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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