Is Chicago a Good Bike City Nowadays? Bike to Work Rally Attendees Weigh in

Residents say a cohesive network of high-quality, well maintained bike lanes is needed

The Bike to Work Rally. Photo: James Porter
The Bike to Work Rally. Photo: James Porter

“Greatly improved, but still could go further.” That was Jennifer Richards’ assessment of conditions for bicycling in Chicago, made during Wednesday’s annual Bike To Work Rally at Daley Plaza, the traditional event for taking stock of the state of Chicago cycling. Her sentiments were echoed by other bike lane travelers present.

Considering that the weather was nearly perfect (the rally was originally scheduled for June but was rained out) attendance was modest, possibly because the new date wasn’t widely publicized. Still, there was a respectable turnout of cyclists at the event, sponsored by the bike-focused firm Freeman Kevenides Law (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) and featured beer from local producer Revolution Brewing. The fact that the rally was held squarely in the middle of the Loop prompted riders to comment on the differences cycling downtown and in the neighborhoods.

“It could always be better, but things are pretty good right now,” said 61-year-old George Vanderford, a regular bicyclist since his early thirties, reflecting on the current state of Chicago cycling. “I appreciate all the bike lanes they’re putting in. Of course, on the Southwest Side, its kinda lacking a little bit. Come North, you’re great.”

Chicago Reader staff hand out copies of the paper's bike issue, including the Mellow Chicago Bike Map. Photo: James Porter
Chicago Reader reps hand out copies of the paper’s bike issue, including the Mellow Chicago Bike Map. Photo: James Porter

Vanderford added that maintenance of the lanes is an issue, adding that a bike lane he uses in his daily commute is largely faded to oblivion. “Most of it is wiped out,” he said. “You’ll see bits and pieces of line work every now and then.”

Jerome Pickens, who has been biking for five years, told a similar story. “In the neighborhood, the lines are all [faded], but downtown, everything’s nice and clear and color-coordinated,” an apparent reference to the Loop’s protected bike lanes with green paint. “In the ‘hood, it’s lacking. But I understand — ridership is lower on the southern and western sides of the city, compared to downtown. They just have to improve the infrastructure all around.”

Most attendees agreed that the Windy City is generally a good place for bicycling, but aside from disappearing bike lanes, reckless and negligent driving is a major issue. Pickens said ride-share drivers are some of the worst culprits. “There are too many Ubers and Lyfts out here, taking over the road,” he said. “A lot of them don’t know how to drive, it seems like. They have no regard for the signs, no regard for cyclists, and they’re not paying attention — they keep looking at the app instead of looking at the road.”

Savannah Soik, staffing the Chicago Sport and Social table, argued that more protected bike lanes are needed to provide a physical barrier between bicyclists and moving motor vehicles. “[People over 12] can’t bike on the sidewalks in Chicago, but there are definitely scenarios where I’m scared to bike on the street.”

Savannah Solk. Photo: James Porter
Savannah Solk. Photo: James Porter

Longtime Chicago bike advocate Cathy Haibach said that the main change in motorist behavior that she’s seen during the past 20 years is the increasing prevalence of texting and driving. “For all the safety improvements, you’ve got the threat of distracted driving. I think the authorities need to aggressively target and ticket distracted drivers.” She added that the law against parking in bike lanes also needs to be better enforced.

On the other hand, former Active Trans office manager Jennifer Richards said that in recent years she’s experienced more friendliness from other bicyclists. “I’ve commuted down Clark Street a couple of times, and riding along some other cyclist you actually strike up a conversation with somebody,” she said. “That will never happen in a car!”

“I think you’re starting to see this switch from biking being a niche thing where there’s a hardcore group of dedicated people who are risking their lives to it becoming much more of a mainstream way to get around,” said Active Trans advocacy manager Jim Merrell. “Right here, downtown in particular, you can really see how protected bike lanes really encourage more people to try biking out as everyday transportation, particularly when its easy to hop on a bike-share bike like Divvy and shoot across the Loop on a protected bike lane.”

Merrell noted that the percentage of Chicagoans who get to work by bike has more than tripled from 0.5 percent in 2000 to 1.7 percent according to the latest Census. “However, despite that growth, we know there’s a lot more work to be done, to make sure that more people have the opportunity to take advantage of biking as a great way of getting around the city,” he added. “That means continuing to expand the network of bike lanes, to create low-stress, comfortable places for people to ride throughout the entire city, not just downtown, but from 138th street all the way to Howard, and all points in between.”

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  • Anne A

    I agree with the comments above, and that we need more of a bike route network and less of a patchwork than what we have now. I recently visited Minneapolis and was impressed with how thorough a job they’ve done at creating a bike route network in many neighborhoods.

    My experiences riding on the north side and south side are markedly different. I’m much more likely to get an entitled “get out of my way” attitude from north side drivers, especially in Old Town or Lincoln Park. Even without as many bike lanes or marked routes, I’ve had better experiences on many south side streets, which are generally less congested. I’ve even had pleasant conversations with drivers while we were waiting for red lights to change.

  • JeBuS

    Anecdotally, I’ll agree with your assessment of North vs South side biking. There are less ride-share vehicles on the South side, too. Which is an inherent safety improvement over biking on the North side.

  • Tooscrapps

    Feel the same way about riding through West Side neighborhoods to Oak Park and beyond.

    Though some South Side streets, because of the combination of little congestion and lack of bike lanes or other safety infrastructure can feel like riding on a drag strip.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I agree as well. And while I’m a fan of casual more laid back riding like John’s mellow bike map suggests, it simply cannot be said enough that we need to address the barriers that the expressway and river impart to cyclists. There is no “mellow” alternative, and I’m tired of hearing that we “can’t” improve these streets because of the IDOT territoriality dispute.

  • kastigar

    Coming home from the Jefferson Park Transit Center, I discovered the new bike lane on both sides of Foster Avenue. It only runs the short distance from roughly Milwaukee Avenue to Elston Avenue.

    Elston is the dividing line between the 45th Ward and the 39th Ward, I think. So this needs to be expanded further east on Foster in the 39th Ward. It should go at least as far as Gompers Park to tie into the new North Branch Trail path, or continue even further east to the North Shore Channel path.

    Foster Avenue isn’t wide enough for two-lanes and two lanes aren’t necessary. There is room for parking as well as a bicycle lane along the whole length of Foster, all the way to the lake front path. There are various parks and shopping along the way. There is a dearth of east-west routes through the city and this would help satisfy that shortage.

    If it could be done in the 45th Ward it should be done in the 39th Ward. If you live in the 39th Ward (http://www.aldermanlaurino.com/tif-39th-ward-map) write or call Ald. Margaret Laurino (Phone: 773-736-5594, Fax: 773-736-2333, Email:ward39@cityofchicago.org ) and suggest that this be done

  • Sam Prus

    How about the city patching/fixing the streets in bike lanes/near curbs? These are usually neglected and I often have to swerve into the street to avoid hitting broken asphalt, or rough cement patches. It’s great that the city is painting more bike lanes, but the roads where these lanes have been painted are in very rough condition and almost unrideable.

  • rohmen

    ^^^^this. It’s actually one of my concerns with the recent push to install more permanent curbs on PBLs rather than the current plastic bollards with gaps between them.

    What do you do in a curb-separated PBL when there’s a giant pothole in the lane? I’d love to say that would never happen, and/or the City would come out and fix it right away so what’s the big deal, but the current maintenance of bike lanes makes me doubt those sort of issues will get fixed quickly. When it’s just bollards, you can swerve out of the lane, but with more permanent separation you’re basically stuck dealing with the road hazard (and with the City’s seeming ambivalence to fixing such hazards quickly).

    It’s not enough to just build the infrastructure, you have to also commit to maintaining it.

  • rohmen

    Largely agree, though Lake Street heading out to OP lately has started to feel like a drag strip, and cars are getting a little too use to the idea of using the bike lane as a third car lane to zip around slower traffic at choke points now that it’s not actually a “protected” lane at all.

  • Courtney

    Interesting. Anecdotal evidence for sure but I’ll add I used to live in Kenwood and experienced harassment while biking on Drexel. I now live on the North Side and sure I have definitely had a few altercations with drivers but I feel safer on the North Side given bikers have more visibility on these streets.
    It’s a bit of a chicken vs egg. Are there more folks biking on the North Side because the infrastructure is better? I’m sure that plays a large role. The South side is largely designed to benefit folks who drive. It was designed to be car centric on purpose. Even the Red Line’s lack of integration with the neighborhoods is intentional.

  • Courtney

    Coming from Little Rock, AR where you are playing with your life by riding on a bike, Chicago is an improvement. I’d love to see more physically separated bike lanes and more education for drivers on how to recognize biking hand signals and to look out for bikers when opening doors and turning. I recently got into an altercation with a driver because she turned too tight and almost hit me. She had more than enough room to make a much safer turn.
    I’d love to see police do more enforcement around distracted driving. Even while riding the bus and looking into cars it’s pretty disturbing how common texting and driving is. I’d also love to see the city do more to penalize Lyft/Uber drivers for clogging our streets. Of course the city would need to demand more data from Uber/Lyft so they can get data on the problem….but given the Lyft/Uber lobbyists….I can’t see that happening for a while.

  • Anne A

    Parts of King Dr. can be a little challenging on Sunday mornings with church parking.

    Vincennes is much better than it used to be, because most drivers are respecting the bike lanes. It used to be like the Wild West.

  • Tooscrapps

    They need to put midblock diverters on those parking stretches.

  • rohmen

    They tried to put in temporary speed bumps on a strip of the westbound Lake Street parking lane (just west of Cicero), and unsurprisingly they were pretty beaten up in a matter of days. I hope the speed bumps at least did some damage to the cars that hit them at what most have been crazy speeds.

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