Why Don’t the South and West Sides Have a Fair Share of Bike Facilities?

Kids ride in the Franklin Boulevard protected bike lanes in the Garfield Park neighborhood. PBLs are the one type of bike infrastructure that is more common on the South and West Sides than on the North Side. Photo: CDOT

Black bike advocates Oboi Reed, Peter Taylor, and Shawn Conley recently started an important conversation about the need for more bike resources in low-income African American communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides. At a recent Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, they presented an open letter to the city, state, and local advocacy groups, asking that bike infrastructure, education, and encouragement be provided in a more equitable manner. Read the full letter here.

The letter pointed out that downtown and relatively affluent, North Side neighborhoods have generally received a higher density of bike lanes, racks, and Divvy stations than South and West Side communities. The advocates also asked for more input and participation from African-American residents, organizations, and businesses in the planning and implementation of bike infrastructure and programming.

Reed argued that the city has tended to focus bike resources on neighborhoods that already have high levels of biking. This creates a vicious cycle where low-income African American communities get left behind as bicycling continues to grow in wealthier areas, he said. “It just cuts us off from all the benefits, and our communities are the ones that need those benefits the most.”

Judging from statements from the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Active Transportation Alliance, plus comments from Streetsblog readers and on social media, city leaders and advocates agree that more work is needed to achieve bike equity in African-American neighborhoods. There’s a consensus that strong leadership from within the black community, as embodied by Reed, Taylor, Conley, and others in the five black-led bike groups they represent, is a key piece of the puzzle to reach that goal. The groups include Slow Roll Chicago, Red Bike and Green Chicago, Southside Critical Mass, the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago, and Friends of the Major Taylor Trail.

Oboi Reed (right) and other riders from Slow Roll Chicago on a bike tour of the Millennium Reserve on the Southeast Side. Photo: Slow Roll

As part of this dialogue, it’s important to discuss what has contributed to the relative lack of  bike infrastructure on the South and West Sides compared to some parts of the North Side. In the near future, Streetsblog plans to publish a piece from Reed addressing the “personal, emotional, cultural, structural, and systemic reasons for why we don’t bike much as adults in black, brown and low- and middle-income neighborhoods, and why we don’t have infrastructure in our neighborhoods.”

In the meantime, here are some of the political and geographic factors I’m aware of that help explain the lower density of bike lanes, Divvy stations, and bike racks in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods.

Bike Lanes

As it stands, there are more bike lanes per square mile on the North Side than on the South and West Sides. That is partly due to the fact that the North Side, with fewer industrial zones and less historic disinvestment, generally has a higher population density. It’s also worth noting that the South and West Sides have received more miles of protected bike lanes, largely because these areas have more wide roads with available right-of-way. However, parts of the North Side with high levels of cycling tend to have a more connected bike network.

The biggest political support for bike infrastructure tends to be in places where a lot of people are already biking. In dense, relatively affluent North Side neighborhoods, it’s common for residents to advocate for new bikeways and better maintenance of existing ones. Their aldermen are more likely to support CDOT proposals for new lanes, or even use their limited ward money to build and repair bike infrastructure.

For example, 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar recently spent about $150,000 out of his annual $1.3 million in menu funds to create the Berteau Greenway in Ravenswood. The other aldermen who have earmarked ward money for bikeways include Proco “Joe” Moreno (1), Scott Waguespack (32), John Arena (45), James Cappleman (46th), Harry Osterman (48), and Joe Moore (49). All of them represent North Side or downtown districts. In recent years, constituents in the 46th and 49th Wards have voted to spend money on new sharrows, bike lanes, and the Leland Greenway through the participatory budgeting process.

The Berteau Greenway. Photo: Renee Patten

The politics have not always been as favorable elsewhere in the city. When I worked at CDOT in the early 2000s, I heard about several situations where South Side aldermen vetoed the department’s proposals for plain, painted bike lanes, based on the belief that they would inconvenience drivers and wouldn’t get good use from cyclists. In recent years, the city’s plans for protected bike lanes on King Drive and Independence Boulevard on the South and West Sides 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 Avenue — but it seems to be most prevalent in areas with low cycling rates. 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 roadways are too narrow to install PBLs without removing a lot of parking.

Divvy Stations

The Divvy expansion map with new coverage areas in pink. View a larger version.

The current Divvy service area is split fairly evenly between the North and South Sides, and several low-income communities of color have received stations. However, few areas on the West Side has gotten bike-share so far, and station density is higher downtown and in more densely populated North Side neighborhoods. CDOT officials have argued that they had to start out by focusing on areas with a concentration 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 Divvy is a success and the city has funding to grow the system, they plan to expand to many more South and West Side neighborhoods. However, docks will generally be installed every half-mile, rather than the quarter-mile spacing that’s common on the North Side. Another factor in the North Side’s station density is the online map where residents can request Divvy locations. More requests tend to come from neighborhoods with lots of cyclists and better Internet access. North Side aldermen Moreno and Pawar have also used their discretionary budget to pay for stations.

Bike Racks

Streetsblog’s 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, merchants, and aldermen. The vast majority of these requests came from neighborhoods with high levels of biking, and that’s likely still the case nowadays. We also installed racks at schools, parks, libraries, transit stations, business strips, and other public locations without waiting for requests to come in.

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. Chambers of commerce in areas like Wicker Park-Bucktown, Lakeview, and Uptown have also paid for branded bike racks using special service area funds, and 49th Ward residents voted to fund bike racks via participatory budgeting. This hasn’t happened on the South or West Sides.

Students fix a flat at the Bronzeville Community Garden as part of CDOT’s Greencorps bike and horticulture education program. Photo: John Greenfield

In short, Chicago’s bike infrastructure tends to go where people request it and are projected to use it, and is scarcer where people have not requested it, or have opposed it. So far this has led to the inequitable situation that Reed, Taylor, and Conley have called attention to. There is a shortage of bike resources on the South and West Sides, and that harms the black communities that stand to gain the most from the health, safety, economic, and social benefits of cycling.

To achieve their goal of extending the benefits of bicycling and bike infrastructure to more African Americans, Reed, Taylor, Conley, and other black advocates are changing this equation by speaking out for the equitable distribution of resources. At the same time, they’re doing outreach to build support for bike infrastructure and programming from South and West Side residents and their elected officials. That strategy is bound to pay big dividends if politicians, city agencies, and other advocates are open to their message.

  • Anne A

    Thank you for following up on this. These are important issues that have long been overshadowed by crime, violence and social issues in coverage of south and west side communities.

    I’ve had conversations with black and Latino friends and acquaintances where common themes emerged: that they were trailblazers in using bikes for transportation, that it seemed like a practical solution, that few people they know are riding for transportation, and that many of them faced bias in their communities against riding for transportation.

    I hope that Slow Roll, South Side Critical Mass and neighborhood-based initiatives, in combination with continuing advocacy work, will help break down barriers to biking in communities of color.

  • mikeschwab

    Include Vetoed locations on your maps

  • southsidecyclist

    The heart of the matter here is Divvy as of now is thinly distributed south of Madison Avenue and only as far south as 59th Street. In 2015 it is proposed to reach as far as 75th St south roughly equivalent north-south. Chicago stretches to 130th St south. This plan excludes almost all of the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th,10th,19th, 21st and 34th wards. By the 2010 census 341,372 Chicagoans who pay property and sales taxes. And who are largely African American but who also are Latino and Caucasian. 12.5% of the population that deserves their fair share of resources. But Divyy is setting up shop in Evanston and Oak Park; north side streets are on their second edition of bike lanes. Equitable this is not.

  • Yet Another Reader

    Yet another offensively ignorant article by the Streetblog staff. Even a marginally informed reader will know to stop paying attention when the author claims “The current Divvy service area is split fairly evenly between the North and South Sides.” In no way is this true. Choose your metric: Density? Nope. Reach? Nope. It’s not even close. Even a quick glance at the included map demonstrates how erroneous the claim is. As for the rest of the article? The analysis is so thin, brushing up against it would erase it. Anyone who has spent any time in Chicago politics knows that this special-interest, liberal analysis just sugarcoats the underlying issues.

    I cannot wait to read Reed’s column. It is hard to believe we will actually read someone who understands the South Side on Streetsblog Chicago.

  • Yet Another Reader

    Anne, I think you should stick to writing what you know. No one you know is a trailblazer for using bicycles as transportation in the Black or Latin American communities on the South and West Sides. Bicycles have been a common form of transportation in our communities for decades.

  • What I wrote is about the Divvy service area is accurate. The current service area — the square mileage in which there are stations — is about the same north and south of Madison Street. Although the South Side of the city is a larger area, roughly the same number of people live north of Madison. However, as I wrote, downtown and the North Side have a higher density of stations.

    As I mentioned, we’ve invited Reed to share his perspective on some of the underlying issues behind the lower rate of transportation cycling and density of infrastructure on the South and West Sides. As stated, the purpose of this article was to share some of the geographic and political reasons why there are fewer bike facilities in these areas. Some of this info, such as the fact that South Side aldermen vetoed several bike lanes, would have been tough to come by if I hadn’t worked at CDOT for five years.

  • Yet Another Reader

    What you wrote is inaccurate, and the data prove you wrong. I do not have GIS software on hand, but I just did a rough check by comparing the service areas in Photoshop, and the North Side area is greater than the South Side area. Additionally, the only way to make the areas look closer to balanced (but still not balanced) is to include the “South Loop” in the “South Side” portion. Madison may make sense to divide the city out west, but no one means the Harbor View Luxury Condominium Tower when they say “South Side.”

    Other than that obvious problem with your analysis, you systematically and intentionally describe the Divvy distribution in a way that obscures the system’s massive inequalities. It is not simply an aside that the densities are different or that the relative proportion of the sides of the city are different. Those are critical elements of the system. Because Divvy is a timed system, the experience of renting a Divvy bike on the South Side is not comparable to the North Side. It makes a difference that the stations are farther apart and the proportion areas covered are more limited. For example, on the South Side, it is much harder to use the bikes for anything other than longer rides directly to Divvy stations. In most places, you can’t even run to the store with a Divvy bike, because the stations are too far apart. The South and North Side service areas are not equal in any way.

    As for the political color you include, they are cute stories but beside the point. A vetoed lane here or there does not yield a massively unequal system.

    I again congratulate you for inviting Reed to write here.

  • Sure, the fact that I’ve heard of several cases where South and West Side aldermen have vetoed bike lanes does not fully explain the lower density of (non-protected) lanes on the South and West Sides. Maybe it’s more relevant that seven North Side and downtown aldermen have chosen to spend ward money on striping bike lanes, while none of their South and West Side colleagues have done so.

    It’s similar with bike racks — North Side politicians and business leaders have opted to spend money on them, while their counterparts on the South and West Side have not. Residents have also been more active in requesting and lobbying for bike facilities in areas where there’s already a lot of biking. Setting aside Moreno and Pawar’s purchases of Divvy stations, bike-share is a different story. I’ve explained (but not endorsed) CDOT’s rationale about station placement.

    Some South and West Side aldermen have generally been supportive of cycling — Pat Dowell, Danny Solis, Will Burns, Ricardo Muñoz, and Walter Burnett spring to mind. However, in general there has been more political support and demand for bike resources from North Side residents and politicians, and that’s a big reason for the current, inequitable situation.

    Reed will likely provide some useful insights about why South and West Siders have been less likely to prioritize and push for bike facilities, and have sometimes opposed them. He and his colleagues are working to change that equation by building political support for cycling in these communities, while lobbying the city, state, and other advocates to work harder for equity.

  • Yet Another Reader

    I will take your silence on Divvy to mean that you now understand the distinction between the South and North Side service areas, and that Streetsblog writers will no longer make the incorrect and misleading point about the areas’ equivalence. I look forward to your improved coverage of Divvy.

    I will agree with you that one of the reasons for the disparity in bicycle resources on the South and North Sides is differential advocacy. However, saying that is a “big reason” for the difference neglects the reasons behind the differential advocacy. It’s like saying Lance Armstrong was a successful racer because he was strong and had endurance. We all know why Lance Armstrong did so well, and we know why North Side aldermen have the freedom and desire to allocate funding for bicycle infrastructure – and many South Side alderman do not. CDOT, the administration, and the state understand this imbalance and could correct it if they wanted to. But they don’t, and it’s not because they’re not hearing from enough South Side cyclists.

    It is easy to pretend that budgets partially driven by special interest advocacy are unequal because of some natural outgrowth of citizen desires or economic pragmatism, but they are not. For this reason, the exciting thing is not to hear, for example, “why South and West Siders have been less likely to prioritize and push for bike facilities, and have sometimes opposed them.” After all, we know the real answers to these questions. What is important to hear is how everyone can effectively advocate for equitable alternative transportation policy and to correct how advocates like Aldermen, the ATA, and Streetsblog (perhaps unwittingly) reinforce these very disparities. For one small example, the change in how you will now discuss Divvy after hearing from South Siders could go a long way in raising the quality of its implementation and evaluation.

  • Nope, I stand by my statement that the service area is divided fairly evenly between the North Side and the South Side, as defined by Madison, the city’s north-south bifurcating street. There just doesn’t seem to be much point in debating whether or not low-income Pilsen residents who live north of Harbor View, or Kenwood mansion dwellers who live south of it, are South Siders.

    Thanks for sharing your other thoughts on the equity issue.

  • How do you know so much about Anne that you know who she does and doesn’t know?

    Stick to the facts and avoid disparaging other people who comment, as per our comment policy.

  • Yet Another Reader

    I apologize. My note wasn’t intending to to be personally disparaging. I know almost nothing about Anne, but the one thing I do know is what she wrote here. And what she wrote here is that she can only speak from hearsay (“I’ve had conversations with black and Latino friends and acquaintances…”) about this subject. It’s good that she’s having those conversations, but having conversations with friends is not the same as actually knowing what’s going on in an entire community.

  • Yet Another Reader

    Then let’s make this even less ambiguous: In order for the “equitable” Divvy area argument to simply look misinformed rather than intentionally misleading, one has to consider the Art Institute of Chicago a South Side institution. No one, literally no one, is going to accept that argument.

    Just to be pleasant, I’ll call anything “South Side” that is south of Madison and is outside of the Loop inset on the Divvy map (even though that ignores the West Side, etc), and the areas still aren’t of equal size — and they still aren’t of equal density.

    And note that we’re not even addressing the issue southsidecyclist raises below. The fact that the Divvy map does not even show the full city is a pretty hearty indictment of the program.

    In a way, I should have anticipated your responses to these questions, but I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. The fact that Streetsblog editors aren’t interested in these issues — and even actively argue for calling something equal when it is so patently unequal — speaks for itself.

  • Right, and Millennium Park isn’t a North Side institution. I think we’re basically on the same page about the Divvy distribution. The coverage areas north and south of Madison are fairly, although not precisely, equal. Everybody, including CDOT, acknowledges that the density of stations isn’t equal, and that the West Side hasn’t gotten many stations yet.

    We generally don’t respond to every comment from readers, unless they’re direct questions or comments for the staff, so that we can spend more time creating new content. However, I do have a couple pieces of info to share re: Southside Cyclist’s comment, so please see my response below.

    Obviously, the Streetsblog Chicago staff is interested in the issue of the fair distribution of bike resources. We’re the only local news outlet that has covered Reed, Taylor, and Conley’s call for equity, and Reed’s op-ed will be our third post on the subject in less than a month.

    Streetsblog, and Steven Vance’s and my old blog Grid Chicago, have also published many posts on Divvy equity issues. Check out the latest one, by contributor Anne Alt, here: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/12/26/divvy-bike-share-hopes-expanded-area-outreach-also-expands-appeal/

  • Thanks for providing the breakdown of the South Side wards that, for the most part, won’t be receiving Divvy stations in the next round, and the number of residents in these wards. It’s also worth noting that several Southwest, West, and Northwest Side wards will largely be passed over in the next round.

    Note that Evanston and Oak Park applied for state funding to pay for their stations — they’re not being paid for by the city of Chicago. As part of the expansion west to Oak Park, additional West Side wards will be getting new stations. That isn’t reflected in the expansion map posted above, which was released before the state funding was awarded.

  • Yet Another Reader

    John, I appreciate the more conciliatory tone, but you seem to be willfully missing the point. No one cares about the Madison division line, they care about the quality and reach of the service into the North, West, and South Sides in a way that treats city residents equally, regardless of their location or demographic characteristics. No bicycle resources even begin to be equally distributed.

    I am heartened to see that you’ve dedicated a small fraction of Streetsblog Chicago to engage these problems, but the way you typically do it may actually make the situation worse. Your comment to southsidecyclist is an excellent example of your typical approach. Rather than even acknowledging the inequality as a problem that should be resolved, your response offers several points that undercut southsidecyclist’s concern: that other [smaller] parts of the city don’t have service either, and that the suburban expansions were paid by other funding. I find it odd that an active transportation activist wouldn’t respond by agreeing that there is a problem and trying to resolve it, as well as providing other helpful information. There are enough apologists for Divvy. Streetsblog should be an activist for its equal distribution. I know we can’t advocate for everything all the time, but we can certainly argue for equality in programs that receive this much attention and are this early in their development.

    I understand if you won’t respond any more. You need to write other articles rather than just respond to me, but I hope you will take these thoughts to heart. These problems are consistent throughout Streetsblog, and they do us all a disservice — although they hurt those of us who live on the South and West Sides more than they hurt you.

  • Anne A

    No, it’s far from equitable at this point. However, Divvy will be increasing density in its coverage area, so stations are closer together, making the system more effective. Those of us who live and/or ride south of 75th St. need to keep speaking up, and voting on the Divvy request map for locations in our neighborhoods.

    Effective advocacy takes persistence and patience. I know that’s not what south and west side folks want to hear. It’s the reality I’ve learned from several years of advocacy work on the far south side.

    Even with the expansion to 75th St., the nearest Divvy station will be several miles northeast of my house. I’m hoping it doesn’t take too many years for the Divvy service area to reach my neighborhood.

  • Anne A

    Please see my comment on Oboi Reed’s piece. We need more voices of color in advocacy and constructive (not insulting) dialogue.

    Grant funding is critical to Divvy expansion. If those of us in south and west neighborhoods suggest locations we want on the Divvy request map and encourage others to vote on our locations and suggest others, then Divvy planners get a more accurate sense of the level of demand on our neighborhoods. Click the “Suggest a Station” button on the Divvy station map to get started.

  • I think your comments and Southside Cyclist’s comments raise some interesting questions about Divvy. What would have been the most equitable way to roll out the system that would have been financially sustainable and, more importantly, how should the system expand from here?

    There has been a finite amount of grant funding available to launch and expand the system. For the network to function properly, stations need to be located within a half mile of each other, preferably within a quarter mile. Therefore, it would have been virtually impossible to install Divvy in every populated part of Chicago from the get-go, and it would probably be very tough to do that even now.

    I think many people would agree that initially focusing the system on the Loop — the population center of Chicago and the part of town that’s relatively easy to get to via public transit for most residents — was a reasonable way to start out. Downtown is an ideal place for bike-share, since it works great for “last mile” trips between transit stops and destinations.

    Many people would argue that it made sense to expand the system outward to the neighborhoods from the Loop, eventually covering the entire city. However, CDOT’s decision to focus on areas outside the Loop with a high density of people, transit stations, job centers, and retail has resulted in a lot more stations going in on the North Side than the South and West Sides.

    My sense is that it would have been more equitable, as well as politically savvy, to expand the system in a roughly circular pattern from the Loop, with a more equal distribution of stations across the service area. However, even if had been done that way — which would have been a bigger financial risk — parts of town located relatively far from downtown still wouldn’t have stations by now.

    If you feel like it, please share your thoughts about what would have been the most equitable — while financially sustainable — way to launch and expand the system. Moreover, what would you like to see the city do next to make the Divvy coverage area and station density more fair?

  • I don’t think it had to be circular, but you could certainly expand it along roads currently used for bike commuting (which shows people live along them who bike) — like Vincennes on the south side — with clusters where those routes cross commercial streets or near large apartment complex concentrations.

    There could even be lollipop clusters around particular transit stations — not intending to encourage people to bike from them directly to a Divvy dock downtown, but to use it for spoking outwards from the transit to errands and back.

  • Yet Another Reader

    I think that your suggestion is on the right track. I don’t think that anyone faults Divvy for starting in the Loop and then scaling up from there. As for the content of the scaling up, circles seem reasonable, although I really like Elliott’s suggestion to utilize primary thoroughfares and build from there. It would be easy to build a bigger, equitable network that way.

    Such a model could be a sound expansion strategy, although they’ve kind of painted themselves into a corner by expanding as a net (albeit one with variable weft). In order to free up resources, I would probably close and rearrange some of the densest clusters and redistribute them to the edges, although I know that wouldn’t be received well either.

    It’s too late now, but I think it might have been prudent to launch with a larger capital investment, even if that meant waiting another year or two. I do think that the reliance on grants and the like has limited the possibilities of these systems and has helped generate the inequalities we are discussing.

  • Yet Another Reader

    Anne, I think you’re combining two threads here, so I will make a comment with two sections:
    1. I suppose you didn’t accept my below apology, but I really didn’t intend to offend anyone. I’m a stickler for facts, and when people make erroneous statements, I sometimes call them on it. I have to admit that the ethnic/racial aspect of the comment also chafed me. It is not always pleasing to hear White people talk for others. Again, my intention wasn’t to offend.

    Even so, your comment on Oboi Reed’s piece makes your below comment even more confusing. So you knew the “trailblazer” statement was inaccurate, but you wrote it anyway? Logically, there can’t be a tradition of cycling AND friends who are trailblazers. I suppose I shouldn’t rule out that your friends have been cycling for 70 or 80 years, which could solve the apparent paradox.

    Furthermore, contrary to your comment, Reed’s recent advocacy isn’t an “emergence of major bike advocacy efforts by people of color…” There have been a variety of significant bike advocacy efforts by African American and Latino/a Chicagoans over (at least) the last couple of decades. Some were intracommunity efforts, others were integrated attempts at outside changes. Reed’s voice is a member of the chorus.

    2. As for the recommendation about Divvy location requests, I think you must have missed a pertinent part of the conversation above. We’ve established that these kinds of user-driven methods (and on the internet, with its unequal access, no less) are always going to advantage the “haves” over the “have nots.” That’s one of the reasons we have unequal bicycle resource funding in the first place. As you well know, the entire South Side could ask for a Divvy location in West Pullman, but it’s not going to happen any time soon. EDIT: I don’t mean that people shouldn’t make some clicks, but it is a woefully insufficient answer.

  • southsidecyclist

    Well I do know Anne and I will tell you that she does have many Latino and African American friends and rides fearlessly through our neighborhoods and patronizes our businesses. If only all our neighbors were like Anne. we wouldn’t be having these discussions. Y-A-R I appreciate your passion as it is mine but lets direct it against those who continue to prop up the plantation system of denial of services for people of color. And some of those folks are brown. Let’s stick to the facts.


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