When Josh Samos, manager of the Buckingham Bike Shop, read the city’s new report on cycling strategy in the 90s, it made him happy. “I loved the thought that they are really trying to accommodate bicycles in Chicago. I like the fact that the city has recognized the difficulty of bicycling in Chicago and made a decision to do something about it–to make bicycle parking widely available and to open up a lot of new routes and paths.”
This spring Chicago joined a very short list of U.S. cities with a commitment to consider bicycle routing as part of city planning when the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, formed in the fall of 1991, produced the succinct, seven-page “Bike 2000 Plan.” In the eyes of many Chicago cyclists it’s a revolutionary document, not the usual blue-ribbon-panel snow job City Hall is famous for. For one thing, the plan notes, “Historically, Chicago’s streets have been inhospitable to bicyclists. Many bicycle riders feel unsafe sharing the road with motorized vehicles.”
“If the city makes real commitments to make routes and to designate areas on the streets free of and safe from automobiles and hazards, then bicycling is going to fly,” says Samos. “Chicago is ripe for bicycling. The climate is what I would call medium favorable–you can easily ride a bike ten months out of the year, and with a bit of guts you can ride 12. I bike 12 months a year, rain or shine. A lot of people need to make a lot of short trips of under five miles. I never go more than five miles.
“The social conditions are ripe for bicycling. There are a lot of people who just can’t afford transportation. It costs at least $600 a year for bus passes, and a well-used bicycle might run a person $100 a year in maintenance and the like. With some encouragement, you’d see a boom in bicycling.”
Statistics quoted by the “Bike 2000 Plan” bear him out. Cycling is up 20 percent nationally in just five years. Ninety percent of the country’s 93 million cyclists are recreational users, but commuting by bike is up and bicycle delivery services “are a significant business in Chicago.” In Davis, California, the percentage of all work trips under five miles made by bicycle is 25 percent; in Madison, Wisconsin, its 10 percent–and Madison’s winter weather is no better than Chicago’s.
One goal of the “Bike 2000 Plan” is to make 10 percent of all single-occupancy vehicle trips of five miles or less by bicycle. The other goals are to improve air quality and cut “diminishing resource” use; to develop bicycling as “a serious alternative transportation mode”; to enhance the economy by reducing congestion and traffic, providing alternative transportation, and increasing commercial bike use; to improve Chicagoans’ health; to increase safety awareness; and to improve and increase recreation opportunities for cyclists. Until the recent addition of a path from Peterson to Lawrence along the river, the only off-street bike paths in the city were the 18-mile path along the lake, the North Branch Trail in the forest preserve, which runs for about a mile on the northwest side before leaving town, and a north-south path along the North Shore Channel on the border of Chicago and Lincolnwood.
“One of the cycling projects that we can do without federal or state money is the education process–teaching cyclists and motorists how to better coexist, safe bicycle-riding techniques, and the like,” says the city’s director of administration, Paul Toback, a recreational cyclist. The city also plans to encourage people to ride by creating incentives for workers to commute by bicycle (last May when the “Bike 2000 Plan” was made public the city promoted a Bike to Work Week); by closing selected park roadways on weekends for bike use; by promoting and publicizing bicycle parking at city special events; by encouraging the bicycle industry to develop commuter products; and by pushing the use of work bikes by city workers, including the police, some of whom now pedal the lakefront path in spiffy black helmets and have already made some felony arrests.
The plan also calls for a 300-mile network of bikeways by the turn of the century, and cyclists will be given some input into the routes for the first time. “The big difference in City Hall these days is that we are working with the cyclists,” says Neal de Snoo, assistant to the mayor and a frequent bike commuter whom Toback half-kiddingly calls City Hall’s bicycle guru. “Someone at a desk can’t do it without input from the people who ride,” explains de Snoo, who says the bikeways will range from “designated bike lanes on streets to wider curb lanes to better-signed routes. New bike paths are a priority, and abandoned railway corridors are good candidates for development as bike paths.”
Randy Neufeld, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation and author of the first draft of the “Bike 2000 Plan,” explains that the city’s bikeway priorities are “off-road trails. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try bike lanes. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try wide curb lanes. If that doesn’t work, signed routes.
“The signage, though, is a sort of last choice. What you really want is some sort of improvements on the roadway. Those fall into three categories. One is off-street paths, such as abandoned rail corridors. Another is painted bike lanes–there are limited opportunities for them in Chicago, but some. And the third is wide curb lanes. We’re in a very built-up environment, so what we’re talking about with ‘Bike 2000’ is not tearing down things to make way for bicycles. Some parking may be lost in a few instances, but that is really a tough sell politically. So what we’re talking about mostly is existing rights-of-way–where is it wide enough to put a bike lane in? We want to try it out in a few places, maybe Elston or Lincoln avenues, to see how it works. In other places, we’re talking about restriping the lanes to accommodate a car and a bike.”
Signed routes are the least-favored bikeway, but Neufeld says, “We’re not counting the old signed streets of the 70s, which was simply a system that didn’t work. You came across a green sign on the street–what did it mean? where did it start? The new signed routes we’re talking about–we’ve got three of them now, from the end of the lakefront path to Evanston, from the lakefront along Montrose to the North Branch Trail, and from the lakefront to Indiana. It’s still a green sign that looks a lot like the old signs, but it’s got a name like ‘North Branch Bike Route.’ Then there’s a picture of the route and something like ‘East-West connection between Lakefront and North Branch Trails.'”
Neufeld frequently uses the first person plural when talking about city bicycle projects. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, he says, “is the advocacy group, and we feel that as long as things move forward the city should get credit for it. I almost feel bad talking to reporters sounding like a cheerleader for the city’s efforts, but the reality is that there are very few cities in the U.S. who have said this, and very few that have backed it up. We have sat at some meetings with our jaws dropped at the seriousness with which we have been taken.” He points out that planners for the west-side stadium project came to the Bicycle Advisory Council because streets between the Loop and the new stadium were to be improved as part of the project. “The city, at our suggestion, is seriously and comprehensively looking at transportation plans for bicycle components. John LaPlante was the person who started it.”
Yes, John LaPlante of Loop-flood fame, the acting commissioner of transportation who took the bullet, was a strong advocate of bicycling at City Hall starting in the 70s, when he was with streets and sanitation. Last fall LaPlante received CBF’s second annual Pedal Power Award for leading the way on the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council.
CBF may have lost its closest ally in City Hall, but Neufeld says, “While there’s no question that John L. helped to get bicycling noticed in City Hall, there is also no question that the mayor is very supportive of bicycling. There have been a couple key people in his administration who have made sure that things move forward, and the pace has not been slow.”
Neufeld points to the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), part of which funds various alternative transportation modes as a way to reduce air pollution. The city is attempting to tap some of this money for new bike paths and bike racks and has already received $750,000 for racks. “I think that ISTEA will pay off big for the city,” he says. “That $750,000 for parking is a perfect example of money that wouldn’t normally come to the city, but would wind up in the suburbs.”
But according to Neufeld, the system of dishing out Illinois’ share of the funds can create problems. “The federal government gives Illinois a certain amount of money. The way it’s spent here is very complicated. The city gets part of the money, the suburbs get part, the Chicago Area Transportation Study, which is the metropolitan planning organization for our area, gets some of the money.” He points out that the city had asked for $4.8 million for new bike trails, which he says would have included “bicycle-related improvements to the boulevard system, a trail on an abandoned rail corridor on the west side near Dan Ryan Woods, and a trail along the new southwest-side subway.” But no money was appropriated for them for 1992.
“There were a lot of fireworks this year,” he says. “The transit people wanted to spend it on park-and-rides, and the highway people wanted to spend it on signal interconnects–and each wanted to change the guidelines to favor their types of projects. Basically, in the end they negotiated a deal in which a certain percentage went to park-and-rides, a certain percentage to highways, this one bike-parking project–and then they would roll over the money to figure out how to spend it next year.
“Everybody involved agreed that it wasn’t a good way to decide how to spend the money. CBF worked with a coalition of people like the Chicago Lung Association and the Sierra Club, who felt that some of the projects selected had a very poor air-quality benefit for the amount of money being spent. But they decided to go ahead and spend the money anyway, although they said that the decision-making process wouldn’t happen that way again.
“The bike projects far and away had the best cost benefits in terms of air quality for the amount of money spent. All the ISTEA projects need to be spent with some consistent plan in mind, so I think you’ll see most funding happen with bicycles being part of a larger project. Over the life of the program you’ll see quite a bit of the bike-trail system funded. The days when a half-million-dollar bike project was considered preposterous are over.”
Neufeld also says that the city has other sources of funding. “There is the enhancement program–a pool of $143 million over the life of the program for nonhighway projects–air-quality money, and regular transportation and highway money. All of this money can be used for bike projects. I think you’re going to see more going to bicycling, though I can’t predict how much.”
One of the first “Bike 2000 Plan” projects was the Chicago Bicycle Map. “The map was a big project,” says Larry O’Toole, who headed the CBF’s all-volunteer cartography group. “I had to leave town just before final corrections, which through a resulting mix-up were not done. We’re in the process of correcting the map before the second printing.”
The second printing is needed because the first 50,000 maps went so fast. Josh Samos’s store alone moved 1,000 in a couple of weeks. He wants more, though he’s not happy with the routes the map recommends. “They selected streets for bike routes that are fairly big and full of traffic, as opposed to smaller, quieter streets. I favor the smaller, quieter streets, and I don’t use the bike path at all because I can ride streets that are right for me, streets that I know are right from years and years of riding. I like a street like Racine, Roscoe, or Greenview.”
The cartographers knew there are different philosophies about urban cycling. Neufeld explains that a CBF survey revealed two kinds of cyclists: “One who thought they would die if they had to get off the lakefront path, and wanted the lightest-traveled small street they could find. And the other who would ride the Kennedy if you let them: they want as few traffic controls and as direct a route as there is–they’re in a hurry and are skilled cyclists.” Neufeld says the map is for interneighborhood travel, and O’Toole adds that secondary arterials were chosen because “side streets are generally more dangerous because they have more street signs and signals, which cyclists tend to ignore. They are generally designed to discourage through traffic–crossing a major street where you have a stop sign and the cross traffic doesn’t have anything can be very difficult.”
Samos has his own categories. “I like to call them the transportationalists [commuters, messengers, and other utilitarian users] and the recreationalists–sport and competition riders, exercisers, and trick riders. There are a tremendous amount of trick riders, especially in the minority neighborhoods. But I think that most people prefer riding on a small road, not a big one. I can ride either, but I prefer the small road. The pollution is much lower.”
Samos makes good time on the side streets by fudging the rules at stop signs and lights. “The law only tries to control and contain cyclists instead of trying to accommodate them. They don’t take into account the natural law of bicycling, so to speak, which is to try to maintain momentum.”
That’s another thing he thinks the city ought to change. “If they would rewrite the rules of the road to accommodate bicycles it would make a lot of sense. If they made small through streets like Southport or Racine low speed limit, like 15 miles per hour, with no stop signs, it would encourage bike riding. When I used to ride Southport there were about ten stop signs and some lights along the way. I’d pass all of the cars, and they’d pass me, about ten times along the way. Cars are designed for powerful acceleration, so momentum isn’t given a lot of consideration. As a result, most cyclists drive through stop signs, and they should drive through stop signs–and the laws should accommodate them with more yield signs, and lights that are timed for 15 miles per hour. Another thing that I’d like to see is one-way streets being two-way for bicycles, but I realize that might pose too great a hazard.”
Neufeld doesn’t seem to think Samos’s changes are possible and complains that “everyone wants a bike path from their house to everywhere they want to go, which isn’t possible. The only way biking is going to be a reality in Chicago is if people learn to safely share the road system. A part of that is an educational process, a change in attitude, and we’re already seeing that on the north side. We’re not going to do a lot with the geometrics of Racine Avenue, but [things will improve] once drivers recognize biking. And the more cyclists who are out there, the more they recognize. You go out in the evening now, and there are bikes parked in front of most of the bars. It would help if some cyclists were a little more respectful of the laws and behaved more appropriately.”
Enforcement of those laws is also part of the “Bike 2000 Plan.” The first cyclists to be singled out were the messengers, though an ordinance passed by the City Council caused relatively little flap.
The tough part of the plan, says Neufeld, “is going to be the whole cultural thing. There really isn’t anything wrong with those streets out there, except that there are too many cars on them.
“We’re trying to hit it from all angles with the ‘Bike 2000 Plan’–a look at the facilities, a look at the education, and a look to switch the geometrics a bit. There are certain roads that are scheduled for reconstruction anyway, so those opportunities are there; my guess is that two-thirds of the network will be developed that way. Another third will be off-road trails and specialized, independent bike projects where we fix something or repaint lines, the kind of thing that makes a street more bike-friendly.
“I think that the facilities proposed by ‘Bike 2000’ will happen on schedule, but I wonder if the goal will be reached: 10 percent of all short trips in Chicago by bike. A key, I think, is how much teeth will be given to various aspects of the Clean Air Act. If there are teeth, we could see a transportation revolution akin to what happened with recycling awareness–an absorption of bicycling into our daily consciousness.”
Paul Toback thinks there’s a much simpler reason the “Bike 2000 Plan” will succeed. “Bottom line, the mayor is interested. He likes to see people using the waterways paths, commuting to work by bike, or riding a bike down to the CTA or Metra station. The new section of lakefront path between Shedd Aquarium and McCormick Place was the mayor’s own idea. The EPA wasn’t the driving force behind ‘Bike 2000,’ the mayor was.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.