Why Didn’t More Locals Show Up for the West-Side Bikeway Hearings?

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House painter James Woods rides in the Lake Street protected bike lane in September 2014. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Residents and aldermen in wealthier north- and northwest-side wards have been more vocal about pushing for bike lanes and racks than their South- and West-Side counterparts. That’s one reason why the lion’s share of cycling infrastructure has been concentrated north of Madison.

After Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, that equation changed somewhat. According to the Chicago Department of Transportation, 60 percent of the roughly 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes installed during the mayor’s first term went to south- and west-side neighborhoods, as defined by the city’s official community areas.

Still, when the Divvy system was rolled out in 2013, the bulk of the docking stations went to dense downtown and north-lakefront areas.

In December 2014, a group of African-American bike advocates pushed CDOT to do better, publishing an open letter to the mayor’s office requesting a more equitable distribution of resources.

“In the past, the city’s philosophy has been that the communities that already bike the most deserve the most resources,” Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed (now a Streetsblog board member) told me at the time. “That just perpetuates a vicious cycle where cycling grows fast in some neighborhood and not others.” He argued Chicago’s African-American and Latino communities are the ones that most urgently need the health and economic benefits of biking.

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The West Side study area. Potential bike routes are shown in pink. Image: CDOT

The city seemed to get the message. When the next 176 bike-share stations were installed in 2015, all new areas received the same station density, and several more African-American and Latino neighborhoods got access. That July the Divvy for Everyone program debuted, offering onetime $5 annual memberships to low-income Chicagoans. More than 1,100 people have signed up so far.

In September, CDOT announced a plan to further level the playing field by doing in-depth outreach on the south and west sides, asking residents where the next round of bike lanes and “neighborhood greenways”—traffic-calmed side streets—should go.

Last week the department held the two west-side brainstorming sessions. Unfortunately, you could count the total number of locals who showed up on one hand.

This may indicate that bikeways aren’t a burning issue for residents who grapple with problems like rampant unemployment and gun violence. But cyclists of color say biking can actually help address these challenges, and CDOT is describing its west-side outreach as a success.

Streetsblog’s Steven Vance reported that there were only three civilians at Monday’s event at the Austin library. And when I asked for a show of hands at Wednesday’s meeting at East Garfield Park’s Legler Library, only two people indicated they live in the west-side bikeway’s planning area, bounded by Austin, Roosevelt, California, and North.

On Wednesday CDOT planner Mike Amsden discussed how the department met with the six alderman in the west-side study area last summer to get their opinions on which routes from the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 should be prioritized. In November they conferred with community organizations like the West Side Health Authority, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and West Town Bikes.

Using that input, CDOT gave each potential bikeway street a ranking based on factors like the destinations it serves, ease of installation, community support, and health outcomes along the corridor—which could potentially be improved by getting more people on bikes.

Each 2020 route was given a low-, medium-, or high-priority ranking, indicated by different shades of pink on a map. At the end of Wednesday’s session, attendees were given green dot stickers to identify the routes they felt should get bikeways next.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.

  • It’s not just the bike-related stuff. Public meetings are often held at times that are hard to get to if you are (a) the primary caregiver of a young child or (b) working more than one job.

    This defines a lot of people on the west side.

    Add to that a significant lack of announcement (when I lived in Austin, I only heard about something on the order of 1/3 of all public meetings that affected my area, and I was subscribed to the Alderman’s newsletter and followed a bunch of relevant groups on Facebook). Only 1/10th of them flyered neighborhoods, met people getting off the El with people holding clipboards to talk about it, or engaged in any other in-person, non-electronic method.

    If a church makes getting out turnout a priority, they can deliver their parishoners to a meeting, but if you’re not a churchgoer (or your church isn’t political), most of the time you never even know about these things until they’re over. And if you do know, often you can’t come because of schedule conflicts (not improved by the biggest notification effort going out one-week-before, at which point a lot of people can’t change plans).

  • Cameron Puetz

    These meetings weren’t exactly scheduled to encourage attendance. 5:30 is a terrible time for a meeting. If you work a standard 9 to 5, you’re probably commuting at that time. If you work a service or retail job, then you’re probably at work at that time. 5:30 is too early for conventional work schedules and too late for most non standard work schedules. Having a meeting at 5:30 says we’re obligated to ask, but we really don’t want to listen.

    Additionally, I’m not sure that these meetings are valuable enough to be worth someone going out of their way to attend. I’ve made a point to attend meetings about projects in my neighborhood and have rarely left feeling like they were worth while. The perception of these meetings as formalities is probably even stronger in neighborhoods that are used to bring underserved by city services.

    The process seems to be a presentation by CDOT, followed by a brief discussion that gets cut short by the scheduled meeting time, and then the project proceeding unchanged. In this case I doubt the residents green dots will make any difference. The plan developed by the alderman will be what gets built if anything.

  • Alicia

    The image in the picture is a buffered bike lane, but it’s barely protected (those bollards have to be at least 10 feet apart).

  • City meetings are commonly scheduled within the working day (or just within a slightly extended one) for the employees, not at any time people are likely to be able to get there.

    Many struggling west-side residents would be hard put to make almost any meeting time; I know some of my old neighbors were only available within the school day (minus time to commute to and from the school for pickup/dropoff), and some could never do weekends or evenings, while for some weekend afternoons were the only good time.

    At least if it was advertised enough ahead of time an individual could go representing their block’s neighbors and report back.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    On most of the Lake bikeway, the parking is to the left of the bike lane — that’s what provides the protection. Still, lots of people dislike riding on Lake Street for the reasons that are mentioned in the article.

  • simple

    Cameron/Elliott – thanks for pointing out some problems with public meeting processes. They’re imperfect indeed. Now, do you have some suggestions for solutions? Keep in mind that (a) there are no times of the day or days of the week that work well for everyone, (b) the public sector staff and consultants who run the meetings also have other work and family commitments, etc. precluding their availability at all times and all places, and (c) projects have limited budgets in general and only a share of which is able to be devoted to outreach — of which the “in-person, non-electronic” kind suggested below is extraordinarily expensive and inefficient.

  • BlueFairlane

    If expense is a problem, my first suggestion would be that aldermen cut the amount they spend printing and mailing election fliers so that my house no longer gets four copies of the same campaign crap printed on high-grade paper, and instead use some of that money to do their job and actually try to involve the community.

  • simple

    That’s unhelpful snark, but thanks for trying.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    They don’t actually use public funds for that do they?

  • Cameron Puetz

    My first suggestion would be to pick a time that works for some sizable group of people. Either go later in the evening to cater to 9 to 5 workers, or earlier in the afternoon to cater to off shift workers and stay at home parents. No time will work for everyone, but most times will work for more people than 5:30 does. As for the availability of city and consultant staff, occasionally having to work late to support one of these meetings is part of the job. There are almost no engineering or planning jobs that are stocky strictly 9 to 5. Projects that go on for years only involve 2 or 3 of these meetings. Working a few evenings isn’t an unreasonable burden.

  • BlueFairlane

    They’re not meant to, but tons of menu money over the years has gone to “informational newsletters” directed to voters that just happen to time themselves with elections. Any talk about ward funds being too limited to publicize a few meetings held at a range of times for maximum convenience is disingenuous.

  • Well, since the current method seems to be arriving at the result CDOT wants (nobody shows up, their contributions ignored), there’s no real reason to change it.

    I don’t think one evening working each month or two would kill employees’ social lives, to have a 7PM AND a 3PM meeting in the same week’s span or so, and hopefully capture a greater proportion of those available, or coordinate meeting schedule against events in the area on weekends likely to draw many local residents like farmer’s markets or Night Out In The Parks events.

    Electronic notification ONLY works for people who know how to opt in, and only works if they SEND it. I subscribe to several city-government Facebook pages, my alderman, all the NEIGHBORHING aldermen (both on Facebook and by email, for the alders), and am active on Everyblock and Patch and still only hear about half the meetings in my area before they happen.

    This system is deeply broken. Even of the most engaged citizens, they’re missing a lot. In-person outreach, the one time it was tried in my neighborhood in Austin, resulted in a packed room. Electronic notification gets you jack. It’s not that expensive to hire a flyering company (often used by pizza joints and the like) to put a piece of paper on each front door in a ward, and then each household at least has even odds of knowing anything was happening.

    But you have to notify MORE THAN FOUR DAYS IN ADVANCE, no matter what your method. Three weeks out with a flyer that prominently features how you sign up for electronic updates would be a good start.

    But first the main goal of having meetings has to be COMMUNICATION. Right now the apparent goal is to book a room for half an hour to say they covered compliance.

  • Not really. I got eight separate copies for one race, two of which arrived AFTER ELECTION DAY, this year. And at least four of everything else. Mostly in the last week (when I’d already voted).

    It’s a massive expense, and a complete waste of both time and paper.

  • For stay-at-home parents (especially with some school-age kids) 10AM is a much better time than anything after 4.

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