"There’s a clarity and vastness to [Lake Michigan] that reminds me of the Caribbean, yet the land—the rolling hills, the trees, and everything else—reminds me of New Hampshire or Maine." Credit: COURTESY RAHM EMANUEL

Ex-mayor Rahm Emanuel has his share of detractors for what he did—and didn’t do—for the city, but I’d argue that the silver lining of his tenure, perhaps the one thing that many Chicagoans can agree he did a decent job with, was transportation. The administration racked up a number of transportation wins, generally, if not always, with an eye on equity, including: constructing several new CTA stations, overhauling the south Red Line tracks, building safer streets for walking, opening dozens of miles of new bikeways, and launching the Divvy system. So it was fitting that Emanuel chose to kick off his retirement from City Hall by leaving on a 900-mile-plus bicycle trip around Lake Michigan with a friend on the day after Lori Lightfoot’s inauguration. I recently caught up with him by phone to chat with him about the trip and ask a couple of questions about transportation policy under his administration. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What were the most memorable or unexpected sights and encounters on your bike trip?

Just the people all around all four states, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. They were quick with their hellos and their smiles and very generous with their help.

A typical anecdote was, I was in a town in the upper part of Wisconsin near the UP border and I was outside a restaurant where the sign said the place didn’t open until 11:30 or 12 for lunch, and it was like two hours before they opened. And I knocked on the window and kind of yelled through the wooden door to ask if we could get some coffee. And the woman said, “Come on in, I’ll put a pot on for you.”

Some people knew who I was. In Indiana they said, ‘We made some pecan pie hoping you would stop by.’ So it was just a lot of generosity and kindness.

Just to grab a picture of what the ride was like, there’s a clarity and vastness to [Lake Michigan] that reminds me of the Caribbean, yet the land—the rolling hills, the trees, and everything else—reminds me of New Hampshire or Maine. You get an incredible perspective, especially in upper Michigan and Wisconsin.

You’re 59; you’re no spring chicken. How did your body hold up on a 900-mile bike trip—any physical issues?

Yeah, the right knee where I got my surgery [to repair a torn meniscus in March]. When I was doing physical therapy, the most I rode was 25 or 30 miles. The first day on the trip we did 89. The first three or four days were a stress on my knee. But after that, nothing else. It’s just that two weeks in a row of doing 55 to 70 miles is a lot. It was tiring, but at the conclusion of the trip I was both exhausted and exhilarated simultaneously.

Did your bike have any mechanical problems—any breakdowns?

It was interesting, the first day, when it was raining, I popped a tube in the front tire. And on day 12, it was raining, and I popped a tube on the back tire. That was it.

Any run-ins with dangerous motorists?

No, but I’ll give a big shout-out to Google Maps; their bike directions were incredibly helpful in guiding us to really great [low-traffic] back roads. Michigan does a really good job of converting old rail lines to bike paths, and they’re incredibly well maintained. So no problems at all.

In terms of transportation, what was your proudest transportation accomplishment—walking, biking, CTA—as mayor?

All of the above. I think we put together a comprehensive mobility plan for the city. You look at airports, both O’Hare and Midway, and the modernization. You look at CTA, the modernization. You look at protected bike lanes and bike sharing. You look at the 606 and the Lakefront Trail, the separation of the bike and running paths there.

So we had a comprehensive view of transportation, whether it was by car or bike or running, aviation, bus or train, and then we modernized and invested in them, so you can go seamlessly from train to bus to airplane. I’m not going to pick one project, but one of the things I’m proud of is that we had a comprehensive strategy to modernize any mode you took and made it something that you could rely on in a convenient way.

One of the centerpieces of your administration was the extension of the Chicago Riverwalk. [Downtown alderman Brendan Reilly is currently trying to pass an ordinance banning cycling on the path.] Have you ever taken a bike ride on the riverwalk?

No. I’ve strolled down the Riverwalk, the entire length from Lake Shore Drive to the fork in the river. But I’m not going to get into politics. I’m not going to comment on it. Not going to do it.  v