Historically, residents and aldermen in wealthier north- and northwest-side wards have been more vocal about pushing for bike lanes and racks than their south- and west-side counterparts. That’s one reason why the lion’s share of cycling infrastructure has been concentrated north of Madison.
After Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, that equation changed somewhat. According to the Chicago Department of Transportation, 60 percent of the roughly 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes installed during the mayor’s first term went to south- and west-side neighborhoods, as defined by the city’s official community areas.
Still, when the Divvy system was rolled out in 2013, the bulk of the docking stations went to dense downtown and north-lakefront areas.
In December 2014, a group of African-American bike advocates pushed CDOT to do better, publishing an open letter to the mayor’s office requesting a more equitable distribution of resources.
“In the past, the city’s philosophy has been that the communities that already bike the most deserve the most resources,” Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed (now a Streetsblog board member) told me at the time. “That just perpetuates a vicious cycle where cycling grows fast in some neighborhood and not others.” He argued Chicago’s black and brown communities are the ones that most urgently need the health and economic benefits of biking.
The city seemed to get the message. When the next 176 bike-share stations were installed in 2015, all new areas received the same station density, and several more African-American and Latino neighborhoods got access. That July the Divvy for Everyone program debuted, offering onetime $5 annual memberships to low-income Chicagoans. More than 1,100 people have signed up so far.
In September, CDOT announced a plan to further level the playing field by doing in-depth outreach on the south and west sides, asking residents where the next round of bike lanes and “neighborhood greenways”—traffic-calmed side streets—should go.
Last week the department held the two west-side brainstorming sessions. Unfortunately, you could count the total number of locals who showed up on one hand.
This may indicate that bikeways aren’t a burning issue for residents who grapple with problems like rampant unemployment and gun violence. But cyclists of color say biking can actually help address these challenges, and CDOT is describing its west-side outreach as a success.
Streetsblog’s Steven Vance reported that there were only three civilians at Monday’s event at the Austin library. And when I asked for a show of hands at Wednesday’s meeting at East Garfield Park’s Legler Library, only two people indicated they live in the west-side bikeway’s planning area, bounded by Austin, Roosevelt, California, and North.
On Wednesday CDOT planner Mike Amsden discussed how the department met with the six alderman in the west-side study area last summer to get their opinions on which routes from the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 should be prioritized. In November they conferred with community organizations like the West Side Health Authority, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and West Town Bikes.
Using that input, CDOT gave each potential bikeway street a ranking based on factors like the destinations it serves, ease of installation, community support, and health outcomes along the corridor—which could potentially be improved by getting more people on bikes.
Each 2020 route was given a low-, medium-, or high-priority ranking, indicated by different shades of pink on a map. At the end of Wednesday’s session, attendees were given green dot stickers to identify the routes they felt should get bikeways next.
There were more than a dozen people at that meeting, but most of them were on the clock as representatives of the city or the Active Transportation Alliance. And while the west-side study area is overwhelmingly black and Latino, there appeared to be only two African-Americans present.
One of them was Mark Yalverton, 60, a retired police officer who lives in Englewood. He helped start a bike-cop unit in South Shore, and also did a stint patrolling the lakefront on two wheels. “I loved every second of that,” he recalled.
Yalverton, who still rides for pleasure and exercise, heard about the west-side meeting via Slow Roll. He praised CDOT’s new outreach strategy. “It’s a great technique,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, a lot of people on the south side have never had the opportunity to enjoy cycling, due to economic or social reasons, or certain neighborhoods they don’t want to go through.
Ken Mick, who’s white, is a 57-year-old clothing salesman and Web designer who lives in an artists’ loft in East Garfield Park and bikes for transportation. He has a dim view of the Lake Street protected bike lanes, which run below the CTA Green Line tracks from Damen all the way to Oak Park. “It noisy under the trains, and there’s often busted glass in the lanes,” he noted.
Mick argued that making the west side bike-friendly is going to be an uphill battle. “There just aren’t many good north-south routes once you get west of Central Park,” he said.
The other west-sider was Jerome Montgomery, 65, a navy vet and retired hospital worker who’s a pastor at a local church. Montgomery, who’s black, grew up in the area and enjoyed riding bikes as a kid. “I stopped biking once I got my driver’s license,” he said. “You can’t chase women on no bike, not in my neighborhood.”
“Most people on the west side are more concerned with jobs and violence prevention than where the bike lanes should go.”
—West Garfield Park resident Jerome Montgomery
A West Garfield Park resident, Montgomery got back into cycling after a coworker egged him on, and he’s been trying to get his childhood friends to take it up. “It’s fun, healthy, something we could do together,” he said.
While Montgomery doesn’t believe the west side has gotten its fair share of bike lanes and Divvy stations—West Garfield and Austin will get the blue bikes when the system expands again this spring—he doesn’t think there’s much demand for them yet. That, plus the cold, spitting rain outside, explained why the meetings turnout was so low, he said.
“Most people on the west side are more concerned with jobs and violence prevention than where the bike lanes should go,” he said.
However, Slow Roll’s Reed argues that more cycling in underserved neighborhoods could be part of the solution by helping residents access employment centers, and putting more eyes on the street.
CDOT’s Amsden said he’s hoping for better attendance at the south-side meetings next month in the East Side and Pullman neighborhoods, but doesn’t believe the west-side outreach has been a wash. He argues that in addition to touching base with the aldermen and the community groups, talking with residents—whether it’s five people or 50—helps the department gather info and build a political base for street redesigns.
“We’re creating a web of supporters, and that’s really important,” Amsden said. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.