Other Reasons Why The 606 Gets More Ridership Than the Major Taylor Trail

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The 606’s popularity is largely due to what it lacks: at-grade crossings. Photo: John Greenfield

The Chicago Tribune’s new transportation columnist Mary Wisniewski, a former Sun-Times transportation reporter, is off to a good start. She’s written a number of article that show an interest in promoting sustainable transportation, rather than the windshield perspective that has been all-to-common in the mainstream media.

For example, her articles about bicycling have asked *what* Chicago should be doing to encourage bike riding, rather than *whether* we should be promoting cycling at all. That’s a refreshing change from some of the Tribune’s previous misinformed, overly skeptical coverage of new bicycle infrastructure. And let’s not even get started on columnist John Kass’ irresponsible bike trolling.

This new approach is part of the general positive trend of Chicago’s mainstream media coming around to the idea that biking is good our city, as the Active Transportation Alliance recently noted in a blog post.

Wisniewski recently ran an interesting column looking at why the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway on the Northwest Side, which opened last June, is already so much better known and used than the nine-year-old Major Taylor Trail on the Southwest Side. That’s despite the fact that the Bloomingdale, also known as The 606, is only 2.7 miles while the Major Taylor is a full 6.5 miles.

According to members of Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, even some folks who live close to that trail seem unaware of its existence.

Wisniewski highlights several reasons why the Major Taylor gets less use. Broken glass is a problem. There are some challenging streets crossings that need improvement, such as those at Halsted Street and 111th Street. There’s a gap in the path between 105th Street and 95th Street, which forces riders to take a somewhat convoluted route on streets between the two segments.

Wisniewski notes that the Major Taylor runs though less densely populated neighborhoods than the Bloomingdale. She also points out that The 606 connects with Milwaukee Avenue, the city’s busiest biking route, nicknamed “The Hipster Highway.”

Major Taylor Trail
One time of year you will see a lot of cyclists on the Major Taylor is during the annual Chicago Perimeter Ride. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers.

It’s a good article overall, but the author overlooked a few points. The Bloomingdale serves Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square, neighborhoods with some of the city’s highest bike mode share. It’s a useful route for commuting downtown, and it also provides direct access to many neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, the Major Taylor runs southeast to northwest, so it’s not a convenient route for biking from the Southwest Side towards the Loop.

But the biggest edge The 606 has over the Major Taylor is that, since it’s an elevated trail with no at-grade street crossings, users have zero chance of being struck by motorists. Sure, with the Bloomingdale’s high volume of pedestrians and cyclists during nice weather, using it sometimes requires caution and courtesy.

But it still offers an overall level of comfort that a standard trail can’t hold a candle to. That makes it the perfect place to walk or bike with young kids, or just enjoy a relaxing commute or cruise without having to look over your shoulder for cars.

A problematic aspect of Wisniewski’s piece is her rather alarmist depiction of personal security issues on the trail, which won’t encourage more people to try riding on it:

The trail’s solitude adds to the feeling of insecurity: The southern end leading to the Little Calumet River is lovely but on a quiet weekday feels like Fangorn Forest in “The Lord of the Rings” — vaguely unsettling.

David Miller, 46, of Englewood, comes often to Whistler Woods after work to watch for a pair of bald eagles, but the burly truck driver will not go on the trail itself. “You don’t know who’s up in there,” he said.

I’m anything but a burly guy, but in my dozens of rides on the Major Taylor, I’ve never encountered anything scarier than a flat tire. In fairness, Wisniewski notes that there have been only a handful of reported crimes on the trail within the last nine years.

However, violent crime has actually emerged as an issue on The 606. In February and March there were three incidents where cyclists were jumped and mugged on the Bloomingdale at night. As I’ve written, one strategy for addressing this problem would be to legalize 24/7 commuting on the path, which is already the situation on the Lakefront Trail. That way there would be more “eyes on the trail” to deter attacks.

Overall, however, the Tribune piece makes an important point. The Major Taylor Trail is an overlooked bike resource that the city, the Chicago Park District, and the Cook County Forest Preserve could make more useful and popular through better maintenance, intersection treatments, and promotion.

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  • Sadly, there aren’t that many statistics to go around on this, but I’m willing to put my bets on the Major Taylor Trail having more traffic than the 9.5-mile Great Western Trail (DuPage).

  • Anne A

    It seems rather ironic to me that Wisniewski missed the very important and relevant points of extremely high bike mode share and much higher population density along the Bloomingdale Trail, as well as the recent reported crime incidents there. My personal experience has been that crime can happen anywhere, contrary to the perception that it’s something that happens “in bad areas.”

    Like you, I’ve encountered very few problems on the Major Taylor Trail (MTT), which has the advantage of being uncrowded and easy to ride (other than occasional patches of broken glass and a few challenging street crossings) compared to Bloomingdale. MTT also offers opportunities for wildlife watching that Bloomingdale can’t match. I like seeing bald eagles, woodpeckers, hawks, monk parakeets and other species that aren’t commonly seen in most areas of the city. A recent visit to Whistler Woods with a bird watching group revealed some rarely seen species.

    Please join us for a group ride on MTT on Sat. 5/21 and discover it for yourself.

    http://www.thechainlink.org/events/major-taylor-trail-roll-to-the-river-2

  • Anne A

    That’s quite possible. Many people use MTT for short distances for walking their dogs, getting to Metra, jogging, getting groceries and other uses. Some portions of MTT are very well used.

  • Pat

    Aside from safety, there’s just something more fascinating being above grade level.

    Sitting on the overpasses and watching the streets below seems to be very popular by many users. And riding the length of the 606, almost passing through buildings in the air on an old rail line almost feels forbidden.

    Riding underneath a high voltage power line just isn’t as fun!

  • Cameron Puetz

    Population density is a huge favor and the character of the neighborhoods is probably also a factor. The lack of neighborhood park space was often brought up in the planning for the Bloomingdale Trail. Additionally many residents of Bucktown, Wicker Park, and Logan Square live in apartments or condos and don’t have a yard. Therefore lots of people who just want to be outside on a nice night will head for the trail. The Major Taylor Trail by contrast runs near several parks and through neighborhoods where most residents have yards. Therefore the only people headed to the Major Taylor Trail are people looking to bike, run, hike, or something else that requires a trail. People who just want to hang out outside will head to a different park or stay in their yard.

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