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.

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.”

  • Tooscrapps

    Good follow-up. Your experience with the yellow shirts was exactly the same as mine a few weeks back. I wish whoever was directing them would tell them to leave cyclists be when the path is empty.

  • Joe Klonowski

    It’s bad. Just this morning I had two security guards physically block my path, which they never used to do. In fact, on the East side they used to let you bike if it wasn’t crowded.

    Agree with John that it seems they’re deliberately making it bike-unfriendly, sharp turns, killed the ramp at State, etc.

    Huge bummer, guess I’ll just use Middle Randolph from now on and pray that I don’t get hit by a car doing 35.

  • Just wait until the scooters come down there. (They will.)

  • silverplex

    .At least during the pilot, the scooters won’t be able to operate downtown since it’s outside the geofenced area

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Doesn’t this “eastern-section of the Riverwalk project” conflict with / contradict the City’s recent River Design Guidelines?

  • Who’s going to be the sacrificial lamb willing to get arrested over it and sue the city to allow bikes on it?

  • Roo_Beav

    I biked on the eastern section on Monday because it was opening day and the weather wasn’t that great (low 50s), as I wanted to check it out when pedestrian traffic was fairly minimal. Even though I was biking at a brisk walk/slow jog pace, one of the yellow shirts stuck her arm out like she was going to clothesline me and knock me off my bike.

    I think the design is appropriate for this area as that it encourages those on bikes to go slow and pedestrians to linger. However, this section is very unwelcoming due to the overenforcement.

    Ald Reilly said “Obviously enforcement will be driven by common sense: when there tons of pedestrians present, it’ll be enforced.” That has not been my experience.

  • dina

    Oh no. This cuts off my major route for accessing the River North area and points west. This is so backward! I despise the lack of consideration. Cycling will remain a dumb recreational afterthought to most people if infrastructure is not improved. The traffic and especially air quality here make this an urgent issue.

  • Michelle Stenzel

    The harassment by security guards is not acceptable. This is designed to be a transportation route, and funded as such for walking and biking, as John points out. It’s a legitimate and much needed link to the Lakefront Trail from points west. Most hours of the day, most days of the year, there is plenty of room for people on bikes (or scooters or inline skates) to co-exist with people walking. I hope Active Trans keeps up the activism on this issue.

  • rduke

    So….they could have designed a decent segregated space for cycling, but didn’t?

    To hell with them, ride on it all day, every day. tHeReS nO rOoM is such a half-assed lame cop out. There’s plenty of room, you’d just have to tell the no-taste landscape architects to tone it down a bit.

  • I’m starting to see people with their own scooters.

  • At the very least an efficient protected lower lower wacker lane is needed. Upper Wacker too needs protected bike lanes.

    But yes clearly bikes are still a design afterthought which will be ignored everywhere as long as possible.

  • Merch

    Who would want to bike on Lower Wacker and breathe in all that car exhaust?

    Moreover, not sure there is room to shoehorn in a protected bike lane on Lower Wacker. Since the whole point of Lower Wacker is to take traffic off surface streets, taking away one of the 2 lanes will probably not fly with CDOT.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The captain always goes down with the ship, so I may wind up doing this.

  • Tooscrapps

    There is another level of street below Lower Wacker at that section, which is why he said Lower Lower Wacker.

  • Merch

    Lower Lower Wacker has the further problem of lots of delivery trucks — maybe not a great mix with bikes — even with a protected lane

  • Carter O’Brien

    I agree with you as things stand today, but planners should take regular note of how quickly the transition to electric vehicles is happening, because that is the future and these emissions concerns will become increasingly irrelevant.

  • No I was referring to Lower Lower Wacker between LSD and Almost to Michigan. Not Middle Lower Wacker. Very little traffic there at all. It parallels the part of the Rivet Walk recently ruined for fast walkers and even medium speed bikers.

  • Merch missed that I was referring to Lower Lower Wacker. :)

  • Carter O’Brien

    LOL. Maybe we need a “Get Wacky on Wacker” Crawl every year…

  • ChicagoCyclist

    I can’t help writing: The approach/policing of the east section of the Riverwalk described in this article is utterly and totally unacceptable! Basically, a bicycle-specific or multiuse path needs to be part of this section of the Riverwalk. Someone really needs to bring this up with CDOT / City / Mayors Office / Park District — i.e. with any and all parties responsible for the Riverwalk, transportation, etc.

  • David Barish

    There are multiple issues but clearly the disconnect between the law and the instructions given to the security guard are going to lead to a bad outcome for somebody who is less gracious and conversational than John. I foresee a security guard trying to do his job and not wanting to get in trouble meeting a cyclist armed with information and a discussion turning into a meeting of the Scylla and Charybdis. Regardless of the outcome (permission or ban) a clear AND legal directive needs to be made. Apart from that, I am torn by wanting cyclists to have access to the Riverwalk and seeing the reality that the Riverwalk is always going to be akin to a no wake zone for boaters. I don’t know if that will lead to good outcomes. A collision can literally throw somebody into the river. Would cyclists abide a 6 or 10 mph limit? Me? I would never want to ride there but a ban always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

  • Justin Starren

    If this article is correct, the question is whether this design actually violates city ordinance, and a bicycle advocacy group has standing to sue to have it removed. Does anyone know Lightfoot’s attitudes on bicycles?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    There was some good bike stuff in her transportation platform.

    She rides a bike for transportation. From one of the debates:

    “But the two candidates do sometimes have different points of view when it comes to transportation. For example, during a March 7 NBC/Telemundo debate, host Carol Marin asked them if they ride bikes. ‘I do,’ said Lightfoot. Asked if she wears a helmet and obeys traffic laws, she replied “Of course.”

    Preckwinkle said she doesn’t bike. ‘I walk,’ she said. ‘I walk our dog.’ When Marin asked if she’d support a crackdown on cycling infractions, Preckwinkle didn’t say yes or no, but provided a windshield perspective on the issue. ‘Well . . . many of our bike riders don’t pay any attention to the traffic laws, which is not only infuriating, but also scary for drivers.'”

  • Gary Chicago

    The hardcore bicyclists bitchin about the riverwalk sound just like the car drivers when bike lanes were added to streets
    This is a RIVERWALK for goodness sake

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Regardless of the name, when the city of Chicago applied to the federal government for a $99M loan for the project, they told the feds it would include bicycle paths.

  • paulrandall

    Why weren’t these issues raised when plans for the design were released at the press conference prior to construction? Opportunities for separating car and bike traffic are few and far between and they shouldn’t be squandered by thoughtless design of new infrastructure.

  • Anonymous

    They need to put a lane in on Columbus Drive. We need a better North-South river crossing between Dearborn and LSD. The Roosevelt Memorial Bridge at LSD is way too crowded with pedestrians, especially in summer. Michigan Ave is not safe for cycling and sidewalks are always crowded too. Columbus is the answer. Extend the bike lane at least from Roosevelt all the way to Grand and give us a better route to get across the river east of Dearborn.


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