What Will It Take for Chicago Win Gold From the Bike League?

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CDOT recently added bike lanes on Lawrence between Ashland and Western as part of a road diet, filling in a gap in the bike network. More connectivity between bikeways will help our mode share. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday, the League of American Bicyclists announced that 55 new and renewing municipalities have won recognition in the group’s Bicycle Friendly Communities program, and there are now participants in all 50 states. However, even after all the strides Chicago has made in the last few years, we’re still languishing at the same Silver-level ranking we’ve been at since 2005.

The Bicycle Friendly Communities ratings serve as a useful carrot to reward cities for stepping up their bike game. Communities of all sizes may apply or reapply once a year by submitting info about the progress they’ve made in the “5 Es”: Engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation. The results of these efforts — in the form of ridership levels and safety performance — are also factored into the rankings. The league announces the results twice a year.

In the last few years Chicago has taken big steps to improve cycling, including establishing the nation’s second-largest bike-share system, building dozens of miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, and launching construction on the Bloomingdale Trail. Was that not enough to jump up a level in the Bike League’s eyes?

“Mayor Emanuel really set really ambitious goals for infrastructure,” noted Bill Nesper, who manages the Bicycle Friendly Communities program. However, Chicago’s newer initiatives — such as Divvy, the Bloomingdale and most of the city’s next-generation bike lanes — weren’t factored into the current LAB ratings because the city of Chicago hasn’t renewed its application since the spring of 2012. The city plans to reapply this February, according to Chicago Department of Transportation staffer Mike Amsden.

Even so, it’s no sure thing that Chicago will move up the ladder to Gold, Nesper said. Despite the new infrastructure, many locals and visitors still wouldn’t rate the Windy City as a particularly safe, comfortable, or convenient place to bike, certainly not compared to Gold-level San Francisco, Seattle, or Minneapolis, let alone Platinum-ranked Portland. Dangerous driving is common here, pavement quality is often lousy, and there are major gaps in the bikeway network. Our ridership levels and safety record reflect these shortcomings.

BFC infographic
An infographic showing the LAB’s methodology. Click here for a larger version.

Nesper noted that peer cities like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston are also trying to strike Gold, and like them, Chicago will have to improve its performance to earn a better ranking. “Once you get to the higher reaches of the awards, we’re not just looking at inputs, but also outputs,” he said.

An average Gold-level city has a 5.5 percent bike mode share, but Chicago’s 2013 mode share was only 1.4 percent, Nesper noted. There was a 174 percent growth in ridership here between 2000 and 2013. However we only increased our mode share by 0.3 percentage points between 2009 and 2013, a relatively modest gain.

Nesper compared that to Washington, which had a 2.2 percent mode share in 2009. Ridership nearly doubled to four percent over the next four years, largely due to the growth of bike-share use. Chicago may see a similar bike-share bump in future Census numbers. Nesper noted that San Francisco, another big city with good transit, had a 3.8 percent mode share in 2013, and Seattle was at 3.5 percent. Even the cold-weather cities of Minneapolis, Cambridge, and Madison had mode shares of 3.7 percent, 5.6 percent, and 6 percent, respectively.

Chicago’s safety record is nothing to brag about either. “Chicago’s crash rate in 2012 was a little less than two times what the average crash rate was in Gold communities,” Nesper said. Our city’s relatively high bike fatality rate was also a factor in the failure to advance, he added. So far this year, there have been eight bike fatalities in Chicago.

So what does our city need to do to achieve Gold-level performance? “From our standpoint, you should continue doing what you’re doing, in terms of building new bikeways and filling in the gaps,” Nesper said. “Chicago is an enormous place, so completing the bike network and expanding educational efforts are going to be really important.”

He added that better traffic law enforcement, in keeping with the city’s Vision Zero goals, will improve our numbers. “To get more people riding, you really need to reduce crashes and increase the perception of safety and comfort for cyclists.”

  • Velocipedian

    It’s an indication that the rankings actually mean something when Chicago doesn’t get a Gold. Bike lanes are not safe; bike paths are, and Chicago doesn’t have enough of them.

  • I’m not sure Chicago is worthy of a silver ranking at this point. That photo is a great example — brand new, but not a protected lane, not even a buffered lane, no green color to increase the lane’s visibility. It’s two thin lines of paint positioned between moving cars and parked cars. The lines will fade very quickly and there’s no source of funding to maintain them in the future anyway, so they’ll be gone within two years. That’s where we are in Chicago right now.

  • At least double or triple the current funding for separated ped/bike facilities. I don’t see that coming anytime soon.

    Chicago really is big; when do you think Chatham or Deering will get protected bike lanes? Or Austin? Those are all part of the city too.

    And what’s with the apparent unwillingness to incrementally upgrade blocks of streets to gold-standard conditions as the opportunity arises? Trying to upgrade large chunks of every arterial with a Big Project will take decades, if it ever actually happens.

  • With that said, something like the Bloomingdale Trail isn’t a Big Project… it’s more a Medium Project. Chicago has lots of unused railway corridors, there’s big value in them at relatively low costs.

    I’m even willing to put aside the “Bicycle Skyways Are Bad For Neighborhoods” argument in favor of “Safer Bicycle Routes Are Better For People”.

  • > “Bicycle Skyways Are Bad For Neighborhoods” argument <

    I've never heard of this argument. What is it?

  • Long version: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2014/01/the-ridiculous-sky-cycle-by-norman.html

    TL;DR: skyways remove bicycles from their role in getting around *everywhere* in a city.

    To some extent this argument is used in downtown Minneapolis, where the pedestrian skyway system more or less cedes street level to cars and trucks.

  • Fred

    I’d also imagine they are bad for business. Pulling pedestrians/cyclists off business lined streets into their own grade-separated right-of-way with limited access points decreases their likelihood of stopping in or discovering new businesses between access points. The exact opposite of the way protected bike lanes increase business.

  • Ah – I don’t think classifying the Bloomingdale Trail, with its ~10 access points over 2.7 miles, as a skyway is appropriate.

  • Agreed. And the recent story about all the development the Bloomingdale Trail might be inducing (property values are soaring anywhere near the Loop) means that the trail isn’t discouraging development.

    Which is still important.

  • I share your sentiment about not worthy of silver, but for a different reason. The infographic shows the “average” metrics of communities in each group.

    Chicago is below average on some of those metrics, far below average:

    Total bike network mileage to road network mileage. Silver average is 30% but by my analysis the ratio in Chicago is ~8%. The 8% figure includes sharrows, as well as trails because they’re alternatives to streets and still part of the bike network. It excludes the arbitrary “recommended route” distinction on the bike map and in the city’s dataset I used for the analysis.

    Arterial streets with bike lanes. Silver average is 45%. This is really difficult to analyze with GIS quickly, but I estimated our number to be 27% ±5 points. I can give you way better info on this metric and the prior one when I obtain a current dataset of the city’s bike lanes.

    The next one is ridership. The average for Silver communities is 3.5%. Chicago is around 1.3%.

    Our crash rate is pretty far from average, I think. The average number of crashes in Silver communities is 180 per 10,000 bike commuters. In 2012 there were 1,578 reported crashes and the Census bureau estimated we had 15,780 bike commuters (American Community survey 5-year, 2008-2012). That gives us a crash rate of 1,000 per 10,000 bike commuters.

  • skyrefuge

    That’s an unnecessary bit of self-flagellation. Portland, with a Platinum ranking, is well behind Chicago in terms of buffered and protected lanes. As Steven notes, Chicago has a lot of work to do, but the the fact that we put down a nice new bike lane on a road-dieted street sure is a silly thing to whine about.

  • Greg

    To me the biggest issue is the lack of enforcement for any kind of transit-related infraction. Peds, cyclists and motorists in chciago routinely get away with dangerous infractions that not out themselves into harms way but also endanger the lives of others. Although it’s strictly anecdotal, I have many out if town guests who are afraid to drive in a city as aggressive as ours. It would be a win-win if all modes of transit were a tad more regulated so the truly egregious red light running (by bikes and cars and peds!) would stop, just as a start.

  • Greg

    ARG. So many typos from my phone. Apologies.

  • Let me clarify. A road diet on Lawrence is great, and the new pedestrian crossings seem to be a nice improvement for people walking. Also, a traditional-style bike lane is certainly better than nothing, and as an experienced bicyclist, I would be comfortable riding on it, as long as the lines remain fairly visible. However, since bike mode share seems to be a big factor in the LAB’s methodology, and if Chicago is serious about trying to increase the number of people comfortable riding bikes, that style of bike lane won’t help that goal. We’ve had those types of lanes for decades, and they aren’t enough.

    In Portland, they’ve largely used neighborhood greenways to achieve their high rate of bicycling, as I understand it. Greenways seem like they would be very useful in Chicago and I hope someday we see them extensively here.

  • Wait, there were exactly 1,578 reported crashes in 2012 and the census bureau independently estimated 15,780 bike commuters? What are the chances of that? But if that’s accurate, a 10% crash rate per year is unacceptable. And think of all the unreported crashes on top of that.

  • Yeah…well it’s an estimate with a lot of “ifs”. The Census bureau says with 90% confidence that the number of bike commuters in Chicago in April each year from 2008-2012 was 1.2% to 1.4% of 1,213,901 workers (itself an estimate with a 6,142 workers margin of error).

  • Velocipedian

    Ehh, emmm. Neither a walker nor a bicyclist is capable of flattening another human being.

  • skyrefuge

    Well the greenways in Portland are even *less* than a bike lane, they’re essentially sharrows. Yeah, they’re nice to ride on, since they’re side streets in low-density neighborhoods with little traffic, but pretty much any non-designated side street in the grid feels the same. When I ride there with my brother and his young kids, I don’t think he makes any particular effort to seek out the greenway vs. non-greenway streets. Also, I believe the greenways are relatively new in Portland too, and haven’t resulted in any increased mode-share; the high mode-share existed before them, and it hasn’t changed.

    I daresay that if Chicago wants to import something from Portland to increase mode-share, it should be their never-too-hot, never-too-cold weather (which, not-so-coincidentally, is almost identical to weather in the Netherlands).

  • Dennis_Hindman

    These aren’t rigid standards that determine what level a city is at.

    Scottsdale Arizona is a Gold. The average bicycle commuting for the cities in this category is 5.5%, yet it was only 0.9% for Scottsdale in the 2013 Census Bureau American Community Survey results.

    Chicago and New York City are listed at the Silver level and yet Los Angeles is Bronze. The silver level averages 3.5% bicycle commuting. New York City didn’t reach the 1.0% bicycle commuting level until 2010 and it was silver before that. Los Angeles reached 1% bicycle commuting in 2009. Chicago was at 1.6% bicycle commuting when it had the silver level.

    Its generally much tougher for large cities to obtain separate roadway space for bicycles due to the traffic congestion. Smaller cities where a large portion of the population are college students tend to have a larger share of commuters who bicycle to work.

    I’m quite confident that the percentage of workers who mainly use a bicycle as their primary means of getting to work will rise above 1.6% in the next two ACS results for Chicago. The share of commuters who bicycle to work rose 20% in the last ACS results for Los Angeles. This was primarily due to the 150+ miles of bike lanes that were installed in two fiscal years. Chicago didn’t move that fast in installing bike lanes, but the quality is much higher than what Los Angeles installed.

    The shift to using a bicycle as the main means of getting to work takes time for people to get used to doing that. New York City started aggressively putting in bike lanes in 2007. The ACS for bicycling didn’t go up until the 2010 results for that city.

  • It appears the Divvy effect has not yet registered in the Census reports. More on Chicago’s mode share: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/09/24/did-chicago-bike-commuting-really-dip-in-2013/

  • Dennis_Hindman

    It takes a while for the bicycle commuting to germinate before it will grow after changes have been made, such as from installing bike lanes or bicycle sharing.

    Even though most of the bike lanes and paths that have been installed in Los Angeles since 2011 have been outside of the highest population density areas there still was a 20% gain in bicycle commuting for the 2013 ACS results.

    The Los Angeles county MTA reported a 42% increase in bicycle boarding’s for 2013 at the rail transit stations–most of which are in the city of Los Angeles. That data was released before ACS results came out and this led me to believe that an increase in bicycle commuting for ACS results was getting much more likely, although it had to overcome the margin of error which is essentially 20% (0.2), since the bicycle commuting share was only at 1%.

    The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition had released their 2013 bicycle counts from 50+ locations before the MTA or ACS data and the results were only a 7.5% growth in bicycling compared to the 2011 counts. Most of these counts were conducted in the heavily traffic congested core of the city where few of the new bike lanes had been installed.

  • We need an alternative or an expansion of the Census American Community Survey data (ACS). The transportation sections survey only commuters, in possibly a month that will always show weak performance in some cities (April).

    Currently the ACS figures are the only reliable ones for the nationwide audience LAB serves.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    There are a couple of interesting comparison of the ACS commuting survey results for Los Angeles.

    The 2013 ACS results for Los Angeles show a larger increase in the percent of commuters for bicycling than transit since 2005. Even though in that time period the Orange Line BRT was built, along with the Gold Line light-rail extension to East LA, the Orange Line extension and the first phase of the Expo Line light-rail.

    I expect that difference in gain for the percentage of commuters between bicycling and transit to widen with the 2014 results as transit boarding’s is down in 2014 compared to 2013, even though the number of jobs is increasing. The percent of those commuting by bicycle should still have some room for growth in the next two ACS results from the miles of bike lanes installed.

    Another odd result that can be observed on the Census Explorer 2012 results that are broken down by population tracts is the most notorious area of Los Angeles for traffic congestion is west of Beverly Hills. The average commute times that people surveyed stated in that area is among the lowest of anywhere in the city. The distance that people travel to work in that area has to obviously be less than other areas of the city where people also primarily use a car to get to work.

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