Advocates Request a Fair Share of Bike Resources for Black Communities

A Slow Roll Chicago ride. Photo: John Greenfield

A group of African-American bike advocates says they want to do whatever it takes to make sure more black Chicagoans have a chance to enjoy the health, economic, and social benefits of cycling. They’ve called for the city and state, as well as other advocacy groups, to commit to a more equitable distribution of bike facilities and education to low-income, African-American communities on the South and West Sides.

“In the past, the city’s philosophy has been that the communities that already bike the most deserve the most resources,” said Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago, Red Bike & Green, and Southside Critical Mass. “That just perpetuates a vicious cycle where cycling grows fast in some neighborhood and not others. Biking leads to better physical and mental health, safer streets, more connected communities, and support for local businesses. Black communities are the ones that need those benefits the most.”

As it stands, Chicago has a higher overall density, and better connectivity, of bike lanes downtown and in relatively affluent North Side neighborhoods with higher population density and bike mode share. Their South and West Side counterparts have received more miles of protected bike lanes, due to the fact that wide roads with available right-of-way are more common in these parts of town.

While a number of low-income communities of color, such as Lawndale, Little Village, Pilsen, and Bronzeville, have received Divvy bike-share, a majority of the stations have been installed downtown and on the North Side. The system is slated to expand to more South and West Side neighborhoods next year. The more bikeable areas of the city also have a higher density of parking racks, which residents can request via a Chicago Department of Transportation website.

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 7.56.25 PM
Active Trans’ Bikeways Tracker shows the distribution of protected lanes (green) and buffered lanes (blue). Red is proposed bikeways.

In an effort to win more bike resources for black communities, Reed has partnered with Peter Taylor, an Active Transportation Alliance board member and president of Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, and Shawn Conley, head of the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago. On November 1, they met in a Woodlawn café to strategize with Eboni Senai Hawkins, founder of RBG Chicago and a member of the League of American Bicyclists’ Equity Advisory Council, Latrice Williams from Bronzeville Bikes, as well as black bike advocates from Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

Out of that meeting came an open letter to the city, state and other advocacy groups, asking for a more fair distribution of bike infrastructure and education, and that more consideration be given to the needs and concerns of black residents when allocating these resources. The letter makes seven specific requests. Among these are that the local governments make a public commitment to prioritize equity, and require contractors who work on transportation projects to do so as well.

The advocates ask the city and state to commit to spending a fair amount of tax dollars on bike resources between 2015 and 2020 in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The city is also asked to provide an update on the status of recommendations made by community advisory groups for the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 – Reed and Taylor served as leaders for South Side advisory groups.

The black advocates gave a presentation on their campaign at last week’s Mayor’s Advisory Council meeting. At the assembly, CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld and Active Trans director Ron Burke acknowledged that more effort needs to be made to promote cycling in communities that don’t already have high ridership. Scheinfeld promised that equity would be strongly considered in prioritizing future projects. One of the 2020 Plan’s goals is to ensure that every Chicagoan lives within a half mile of a bikeway.

“CDOT has been focused on building a comprehensive bikeway network throughout Chicago and we are pleased to have advocates like [Reed, Taylor, and Conley] to partner with to help reach those goals,” said CDOT spokesman Pete Scales “We look forward to continuing to work with them to help determine the needs for cycling facilities in every community.”

“The equity statement delivered at MBAC is an outstanding example of the kind of grassroots leadership we need in Chicago,” said Active Trans’ Jim Merrill. He argued that the city is already working hard to equitably distribute new bike infrastructure. “We hope this call for a renewed look at bike equity in Chicago can amplify those efforts, and we look forward to collaborating with advocates throughout the city to build a bike network that serves all Chicagoans equally.”

Peter Taylor at a community meeting for the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. Photo: John Greenfield

The coalition has made its request for equity loud and clear, but there are different opinions about what’s the fairest way to distribute bike lanes, racks, and Divvy stations. “It would be hypocritical of me to look at what the city has done so far and say there was not a method to the madness,” Conley said. He noted that while his bike club is supposed to host various types of rides, fast road rides predominate because they have the biggest draw. Similarly, he said he understands why CDOT has tended to cater to neighborhoods with large numbers of cyclists who loudly advocate for more infrastructure.

“However, you can’t forget the little guy,” he said. “Equity also means that people in [African-American] neighborhoods have some control over how bike facilities are implemented. I’d like to see more of us invited to the table more often.”

Reed told me he feels bike equity for low-income African-American communities means creating conditions where rates of cycling will begin to approach those of wealthier neighborhoods. “In order to reach parity between Lakeview and Englewood, Englewood needs more investment than Lakeview, not less,” he said.

Reed has recently been attending the “civic tech” incubator Open Gov Hack Night [co-run by Streetsblog’s Steven Vance] to enlist help with compiling data to back up the argument that the South and West Sides are underserved for bike facilities. He’s working on creating a graphic that will combine the current bike lanes with maps showing race and income. “But we didn’t want to wait for data to confirm what we already believe, see, hear, and feel, which is that the situation is not equitable.”

Eboni Senai Hawkins by Richard Pack
Eboni Senai Hawkins. Photo: Richard Park

Hawkins, who help draft the letter, told me she’d like to see the city and Active Trans involve more companies and organizations from black communities in education and encouragement programs. She also said more effort needs to be put into creating culturally relevant bike infrastructure and outreach. For example, Hawkins argued that many African Americans – especially women – are not willing to bike on city streets without physical protection from cars.

Reed acknowledged that there has historically been less support for bike facilities from residents and aldermen on the South and West Sides than from their North Side counterparts. “There’s such a focus on violence reduction and employment that anything that has the perception of taking away resources from that is considered frivolous,” he said. “However, we know the connection between bicycling and more livable, healthy, and economically prosperous communities. We’re prepared to tell that story to community members and elected officials.”

The advocates have already been in talks with CDOT and Active Trans about assisting with outreach efforts in African-American neighborhoods. “We’re asking the city to do more, and they’re asking us to do more,” Reed said. “We want protected bike lanes and Divvy, and they want us to help raise support for these things.”

  • tooter turtle

    Is bike infra going into neighborhoods where people want it and will use it? To me that’s the question. If some neighborhoods are demanding the infra but not getting it for political/economic/racial reasons, that’s wrong. Is that what is happening now?

  • Emily

    I would guess that there are more projects in the works than those shown in red on that map. Hopefully some of those are on the south and west sides.

  • Lisa Curcio

    Note that education and outreach are important parts of this need. We need to build bike lanes, but–as each of the community leaders said–resources must also be devoted to helping folks on the south and west sides to see that riding a bike can work for them in their every day lives whether for recreation, transportation, or sport.

    Slow Roll, in particular, is trying to paint with a large brush. Anyone interested in equity for all of Chicago can help with the painting.

  • Anne A

    There are more projects in the works, but the timeline has generally been a lot longer than for downtown and north side projects.

  • 31.5 more miles of buffered and protected lanes are designed and planned for construction this spring in various parts of the city, but most of the locations haven’t been announced yet.

  • tooter turtle

    I think every neighborhood would be better with more bike infra. Educating people about the potential of cycling in their lives is great. I would be concerned however about the city putting bike infra where it is not wanted by the locals. That just creates bad feeling and wastes resources. For example, I wouldn’t want the city to do a road diet on Milwaukee in Jefferson Park while so many locals oppose it.

  • We may have a follow-up post going into more detail about why the South and West Sides historically have received less bike infrastructure than the North Side, but here are some factors I’m aware of.

    Bike Lanes

    The biggest political support for bike infrastructure tends to be in places where a lot of people are already biking. On the North Side, it’s common for residents to advocate for new bike lanes, and better maintenance of existing lanes. Therefore, their aldermen are more likely to support CDOT proposals for new lanes, and even use their limited ward money to stripe and re-stripe lanes. In recent years, the participatory budgeting process has allowed constituents in Rogers Park and Uptown to vote for spending ward money on new bike lanes, sharrows, and neighborhood greenways. Also, CDOT knows that if they install bike lanes in areas that already have high levels of biking, they will get good use and improve safety for many existing riders.

    In contrast, When I worked at CDOT in the early 2000s, I heard about several situations on the South Side where alderman vetoed CDOT’s plans for non-buffered lanes, based on the belief that they would inconvenience drivers and wouldn’t get good use from cyclists. In recent years, there have been cases on King Drive and Independence Boulevard where CDOT’s plans for protected bike lanes were downgraded to buffered lanes after constituents complained that the PBLs would interfere with parking and/or detract from the aesthetics of the street. Of course, bike lane opposition isn’t limited to the South and West Sides — Jefferson Parkers have bitterly opposed PBLs on Milwaukee — but it seems to be most prevalent in neighborhoods with a low bike mode share. Meanwhile, plenty of people in North Side neighborhoods with high biking rates have been asking for PBLs on streets like Milwaukee in Wicker Park, but haven’t gotten them yet because the right-of-way is too narrow to install PBLs without stripping a lot of parking.

    Divvy Stations

    While the current service area is split fairly evenly between the North and South Sides, the West Side hasn’t gotten bike-share yet, and station density is higher downtown and in dense, bike-friendly North Side neighborhoods. CDOT officials have argued that they had to start out by focusing on areas with a high density of people, transit stations, job centers, and retail in order to make the system economically viable. Their logic was that if the system wasn’t financially sustainable, they’d have to shut it down, and then no one would get bike-share. Now that it’s a success and they’ve gotten more funding, they plan to expand to many more South and West Side neighborhoods, albeit with less station density than in the more populated areas of the city. Another factor in the higher density of Divvy on the North Side is that there’s a website where cyclists can request Divvy locations, and more requests come from neighborhoods with lots of cyclists. In some of these neighborhoods, aldermen have also used ward money to pay for Divvy stations.

    Bike Racks

    Steven Vance and I both worked at CDOT at different times, arranging the installation of bike racks. Rack locations were largely determined by requests from residents via request postcards and a website, merchants, and aldermen. The vast majority of these requests came from neighborhoods with high levels of biking, and I assume that’s still the case nowadays. We also proactively installed racks at schools, parks, libraries, transit stations, business strips, and other public locations. To try to address the imbalance between the North Side and the South and West Sides, we asked aldermen in low-income neighborhoods to suggest locations for racks, with mixed results. Recently, CDOT has started promoting the installation on-street bike parking corrals. However, the adjacent business is required to pay a few thousand dollars for these, which is why you only see them in neighborhoods with lots of biking.

    In short, the distribution of Chicago’s bike facilities have been influenced by the fact that infrastructure tends to go where people request it and will use it, and not go where people have not requested it, or have opposed it. However, Reed, Taylor and Conley accurately point out that the result is that there aren’t as many bike resources on the South and West Sides, and that is to the detriment of the low-income African Americans who stand the most to gain from cycling.

    They argue that much more infrastructure, education, and encouragement, as well as more collaboration with local residents on these projects, is needed in order to raise bike mode share in black neighborhoods. By vocally advocating for these resources from the city, state, and Active Trans, as well building support for bike projects from African Americans and their aldermen, they’re doing exactly the right things to achieve their goal of getting more black people on bikes.

  • Anne A

    The percentage of people who ride for transportation tends to be lower in south and west side neighborhoods, for multiple reasons. Many of these neighborhoods have significant barriers (highways, lack of rideable connections between neighborhoods, long dark railroad viaducts, rivers with few rideable crossings, etc.). Some residents find it difficult to afford a bike of decent enough quality to be reliable for regular transportation use.

    There *are* people living and riding in neighborhoods across the south and west sides now, but for the reasons above, transportation cyclists are a much smaller minority in those areas compared north and northwest side neighborhoods with high bike density. Getting new bike infrastructure where I live (south of 95th St.) requires significant advocacy effort. Until we have a more complete route network that helps less confident riders bridge current barriers, we will not see significant growth in ridership south and west. Advocacy work by black bike advocates builds on that.

  • Anne A

    “The current [Divvy] service area is split fairly evenly between the North and South Sides…”

    This is true, however, the south side is a much larger geographic area than the north side. Most folks don’t realize how big it really is until they take a trip like the Perimeter Ride.

    You referred to a lack of bike resources. The lack of bike shops is a HUGE barrier to the growth of biking on the south side. If you go to the Chicago Bike Shop Database, select for City Only and 3600S as a northern border, you’ll see a total of 10 shops. Yes, TEN shops for the entire south side. Over much of that area, the nearest bike shop is at least 5 miles away. If you change the northern border for your search to 7600S, the list goes down to 3 shops. From Beverly over to Hegewisch (a distance of over 10 miles), there are NO bike shops.

    Between the large number of low income residents and a need for youth programs, establishing more community bike non-profits along the lines of West Town Bikes and Blackstone Bikes could provide fun, productive learning experiences for youth and help more people find affordable, decent quality bikes.

  • Thanks for the additional info. Using Madison, zero north-south, as the dividing line, it looks like the population is roughly split between the North Side and the South Side:

    As for using 3600 south as the diving line, I don’t think residents of Pilsen, Bridgeport, and Chinatown, or the White Sox, would appreciate being called North Siders.

    Good point about “bike shop deserts.” Here’s an article I wrote about that issue a couple years ago:

  • tooter turtle

    Thanks John for that great intro to the situation.

  • Sure thing.

  • Anne A

    I wasn’t calling everyone north of 36th St. “north siders,” just making a point about how sparse bike shops are south of that point.

    As you get further south in the city, population density decreases noticeably, partially due to large industrial zones (rail yards, factory and warehouse areas, etc.). Traffic tends to be less congested, so drivers go faster than in many north side locations. All of this contributes to the challenges to transportation riding on the south side, especially as you get further south.

  • Lisa Curcio

    With Slow Roll planning weekly rides next year in communities on the south and west sides, I wonder if some of the “north side” bike shops might consider staging pop-up bike shops in partnership with Slow Roll. It would be a community service and also might give a very rough indication of what kind of demand for services exists in some of the bike shop deserts.

  • Dammit, they should give them what they’re asking for!!!

  • Nadia

    Maybe they should also focus on petitioning the aldermen in those communities to support bike lanes and to do something about getting more of them…

  • rohmen

    They already are:

    “Reed acknowledged that there has historically been less support for bike facilities from residents and aldermen on the South and West Sides than from their North Side counterparts. “There’s such a focus on violence reduction and employment that anything that has the perception of taking away resources from that is considered frivolous,” he said. “However, we know the connection between bicycling and more livable, healthy, and economically prosperous communities. We’re prepared to tell that story to community members and elected officials.”

  • rohmen

    I’ve also seen articles (even on here I believe, at least on the national blog) that suggest a fear that increased bike infrastructure will increase the pace of gentrification as a reason communities themselves sometimes fight against improvements. It would be interesting to hear how much that is playing into all of this in Chicago, which has generally seen neighborhoods only receive an increase in these type of projects once the neighborhood demographics start the shift towards an influx of young professionals.

  • Good point. Here’s an article about opposition to bike lanes on Division Street in Humboldt Park, a largely Puerto Rican community, based on concerns about gentrification:

    I haven’t heard much about bike facilities being associated with gentrification in African-American neighborhoods in Chicago. The opposition I’ve heard about in these communities had to do with concerns about congestion, parking, and aesthetics, as well as the belief that putting bike infrastructure in parts of town that currently have low mode share is a waste of money.

  • skelter weeks

    They’re going to have to install more of these in the bike lane

  • SouthofNorth

    These comments are hilarious. A bunch of North Siders pretending to understand what’s going on on the South Side.

  • Yet Another Reader

    The South Side could use more bike shops, but the database you reference is out of touch with life on the South Side. Many people sell, repair, and even teach people how to repair bikes on the South Side, but they don’t have official shops.

  • Anne A

    It’s not news that people of color have been using bikes for transportation for a long time. The emergence of major bike advocacy efforts by people of color is welcome news.

    Organizations and neighborhoods working together create a stronger voice, whether they’re seeking infrastructure, educational efforts or places closer to home to buy bikes or get them fixed. The bike shop database lists mostly commercial shops and some co-ops. Individuals and small community organizations who are teaching and offering bike repair are likely to be off the radar unless they reach out and ask to be listed. Getting the word out beyond folks who already know about those community resources can help encourage more people in south and west side neighborhoods to ride, if they know there’s somewhere nearby where they can get their bikes fixed, buy bikes, and learn repair skills if they are so inclined.

    Do any of these homegrown efforts have the potential to follow in the footsteps of West Town Bikes, Blackstone Bikes and other community-based organizations? The growth of new organizations in areas that lack formal bike shops could benefit so many people.

    I noticed that the Bronzeville Bike Box isn’t listed. I’ve reached out to encourage Bronzeville Bikes to contact the database folks. If any individuals or groups you know might like to be listed, ask them to check this out:

  • Bill Savage

    I’d also point out that bike infrastructure on the South and West sides doesn’t just benefit people of color who live in what some people consider “those” neighborhoods: it benefits the whole city by making it all more accessible to everyone. In the 8+ years I’ve regularly biked from Rogers Park to Evergreen Park, I’ve seen a growth in cyclists from Pilsen south, but still far fewer than on the North side or near South/West sides. The grid is the same everywhere, and it should be bike-accessible from 130th to Juneway Terrace, the Lake to Du Page County.

  • Bill Savage

    Agreed. On 43rd street west of Western, I forget which cross street, there’s a storefront that’s a candy store and very unofficial bike shop. I see adults and kids working on bikes in it all the time, but not a bit of spandex.

  • Anne A

    Good to know. I wish workshops like that were better known.

  • I joined Bill on one of his epic, trans-Chicago commutes:

  • Anne A

    I used to make a similar cross-city trip when I lived in Rogers Park (not far from Bill’s location) and traveled to Ashburn (near 85th & Cicero).

  • Bike shop owners who aren’t listed on the site, but would like to be, can contact the site administrator here:

  • Anne A

    To Yet Another Reader: I don’t have deep connections in every community, but I appreciate having opportunities to meet more people, explore less familiar neighborhoods and learn more. Having more people of color engaging in constructive dialogue here benefits all of us in building a citywide bike community. If you have info and ideas you’d like to share in comments (ideally made visible in the comment thread), I’d welcome that.

    Part of effective advocacy work is recognizing that there’s always more to learn and more people to meet who have insights we need. It would be great to bring those informal community bike workshops that are off the radar into the dialogue and the larger community, if they’re interested.

  • Jeremy Kitchen

    This is great! I live on the South Side, and biking is awful. Archer would be a great street for a bike lane.

  • For the record, I am solidly an advocate for EDUCATION and ENCOURAGEMENT and believe the conversation around infrastructure distracts from larger issues.
    For those who are interested, the meat of my e-mail response to John’s question:

    What facilities or services do you feel could be distributed more equitably in Chicago — bike lanes, Divvy stations, bike racks, bike ed programs, etc.?

    I am most interested in:

    (a) Seeing an internal equity audit for CDOT and IDOT (staff), Active Transportation Alliance (board and staff) and their preferred partnerships like Alta Planning + Design. We cannot address systemic issues without also looking at who makes decisions how, and why. Within such an audit, there needs to be a clear distinction between equity, diversity, and inclusion. Bearing witness to the League going through such a process was one of the most enlightening experiences of serving on EAC.

    (b) Seeing CDOT and IDOT and the Active Transportation Alliance make a commitment to provide resources (financial, technical, human) to companies and organizations which are embedded in predominantly Black communities FIRST versus hiring outside consultants or assuming they can address internally (circles back to point A).

    One of the most disappointing practices I’ve seen in the last three years has been a dismissal of the expertise grass-roots organizations can provide (i.e. lack of an open RFP process to provide education and encouragement activities) or this expertise being (ab)used when an entity needs to “prove” they’ve done community outreach.

    (c) I believe in a more integrated approach that considers (and FUNDS) culturally-relevant education and encouragement that could lead to real behavior shifts. I believe that the set of infrastructure tools that COULD lead to behavior shift have not been designed yet. Again, this points to a systemic issue and more questions: current examples of bike lanes, bike share, racks, programs were designed by whom? For whom? Most of what exists fails to consider the realities of the average neighborhood affected by decades of underinvestment and the flight of the middle class to the suburbs.

    Many Black folks (especially women) will not ride without a barrier-protected bike lane.
    Many Black folks see biking as recreation vs. a tool in multi-modal transportation (Divvy).
    Most predominantly Black neighborhoods in Chicago are more like suburbs – so spread out that considering a bike for trips of 2 miles or less won’t get you to where you need to go.
    Many Black folks see a bike as an additional expense to a car (not a replacement) and one which must reflect the type of car they would drive.
    Many Black folks are not comfortable locking their bike up outside.
    Bike education is pretty much exclusively targeted towards youth and there are glaringly few low or no cost programs for adults to learn HOW to ride.

  • Thanks Eboni. There wasn’t enough room in the original post to publish your entire response (we try to keep articles below 1,200 words), but I’m sure people will be interested in reading your full comments.

  • Anne A

    Well said. Eboni, I’m glad to hear your voice in this discussion.

  • Lewis

    Be encouraged. You are making a difference. Education and safety orientation is crucial to increase bicycle commuting.