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:
- San Francisco
- Portland, OR
- New York
- Cambridge, MA
- Washington, D.C.
- 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.
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.