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The City Shouldn’t Just Encourage Shoveling, It Should Require It

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Take This Job and Shovel. Photo: Active Trans

[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John's column in Newcity Magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

After Mother Nature dumped 19.3 inches of snow on us earlier this month, many viewed Chicago as a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but I felt the city became something of a utopia. Drivers were forced to slow down to safe speeds, and folks helped out neighbors and strangers in numerous ways. The main sour note was the reappearance of “Dibs,” the selfish practice of reserving dug-out parking spaces with old junk.

The day after the blizzard, I found cross-country skiing to be the most efficient way to get around. As I shushed down the middle of unplowed side streets from my home to the library to band practice and back, I encountered five different stuck motorists. Helping them push their marooned automobiles out of the snow’s clutches gave me a warm feeling inside.

However, not everyone can strap on a pair of skis to avoid trudging through the white stuff on uncleared sidewalks. When property owners neglect their civic duty by failing to shovel in a timely manner, it creates a significant barrier for people with disabilities, seniors and young kids, and a major annoyance for the rest of us.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke pointed out in a recent blog post that heavy snowfalls make it obvious most cities prioritize driving over walking and biking. Ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection in the wake of a 1979 blizzard that paralyzed Chicago, local mayors have generally done a bang-up job of getting the streets plowed for drivers.

However, even in the Loop—where there are a heckuva lot more people on foot than in cars—the streets are usually cleared well before the sidewalks, Burke noted. And don’t get me started on Chicago’s protected bike lanes, which are often clogged with slush for days after a big storm. This isn’t always the city’s fault—even after the city has plowed curbside PBLs, it’s common for building crews to push snow from the sidewalks into the lanes.

Since walkways in front of homes and businesses are public space, just like streets are, it’s logical that municipalities should take responsibility for clearing them. Some of Chicago’s tonier suburbs, such as Glencoe, Winnetka and Wilmette, do just that, the Tribune recently reported.

In the city of Chicago, we rely on building owners and merchants to do the right thing, but too often they don’t. It’s particularly infuriating to encounter parking lots, strip malls and big-box stores where the management has plowed the car parking spots, but hasn’t bothered to shovel the sidewalks around the perimeter of the property.

At a meeting of the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council a few days after the recent snow accumulation, Chicago pedestrian coordinator Suzanne Carlson reported on the city’s strategies to coax people into picking up a shovel or snow blower. According to the municipal code, if a storm ends before 4pm on any day but Sunday, you have three hours to clear the snow, she noted. If it ceases after 4pm, or on the Lord’s Day, you have until 10am the following morning.

The Chicago Department of Transportation has posted ads on bus shelters and billboards exhorting “Keep your sidewalks shoveled. It’s neighborly… and it’s the law.” Residents are advised to call 311 if they need help with clearing snow due to age or disability.

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Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

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Courtney Cobbs.

[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago in the past about the need for better bus and train access on Chicago’s South and West Sides. I caught up with her by phone to hear more of her take on the equity issue.

John Greenfield: What’s the public transportation system like in Little Rock?

Courtney Cobbs: There really isn’t much of one. I actually had a brief conversation with the people there about, for example, how ridiculous it was that I lived about five or six miles from the community college that I attended and that, in order to get there, I would have to take two buses and it would take me 30 minutes, versus a ten-minute drive. The bus service is very infrequent and doesn’t run very late. It’s like not having a system at all, for the most part.

JG: You wrote a while ago that the transit system is one of the things that brought you to Chicago.

CC: Yes. I wanted to live in a city where I didn’t have to own a car, because I really care about the environment, and public transportation saves you money. I really like big cities, and I felt like Chicago was an affordable option versus New York or L.A., and I could live here without a car relatively well.

JG: Where do you work nowadays?

CC: I work for Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers, at their Ravenswood location. I work with adults with chronic mental illness, helping them with daily living skills and integrating them into the community. For example, I help them navigate the CTA.

JG: You live in Edgewater, near the Bryn Mawr stop. How far a walk do you have to the train station?

CC: Two or three minutes. It really just depends on if I have get walk signal or not. [Laughs.]

JG: So you’re really only about a block away. Is train noise an issue in your apartment?

CC: It isn’t, surprisingly. If it’s late at night and I have my window open, occasionally I can hear “Doors closing,” but that’s about it.

JG: Where did you live when you first came to Chicago?

CC: I lived in Kenwood, at 44th and Drexel. Transit service wasn’t as good. The best part about living there was the #4 Cottage Grove bus. That runs along Cottage Grove between the Illinois Center and Chicago State University.

JG: That was how you got downtown?

CC: Yeah. When I started with Thresholds, I would take the 43rd Street bus to the 47th Street Red Line station. My commute was about an hour, hour and fifteen minutes every day, which was really physically draining. Moving to the North Side has cut down on my commute time considerably.

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John Discusses Active Trans’ Candidates Survey on WBEZ’s Morning Shift

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Mayoral candidates Walls, Fioretti, Emanuel, García, and Wilson. Photo: Chicago Sun Times

This morning I pedaled down the Lakefront Trail to WBEZ’s studios at the end of Navy Pier to talk with “Morning Shift” host Tony Sarabia about a questionnaire the Active Transportation Alliance sent to all of the mayoral and aldermanic candidates. Listen to the full recording of our on-air conversation here.

The survey asked the candidates what modes they and their family members use for work commutes, errands, and work commutes. It asked whether they support expanding the bike network, and earmarking money for transit and pedestrian infrastructure. The questionnaire also covered automated traffic enforcement, separation of pedestrians and cyclists on the lakefront path, and indoor bike parking at office buildings.

Since the survey was mostly in a yes-or-no format, it’s not surprising that it resulted in nearly identical responses from mayoral contenders Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Bob Fioretti, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, and former Harold Washing aide William “Dock” Walls. Businessman Willie Wilson didn’t return the questionnaire.

Obviously, none of the respondents was going to say “no,” they’re not in favor of better conditions for walking, biking, and transit. The only place where the responses varied was on the subject of red light and speed cams — Emanuel was the only one who voiced support for more of them.

If you want to learn anything new about the mayoral hopeful’s viewpoints on transportation, you need to look at the PDFs of the additional comments on the surveys from Emanuel, Fioretti, and García — Walls simply checked the “yes” and “no” boxes. Emanuel has the most extensive responses, since he’s got four years of transportation achievements to boast about. However, it’s a little disappointing that he promises to continue pursuing state and federal grants for pedestrian infrastructure but doesn’t commit to creating a line item in the city budget.

Fioretti deserves credit for being the only candidate to reference the recent campaign for a more equitable distribution of bike resources for the South and West Sides. But his claim that cameras that ticket traffic scofflaws are “an unfair burden on taxpayers” is pretty laughable.

García had nothing additional to say about walking, biking, or transit, but he wrote that, before adding more traffic cams or traffic cops, “I would… look to other jurisdictions for the best, most effective strategies that can be used to increase compliance.” Actually, that’s already been done — there’s no doubt that red light and speed cameras save lives.

While I was on the air, we got several nice tweets from Streetsblog readers who were excited to hear our take on the mayoral race. (Note to self: Turn off the text message alert chime on your cell phone before doing radio interviews.) One reader lamented the fact that, due to our current funding shortfall, we haven’t been able to do original reporting on a regular basis.

Thanks for the contribution, Carmin! The good news is, we’re closing in on reaching 50 percent of the $75K we need to fund a year of operations, and we’re hoping to garner some major donations and grant money in the near future. If you haven’t already done so, please consider donating to the Streetsblog Chicago Resurrection Fund. If the site does not return to daily publication of original reporting by April 8, all money will be returned. Thanks again for your support.

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Eyes on the Street: Broadway’s Keeper

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I took took protected bike lane snow clearance into my own hands this afternoon. Photo: Justin Haugens

Steven Vance and I have been touched by the many shout-outs and well-wishes we’ve received on social media in the wake of last week’s shutdown of Streetsblog Chicago due to funding issues. We’ve heard a collective groan from everyone from our readers, to transportation blogging colleagues around the country, to other Chicago media outlets like Gapers Block, Chicagoist, and Chicago Magazine. We’ve even heard from local elected officials bemoaning the loss of the city’s daily source for sustainable transportation and livable streets news:

 

The good news is that we’ve made significant headway in the effort to raise funds so that Steven and I can return to producing original reporting. Readers have responded generously to my request for donations, with over 80 individual donations made within a few days.

If you value Streetsblog’s hard-hitting reporting and haven’t already done so, please consider making a contribution to the Streetsblog Chicago Resurrection Fund. I still need to raise a significant chunk of money from small-to-medium donations as part of my fundraising strategy, which also includes major donors, ad revenue, and foundation grants. Donations are not tax-deductible at this point, but all donors will receive an email stating that their money will be returned if daily publication of original articles has not resumed by April 8, three months from the start of the hiatus.

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The northbound PBL on the 4400 block of North Broadway before shoveling. Photo: John Greenfield

I took a break from my fundraising work this afternoon for a little direct intervention to improve Chicago street safety. Ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection following the brutal Blizzard of ’79, Chicago mayors have done an excellent job of keeping the streets clear of snow for drivers. However, they haven’t always done such a great job of making sure bike routes get plowed. Last winter, many of the city’s protected bike lanes were often unrideable because they were filled with snow or slush.

To their credit, the Chicago Department of Transportation has been trying harder this year to make sure the PBLs are maintained. They temporarily removed the flexible posts that delineated several protected lanes along snow routes, to make it easier for the department of Streets and Sanitation to plow the entire street.

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Streets and San did a good job of clearing the southbound PBL on the same block of Broadway. Photo: John Greenfield

However, I recently heard that the PBLs on Broadway, between Montrose and Wilson,  have been impassible this month due to poor snow clearance, so that some cyclists have been taking Clark as an alternative. That means the Broadway lanes, which People for Bikes recently rated the nation’s tenth-best new PBLs, are actually deterring bicycling instead of encouraging it. That’s not right.

I went over to Broadway with a shovel in hand to investigate. While some portions of the lanes were well plowed and people were riding in them, other stretches were choked with slush, forcing cyclists to instead share the narrow travel lanes with cars. I didn’t have time to clear the entire bikeway, but I spent about 45 minutes digging out the northbound side of the 4400 block. I was rewarded by the sight of cyclists immediately taking advantage of the clear, protected passageway.

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The northbound PBL, after my guerrilla intervention. Photo: John Greenfield

I’d like to think that the blockage in the Broadway lanes was mostly due to property owners pushing their sidewalk snow into them, rather than neglect by the city. Either way, it would be great if CDOT and Streets and San could take additional steps to ensure that PBLs around the city enable, rather than thwart, cycling.

In the meantime, I invite concerned cyclists from around the city to grab a shovel and join me in the fight to keep Chicago’s protected lanes rideable. Feel free to tweet your guerilla PBL shoveling experience at #AdoptABikeLane.

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Why I Fight: How Biking Saved My Life and Can Help Other Black Chicagoans

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Oboi Reed and Jamal Julien from Slow Roll Chicago. Photo: SRC

[Streetsblog invited Olatunji Oboi Reed, president of Slow Roll Chicago, to share his perspective on our city’s bicycle equity challenges.]

Let me explain why I’m aggressively advocating for bike equity in Chicago.

About ten years ago, when I was 30 years old, I took an extended medical leave from my job at Citibank when work, family and relationship stresses brought on a severe bout of clinical depression. I have struggled with this illness on-and-off since high school.

During this time, I was experiencing a level of emotional pain so intense, an escape route was the only thing I could think about. One day, as I sat on my couch in Chatham, crying in the dark, I summoned the will to explore an alternative to taking my own life.

A few years before, when I was living in Champaign, my dear friend Ogunsola Hammond Carter sold me a green Diamondback mountain bike for about $50. After I moved back to Chicago, I hardly ever rode the bike. However, during my moment of crisis, I felt my final option was to try bicycling as a healthy escape from my pain.

I got up and went next door to my mother’s house, where the bike sat in the basement with two flat tires, covered in dust and badly in need of a tune up. I resolved to take the Diamondback to John’s Hardware & Bicycle Shop for repairs, then go for a ride and see what happened.

Early in the morning on a beautiful summer Saturday, I put the now-rideable bike in the trunk of my car and drove to 63rd Street Beach. I walked the bike to the trail, took a deep breath and started to ride.

Soon, I noticed the tranquil beach and the waves rhythmically crashing on the sand. I started to play hide and seek with the sun, as I pedaled by the trees along the trail. The rustling leaves sang a song to me, drowning out the negativity in my head. I was smiling for the first time in months.

I began to take note of other Black people on the trail, enjoying themselves, walking and running and biking. Feeling a newfound desire to connect with other people, I would sometimes look up from my handlebars and make eye contact with a fellow brother or sister on the trail. I was a bit surprised to find that, every single time, I was greeted with a head nod, a warm smile, or a friendly “How you doing brother?” I no longer felt alone.

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The Lakefront Trail near 63rd Street Beach. Image: Google Streetview

I had found the respite from my pain that I so desperately needed. Over the next several weeks, I rode as often as I could. It was still a struggle to find the will to get out of bed each day and do basic things like showering and eating, but I pushed through. Each ride gave me more energy to address my problems.

After ignoring my depression for nearly two decades, I decided to do something about it. I began seeing a therapist and started a regimen of medication. Eventually, I returned to work.

I continued to struggle with this mental illness, and it sometimes got the best of me, but I no longer considered suicide. Along with counseling, diet, yoga, and spending time with family and friends, biking is still my one of my greatest weapons against depression.

I know unequivocally that I am alive today because of that ride on the Lakefront Trail a decade ago. This knowledge fuels my current efforts to bring the many benefits of cycling to others in the Black community.

For a host of reasons, many Black Chicagoans have little interest in cycling. Like I once did, they view biking as something for children and White people on the Northside. Very few of them consider biking to be a viable form of transportation.

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Active Trans Wants Candidates to Commit to Working for Safer Streets

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Active Trans is asking mayoral and aldermanic candidates to support increased enforcement of traffic safety laws, including the state law requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Photo: John Greenfield

The Active Transportation Alliance released its 2015 election platform last week [PDF], featuring strategies to improve walking, biking, and transit in the region that they want candidates in the municipal elections to endorse. The Active Transportation Platform focuses on creating safer streets and providing better infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. The group hopes candidates will pledge to take action to reduce the number of pedestrian and bike fatalities in Chicago, increase transit funding, and address other key transportation challenges. 

There are 198 people running for alderman in 46 Chicago wards, according to the website Aldertrack, and at least four people are running for mayor. Active Trans plans to send a questionnaire [PDF] about the platform to every candidate. Hopefuls from the 43rd Ward will also receive a questionnaire [PDF] from the group BikeWalk Lincoln Park, which asks about the candidates ideas for making Clark Street safer and more vibrant, among other topics.

Active Trans based the questions on discussions with supporters, feedback from last year’s member meeting, and a public survey, according to staffer Kyle Whitehead. The first question quickly establishes the group’s priorities, asking if the candidate or a family member routinely walks, bikes, or rides transit to get to work or school, to run errands, or for recreation.

The platform states that there should be a sustainable funding source to pay for pedestrian infrastructure improvements, and bike lane and crosswalk maintenance. Whitehead said this plank came out of the Safe Crossings campaign, which identified the ten most dangerous intersections in Chicago for pedestrians. “Even when the alderman, residents, and the Chicago Department of Transportation all agree that there’s a problem in pedestrian movement [at an intersection], there’s not always funding to develop solutions,” he noted.

Each alderman has $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds, but “aldermen are being pulled in all directions as to where that money should go,” Whitehead explained. When there’s a pedestrian safety issue that needs to be addressed, there’s often a lengthy back-and-forth between the alderman and CDOT about how infrastructure should be financed, which delays improvements. “Pedestrian safety is critical, to the point where there should be a portion of the city’s annual budget dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience,” he said. 

The same thing is true for bike lane maintenance. CDOT usually only restripes bike lanes and when there’s a repaving project, or when an alderman wants to pay for the restriping via menu funds. Only a handful of aldermen, all from downtown and North Side districts, have chosen to do that, which contributes to the poorer quality of the bike network on the South and West Sides. Rather than having the visibility of a bike lane depend on which ward it’s passing through, dedicated funding would create a more functional citywide bikeway system for all cyclists.

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Faulty Signage Created Dangerous Situation for Peds by Lincoln Park Zoo

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Because “No Parking” signs by the zoo weren’t relocated after a curb ramp was moved, drivers parked in the crosswalk. Photo: Andrew Herman

Here’s a great example of the Streetsblog community making a difference by helping to get an infrastructure problem fixed.

On December 15, Andrew Herman from the group Bike Walk Lincoln Park contacted us about a crosswalk problem by the neighborhood’s zoo. Earlier in the year, as part of a project to repave Stockton Drive through Lincoln Park, the Chicago Department of Transportation relocated a curb cut for pedestrians on the west side of the street, across from The Farm-in-the-Zoo. CDOT built a new curb ramp several feet north, so that it would line up with the pedestrian ramp on the east side of the street, creating a shorter, safer crossing route, which they striped with a high-visibility, “continental” crosswalk.

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The old curb ramp was located just south of the new one. Photo: Andrew Herman

However, after CDOT built the new curb ramp, they failed to relocate the “No Parking” signs by the old ramp. As a result, motorists were parking north of the old No Parking zone, right in the middle of the new crosswalk. Drivers only seemed to pay attention to the signs, but were apparently oblivious to the presence of the curb ramps and zebra striping.

On July 2, Herman contacted 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith’s office about the problem, including tweeting Smith. Her office told me they immediately submitted a service request asking CDOT to fix move the signs.

Herman said he followed up several times over the summer, and the ward office resubmitted the request on multiple occasions, but the work was never done. “It’s not my job to defend CDOT,” Smith told me, but she added that the department has had its hands full with repaving work in 2014, in the wake of the brutal “Chiberia” winter.

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Mother Jones Rang in 2015 By Blaming Drunk People for Getting Hit By Cars

In a hyperbolic article, the left-wing publication Mother Jones interpreted national pedestrian fatality stats to mean people who have been drinking shouldn't walk anywhere on New Year's Eve. Image: Mother Jones

Here’s how Mother Jones presented U.S. pedestrian fatality data in a New Year’s Eve warning to avoid walking after having some drinks. Graphic: Mother Jones

This was the New Year’s revelry advice from Mother Jones, the left-wing, reader-supported magazine: Whatever you do, don’t walk anywhere after drinking. That’s because, Maddie Oatman writes, it makes you more likely to be struck by a driver.

As the basis for her reporting, Oatman used some well worn stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In a recent report, NHTSA noted that about a third of pedestrians killed while walking had blood alcohol content of .08 percent or higher at the time. That spurred a victim-blamey, click-baity frenzy in the national media about the dangers of “drunk walking” — as if people on two feet have the same responsibility to remain sober as people operating heavy machinery.

It’s extra disappointing to see a progressive publication like Mother Jones fall into this trap. Telling people not to walk drunk because they might get struck by a car is like telling college women not to drink because they might get raped. It takes a structurally vulnerable class of people — pedestrians — and puts the onus on them to prevent violence at the hands of another group. It is victim blaming, plain and simple.

Walking, on its own, is plainly not dangerous, and neither is walking drunk. What adds an element of risk is traffic — fast-moving traffic in particular. Entirely overlooked in the the NHTSA study and Mother Jones was how road design puts pedestrians — whether they’re healthy and alert and fit, or affected in some way by old age or disability or alcohol — in harm’s way.

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CDOT Puts Belmont on a Confusing, Dangerous “Binge Diet” At Western

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A CDOT rendering from the June meeting shows a plan to expand Belmont to six lanes for over 500 feet, across the intersection of Western Avenue and Clybourn Avenue.

Bicycling up and over the Chicago River on Belmont, from Avondale to Roscoe Village, will soon be more comfortable once the Chicago Department of Transportation gives the street a “road diet” and replaces car travel lanes with new buffered bike lanes. Bicyclists shouldn’t get too comfortable, though: Once they’ve crested the bridge eastbound, they’ll be dropped into the middle of a six-lane highway. Yes, CDOT is narrowing Belmont from four lanes to two on one block, and then on the very next block widening Belmont to six lanes, while eliminating the bike lanes completely.

The road diet is planned between Western Avenue (2400 West) and Washtenaw Avenue (2700 West). Its buffered bike lanes will extend west to Kedzie Avenue and, eventually, east to Halsted Street in Lakeview. Not only will the road diet give bicyclists a rare chance to safely climb over the Chicago River, but it will bring Belmont into a consistent lane configuration — it’s two lanes wide both east of Western and west of Washtenaw. Two lanes is perfectly appropriate for Belmont’s light traffic: 14,000 cars per day were counted in 2010, which two lanes easily handle on similar streets like Milwaukee Avenue and Halsted.

Yet, at the exact same time, CDOT is continuing to advance another plan for Belmont that’s at odds with the goal of making it a comfortable street for bicycling and walking. As Belmont approaches Western, where a crumbling overpass is being removed, the street will balloon from two to six lanes wide. The planned intersection [PDF] will require condemning private property, demolishing the fronts of several buildings at the southwest corner, and halt the bike lanes hundreds of feet short of the intersection.

This widening project is eerily reminiscent of how Harrison Street was widened at Congress Parkway, an unsafe and unnecessary move that was finally undone last year. The situation didn’t improve traffic flow much, since it simply created bottlenecks on either side where several lanes had to merge into one. The widening is also at odds with CDOT’s current practice of striping bike lanes through intersections, and puts bicyclists at greatest risk right where they most need protection.

Before conditions on Belmont at Western Avenue

CDOT plans to demolish at least part of the buildings at right so that it can widen Belmont Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance.

Belmont is designated as a key Crosstown Bike Route in the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, and would be a great way for bicyclists to get between the north and northwest sides if only there weren’t a huge, crowded, high-speed intersection dropped right into the middle of it. Michelle Stenzel was a co-leader for the plan’s North Side district, co-chairs Bike Walk Lincoln Park, and is disappointed with CDOT’s plans for Belmont at Western.

A wider Belmont “will never, ever attract new bike riders, when people are left with completely no help, no protection, and no direction at a huge intersection like this,” Stenzel says. “It was supposed to serve as an important east-west route,” she said, but will prove too dangerous for many potential bicyclists. Stenzel took umbrage with using city funds to buy buildings and widen the road: “It’s infuriating” that, while “city planners have a blank slate [because of the flyover teardown]… there’s not a single inch of room to provide bicyclists a safe passage.”

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Hit-and-Run Driver Killed Cyclist Aimer Robledo on New Year’s Day

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Aimer Robledo

2015 had a tragic start for the family of Aimer Robledo, a Humboldt Park man who was killed by a hit-and-run driver as he rode his bike home in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

Robledo, 30, worked in construction and catering, and also DJed Mexican music at parties. On New Year’s Eve, he threw a party at his home on the 1400 block of North Avers, where he lived with other family members, DNAinfo reported.

At about 1:30 a.m., as the party was ending, nephew Raphael Hernandez told DNA that Robledo decided to ride his bike to go visit a friend. Hernandez added that his uncle hadn’t been drinking prior to leaving his party. After wishing the friend a happy New Year, Robledo stopped nearby to visit his own wife and two daughters, ages eight and nine, who lived separately from him. 

Around 2:40 a.m., Robledo was riding home from his wife’s house when the driver of a dark-colored minivan struck him under a railroad viaduct on the 4700 block of West Division, according to Officer Veejay Zala from Police News Affairs. This industrial stretch of Division has wide lanes and few intersections, which encourages speeding.

Robledo suffered a head injury but was still breathing when the ambulance arrived, Hernandez told DNA. Robledo was transported to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:37 a.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

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