Farewell to Mark Konkol and His “Alternative Facts” About Biking

Mark Konkol. Photo: WTTW / Chicago Tonight
Mark Konkol. Photo: WTTW / Chicago Tonight

Yesterday Robert Feder revealed that DNAinfo columnist Mark Konkol has left that news website to focus on other projects. Konkol previously shared the Pulitzer prize for his work covering violence in Chicago neighborhoods at the Sun-Times, and he’s got an upcoming cable documentary series on the juvenile justice system that sounds like an important story.

However, I’d be remiss in my role as a sustainable transportation reporter and advocate if I let Konkol go out the door without pointing out that most of his many columns about Chicago bike infrastructure were journalistic garbage. He frequently used his bully pulpit to go after projects that were his personal white whales, publishing rants that were riddled with factual errors.

Konkol’s “think locally, act globally” campaign against bike improvements began in early 2011, after Chicago’s first protected bike lane was installed on Kinzie Street, downstairs from his office at the Sun-Times. Sadly, the series of articles he wrote attacking those protected lanes as “bunk” and “a giant waste of money” are no longer online, but one of his chief complaints was that the Kinzie lanes were causing major traffic jams.

Wrong. After the lanes went in, a city traffic study found minimal effects on car travel times. While eastbound morning rush travel time from Milwaukee to Wells increased by less than a minute, westbound a.m. travel time improved slightly, as did evening rush travel times in both directions. Meanwhile, morning rush-hour bike ridership increased by 55 percent.

And when new bike facilities in River West were blamed for the temporary closure of the Silver Palm restaurant, separating Konkol from his favorite sandwich, the Three Little Pigs, he dutifully repeated those claims:

Ultimately, The Silver Palm was done in by the well-meaning pursuit of a more bike-friendly city. Specifically, the installation of protected bike lanes and a Divvy bike station on Milwaukee Avenue — combined with road construction — gobbled up so much parking that customers stayed away, [the owner] said. “The loss of 15 parking places in one block took its toll,” David Gervercer wrote in an email.

While it was true that the bike lane installation involved the removal of 15 parking spots on Milwaukee Avenue, Konkol failed to mention that 14 of those were slated to be replaced with new diagonal parking spaces on a side street. Moreover, the nearby Divvy station was actually located on the sidewalk, so it had no impact on car parking. And, of course, a docking station represents many new bike parking spaces.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 3.27.11 PM

In an October 2015 column Konkol implied that the city’s bike initiatives were a frivolous distraction from more pressing civic issues, designed to “pamper” affluent residents. “Take a peak [sic] at a map of Emanuel’s highly-touted protected bike lanes and you’ll see most of Chicago’s new, bike-friendly streets… are located in the wealthy parts of Chicago.”

False. At the time, sixty percent of the total bike lane mileage installed under the Emanuel administration had gone to the South and West Sides, which had also gotten the bulk of the physically protected lanes. In fact, save for a quarter-mile stretch in Uptown, no physically protected bike lanes had been built north of North Avenue.

The piece also inaccurately stated that five “hardly used [Divvy] stations in Englewood average a ride or two per month.” While ridership was, in fact, low at those recently installed stations, they were already averaging dozens of rides a month. All of which goes to show that, just because you’ve got a Pulitzer on your mantel, it doesn’t mean you always get your facts straight.

While I won’t miss Konkol’s many spurious claims about local cycling projects, I wish him luck in his future endeavors. And, not to worry, it’s likely that his fellow Chicago bike trolls John Kass, Ron Grossman, and John McCarron will keep me plenty busy fact-checking their anti-cycling screeds in Mark’s absence.

  • Obesa Adipose

    White whale – indeed!

  • planetshwoop

    Is the Elston bike lane near the old Vienna Beef factory protected? It’s tiny but North of North Ave

  • planetshwoop

    Steinberg deserves credit for often praising Divvy.

    But sometimes I wonder if editors encourage the anti-bike columns bc they seem to generate tons of comments, letters, etc.

  • Chicagoan

    I assume that the Sun-Times and Tribune like the anti-cycling columns because it speaks to their suburban readership.

    These newspapers also sell a lot of advertising space to automakers, so that could play a part as well.

  • Chicagoan

    Perhaps DNAinfo could take a more urban stance on Chicago-related issues, now that Mark Konkel is gone.

  • Some days I just wonder if you actually read your own words, and really perceive the kind of grudge-carrying, ad hominem jerk you portray yourself as so often on Streetsblog. It’s so tiresome to read, over and over again, whatever rant of the week you’ve got going, whoever is in your targets at the moment, and so unprofessional it’s not even funny.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Let me get this straight: You’re saying I’m a grudge-carrying, unprofessional jerk, and I’m the one who’s guilty of making personal attacks?

    Seriously, though, you made the same accusation about my rebuttal to Ben Joravsky’s latest Belmont flyover piece, which included multiple sentences praising him and zero insulting him: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2016/11/23/ben-joravskys-an-astute-pundit-but-his-transit-tif-takedown-is-misguided/

    Most of this article, which starts out by acknowledging Konkol’s accomplishments, simply notes and corrects the factual errors in his bike writings. I did state that his columns about cycling were usually garbage, an opinion that I stand by. I also called him a “Chicago bike troll,” because that’s what he did — troll (“make a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them”) Chicago cyclists.

    Writing this kind of article, debunking false statements about sustainable transportation in the mainstream media, is a big part of the job that Streetsblog readers and sponsors are paying me to do, and I will continue to do it.

  • Mcass777

    I kinda agree here. The style of your narrative reminds me of our new president’s delivery. Heavy on personally directed adverbs and adjectives. Yes there are good points but it takes a lot to read thru the attacking style of the piece.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I used “Wrong” and “False,” two of Trump’s favorite words during the presidential debates, in keeping with the headline.

  • Mcass777

    So is this a style that should be emulated in mass com? I missed the intentional nod and thought it was genuine and to me, makes your points wither.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “I missed the intentional nod.” Sorry, I’ve been told I have a dry (easy to miss) sense of humor.

  • Chicagoan

    Mr. Konkel often times just makes stuff up when discussing cycling, so I think it’s crucial for Mr. Greenfield, as a sustainable transportation advocate & reporter, to respond to his claims.

    We live in an era of alternative facts and fake news, so I appreciate that Mr. Greenfield is there to set the record straight or provide a rebuttal.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Konkol. Just an awful excuse for a marquee reporter, he makes John Kass look like Royko wrapped in Shakespeare.

  • PP

    Good riddance.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Unprofessional, IMO, is an adjective best used in the context of the factually incorrect “reporting” Chicago’s mainstream media has provided at least my entire lifetime.

    If you don’t care for the Streetsblog point of view (and at least they are honest about it), why do you continue to visit the site on a regular basis? There is no shortage of media space composed by angry reporters shaking their fist at the sky and ranting about the “bike menace.”

  • b_hack

    Ad hominem: directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.

    John’s piece is the exact opposite of an ad hominem attack, directed at debunking Konkol’s journalistic claims with actual data – completely divorced from his personal qualities.

  • I’m not surprised that he eats sandwiches like that, but you can’t expect a guy that fat to bike all the way to Pullman!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    No body-shaming please.

  • Deni

    When people make these accusations against John’s writing it makes me wonder if you even read the piece at all. I think he is one of the most level headed and fact-based writers around, and he never makes personal attacks. Calling others out on their factually-challenged claims are not personal attacks and they are not rants. Calling someone a jerk is a personal attack, though.

  • Totally disagree. Post was factual and fair.

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