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What Will It Take for Chicago Win Gold From the Bike League?

CDOT recently added bike lanes on Lawrence between Ashland and Western as part of a road diet, filling in a gap in the bike network. More connectivity between bikeways will help our mode share. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday, the League of American Bicyclists announced that 55 new and renewing municipalities have won recognition in the group’s Bicycle Friendly Communities program, and there are now participants in all 50 states. However, even after all the strides Chicago has made in the last few years, we're still languishing at the same Silver-level ranking we’ve been at since 2005.

The Bicycle Friendly Communities ratings serve as a useful carrot to reward cities for stepping up their bike game. Communities of all sizes may apply or reapply once a year by submitting info about the progress they’ve made in the “5 Es”: Engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation. The results of these efforts -- in the form of ridership levels and safety performance -- are also factored into the rankings. The league announces the results twice a year.

In the last few years Chicago has taken big steps to improve cycling, including establishing the nation’s second-largest bike-share system, building dozens of miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, and launching construction on the Bloomingdale Trail. Was that not enough to jump up a level in the Bike League's eyes?

"Mayor Emanuel really set really ambitious goals for infrastructure," noted Bill Nesper, who manages the Bicycle Friendly Communities program. However, Chicago’s newer initiatives -- such as Divvy, the Bloomingdale and most of the city’s next-generation bike lanes -- weren’t factored into the current LAB ratings because the city of Chicago hasn’t renewed its application since the spring of 2012. The city plans to reapply this February, according to Chicago Department of Transportation staffer Mike Amsden.

Even so, it’s no sure thing that Chicago will move up the ladder to Gold, Nesper said. Despite the new infrastructure, many locals and visitors still wouldn’t rate the Windy City as a particularly safe, comfortable, or convenient place to bike, certainly not compared to Gold-level San Francisco, Seattle, or Minneapolis, let alone Platinum-ranked Portland. Dangerous driving is common here, pavement quality is often lousy, and there are major gaps in the bikeway network. Our ridership levels and safety record reflect these shortcomings.

BFC infographic
An infographic showing the LAB's methodology. Click here for a larger version.

Nesper noted that peer cities like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston are also trying to strike Gold, and like them, Chicago will have to improve its performance to earn a better ranking. “Once you get to the higher reaches of the awards, we’re not just looking at inputs, but also outputs,” he said.

An average Gold-level city has a 5.5 percent bike mode share, but Chicago’s 2013 mode share was only 1.4 percent, Nesper noted. There was a 174 percent growth in ridership here between 2000 and 2013. However we only increased our mode share by 0.3 percentage points between 2009 and 2013, a relatively modest gain.

Nesper compared that to Washington, which had a 2.2 percent mode share in 2009. Ridership nearly doubled to four percent over the next four years, largely due to the growth of bike-share use. Chicago may see a similar bike-share bump in future Census numbers. Nesper noted that San Francisco, another big city with good transit, had a 3.8 percent mode share in 2013, and Seattle was at 3.5 percent. Even the cold-weather cities of Minneapolis, Cambridge, and Madison had mode shares of 3.7 percent, 5.6 percent, and 6 percent, respectively.

Chicago's safety record is nothing to brag about either. "Chicago’s crash rate in 2012 was a little less than two times what the average crash rate was in Gold communities," Nesper said. Our city’s relatively high bike fatality rate was also a factor in the failure to advance, he added. So far this year, there have been eight bike fatalities in Chicago.

So what does our city need to do to achieve Gold-level performance? "From our standpoint, you should continue doing what you’re doing, in terms of building new bikeways and filling in the gaps," Nesper said. “Chicago is an enormous place, so completing the bike network and expanding educational efforts are going to be really important.”

He added that better traffic law enforcement, in keeping with the city’s Vision Zero goals, will improve our numbers. “To get more people riding, you really need to reduce crashes and increase the perception of safety and comfort for cyclists.”

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