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Working-Class Chicagoans Discuss the Highs and Lows of Bike Commuting

Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. Day laborer Jesus Yanez (not pictured) says Lawrence is one of the better biking streets in the neighborhood. Photo: John Greenfield

Since biking is a convenient and affordable way to travel in the city, many blue-collar workers use bikes to access job opportunities. Streetsblog contributor Lynda Lopez interviewed two Chicagoans who fit this profile to get their take on the benefits of bike commuting in this city, as well as some of the issues they want to see addressed.

Cedric Johnson, 48, gets up bright and early to get ready for work. A lifelong resident of Humboldt Park, Johnson has a long commute ahead towards the Loop where he works at a food distribution company doing sanitation and maintenance.

Johnson says he rides his bike to work six or seven days a week and averages 20 miles a day. He tries to change up his route every day, and he prefers to take ride on quiet side streets and through alleys. He explains that he rarely takes the main roads to work, citing an experience on his bike that scarred him.

One day, Johnson was biking near Clybourn and North Avenue when a driver knocked him off his bike. Fortunately his injuries were minor, but his bike was totaled. “I was so shaken up,” he says. Ever since then, he has become more cautious about riding in traffic, but safety concerns haven't kept him off his bike. He loves riding too much.

“I just feel free when I’m on my bike -- gives me peace of mind,” Johnson says. “If you are driving a car, you miss a lot in the community.” He says he notices a lot of details about his surroundings when he's riding.

Johnson adds that bike riders can help make communities safer, because they're more likely to notice and help out others who may need assistance. “When you’re driving, you’re only trying to make it to work. You’re not thinking about what’s and who’s around you,” he says.

While it's obvious Johnson gets a lot of enjoyment from biking, he also voiced frustrations about the dangers cyclists face, such as drivers that weave in and out around them. “Drivers sometimes don’t see what’s around them," he said. "That makes me fear being on the road. I’m not trying to kill myself. I love myself."

Johnson added that painted bike lanes aren't enough to protect cyclists. He wants the city to install more bikeways that offer physical separation from cars, so that people riding bikes are as safe as pedestrians on the sidewalk. He says that’s the only way he’ll feel truly safe riding in the city.

Jesus Yanez, 48, would also describe himself as an avid cyclist. He bikes to work and runs errands on his bike every day, and even has a bike basket for his groceries. Originally from Michoacan, Mexico, Yanez lives and works in Albany Park on the north side.

Yanez works construction and paints homes to support his family in Chicago and in Mexico. He works all across the neighborhood, wherever he gets sent for work by The Latino Union of Chicago, a nonprofit that connects low-wage workers to employment in the community.

Speaking in Spanish, Yanez describes why he chooses to bike. “I save money and don’t have to wait for the bus,” he says. “It’s also a good form of exercise and it’s a flexible form of transportation.” Depending on whether or not he is running late, he might choose a more direct route on main streets or detour to quieter roads. He says he enjoys it when he’s able to take his time and enjoy the ride.

Yanez echoes Johnson when discussing how biking helps connect you to your community and is good for relaxation and mental acuity. “Biking helps you focus more, it sharpens your mind,” he says. “It helps me do better at work.”

Yanez says it isn't practical for him to transport heavy equipment by bike, which can be an issue for his construction jobs. In these cases, he usually has friends or coworkers drive tools and supplies over to the worksite.

Although Yanez doesn't personally know anyone who has gotten in a bike crash, he has witnessed crashes. “There have been times when I’m biking and I see a cyclist has been hit,” he says. “It’s sad when that happens.”

Yanez says he does wants to see changes to make cycling safer in Chicago. He thinks bike riders should have more privileges on the road because they are more vulnerable than motorists. He notes that many streets have terrible pavement and lack proper bike lanes.

While Yanez says streets like Lawrence and Montrose good places to ride, he adds that there is still a lot of work to be done before Chicago is a truly bike-friendly city. “I want there to be more safe routes for people on bikes,” he says.

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