New Riverwalk Design and Bogus Bike Enforcement Eliminate a Safe Cycling Route

A security guard patrols the eastern section of the Chicago Riverwalk. It's still legal to bike on the riverwalk, but guards are ordering cyclists to dismount. Image: John Greenfield
A security guard patrols the eastern section of the Chicago Riverwalk. It's still legal to bike on the riverwalk, but guards are ordering cyclists to dismount. Image: John Greenfield

There’s a lot to like about the partially completed rehab of the older section of the Chicago Riverwalk, from Michigan Avenue to Lake Shore Drive. Upgrades include about 150 new trees, new bathrooms, and lots of new places to sit. A new public elevator connecting with the under-construction Vista Tower on East Wacker Drive at Columbus Drive will improve access to the river for people with disabilities. There’s also new public art, as well as a historical marker commemorating 28 submarines manufactured in Wisconsin that navigated the Chicago River on their way to combat during World War II.

New seating on the eastern riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield
New seating on the eastern riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

The downside of the rehab project is that it has basically eliminated a safe cycling route that previously existed. Prior to the reconstruction, the eastern portion of the riverwalk featured a simple asphalt path that was a handy low-stress bikeway connecting to the Lakefront Trail. For example, one could take the Dearborn protected bike lane to Wacker Drive, use a ramp by the Vietnam War memorial on the east side of State Street to get to the riverwalk, and then ride east to the lake with minimal exposure to car traffic.

The eastern portion of the riverwalk prior to the reconstruction. Image: Google Street View
The eastern portion of the riverwalk prior to the reconstruction. Image: Google Street View

The new riverwalk layout replaced the straight asphalt path with a zigzagging concrete one with multiple pinch points that make it more difficult for cyclists to safely share the route with pedestrians. That’s something of a moot point, however, because when I biked on the eastern portion of the riverwalk yesterday afternoon in nice weather at a mellow pace, security guards were constantly calling after me or trying to flag me down to tell me that biking isn’t permitted there.

The zigzagging route of the new concrete path makes cycling awkward. Photo: John Greenfield
The zigzagging route of the new concrete path makes cycling awkward. Photo: John Greenfield

The guards have been doing this for some time on the newer western section of the riverwalk, which was constructed in recent years between State Street and the Lake Street/Wacker Drive intersection. That’s despite the fact that the newer section 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.

The entire riverwalk is designated as an off-street bike trail on the city of Chicago's bike map.
The entire riverwalk is designated as an off-street bike trail on the city of Chicago’s bike map.

Although it was legal to bike on the riverwalk, last summer the Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management, which manages the promenade, posted signs exhorting “Share the riverwalk: Walk your bike.” In September downtown alderman Brendan Reilly introduced an ordinance that would ban cycling on the riverwalk at all times. Not long afterwards, new placards were posted at all the major riverwalk entrances threatening prosecution against people who ride their bike on the riverwalk, although guards weren’t stopping cyclists on the older, eastern portion of the promenade.

Yesterday City Clerk’s office spokesperson Kate Lefurge confirmed that Reilly’s proposed riverwalk biking ban was never presented in committee, let alone voted into law by the full City Council. So it’s still legal to ride a bike on all portions of the riverwalk. (Obviously, one should do so at a safe speed, yield to pedestrians, and dismount when the promenade is very congested.)

I don’t blame the guards for trying to enforce a law that doesn’t exist — they’re just following orders from their supervisors. But when they told me I couldn’t ride my bike on the riverwalk, I tried to politely explain why that’s not the case. Here’s a sample exchange.

Security Guard: You have to walk your bike.

John Greenfield: It’s legal to ride your bike on the riverwalk.

SG: No, they’ve got signs posted at every entrance saying you have to walk your bike.

JG: The signs are not correct. The alderman was trying was trying to pass an ordinance…

SG: I can only tell you what they passed on to me to tell you.

JG: What have they been telling you?

SG: That people have to walk their bikes.

JG: OK, because it’s not a law. It’s kind of wishful thinking on the part of Fleet and Facility Management [aka 2FM, the city department that manages the riverwalk]…

SG: I understand what you’re saying, but at the end of the day I can only tell you, if you choose not to obey that, it’s not like they’re going to lock you up or anything, but I have to tell you.

JG: OK, thanks for the information. I know you’re just doing your job.

Another security guard who flagged me down said that police officers have also been enforcing the nonexistent law by ordering cyclists to dismount on the riverwalk. Presumably, if you were to ignore orders from the police, you would, in fact, run the risk of getting locked up.

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A sign threatening that people who (legally) bike on the riverwalk will be prosecuted. Photo: John Greenfield

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke is unhappy with the current state of the riverwalk as well. “The eastern section certainly looks better, but 2FM may be in line for a ‘Broken Spoke Award‘ [for being unfriendly to biking] from Active Trans given the disregard they demonstrated towards cycling with their redesign,” he said via email. “The city will be transformed in many ways when a continuous Chicago River Trail is completed, but this new design will make it difficult to connect cyclists between a Chicago River Trail and the lakefront, at least during peak summer hours when the River Walk is crowded.”

Burke acknowledged that, due to space limitations, the newer western section design isn’t great for cycling, especially during peak summer hours. Active Trans, Carol Ross Barney (the architect who designed the River Walk) and an advisory group that includes the Chicago Department of Transportation have been developing plans for an alternative bike route that would parallel the riverwalk, most likely on upper Wacker, and bypass the western section.

“But the eastern section had plenty of room for separate bike and pedestrian paths and a ramp connecting it to Upper Wacker where we think the western section bypass can go. Not anymore!” He noted that the ramp, which had been located at Upper Wacker and Wabash and was accessible to bicyclists and drivers, has been removed (it will be replaced with an elevator), there aren’t separate paths for cyclist and pedestrians on the eastern riverwalks section, and the sharp angles in the of the new concrete path aren’t good for cycling.

Burke added that it appears that the city didn’t seek input about the eastern section design from anyone outside of city government. “We and others were under the impression that the changes would be purely cosmetic. We learned from a press release that the project would remove a pedestrian and bicycle ramp and not include separated paths, but it was already too late.”

Burke noted that the recent changes on the riverwalk will force some of the bicyclists who used the old asphalt path to ride on less safe streets instead, and discourage other cyclists from biking at all. “Active Trans has pushed back on these changes. Outside of peak summer hours, people walking and biking can safely share the River Walk. Any restrictions should reflect this reality. Security guards currently have no authority to block cycling on the riverwalk.”

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[This piece also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.] Earlier this month, the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, grabbed the spotlight as our city’s latest fabulous public space. However, the Chicago Riverwalk extension, which partially opened on May 23, is another strong contender. The […]