Chicago’s Bike Plan Is Inequitable, Says Report Based on Wrong Map

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The cover of the LAB report, featuring a photo of West Town Bike’s Alex Wilson by Steven Vance.

There’s great potential to use statistics and mapping technology to help ensure that bicycle resources are distributed equitably to people of all races and income levels. For example, Streetsblog’s Steven Vance and data scientist Eric Sherman recently recently worked with Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed and analyzed Census data to get a sense of how well Chicago’s existing bike network serves African-Americans, Latinos, and non-Hispanic whites.

They found that whites currently have significantly better access to off-street paths and conventional bike lanes, the only type of bikeways that existed in Chicago before Rahm Emanuel became mayor in 2011. However, it appears that access to bikeways has improved for people of color since 2011, and a higher percentage of African Americans than whites currently live near buffered or protected lanes.

Equity of Access to Bicycle Infrastructure,” a new report by Rachel Prelog,a Colorado-based urban planning grad student, commissioned by the League of American Bicyclists, establishes a method for using geographic data to help decide whether a bike network is equitable. The report, which uses Chicago as its case study, has some valuable aspects.

However Prelog used a faulty map of the city’s planned bike network, and didn’t fact-check her work with Chicago Department of Transportation. As a result, the report makes unsubstantiated claims that the new network would provide subpar access for the African-American and Latino communities that are most in need of better transportation options.

First, the good parts of the study. “Bicycle equity stems from an understanding that unbalanced conditions exist that require a deeper look,” Prelog writes in the intro. “It may be that some groups are better able mobilize resources to leverage their positions, realizing their needs and wants.”

That has certainly been the case in Chicago, where the lion’s share of bike facilities have historically gone to dense, relatively affluent, largely white, North Side neighborhoods with high existing levels of biking. However, that dynamic is changing, thanks to groups like Slow Roll and Bronzeville Bikes, who have been pushing for better bike infrastructure on the South and West Sides.

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The report found that, as of 2013, 56% of Latinos did not live within a quarter-mile of a bikeway.

Prelog sets out to use data to identify “who is benefiting from current bicycle networks and who is disadvantaged” through the creation of a “Bicycle Equity Index.” This is a measurement of the relative need for safe biking infrastructure within subsets of Census tracts, based on the age, race, and income of residents, rates of car ownership, and access to transit and retail.

Using accurate data from the city of Chicago’s geographic information system portal, Prelog first analyzes Chicago’s bikeway network as it existed in 2013, the latest year for which Census data is available. She found that 56 percent of Chicago’s Latino population and 57 percent of the African-American population lived over a quarter-mile from a bike lane or path, compared to 50 percent of the city’s total population. It’s useful to know that access was inequitable two years ago, although those numbers may have changed somewhat since then, due to new bikeways like the Bloomingdale Trail.

However, the report runs into trouble when Prelog makes statements about what the effect on equity would be if Chicago built its planned bike network. She found that the new network would provide 23 percent more of the African-American population with quarter-mile access, but a disproportionate number of African Americans would still live outside of the network.

Moreover, the report states, only one percent more of the Latino population would get access to bikeways, despite having the largest rate of bike commuting of any local ethnic group. “Implementation of the full build bicycle network would do little to improve access for Chicago’s Hispanic/Latino community,” she asserts.

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Prelog’s map of the city’s “planned network” doesn’t correspond with CDOT’s 2020 Plan map.

However, I noticed that Prelog’s “planned network” map didn’t jibe with the one in CDOT’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. When I emailed Prelog to ask where she got her data, she reiterated that she culled it from Chicago’s data portal, adding that she spoke with someone at the city’s Innovation and Technology Department who manages the GIS data to clarify how bike routes are classified. 

Upon closer inspection of the report’s “planned network” map, I realized that it contains many obsolete “recommended routes,” from previous editions of CDOT’s Chicago Bike Map. For the 2015 edition, all of the routes that don’t actually have lanes, sharrows, or wayfinding signs have been deleted. Moreover, many of the old recommended routes don’t appear in the 2020 Plan.

CDOT Spokesman Mike Claffey confirmed that Prelog’s “planned network” map is wrong, and that no one contacted the department to check her work. “We’ve just been made aware of the report and will review it,” he stated. “But it does not appear to reflect the tremendous progress we’ve made in expanding the city’s bicycling network in recent years, nor does it reflect the proposed routes as identified in the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020.”

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Prelog’s “planned network” map (top) shows obsolete “recommended routes” from past editions of the Chicago Bike Map (middle), rather than the actual planned network from the 2020 Plan (bottom).

After I figured out what the problem was, I notified Prelog. “It may be true that [the city’s] data has not been updated to reflect changes to how they want to classify their proposed lanes,” she responded. “This is often a reality of data, though, as coordination and work loads between departments are not seamless.”

It appears that Prelog did get bad GIS data from the Innovation and Technology Department, so the city should update that information. However, the reason why her maps are inaccurate is less important that the fact that they are wrong.

“This case study should not be viewed as an indictment of Chicago’s current or planned network,” the report states. However, due the use of bad data, the document portrays the city’s planned bike network as unfair to African American and Latino residents, when that may not be the case.

Prelog’s work could potentially do a lot of good for the cause of bike equity, and I look forward to seeing her analysis applied to the bike network Chicago is actually planning to build. If it turns out that the planned network is, in fact, inequitable, it will be important for CDOT to address that issue.

However, before we can get a sense of whether the 2020 Plan is fair or not, the League of American Bicyclists needs to retract the report and have Prelog overhaul it. The LAB did not provide a comment by press time, but we’ll provide an update if we hear from them.

  • The fake map kinda looks more extensive and less inequitable than the real map.

  • It’s hard to judge from looking at the small image of the 2020 Plan map — the tertiary “neighborhood routes” are hard to see. View larger images here: http://www.chicagobikes.org/pdf/2012%20Projects/ChicagoStreetsforCycling2020.pdf

  • Randy Neufeld

    CDOT and city hall play a role in the planning and development of bikeways but the key decision maker is the Alderman. Better bikeways require tradeoffs with parking and car space. Wards that are willing to make those trade-offs and budget ward menu funds are going to get better facilities. No ward in any part of the city, has a secure all-ages neighborhood network that a parent could feel comfortable allowing a 12 year old bike rider free range of the neighborhood. Which Chicago ward should get that network first? Bronzeville? Englewood? Pullman? Lakeview? Albany Park? It’s likely to happen first where there is an Alderman leading the charge.

  • Read more info about some of the political reasons why Chicago’s existing bike network is North Side-centric here: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/12/23/why-dont-the-south-and-west-sides-have-a-fair-share-of-bike-infrastructure/

  • There exists now a highly visible enclave of biking culture around Milwaukee Avenue. While I assume it is a reasonablely mixed culture it is identified as generally European American. It would be nice if there were bicycle enclaves identified as primarily African American and Hispanic American. Then within these three separate enclaves the fights over coverage versus ridership infrastructure could be fought.

  • bAMS-CHI

    Oops

  • R.A. Stewart

    Such an enclave might be starting to develop in Bronzeville; see

    http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/08/31/bronzeville-bikes-rolls-on-with-its-mission-to-encourage-south-side-cycling/

    and related stories.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Might it be possible that a certain group of whites bicycle more than any other group? If so, why not put Chicago’s bike infrastructure where it will be used the most? The League suggests that Chicago is some kind of socialist dictatorship, with central planners at City Hall making racist decisions that promote segregation. This is an insult to the people of Chicago. As Randy points out, a fair bit of bike infrastructure is influenced and paid for by aldermen responding to the people in their ward. When ward residents and local businesses tell their alderman they want their ward to be more bicycle friendly, more attention is often paid on this issue compared to places with few bike advocates. It is a sign of a healthy democracy in action.

  • “Might it be possible that a certain group of whites bicycle more than
    any other group? If so, why not put Chicago’s bike infrastructure where
    it will be used the most?”

    It boils down to what outcomes do we want to see. Bicycle infrastructure (and education and encouragement) is a great way to provide better transportation connections, and opportunities for healthy physical activity. The Chicago neighborhoods that currently have the worst access to bikeways also tend to have poor transportation optionss in general, as well as poor health outcomes in terms of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

    Groups like Slow Roll Chicago argue that new bike infrastructure should be focused on the communities that have the greatest need for better transportation access and health. At any rate, it’s hard to argue that these underserved neighborhoods shouldn’t get as much infrastructure as the rest of the city.

  • It might be possible, though my experiences living in Chicago’s nonwhite neighborhoods tells me it’s probably unlikely.

    I think if you want to make an assertion that sweeping the onus is on you to collect data, and make sure it’s clean, solid data.

    There is ALREADY clean, solid data that bicyclists come in at least two sets: the ones who will bike regardless of infrastructure, who are confident and take the lane and flip off cars that treat them rudely, and ones who would be biking more if only the situation felt less like Mad Max.

    It is also inarguable that the more northern and the whiter and the richer neighborhoods of Chicago have, at the moment, massively more infrastructure to tempt the latter group of cyclists out of their cars and onto their pedals.

    So even if your dataset showed a skew, you’d have to do a further survey to see what percentage of the “more whites” was actually due to the EXISTING infrastructure, because nonwhite cyclists are just as subject to elasticity of demand as white ones.

    There are lots of people on the West and South sides cycling for transportation, often on mis-sized, broken-down bikes, sometimes carrying significant cargo and going more than three miles in a leg. There are lots of white folks in richer neighborhoods commuting on Milwaukee to jobs, or taking their kids out for a spin.

    But, all things being equal, the more hesitant cyclists who DO NOT live in richer, whiter neighborhoods of Chicago are not being given any help at all in their desire to get onto pedal-powered transport. In much of the city that’s not northside or rich or ‘arterial’ by CDOT standards, Mad Max is your only option, and if you can’t handle that eff you, you don’t deserve to bike.

    White aldermen serving north side constituencies are listened to more in City Council, pass their initiatives more, and are more likely to have bike-advocates with the time and energy to lobby them. South and West Side transportational cyclists are much more likely than white North Side transportational cyclists to already be working multiple low-paid jobs, which leaves very little time in a sane universe to make a hobby of yelling at your alderman until he listens.

  • Your own example seems to disagree.

  • My own example of what seems to disagree with what?

    At any rate, it’s very possible that the LAB methodology would find that the 2020 Plan is inequitable. Therefore, it would be helpful if they applied their method to the real bike plan, rather than the wrong map.

  • Kelly Pierce

    John, thanks for clarifying the issue. I was sucked into the redistributionist thesis of the report. Bicycling infrastructure could be better seen as an investment in public health. Dr. Levine at the Mayo Clinic has shown conclusively that non-exercise related physical activity like walking and biking has tremendous health benefits. The more people from all backgrounds get out of their chairs and off their couches and start moving, the healthier they will be.

  • Anne A

    Barriers to cycling are significant in many communities of color. These include highways, railroads, intermodal yards, and industrial areas. These types of barriers are more prevalent on the south, west and northwest sides of the city – areas where transportation cycling has been much lower, largely because it’s tough to get around.

    I knew this from personal experience and it was reinforced by feedback that we got as community reps during S4C 2020 outreach.

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