For three decades, the Active Transportation Alliance (formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation) has been advocating for better conditions for bicycling and, in recent years, walking and transit. They marked their 30th anniversary with a fundraiser on Monday at Germania Place, and more than 250 supporters turned out to celebrate the occasion. During the event the group gave public service awards to three key players in the local sustainable transportation scene: former Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch, Friends of the Major Taylor Trail president Peter Taylor, and U.S. Congressman Dan Lipinski.
Active Trans director Ron Burke kicked off the evening by discussing how much attitudes about transportation have changed over the years. “When I first started bike commuting during the winter, people used to look at me with shock and awe,” he said. “Now on Milwaukee Avenue during the summer, we’re seeing 5,000 bikes a day and bikes are piling up at suburban Metra stations.” He noted that while CTA ridership bottomed out during the 1990s, when it was easy to get a seat on the North Red Line, 2015 saw the highest rail ridership in 58 years.
Burke said that 30 years ago, the region saw a much higher rate of traffic injuries and fatalities, which he blamed on “a vision that was basically, move cars as fast as possible.” However, he noted, in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of better pedestrian facilities, bus rapid transit, protected bike lanes, Divvy, and The 606. “These are things which 20 or 30 years ago were barely on the radar but now are a reality, in part because of the work Active Trans has done over the last 30 years.”
Jon Hilkevitch recently ended a 36-year tour of duty at the Trib, with half of that time spent covering the transportation beat, including publishing the popular “Getting Around” column, which largely focused on the commuting needs of average Chicagoans. Of course, Streetsblog Chicago didn’t always seen eye-to-eye with Hilkevitch, particularly when it came to his early skepticism about bike-share.
But his articles were generally well researched and written, and he eventually came around on the Divvy issue. I was also pleasantly surprised by his comments in a recent Active Trans interview, in which he expressed his support for bus rapid transit and people-friendly street reconfigurations, which I hadn’t gathered from his articles. It even turns out that he’s a regular bike commuter, who used to pedal 12 miles each day to the Tribune tower back when he lived in Evanston.
During his acceptance speech, Hilkevitch discussed the need to reduce the number of traffic fatalities on Chicago streets. He recalled that one of his most difficult interviews was with the mother of Clint Micelli, a 22-year-old graphic designer who was fatally doored while riding a bike on LaSalle Street on the Near North Side. “Thanks to Active Trans’ efforts, that led to new legislation requiring the police to keep records of dooring crashes,” Hilkevitch said. “A day when there are no more ghost bikes will truly be a day to celebrate.”
Peter Taylor, an Active Trans board member, was a tireless advocate for completing the Southwest Side’s Major Taylor Trail, named for the turn-of-the-century bike racing legend. Now he serves as a guardian of the trail, pushing for better amenities and trying to ensure the path is well maintained and glass-free. He is also part of a coalition of local African-American bike advocates who have lobbied the city for a more equitable distribution of bike resources in recent years.
During his speech, Peter Taylor gave shout-outs to Major Taylor, who overcame racism to become one of the nation’s first Black sports stars, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “for demanding that government live up to its promises equally.” He added that he’s looking forward to the expansion of the Cal-Sag Trail in the south suburbs, because it will link up with the Major Taylor Trail, “and a new cycling network will be born.”
Lipinski, the representative for Illinois’ 3rd District, has been a longtime supporter sustainable transportation initiatives in Congress and the state’s senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Recently, helped pass the new federal transportation bill, as well as reinstating the national tax benefit for transit commuters.
“Why do I care about this stuff?” Lipinski said. “It’s not because my constituents are beating down my door.” He added that he wished that more local residents appreciated the importance of greener, healthier transportation for the region.
He noted that his grandfather was a Chicago trolley operator and bus driver, and that since he was a child, walking, biking, and “the big green limousine” (the old nickname for the CTA, back before it got its current color scheme) have been a big part of his life.
Lipinski highlighted bipartisanship as a key strategy for achieving transportation goals. He recalled that, back in 2010, there was a bill in the House transportation committee that would have gutted funding for pedestrian, bike, and transit initiatives. New York City’s Transportation Alternatives advocacy group allied with local Republican politicians to help defeat the legislation, and formed a bipartisan transit caucus to prevent such cuts in the future.
As is usually the case at these kind of events, remarks from Active Trans’ founding director Randy Neufeld, now with the SRAM Cycling Fund, were a highlight of the evening. “I apologize that it still isn’t as comfortable and convenient to bicycle in Chicago as in Amsterdam or Copenhagen,” he joked. “What the hell have we been doing for the last 30 years? When we started, we were brave, bold, and tireless, and mostly clueless, and it never would have occurred to us that Dutch bikeways could be tested in the U.S.”
However, he noted, over the years the group looked at best practices in European cities and U.S. cycling capitals, and also developed political skills, engaging with Chicago mayors and transportation officials, as well as leaders throughout the region. “In the last 15 years the vision has come into clear focus,” he said. “It is bringing the joy of active transportation into our daily lives, a comfortable choice free of danger for all incomes, all neighborhoods, all ages.”
Neufeld added that the enemy of this goal is the inertia of the current transportation system. “Few truly love our car-dependent world, and most people would embrace changes but change is still really, really hard,” he said. “Most of our nine-million-person region was built with just one mode of transport in mind.”
He said that Active Trans has developed various “power packs” as strategies to zoom over the barriers in the way of achieving their vision, including multimodalism, regional influence, commitment to equity, and a strong staff. Neufeld then laid out the organization’s four major campaigns for the near future: 8-to-80 bikeways, walking and cycling education and encouragement for children, the Transit Future funding effort, and the Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic fatalities.
Here’s hoping that Active Trans can shift its advocacy efforts into high gear in the coming years and help make their dream of a less car-dependent region, with safe, healthy, and fun transportation options for all Chicagoland residents, a reality.