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Big Marsh Is a Hit With Local Cyclists, But It’s Still Challenging to Bike There

A rider catching air on the medium terrain trail. Photo: Derrick James

Sunday’s grand opening for Big Marsh bike park and nature reserve was a long-anticipated celebration. If you’re not familiar with Big Marsh or its history, Streetsblog’s John Greenfield previously covered the plans and the challenges of accessing the site by bike.

I started my day by biking to the Pullman Porter Museum to meet up with a ride organized by Slow Roll Chicago and two other groups coming from further north. From there we rode east 103rd Street, a wide, high-speed road, finding safety in numbers. Having a group of over 50 people) allowed us to take the center lane while passing the highway ramps that create dangerous situations when riding alone or in a small group. After turning off 103rd, the wide shoulder on Stony Island Avenue offered a reasonable alternative when traffic needed to pass.

The grand opening started with a press conference and ribbon cutting, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, park district chief Michael Kelly, 10th Ward alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza, and Deloris Lucas, a transportation advocate from the greater Altgeld Gardens area who serves on the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council.

Big Marsh Park Grand Opening
Emanuel speaks at the ribbon cutting. Photo: Jeff Zoline

After the presentation, the mayor stepped away from the crowd, helmet in hand. I asked him “Are you ready to ride?” With a big smile on his face, he said “I am so ready.” He jumped on a borrowed bike and took a spin on the dirt trail that circles the pump track and other terrain areas in the park.

The park’s features include areas designed for BMX riding, cyclocross, mountain biking and casual trail riding on a 44-acre site. Hundreds of people of all ages tested out the park’s terrain on a wide range of bikes, from BMX to cyclocross to mountain bikes and more.

The remainder of the park (234 acres) is a nature reserve, a significant bird watching area where a wide range of water birds, raptors, migrating species, native songbirds and other wildlife can be seen. I volunteered at a habitat restoration workday last spring, where we worked at removing invasive plant species. I was rewarded by seeing a red-tailed hawk on a nest, a bald eagle in flight, great blue herons and many other species of water birds.

Big Marsh Park
Photo: Jeff Zoline

While Big Marsh is a wonderful new facility, safe bike routes to the park would make it more accessible to people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. These include several lower-income communities of color with relatively low rates of car ownership. When I worked with Oboi Reed, Peter Taylor and many others on the original round of community outreach for the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, equity was a very important issue. In December 2014, after the Chicago Park District announced plans for Big Marsh, Reed and Taylor did a presentation at the Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council about the need for better bikeway coverage in black and Latino communities and for safe bike access to Big Marsh.

In April 2016, a new round of community meetings to gather input on where bikeways should be installed in the near future included meetings in Pullman and the East Side neighborhood. Access to Big Marsh was a significant part of the discussion. Because the available access routes all have heavy industrial traffic, they aren’t comfortable for biking, especially for less confident riders. A new route proposed at the Pullman meeting – a path between the north end of Lake Calumet and south end of the Harborside Golf Course at approximately 115th Street - would require the consent of the Illinois International Port District, Harborside and other entities.

The Active Transportation Alliance’s Jim Merrell stated:

Due to the remote setting of Big Marsh, Active Trans has been working with local residents and community partners to advocate for safe bike, pedestrian, and transit access to the site, as well as to other existing and planned open spaces in the Lake Calumet area. We believe it is a critical priority to ensure local community members are able to safely access Big Marsh and other parks without being forced to rely on a car.

Last year, Active Trans released a Big Marsh Access Action plan to note the barriers and opportunities for creating safe bike access to the Big Marsh site. This year, the group is continuing to work with local stakeholders to make sure these priorities get included in the Chicago Park District’s Southeast Area Wide Plan, which will help guide future decisions about improving access to Big Marsh and other Lake Calumet destinations.

In an area where nearby neighborhoods and businesses aren’t obvious or familiar to most visitors, creating an amenity map to help them find restaurants and other services could create a more enjoyable experience for visitors and encourage them to come back. Patronage from Big Marsh visitors would help merchants in nearby areas, as well as increasing awareness of the park in those areas and encouraging local residents to visit. Food trucks, ideally operated by local businesses, would also be a good option for providing concessions during special events when lots of visitors are expected at the park.

Big Marsh Park
Photo: Jeff Zoline

Jay Readey, executive director of Friends of Big Marsh, told me there was a strong turnout on opening day. "We estimated the number of people coming to Big Marsh on Sunday at somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people,” he stated. “There were people on bikes and in vehicles arriving throughout the afternoon.”

“When it comes to new amenities, we ask ourselves ‘If we build it, will they come?’ Readey added. “People came - by bike and car from as far as Indiana and Wisconsin. We saw helmet cams on several riders. Once that video gets out and more people know about this place, we hope that the whole world will visit when they come to the Pullman National Monument and Obama Library.”

Two future phases of the bike park are planned but not yet built. There will be plenty of future workdays and donations needed to complete the Big Marsh – both the bike park and natural area. For updates, volunteer workdays and to make donations to continue building and maintaining the park, go to the Friends of Big Marsh web site or Facebook page.

Screen Shot 2016-11-09 at 10.28.55 AM
Photo: Anne Alt

If you’re interested in being part of Active Trans’ Far South Side advocacy work, contact community liaison Cynthia Hudson.

If you’d like to bring bike issues in your South Side neighborhood to the attention of the Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council or support the work of the Altgeld Garden-based community bike group We Keep You Rollin’, contact Deloris Lucas.

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