[This article also runs in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
Last September, the Chicago Department of Transportation launched the Go Bronzeville transportation demand program in the historic Near South neighborhood otherwise known as the Black Metropolis. The initiative provided resources for residents interested in getting around their community and the city on foot, bike, transit and car-sharing, with the goal of reducing the number of drive-alone trips.
Many of the people who participated in the free workshops, walking tours and bike rides found that using active transportation helped save them money, improved their health and gave them new opportunities to spend time with their family, friends and neighbors. Now, CDOT plans to run TDM programs in another four neighborhoods, at a cost of about $250,000 per community, mostly funded by federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants.
Pilsen, the largely Mexican-American community located three miles southwest of the Loop, was a logical choice for the next location, according to CDOT deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel. The area is well served by transit, including several CTA bus routes, the Pink Line and Metra’s BNSF line, and it has nearly a dozen Divvy bike-share stations. The Go Pilsen program debuted on June 4. Portland, Oregon-based Alta Planning + Design helped design the program, and the Active Transportation Alliance’s Maggie Melin is coordinating it on the local level.
As was the case in Bronzeville, Go Pilsen is reaching out to 7,500 residents, with the goal of having 750 of them fill out a survey on their travel habits and which active transportation modes they’re interested in using more frequently. Before the program launched, the department met with fifteen different local community organizations to gather input, such as El Hogar del Niño, an early childhood development center, and the Resurrection Project, a community development nonprofit.
The two Go Pilsen outreach ambassadors are Alex Velazquez and Ray Arroyo. Velazquez, who has worked as a community organizer for three years, heard about the job at the local bike shop Wheel of Time, which specializes in custom fixies. Arroyo, who has taught art via National Museum of Mexican Art programs, learned about the opportunity through Ciclovamos, a group that puts on monthly bike events in Pilsen and Little Village.
“I was a bicyclist for about three years, and I got in a couple of crashes that put me off the bike for a few years,” Arroyo said. “I took the job as my personal challenge to get back on my bike and learn about getting around and safe cycling.”
The ambassadors are distributing “Go Kits,” reusable shopping bags full of transportation resources, gifts and incentives, to residents. Tailored to each person’s interests, these include brochures on subjects like walking, safe bicycling, and how to drive safely around pedestrians and cyclists. The kits also may include transit and bike maps, one-day Divvy passes, coupons for local businesses, and gifts like Go Pilsen t-shirts, water bottles, and reflective bike gear.
The Go Kits also include a detailed map of the neighborhood, featuring transit stops, bike lanes, Divvy stations, bike parking, local landmarks, and public art. On the back is a map of a bike route to the lakefront, including protected bike lanes on 18th from Canal to Clark, and the hard-to-find bridge that allows pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Metra tracks near Soldier Field. “When we were talking to people, even though the lakefront is so close, they didn’t know a safe way to get there,” explains Alta’s Kristen Maddox (a former Streetsblog Chicago contributor) who helped design the map.
Almost all of the Go Pilsen literature is printed in both Spanish and English. “Sometimes bilingual materials can be a little bit stuffy, so Ray and I go over everything to make sure the language is relatable,” Velazquez says. “It helps that both of us are native Spanish speakers.”
The ambassadors have already appeared at several neighborhood events and, during Bike to Work Week, they helped run a commuter pit stop at Plaza Tenochtitlan, 18th and Loomis. They’ve got a number of events in the works to encourage walking and biking. They’ll be helping to lead a walking tour of Pilsen murals, as well as a 1.25-mile stroll from Plaza Tenochtitlan to Chinatown, to show how easy it is to get from one neighborhood to the other.
They’ll be putting on a bicycle scavenger hunt this Saturday, July 12, in collaboration with Ciclovamos, and a market-to-garden bike ride with Roots and Rays community garden and Working Bikes Cooperative, a local bike recycler. They’re also planning a stargazing ride where participants will meet at Barrett Park, Damen and Cermak, to put lights and glow-in-the-dark stickers on their bikes. Then they’ll pedal to Harrison Park at 18th and Damen to meet up with urban astronomer Joe Guzman and view the heavens from his telescopes.
The ambassadors say it’s extremely rewarding when they’re able to encourage residents to try new ways of getting around. Arroyo recently dropped off a Go Kit to a woman on the west side of Pilsen who was interested in biking, but nervous about sharing the road with cars on big streets. He gave her a rundown of low-street cycling routes in the area.
The next day at the 25th Ward Family Fun Fair, the woman showed up on a Divvy bike, having used her free pass to check out the cycle and pedal across the neighborhood. “She looked so happy and elated,” Arroyo recalls. “It was great to see that our outreach was valuable to her.”