By Todd Savage

One day last fall David Sperling pulled his bicycle out onto North Halsted near his Lakeview home and was chagrined to discover that the bike lane painted by the city the month before had been covered with a smudgy coat of black paint.

Sperling called his alderman and was told by an aide that Bernie Hansen had the city remove it in response to complaints from neighborhood groups. “I asked what I could do to get it reinstalled, and I started looking into what was going on.”

Sperling is a year-round cyclist who uses Halsted to ride to and from his job downtown. The bike lanes were a welcome addition to the commute. “It makes cars more aware that bikes are vehicles and belong on the road,” he says. “This sanctions use of the city streets. It makes people more aware when they’re getting out of their cars to look for a biker.”

Dedicated bicycle lanes are a key element of the city’s comprehensive plan to promote bicycling. Over the last decade, with Mayor Daley’s support, the city has been building an infrastructure, including a citywide bicycling advisory council, a full-time bicycle planner, and 5,000 new bike racks, to encourage Chicagoans to help cut pollution and traffic congestion by riding bikes to work or to do errands. The blueprint calls for a 300-mile network of bicycle ways on city streets, including five-foot-wide lanes set apart from car traffic, and signs identifying bike-friendly routes. Sections of Elston, Wells, Dearborn, Roosevelt, and Milwaukee have already been striped with the lanes, and next year the city plans to begin using a $1.5 million federal grant to establish up to 60 more miles of them throughout the city. Halsted has been proposed as a major bike route, but the removal of the lanes on its northern end worries bicycling advocates.

The issue dates back two years to a series of contentious public meetings held to discuss the $3.2 million streetscape redevelopment in the predominantly gay business district on North Halsted from Barry to Broadway, where the street ends. Residents and business owners debated everything from how overtly gay the design of the street architecture would be to which amenities such as new lighting, planters, and trees to choose. Planners told residents that the expanded sidewalks would make the street too narrow–by two feet–to accommodate bicycle lanes. Residents endorsed trees and sidewalks, and figured they could live without the lanes. But last October, as the streetscape project neared an end, city crews began painting bike lanes on Halsted south of Irving Park and got as far as Roscoe before they were ordered to stop.

The city had given the go-ahead to the lanes after Ben Gomberg, the city’s bicycle coordinator, did some research that showed they might still fit. He found that cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon, had made room for the lanes on streets as narrow as 44 feet, the width of the newly reconfigured Halsted. But no one from the city called 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen or neighborhood groups to tell them the good news.

“I had a lot of phone calls from businesses up and down the street asking me what was going on, and of course I had no clue,” says David Edwards, owner of Gentry on Halsted and president of the Northalsted Area Merchants Association. Edwards drove down Halsted after the lanes were painted, and “it was uncomfortably tight.” To make matters worse, the workers had made the lanes too wide.

“They just appeared magically,” says Charlotte Newfeld, a board member of Belmont Harbor Neighbors. “The decision had been made for no bike lanes and then bike lanes were put in. That doesn’t set up goodwill.”

It’s never a good idea to surprise an alderman in his own ward. Hansen found out about the lanes after they were painted. When he started getting angry phone calls, he insisted that the city remove them. A couple days before the November dedication of the streetscape project, attended by Mayor Daley, city crews returned with rollers and buckets of black paint.

The lanes are designed with a build-it-and-bicyclists-will-come philosophy, but some residents and businesses don’t want to extend the invitation. They argue that there isn’t room for cyclists and cars to coexist safely on the crowded street, where cabs and delivery trucks make frequent stops. “It’s a very tight situation,” says John Robb, president of Belmont Harbor Neighbors. “The street is not wide enough to have a bicycle lane on each side. Period.” He says the city would give bicyclists a false sense of security by yielding them part of the road: “If they put [a bike lane] in, they better double the number of lawyers they’ve got because the lawsuits are going to be insane.”

Robb and a few other neighborhood activists argue that bicyclists need to clean up their act before they can share the road. “I would encourage them to ride more safely than they do currently,” he says. “They do not obey stop signs. They do not signal their turns. There really isn’t anything anyone can do about it because the police have their hands full right now.” Some would like to see bicyclists required to carry licenses so police could enforce traffic laws more effectively.

Another complaint was that pedestrians, especially senior citizens living in the lakefront ward, were afraid of cyclists riding on the sidewalk. (“I wish we had a full-time person looking out for people who are getting run over by bicyclists,” says Lorraine Hoffmann, vice president of Belmont Harbor Neighbors.) In fact, Chicago Department of Transportation surveys have found that about 20 percent of riders use the sidewalks, something prohibited by city ordinance for riders over 12 years old. Bicycling advocates argue that people ride on the sidewalk because they’re afraid to ride in the street.

“Most people in the city see riding a bicycle as a brave thing to do,” says Randy Neufeld, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. “That’s a barrier. It’s got to be something that’s not a brave thing to do, because most people like the idea of biking around town.”

But it’s not just the bicyclists’ riding habits that frustrate opponents of the Boys Town bike lanes–they’re also annoyed by their attitudes. “I’m getting tired of being preached to like it’s some moral good to ride a bicycle,” says Hoffmann. “You cannot pretend this is a forest preserve with beautiful bike paths. This is the city that works.”

The defeat of the lane concerned Neufeld and other bicycling advocates, in part because they viewed it as a model for other busy neighborhoods considering streetscape makeovers. “If we can’t do bike facilities on 44 feet, we’ve got a big problem,” he says. “I can’t think of a more important, more critical [area] where you could put lanes than on this section. You have a high use of bicyclists, a very busy commercial area. If it’s going to work anywhere, this is where it’s going to work.”

Bicycling advocates hope to show Alderman Hansen that his constituents do want the lanes. This summer Sperling convinced his neighborhood group, Triangle Neighbors, to reverse its earlier opposition to them, and other activists have taken their campaign to the streets. A dozen bicyclists rode their bikes in last summer’s Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade with trailers and large signs exhorting “Bike lanes for Boys Town” and “Autoerotic? Try a bicycle.”

“People were pretty baffled,” says T.C. O’Rourke, a member of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation and a regular on the monthly Critical Mass rides. “Most of the people are unaware that the lane has been removed.” Over the last year O’Rourke has led several rides through the neighborhood to hand out flyers, gather signatures, and talk with residents and business owners. He argues that many people in the community who support the bike lanes were left out of the decision-making process. “I think the fact that the bike lane has been moved reflects a lack of public education about bike lanes in general,” he says. “Some of the people who are complaining just really don’t understand it. I want to make sure that it’s put back in, both for the safety of people driving and people on bikes on Halsted, and so that bike lanes don’t start to be perceived as some bad thing or a hassle. There are a few people who think that the street is too congested or too narrow, and the professional traffic engineers at CDOT disagree. That’s a key point: letting people who don’t really know, who aren’t professionals, decide what is safe and what is not safe.”

All this lobbying appears to be trying the patience of Alderman Hansen. He has deflected callers asking about the lanes to neighborhood activists such as Robb and Hoffmann. The first time I called, he hung up the phone. When I finally got him to talk, he was angry at being forced to rehash the topic. He explained he personally didn’t object to the bicycle lanes but the majority of his constituents did. For his part, he had been willing to leave the lanes intact on a trial basis, but residents hadn’t been interested.

Hansen was obviously nettled that the city had bypassed him when they installed the lanes and by the bike activists’ campaign to reinstate them. He said he didn’t like the “cavalier” attitude of Gomberg and accused him of stirring up trouble. “Mr. Whatever His Name, Mr. Bicycle Man decides he’s going to organize some of the bicycle riders and start aggravating me,” Hansen said. “He did, and I don’t have enough time to get aggravated with his nonsense.”

The alderman insisted he’s not a bully against bicycling and said he’d be willing to allow bike lanes in other areas of the ward if residents want them. “Unbeknownst to people, I have been known to ride a bicycle,” he said. “I’m getting a little too old for it, but I used to ride my bicycle all over, and it’s nice….Bicycles have their place and they’re very good activity and very healthy, and if people are responsible bike riders and abide by the laws, God bless them and I encourage them.”

Oddly, the blacked-out lanes have continued to guide traffic. The paint turned out to be reflective, making the lines visible from blocks away, and most motorists seem to be avoiding the ghost lane.

Down the street in the 43rd Ward, the lanes rolled down Halsted without a protest. Earlier this month the city completed a six-week bike-lane experiment using temporary tape and signage on Lincoln and Halsted from Fullerton to Webster. Alderman Vi Daley says at first she was concerned about the lanes’ safety but community response was “very positive” and she didn’t receive a single complaint: “People just thought it was great.” When the Department of Transportation prepared to remove the temporary tape, she asked that it be left in place until the permanent lane could be painted. “I think cyclists feel safer going along in an area that’s marked,” she says, “and as a driver you become more aware of it that you’ve got cyclists out there.”

Halsted already has long stretches of bike lanes. The area from Milwaukee to North was painted in 1998; a few blocks on a wider stretch in Lincoln Park were done earlier this year. The city envisions a continuous bike lane from 63rd Street to Diversey, where because of Hansen’s opposition the lane would become a “bike way,” without any markings up to Broadway.

Department of Transportation commissioner Thomas Walker says that for now the city’s thrown in the towel on pressing for lanes on that stretch of Halsted and it’s considering moving them over to Clark Street, which slightly leads Halsted in city counts of bicycle usage. Walker wasn’t eager to dissect the particulars of what went wrong in Boys Town, but communication was clearly a problem. “I think we didn’t go around and touch all of the bases,” he said.

The department is completing recommendations for a citywide bike network with a plan that Walker hopes will smooth the lanes’ introduction into other communities.

Nearly everyone agrees that what’s been lacking is education geared toward encouraging both drivers and bicyclists to learn to get along. Gomberg already has developed a bicycle-safety brochure and next year will use new grant money to develop additional materials under a campaign with the slogan “Share the road.”

The city plans to hire two more full-time staff members to help coordinate outreach and design of new bike lanes. “It pays to have a plan out there prior to implementing a project,” Walker says. “We didn’t spend enough time on the public-education side before proceeding with that striping, or we would have uncovered the fact that there were some people who were opposed to it, and we would not have put it out there in the fashion that we did.”

Despite the city’s official position, bicycling supporters say they haven’t given up hope that the lanes may return to Boys Town. Even critics say they figure City Hall’s backing and the influx of federal dollars for bicycling programs will win out.

“I am hopeful,” Neufeld says. “I think at this point the jury to take it to is really the community. The bottom line is we think if the community really takes a good look at this issue, it’s going to be very positive for the bike lanes. At this point the strategy is to go to the community and talk about it. If they want to do some sort of trial, that’s fine, but we think ultimately there should be lanes there.”

O’Rourke says he has collected several hundred signatures. “I’m going to take them to Alderman Hansen and use them to illustrate how much support there is for the lanes in the community,” he says. “This is all about communication.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.