Bicycling Gives Chicago the Award for Best Biking City – Do We Deserve It?

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The Bloomingdale Trail this morning. Photo: John Greenfield

This morning’s announcement that Bicycling magazine has ranked Chicago as the best cycling city in the U.S. in its biennial ratings, up from second place to New York in 2014, was surely a head-scratcher for many people who ride bikes in our city on a regular basis.

As of 2015, our bike mode share was a mere 1.7 percent of all trips to work, less than a quarter of Portland’s 7.2 percent mode share. While Chicago has built plenty of buffered and protected bike lanes, we don’t have a cohesive, intuitive network of low-stress bikeways, in contrast with Minneapolis, where it’s possible to bike from many neighborhoods to the central business district via off-street paths. Our conventional bike lanes are often clogged with illegally parked vehicles, torn up for utility work, or dangerously obstructed by construction projects. And then there’s the fact that four people were fatally struck by allegedly reckless drivers while biking in Chicago over a roughly two-month period this summer.

Still, I think one can make a case that, with all of the strides our city has made over the last five years to improve cycling, we do deserve an award as the large U.S. city that is doing the most things correctly to get more people on bikes and make cycling safer. Let’s look at some of the arguments for this point of view. Here’s the magazine’s top ten ranking for 2016:

  1. Chicago
  2. San Francisco
  3. Portland, OR
  4. New York
  5. Seattle
  6. Minneapolis
  7. Austin
  8. Cambridge, MA
  9. Washington, D.C.
  10. Boulder, CO

The Bicycling write-up of Chicago’s cycling strengths notes that the city built 100 miles of next-generation bike lanes within Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term in office. Thankfully, they didn’t say that 100 miles of protected lanes were built, as the city has often claimed, but rather, “Emanuel made good on a promise to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes.” Even that’s not technically accurate, since Emanuel originally pledged to build 100 miles of physically protected lanes, and only wound up putting in 19.5 miles of PBLs, plus 83.5 miles of buffered lanes. Still, that was a major achievement.

The magazine also cites the Divvy bike-share system and the Divvy for Everyone equity program, the use of concrete curb protection for bike lanes (many new curb-protected lanes are currently planned), the upcoming 35th Street bike-ped bridge, and the in-progress construction of Big Marsh bike park as reasons for the ranking. The article doesn’t even mention the Bloomingdale Trail (aka The 606) elevated greenway, which many residents consider to be the shiniest new jewel in Chicago’s cycling crown.

Bicycling editor-in-chief Bill Strickland presented the award to Mayor Emanuel this morning during a ceremony in Humboldt Park’s Julia de Burgos Park, a Bloomingdale trailhead. During the presentation, Strickland called bicycle riders an “indicator species,” a sign that things are going right for a city in terms of the economy, traffic safety, congestion, and pollution. He also noted that bike lanes can help residents of underserved communities access jobs, and bikeways have an integrating effect, connecting people in diverse neighborhoods. “So for 2016, the city that most embodies this is Chicago,” he said.

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Strickland, right, presents the award to Emanuel. Active Trans’ Ron Burke is in green shirt. Photo: John Greenfield

Emanuel, who has often been accused of indifference towards the needs of underserved neighborhoods, especially in the wake of the LaQuan McDonald police shooting scandal, riffed on the theme of bike lanes as opportunity corridors. He noted that the city has contracted the bike equity group Slow Roll Chicago to promote the Divvy for Everyone program, which offers $5 first-year memberships to low-income residents.

“If we’re going to be the city we want to be… having Divvy in every part of the city, where everybody has a chance to participate, allows people to go through communities and feel like they’re a part, rather than apart, from Chicago,” Emanuel said.

After the speeches, I asked Dan Black, the project manager for Slow Roll Chicago’s Divvy for Everyone outreach, what he thinks of the news. “Did we deserve this?” he said. “I think so. We’ve made strides. As was mentioned, there’s so much work to be done, and that’s why Slow Roll works to make sure the city is focusing on equity. That’s why we do the Divvy for Everyone outreach, to make sure that when Divvy is coming to different parts of the city, they’re not just putting in stations but having an actual human being talk to people and answer questions. So the fact that Divvy and the city has been working with Slow Roll and other advocacy partners lately has been tremendous.”

I also talked with Strickland and Active Trans director Ron Burke about the reasoning behind the latest award. I noted that in the League of American Bicyclists’ 2014 Bicycle Friendly Communities ratings Chicago was only designated as “silver” – a level we had languished at since 2005 – while San Francisco, Seattle, and Minneapolis got “gold” rankings, and Portland, Oregon, was designated “platinum.” At the time a League staff member noted that Chicago’s mode share was only about a third of the average gold-rated city, and our crash rate was about twice the average for a gold city, so we’d have to work on those areas in order to move up the rankings.

In light of this, does Bicycling really believe Chicago deserves the top spot? Or is the award mostly a strategy to sell magazines in a large city that’s never had this honor before?

Strickland conceded that he’d had a somewhat rough ride to the ceremony this morning. “I rode on [mostly four-lane] Chicago Avenue to Milwaukee Avenue and then the trail and, yeah, I had a sketchy moment on Chicago,” he said. Burke noted that Strickland could have taken the Kinzie protected bike lane instead of Chicago, but then corrected himself, remembering that Kinzie is a mess right now due to construction.

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Like Kinzie, Dearborn Avenue is one of Chicago’s most important protected bike lane streets, but right now the two-way bike lane is in rough shape. Photo: John Greenfield

“Objectively, Chicago is not really the nicest place to ride in the country,” Strickland admitted. “If we were just going by that, we’d probably have to pick Davis, California, every year. But what we’re really looking for is the big, important metropolises that have made a huge change and are leading the way for other cities. We feel like Chicago is the most important cycling city right now.”

“That’s my sense as well, that this ranking is largely about the pace of improvements, the leadership, and momentum,” Burke said. “We want to see a network of streets everywhere in Chicago where everybody has a low-stress option to get where they need to go. We know we’re not there yet, but we’ve made a lot of progress. The mayor knows this as well, and I believe he’s actually pushing [the Chicago Department of Transportation] to put in more bike lanes.”

Strickland also implied that Chicago got points for the fact that all kinds of people bike here, not just cycling enthusiasts. “I noticed that The 606 goes through different kinds of neighborhoods,” he said. “Yesterday I rode south to Hyde Park and north to Wrigley Field and it was like the parade of humanity on bikes. I thought it was diverse and cool and weird, in a good way. I love Portland, but when you’re in Portland it’s sort of like bike Oz — I look around and everyone’s like me. Here I see people on bikes, which is way more important than ‘cyclists.’”

The editor noted that one reason Chicago beat out New York in 2016 is that NYC lost their momentum for bike improvements during the last two years, after Mayor Bill de Blasio took over from Michael Bloomberg, especially when it comes to protected lanes. “In the past we’ve seen cities get lazy like, ‘Oh, we’re there, we did it,’” Strickland said.

“I know Streetsblog and I like that you guys are activists,” he added. “I know that you guys aren’t going to let that happen in Chicago but are going to keep pushing for improvements.” While our NYC colleagues certainly haven’t been slacking in that department, Streetsblog Chicago readers can count on us to hold city officials accountable if they don’t keep their promise to build a quality bike network sooner than later.

Speaking of our readers, we’ve gotten tons of feedback on Twitter since we broke the news about the award this morning. Here’s a sampling of the comments.

“Has Bicycling Magazine ever actually ridden a bike in our fine city? Or read the news this summer? I’m thinking not.” – Elizabeth Cool

“This is shocking. If we’re number 1, other cities must be very dangerous.” – Samantha Crockett

“Have a friend who just moved from MPLS to CHI. She says Chicago is much less safe to bike. (Fewer protected lanes, etc.)” – Carmin Ballou

“That magazine is 99% about road bikes, racing and time trials: Not my scene. But any good PR for Chicago is still welcomed.” – Michelle Stenzel

What’s your opinion – did Chicago deserve this award? Let us know in the comments.

  • Anne A

    Have we made a lot of progress? Yes. Have we really earned #1? Hmmm… not 100% convinced on that.

  • Amf

    Bicycling editor-in-chief Bill Strickland had a “sketchy” moment on Chicago near Milwaukee.

    And that is so horrible given it would be in close approximation to where Lisa Kuivnen, was struck fatally by a construction vehicle on August 16, 2016.

    Clearly, there needs to be more dialogue.

    John, would you consider asking Milwaukee/Chicago Ave. corridor cyclists to send you photo’s of the (many) errant motorists being ticketed for moving violations by CPD on that stretch?

    On the flip side, listen to Broadcastify, Chicago Metro, and your Ward.

    You will hear that much of what CPD deals with are: domestic disputes, and social service out reach.

    It would appear that CPD is so over burdened, that they really do not have time to catch up with the motorists who drive on Chicago Avenue, East of Milwaukee, at 45 mph, both lanes, barely dodging cyclists.

    This is a societal problem.

    But, it’s the 27th Ward. Time for residents and cyclists to ask the Alderman Walter Burnett, and his assistant, Jesse Smart, google them, to stand up.

  • Pretty sad testament to biking in the US that the #1 city is one where cyclists are continuously put into mortal danger. I’ve only ever biked in one other US city though and that was NYC, which I found scarier. Contrast that with Stockholm where I never once ever felt in danger.

  • Chicagoan

    Let us let ourselves have some nice things every now and again, people.

  • rohmen

    I’ve biked in both NYC and SF, and I would put Chicago as equal to or ahead of those cities in many ways. I’ve also biked in Minneapolis and Portland as well, and obviously those towns should come out ahead of us.

    Portland and Minneapolis have dominated for years, to the point where people were probably starting to tune these lists out really, so shaking things up and focusing on cities “trying” to change the status quo makes sense.

  • Randy Neufeld

    This award is indeed an honor. And is well deserved. I think it will motivate the city even more than runner-up status. I have experience working on cycling with political leadership in all of the top ten cities except Cambridge. And I know some of the Cambridge people. Most of the top cities are having trouble with mayoral and council support these days. Many, like New York, made more progress under previous mayors. We don’t have all 50 Alderman on our side but we have strong Council support and visionary leadership from the Mayor. Don’t take that for granted. There is much that needs to be done to make cycling safe and low stress in Chicago. This will help.

    There is no comparable data on cycling use. The ACS work trip data is deeply flawed. Increased crashes, sadly, may be a better indicator of increased use, but still problematic. Just observing who’s riding and where is still most important. On bike use, Chicago is definitively in the top ten. If you mix use, financial stability and geographical diversity, Divvy is the top bike share in the US. 606, Navy Pier Flyover, Big Marsh, Chicago River Trail, Lakefront twinning, pace of protected bike lanes–on momentum and progress, we’re the best in the nation. When it comes to comparisons and competition, I think we should be looking at London. Amazing things happening there. Maybe stalled under the new mayor. Congrats Mayor Rahm Emmanuel! Best in the world? Go for it.

  • Chicagoan

    Nice to have Mayor Emanuel accepting the award and not just some CDOT official.

    It says that the city and his administration are serious about cycling.

  • planetshwoop

    Is that a Cubs joke? ((wink wink))

  • planetshwoop

    Remember when you won employee of the month at the Dairy Queen when you were a kid and you were like “i’m not really the employee of the month but sheesh Sarah wins ALL THE TIME and the you know I’ve been working at making better Dilly Bars” and like inside you were kind of “hey, cool, employee of the month!”.

    This award is like that, only over years instead of months and not for Dairy Queen. It’s not rigorously scientific, it’s not perfect, but it feels pretty good to get some recognition.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Divvy is a really big deal, and the Flyover addresses a massive bottleneck on the LFT, the Mayor deserves credit for those for sure. Who deserves the blame for our churlish driver ettiquette is the real question – I am looking at the state and it’s pretty half assed drivers education program, and also thinking CPS could be doing a better job teaching what used to be called Civics classes so everyone behind the wheel was more civil.

  • Since making my initial comment, I’ve read through the Bicycling article linked above and am very impressed with the quality of their reporting. They provide a number of detailed paragraphs on the state of bicycling in 50 (!) cities, along with great photos of happy people on mostly awesome bike infrastructure (a couple are scary, though – looking at you #27 Boise). Although the magazine generally focuses on road bikes and racing, it’s clear from the list and Bill Strickland’s comments that they’re also tuned into “everyday biking”. I like his remark about noticing that in Chicago, it’s a “parade of humanity on bikes… diverse and cool and weird”. The increasing diversity of people riding bikes for all purposes in our city is what I’m personally very happy to see.

  • Maybe I’m looking especially hard because I read Streetsblog, but in the past year I’ve seen WAY more people biking for transportation on the streets where I’m driving than before.

    Every trip, I pass at least four or five, when it used to be a one-every-several-trips phenomenon.

    I hope some stick around into the sub-60s weather!

  • hopeyglass

    I don’t think anyone will disagree with you that the state of transportation infrastructure in the entire United States is pretty dismal — someone wanna toss out the stat about how much TIGER funding is going to bike/ped projects? I can’t remember it off the top of my head– but can we please discontinue with the consistent faulty comparisons of current state of affairs in the US and Northern European countries? We don’t have the same social safety net. We don’t have the same social norms. We don’t have cities designed centuries ago that had different abilities to adapt.

    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for cities such as Stockholm or Amsterdam, etc., etc., but I swear to god if I hear one more person go, But! but! but! In Copenhagen!

    NB: I have family who live in Skane, they have friends who choose not to bike as their main form of mode-share (buses/trains are abundant), and most people own a car. Let’s keep up the work for our own problems and how to solve them with inspiration from our neighbors on the Continent. Admittedly, that’s more depressing then hoping for a magical Scandyhoovian change, but hey, battling bureaucracy and educating ourselves about fiscal limitations is important, right?

  • kastigar

    I remember when there were Dairy Queens. Now, they’re hard to find.

  • aulacogen

    In the past month I’ve been lucky enough to have visited and ridden bikes in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Minneapolis. For those who fight/bike it out on the streets of Chicago everyday, picking this city as #1 for biking would be a headscratcher compared directly to the cycling infrastructure in those cities. But I think this award is more of a “most improved” award. Its easy to forget that our city is much larger than all of the other burgs with great existing cycling infrastructure and building these improvements here is happening, but is much more complicated to complete. And as we have a much larger population, even small improvements effect a larger amount of people. Also, I read Bicycling regularly and it is not just focused on road biking and time trials. At least a quarter or half of each magazine is focused on just getting people out on bikes.

  • Matt F

    Moved to Seattle from Chicago. Chicago is the better bike city between the two.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Two Chicago advantages that spring to mind are no hills and a nearly relentless grid. What differences did you have in mind?

  • Matt F

    The culture is completely different. People get on bikes in Chicago to go somewhere — their job, the bar, their friends apartment, etc. People in Seattle put their bike on their car and drive 2 hours to go on a training ride, then drive home afterwards.

    The public transit network is nearly non-existent out here and it’s tough to use the light rail or bus network to connect your ride. The light rail will connect to my office campus — in 2023. And that is considered a big win here.

    My wife does policy work for Cascade and the ‘pro bikers’ tend to be the loudest voice in policy space — they don’t like bike share (makes them look bad) and they want bike lanes to help them train, not to move people. That means a 30-mile loop around the lake instead of a BPL through the business district.

  • BlueFairlane

    Well, this list specifically focuses on the US, which wouldn’t include Copenhagen or Stockholm.

    I think Portland and Minneapolis are both better than Chicago. Washington might be if you just count the center of town. I haven’t explored beyond that enough to know how things are outside of the touristy areas. I’ve never understood why Boulder makes these lists. I find the love bike people have for Boulder highly misplaced.

  • Ellen Hayes

    And this is why I have zero issue with speed cameras and red light cameras. There is not enough police to ticket horrible drivers who speed around this city all hours of the day and night. People know they won’t be enforced so they blatantly drive 15-20 miles over, barely pause/slow at stop signs, etc. Too bad LAZ can’t begin giving moving violations. Guess what, you don’t get tickets if you aren’t breaking the laws. I don’t drive around much but it amazes me when I’m driving streets at a 30 MPH range the amount of cars that will desperately try to get around you and fly down Logan or Fullerton going 40 MPH. People seem to have a death wish.

  • aulacogen

    Sjalvklart, Blue! Its a good thing too, because no American city would look too good in a comparison with what they have going on in Scandinavia.

  • I don’t see why the comparison is faulty. It’s not like every Scandinavian country is like Sweden – Iceland is not a great place to bike in after all.

    The US is pretty variable too. I grew up in the Sunbelt suburbs where people who biked for transportation were considered insane. Having lived there and Stockholm and worked in US government I believe the US could have Scandinavian-like bike infrastructure if people weren’t so status quo about the whole thing, particularly people on the top.

  • Kelly Pierce

    After thinking it over, I can understand the rationale. Portland may be the best cycling city for a bike
    ride, but is it sitting on its #1 rank or working to move from being a national
    leader to a world leader? Chicago has
    transformed bicycling from a hobby to a lifestyle and worked hard to reach all
    different kinds of people in the process to enable them to be cyclists. The magazine has subtly made the statement
    that if a city stand still, it will not be ranked #1. Now, what more do we need to do in the next
    couple of years to maintain are #1 ranking?
    If we get comfortable with incrementalism, we will lose it.

  • Fish

    I moved from Chicago to Seattle and I respectfully disagree. Chicago is flat and that’s about it. Seattle’s weather is far more accommodating to year round riding and, even though the drivers are not great here, they are much more considerate and aware of pedestrians and cyclists that what I ever experienced in Chicago. The big problem with Seattle is that it can be night and day depending on what you neighborhood you live in. Biking north of the cut feels like your are in a european city with how well the Burke trail is intergrated. The downtown is still a mess but will improve. I think Chicago has come a long way and I would bike there any day over NYC, but it just never felt very culturally acceptable to bike. It’s not the most active city…

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