Chicago is already considered one of the most bike-friendly big cities in the country. But in a proposal from the Active Transportation Alliance that was released last week, the nonprofit advocacy group offers a comprehensive plan to cover the city with a network of so-called “low-stress” bike lanes that would go far in encouraging more people to use bicycles for transportation.
“(Chicago) has been taking some bold new steps in becoming truly bike friendly and becoming a city that’s bike-able for a wide range of skill sets and ability levels,” says Jim Merrell, the campaign director for the Active Transportation Alliance. “But we need to take the next step. The Bikeways for All plan is the blueprint for how we get there.”
Let’s start with a bit of history.
While Chicago’s bike lanes—those white markings on black pavement—have been around for decades, Active Trans first proposed in 2010 that the city build 100 miles of advanced bike lanes. In that group of lanes include more than 20 miles of protected or low-stress bike lanes. These routes are actually separated from city traffic by more than just a line on the ground. Driving or riding around Chicago you may have seen the plastic bollards or poles that keep bike traffic separate from the motorized vehicles. Other designs include a row of parked cars, or even a raised curb or walkway, which separate traffic from bikes.
“These types of bike lanes have been getting installed in the United States more and more over the last five years or so,” Merrell says. “What we’ve seen is wherever those lanes get installed, we have a big uptick in the number of people using those streets to ride bikes—and we’ve seen people are following the rules of the road and are behaving better when they have their own space and their own bike signals like on Dearborn Street.
“So it’s actually improving compliance on things like stopping at red lights, which proves the point that when you give people their own space, it’s safer and better for everyone,” he says.
National research, using Chicago and other cities as case studies, has proven the anecdotal evidence that protected bike lanes are encouraging more people to ride.
“We have proof that people ride their bike because there is a protected bike lane there,” Merrell says. “And they wouldn’t be riding the bike unless they have what we call a low-stress option was available to them.”
That success has led to Active Trans latest Bikeways for All plan, which proposes an additional 180 miles of protected bike lanes, neighborhood greenways and urban trails that keep cyclists separated from traffic. It hopes the city will be able to complete 100 miles of the projected lanes by 2020. Once completed, 80 percent of Chicago residents would be within a quarter mile of a low-stress bike route.
Now comes the hard work of actually implementing the plan. Of course, it’s not quite as hard a sell as in past years.
“We’ve seen a big shift on the narrative of bikes and biking,” Merrell says. “Four years ago when you talked about (cycling), it was hard to imagine seeing such broad support for investment in biking and bike lanes and bike share. But it has changed.
“A great example comes from the recently in the city budget hearings,” he says. “When it was time for the Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner to testify to the City Council, a lot of the questions were about the Divvy bike-share program and when is it coming to my ward? So we’ve gone from, ‘Is this really the best use of our scarce resources?’ to ‘Oh my God, this is such an easy decision to make because our constituents love it, people are using it and it’s really cheap and cost-effective.’”
The success of the Divvy bike share program, along with the protected bike lanes, has many more in the city government convinced that investing in bike transportation is money well-spent.
“Now people both have access to a bike and safe place to ride a bike,” Merrell says. “And so we’ve been seeing this proof that when we build the safe bike routes, people use them. We’ve proved the concept, now we need to build a functional network so that people can really use it as a viable transportation option.”
While spending any money during the current budget crisis is difficult, bike lanes are helped by the fact that much of the money comes from the federal level.
“The whole 100-mile build-up that we’re talking about over the last four years only cost $12 million,” Merrell says. “That sounds like a lot of money, but when you talk about road building projects, it’s less than half a percent of the (Chicago Department of Transportation) budget. And it’s important that a lot of this money is federal grant dollars that are being brought into the economy that we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have these projects going in.”
In addition to the protected bike lanes, Bikeways for All proposes several new off-street trails that would also serve more like linear parks along the lines of the new 606 Trail, which has become a huge success. Proposed trails include projects along the Chicago River, the Weber Spur and the New ERA trail in Englewood, which is probably the most advanced project on the list.
“The proposed New ERA Trail is an old, elevated railroad right-of-way that’s now out of service,” Merrell says. “There are a lot of exciting things happening in and around Englewood. There’s an urban agriculture district there. It’s about 2 miles, and we already have some studies being done.
“In each neighborhood there will be different opportunities and trail projects will have different character,” Merrell continued. “We have the 606 we can point to, but we can ask, how does this tie-in to Englewood, the urban agriculture and other sustainable projects going on? Each trail needs to work for its neighborhood. I think that’s a really great and exciting conversation.”
Expect lots more of interesting conversations coming from the Active Transportation Alliance as it works to implement the Bikeways for All plan. The 7,000-member nonprofit has done incredible work in making Chicago a safer and more enjoyable for cyclists since its founding (as the Chicago Bicycle Federation) in 1985. Expect more of the same.