Farewell to Mark Konkol and His “Alternative Facts” About Biking

Mark Konkol. Photo: WTTW / Chicago Tonight
Mark Konkol. Photo: WTTW / Chicago Tonight

Yesterday Robert Feder revealed that DNAinfo columnist Mark Konkol has left that news website to focus on other projects. Konkol previously shared the Pulitzer prize for his work covering violence in Chicago neighborhoods at the Sun-Times, and he’s got an upcoming cable documentary series on the juvenile justice system that sounds like an important story.

However, I’d be remiss in my role as a sustainable transportation reporter and advocate if I let Konkol go out the door without pointing out that most of his many columns about Chicago bike infrastructure were journalistic garbage. He frequently used his bully pulpit to go after projects that were his personal white whales, publishing rants that were riddled with factual errors.

Konkol’s “think locally, act globally” campaign against bike improvements began in early 2011, after Chicago’s first protected bike lane was installed on Kinzie Street, downstairs from his office at the Sun-Times. Sadly, the series of articles he wrote attacking those protected lanes as “bunk” and “a giant waste of money” are no longer online, but one of his chief complaints was that the Kinzie lanes were causing major traffic jams.

Wrong. After the lanes went in, a city traffic study found minimal effects on car travel times. While eastbound morning rush travel time from Milwaukee to Wells increased by less than a minute, westbound a.m. travel time improved slightly, as did evening rush travel times in both directions. Meanwhile, morning rush-hour bike ridership increased by 55 percent.

And when new bike facilities in River West were blamed for the temporary closure of the Silver Palm restaurant, separating Konkol from his favorite sandwich, the Three Little Pigs, he dutifully repeated those claims:

Ultimately, The Silver Palm was done in by the well-meaning pursuit of a more bike-friendly city. Specifically, the installation of protected bike lanes and a Divvy bike station on Milwaukee Avenue — combined with road construction — gobbled up so much parking that customers stayed away, [the owner] said. “The loss of 15 parking places in one block took its toll,” David Gervercer wrote in an email.

While it was true that the bike lane installation involved the removal of 15 parking spots on Milwaukee Avenue, Konkol failed to mention that 14 of those were slated to be replaced with new diagonal parking spaces on a side street. Moreover, the nearby Divvy station was actually located on the sidewalk, so it had no impact on car parking. And, of course, a docking station represents many new bike parking spaces.

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In an October 2015 column Konkol implied that the city’s bike initiatives were a frivolous distraction from more pressing civic issues, designed to “pamper” affluent residents. “Take a peak [sic] at a map of Emanuel’s highly-touted protected bike lanes and you’ll see most of Chicago’s new, bike-friendly streets… are located in the wealthy parts of Chicago.”

False. At the time, sixty percent of the total bike lane mileage installed under the Emanuel administration had gone to the South and West Sides, which had also gotten the bulk of the physically protected lanes. In fact, save for a quarter-mile stretch in Uptown, no physically protected bike lanes had been built north of North Avenue.

The piece also inaccurately stated that five “hardly used [Divvy] stations in Englewood average a ride or two per month.” While ridership was, in fact, low at those recently installed stations, they were already averaging dozens of rides a month. All of which goes to show that, just because you’ve got a Pulitzer on your mantel, it doesn’t mean you always get your facts straight.

While I won’t miss Konkol’s many spurious claims about local cycling projects, I wish him luck in his future endeavors. And, not to worry, it’s likely that his fellow Chicago bike trolls John Kass, Ron Grossman, and John McCarron will keep me plenty busy fact-checking their anti-cycling screeds in Mark’s absence.

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