These trails link up nicely with the city’s popular bike path, which runs through lush, palm-tree-studded parks on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean.

I pedaled many of these boulevard routes on a couple of rides during my long weekend in Lima. That included an excellent excursion led by the rental and tour service Lima Bike to a hilltop observatory at the south end of the city, plus an independent ramble with my partner during the Ciclovía. The Tropic of Capricorn climate was ideal for cycling, and the paths were populated by a diverse mix of cyclists, from Lycra-clad roadies to sharply dressed older ladies with handlebar baskets full of flowers. The main impediments were the ubiquitous, slow-moving ice cream vendors on giant yellow trikes.

Oboi Reed, the leader of the Chicago-based transportation justice group Equiticity, who traveled to Lima in February to give a talk at the World Bicycle Forum, agreed that the Arequipa bike path is “awesome.” (He shot his own video here.)

Reed said he could imagine Chicago taking a similar approach in the medians of Stony Island Avenue, which would make it easier to pedal to the upcoming Obama Presidential Center from the far south side. The strategy might also work nicely on many of the grassy strips within Chicago’s extensive boulevard system, including thoroughfares like King, Drexel, the Midway Plaisance, Garfield, Western, 31st, California, Marshall, Douglas, Independence, Franklin, Sacramento/Humboldt, Kedzie, and Logan.

Jim Merrell, advocacy director for the Active Transportation Alliance, told me he feels the concept is definitely worth exploring. “Just like Active Trans has been advocating for using Chicago’s riverfront to create a new network of bike trails, the boulevard system represents this great existing resource, so that’s definitely an interesting idea,” he said. “The boulevards are a great place to look to create a safe, high-quality, low-stress bike network.”

Merrell noted that Active Transportation’s first fund-raising event, launched decades ago when the group was called the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, was the Boulevard Lakefront Tour, featuring a route that stitched together the aforementioned roadways. “The boulevard system was originally envisioned as an ’emerald necklace’ connecting Chicago’s major parks, but like so many of our city’s resources, it was eventually turned over to cars. So boulevard bike paths would be a great way to honor that original legacy.” He added that the service drives of the boulevards, located closest to the sidewalks, might be another option for creating bike routes.

Merrell acknowledged that there would be some traffic engineering challenges to work out. For example, when the Lima boulevards cross other major streets, cyclists are sometimes required to make three street crossings to get to the next median path, which is annoying.

But this Peruvian approach could be a relatively simple way to greatly increase the number of family-friendly bikeways in our city without the political challenges that come from taking street space away from drivers. “So it’s a really intriguing concept that we’d really be eager to hear further discussion of,” Merrell said.

Come on, Chicago Department of Transportation, how about taking this idea for a spin?

While the boulevard bike paths proposal could take years to be realized (it’s possible there would be some backlash from local parks preservationists if green space was turned into paved trails), my Peru trip also left me wishing we could bring back Chicago’s version of the Ciclovía, dubbed Open Streets.

The Ciclovía movement started in Bogotá, Colombia, decades ago and has since spread to cities all over the world. During Ciclovías, streets are closed to cars and opened for walking, biking, skating, and other forms of healthy recreation like Zumba and break dancing, often on a weekly basis. The events also promote social integration, since the car-free streets encourage people of different classes and races to visit each other’s neighborhoods.

Lima’s Ciclovía takes place every Sunday morning on several miles of Avenida Arequipa, which connects Miraflores with the historic city center. When I participated during my visit, I was struck by the event’s joyful vibe, with Limeños of all ages enjoying the sunshine on bike, foot, and scooter.

Between 2008 and 2013, Active Trans staged a series of Open Streets events. But the nonprofit ultimately gave up on the effort due to a lack of organizational and financial help from City Hall.

As Bogotá bike advocates I’ve spoken with have pointed out, Ciclovías are a highly cost-effective way to provide recreational opportunities across a city, something Chicago sorely needs. But given the previous lack of support for Open Streets from the Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel administrations, plus our city’s current budget problems, I won’t hold my breath for City Hall to step up. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.