Eyes on the Street: Mixed Messages on the Riverwalk

Signs and markings on the offramp from the Lakefront Trail to the riverwalk encourage people to bike to the promenade, but other signs threaten prosecution if they ride there. Photo: John Greenfield
Signs and markings on the offramp from the Lakefront Trail to the riverwalk encourage people to bike to the promenade, but other signs threaten prosecution if they ride there. Photo: John Greenfield

By now regular Streetsblog Chicago readers know the drill. The Chicago Riverwalk was originally conceived and pitched to the federal government as a bike facility and appears as an off-street trail on the city’s bike map. But downtown alderman Brendan Reilly introduced an ordinance last month that would ban cycling on the riverwalk at all times. The Active Transportation Alliance has come out against Reilly’s proposal, noting that converting a lane or two of six-lane Wacker Drive, upstairs from the riverwalk, to create protected bike lanes would be a good solution for addressing congestion on the promenade.

It’s likely (though not a sure thing) that the legislation will be discussed at the next City Council Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety meeting on Thursday, October 25 at noon in Room 201A of City Hall, 121 North LaSalle. We’ll let you know if the ordinance appears on the agenda, so if you’re able to show up you can voice your opposition to this misguided law that would essentially ban biking on a bikeway.

If the ordinance passes in committee, it will move on to the full council for a vote. If all 50 alderman approve it you can say goodbye to your favorite low-stress route from the Dearborn protected bike lane to the Lakefront Trail.

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One of the “Walk your bike” signs installed this summer. Photo: John Greenfield

Despite the fact that it’s currently legal to bike on the riverwalks, this summer the Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management, which manages the promenade, posted signs exhorting “Share the riverwalk: Walk your bike.” Last week Streetsblog reader Dan Korn alerted us that new placards had been posted at all the major riverwalk entrances threatening prosecution against people who ride their bike on the riverwalk.

A sign at the Clark Street ramp to the riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield
A sign at the Clark Street ramp to the riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

What makes this new signage even more problematic is that there are also signs and marking that invite people to bike on the riverwalk. An offramp from the Lakefront Trail features bike route signage directing cyclists to the promenade, as well as green pavement with bike symbols and arrows.

New pavement markings encourage cyclists to bike to the riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield
New pavement markings encourage cyclists to bike to the riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

It’s only when you get to the underpass below Lake Shore Drive that leads to the riverwalk, you encounter one of the signs that warn that you need to dismount, or else face a fine or jail time.

Biking on the older section of the riverwalk near the Lakefront Trail. Photo: John Greenfield
Biking on the older section of the riverwalk near the Lakefront Trail. Photo: John Greenfield

Let’s say you’re meeting up with friends at the riverwalk location of City Winery, near State Street, to sip merlot inside one of their geodesic domes. Do they really expect you to walk your bike an entire mile to get there?

Photo: John Greenfield
It’s still legal to bike to City Winery’s domes, though you wouldn’t know it from riverwalk signs. Photo: John Greenfield

For what it’s worth, when I cruised up and down the riverwalk at a moderate speed today during the evening rush, I encountered several security guards, and none of them told me that I shouldn’t be biking on the promenade. (That did happen when I was cycling on the riverwalk on a warm Thursday evening a few weeks ago.)

The mixed signals sent by the bike-friendly signs and markings leading to the riverwalk, and the bike-hostile signs elsewhere on the riverwalk, are confusing. But if Reilly has his way, the message will be clear: Cyclists will no longer be able to use a facility that was designed and funded with them in mind. Consider contacting your alderman (find your ward here) to ask them to oppose the riverwalk bike ban.

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  • Jeremy

    I wonder if the Trump administration would try to claw back the $232 million funding if the Riverwalk usage doesn’t match the application. That would certainly make his fans happy and give him another opportunity to mock Chicago.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I would really not at all be surprised. And frankly, Chicago would have it coming in this case. There has to be a more middle-ground compromise than this very heavy-handed and likely unevenly/improperly enforced edict.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Right, it would be reasonable to have a walk-your-bike rule during the high season, at certain times of day (such as post-work happy hours), on the retail-dense, tightly laid-out sections of the riverwalk between State and Wells.

  • R. C. Munson

    I agree with John’s compromise for high season. (For simplicity, let’s say no riding during daylight hours from June to September.)
    We need to recognize not all cyclists are as respectful of peds as they should be.
    A modest ordinance starts the process.
    This is a prototype for the 606.

  • rwy

    If the ordinance was passed, how likely would it be enforced during off-peak times?

  • BlueFairlane

    How likely is any traffic ordinance in this city enforced?

    I suspect that there would be a few dragnets every once in a while just to send a message, and then long periods of nothing.

  • kastigar

    I’d support protected bike lanes on upper Wacker Drive, in both directions, from the Lakefront Trail all the way to where the river splits.

    I’ve driven my bike on the Riverwalk; it isn’t that attractive but I would oppose the ban if not balanced by a bike lane on top on Wacker Drive,

  • Tooscrapps

    “This is a prototype for the 606.”

    What do you mean?

  • Carter O’Brien

    See the commenter above for the real problem, which is the slippery slope of precedent.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    To be slightly facetious (but also slightly serious): In my experience, I, on my bike, riding slowly and carefully, am less of a hazard and risk to others/pedestrians than a lot of thoughtless, unstable, spaced-out folks are when on their own two feet :)!

  • rwy

    Good point. It seems like offering an alternative, like bike lanes on Wacker would get more bikes off the riverwalk than a law.

  • Anonymous

    Coming from London, where many of the canal tow paths are as – or more – crowded than the river walk, all I think is needed are some “pedestrian priority” signs. Bikes don’t need to be walked, but pedestrians should feel safe from being plowed over.

  • planetshwoop

    I’m dreaming here, but if one lane of upper Wacker were converted to an Amsterdam-sty-e bikeway, it would be delightful.

    I’m sure it would be used by plenty of Divvyistas getting from train stations to N Michigan. And it wouldn’t interrupt businesses as much.

    If it’s segregated like an actual bike path, it would help with eliminating bike path blockage too.

  • Jeremy

    … and one lane of Michigan Avenue

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