Does Chicago Deserve to Be Ranked the Nation’s Second Best Bike City?

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Biking in the Dearborn protected lanes. Photo: Steven Vance

When I heard that Bicycling Magazine gave Chicago second place in its “America’s Best Bike Cities” ratings, just behind New York and two slots above Portland, I was puzzled. However, I’m starting to warm up to the idea that our city and NYC deserve credit for taking bold action to improve cycling.

Few people would argue that Chicago, where dangerous driving and torn-up pavement are commonplace, is currently a more pleasant place to cycle than Portland, which fell to fourth place from its top ranking in 2012. Plus, our bike commute mode share — the percentage of trips to work made by bicycle — is only 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey. That’s less than a quarter of the Rose City’s 6.1 percent.

New York’s 2012 mode share was even less than ours, at only one percent. Minneapolis, with a mode share of 3.8 percent, took third place this year — down a notch from second in Bicycling’s 2012 rankings. Washington, D.C., whose mode share was 3.6 percent, dropped from fourth place to fifth. Chicago was in fifth place last time.

These kinds of magazine ratings largely exist to boost newsstand sales, and Bicycling’s current rankings shake-up has already succeeded in garnering plenty of ink from other publications. One could argue that the Best Bike Cities ratings are arbitrary, and a little silly, but they do have a purpose. They create competition between the leading cities, and encourage less bike-friendly towns to improve. For example, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has made cracking Bicycling’s top-ten rankings a signature goal.

Rahm Emanuel has taken notice of the new ratings. “Chicago is a national leader in building new and improved cycling facilities, and we are setting a new standard for other cities to follow,” he said in a statement today. “This new ranking by Bicycling Magazine demonstrates that Chicago is on the right path to becoming the best cycling city in America.”

Frankly, I was a little disappointed by this relatively humble response from the mayor who bragged two years ago that he planned to take all of Seattle’s bikers and tech jobs. Since the Emerald City came in at eighth place this year, Emanuel missed a chance to razz his former deputy transportation chief Scott Kubly, who recently defected to become Seattle’s commissioner.

While Bicycling’s rankings are subjective, they do have some quantitative backbone. New York and Chicago got credit for having steadily rising rates of bike commuting. Between 2000 and 2012, Chicago’s mode share rose more than 150 percent, from 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, while Portland and Minneapolis’ mode shares have leveled off in recent years. The 2013 Census estimates, due later this month, are likely to show further improvement in Chicago and NYC.

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NYC and Chicago have low mode shares, but they’re steadily rising. Graphic by Steven Vance

The top two cities also got credit for engaging in “a bike-sharing arms race.” New York currently has 6,000 Citi Bike cycles, while Chicago has 3,000 Divvy bikes and plans to expand to 4,750 next year. However, the city of Chicago recently boasted that, once it expands to 475 docking stations, Divvy will have the largest number of stations and the widest coverage area of any North American city.

The magazine also gave New York and Chicago points for physically protected bike lanes. NYC installed 31 miles of PBLs under the Bloomberg administration, and Chicago has put in 16.5 miles of protected lanes as part of Emanuel’s goal of reaching 100 miles of buffered and protected lanes in his first term. He announced today that another 49 miles of BBLs and PBLs are currently in the design phase and will be constructed this fall and in 2015.

Bicycling applauded Chicago for breaking ground on the $60 million Navy Pier Flyover. We also got credit for successfully using traffic cameras to lower speeding rates, and for doubling the fine for dooring a cyclist to $1,000. They could also have mentioned the 2.7-mile Bloomingdale Trail, slated to open next spring, as evidence that Chicago is becoming a world-class cycing city.

Meanwhile, the magazine acknowledged that Portland is already a terrific place to ride but added, “the lack of a large bike-share system and protected bike lanes put Portland off the pace of the most innovative cycling cities.” In a recent post, our colleagues over at the news website Bike Portland concurred that bike improvements in that city have stagnated in recent years, and bike-share and PBLs are conspicuous by their absence.

“Personally I’m just fine with the rankings jostling a bit,” Bike Portland news editor and Streetsblog contributor Michael Andersen told me. “We’ve all got a lot to learn from each other, and I’m glad to see NYC and Chicago’s mayor-driven boldness recognized. I hope both cities (and Minneapolis) keep up the good work. We’ll be back.”

It would still be quite a stretch to argue that a typical bike ride in Chicago is safer or more relaxing than one in Portland or the City of Lakes. But the Bicycling rankings are an opportunity for Chicagoans to give themselves a well-earned pat on the back for the major strides we’ve made in the past few years. This is also a good time to strategize about the things we need to do – such as better traffic enforcement and education, and building high-quality, European-style bikeways – in order to become a truly bike-friendly city.

  • I don’t know. Given how little education has been done with Chicago drivers about how to respect sharrows and protected bike lanes, just because Daley and now Emanuel keeps extending the infrastructure doesn’t mean it’s safe. How do other cities (especially Chicago’s peer cities in this ranking) educate local drivers?

  • Ignorant but Interested

    I wonder why we can’t have more connectivity between our prized Chicago protected bike lanes. Also, is anyone paying attention to Indianapolis’ recent improvements?

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Looking at bike lanes, cycle tracks, paths and bike racks in the most common term of space obtained for bicycles, Chicago, New York City and the city of Los Angeles have obtained a lot more space for bicycles in the last few years.

    An example of how it doesn’t necessarily have to be just bikeway space that enables a city to have a large mode share for bicycling is Tokyo. This city has less than 10 miles of on-street bike lanes and 108 miles of bike paths in a city with a population of 12 million people and a bicycle mode share of 16%. This city makes up for this lack of bikeway space with 800,000 bicycle parking spaces.

    New York City has slowed down considerably in its yearly obtaining of bike lane, cycle track and path space for bicycles compared to 2009. But the space obtained for parking bicycles has increased dramatically in the last few years for both NYC and Chicago with the installation of bicycle sharing. NYC had 12,800 bicycle parking spaces in 2010. The city now has 42,600 bicycle parking spaces. Adding the 6,000 bicycle share parking spaces bumps that number up considerably and the sharing of the bikes makes each of those parking spaces used by more people compared to a rack that any bicycle may be parked at.

    Los Angeles now has 5,834 bicycle racks and no bicycle sharing. That puts this city considerably behind Chicago and NYC in bicycle parking spaces per 100,000 residents. Its tough to have a very high bicycle mode share in LA when there are only 325 parking spaces per 100,000 population.

    LA has increased its bicycle parking in the last few years, but an even bigger reason this city will increase its bicycle commuting mode share is the doubling of bike lanes and paths in the last four fiscal years. That’s a lot more space obtained for bicycles.

  • ohsweetnothing

    This this this. Every time I see this asked to CDOT, they kick it to the State (IDOT and Secretary of State). To me, this is the real missing link.

  • SMHoffa

    Educate local drivers? It’s called the drivers test FYI and everyone has to pass before they get a license.

    In case you forgot, no one asks cyclists to prove they know the rules of the road before they hop on a bike.

  • Fred

    And when was the last time you had to take a drivers test? Rules and the community change in the decade between tests. 4 years ago there were 0 protected bike lanes in IL, now Chicago has 10s of miles of them, yet how many drivers have taken a drivers test in that time? I certainly haven’t. How should drivers be educated about new road conditions created between tests?

  • Curtis James

    These ratings apparently don’t take into account the condition of the streets in general. If they did, I think Chicago would be outside the top 100. I’d give up a few protected lanes if I could ride on most regular streets without worrying about my front wheel vanishing into some crevice or pothole.

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