Reilly Says He’s Really Going to Pass the Riverwalk Bike Ban

This afternoon I did a little editing to make a riverwalk warning sign reflect reality. Photo: John Greenfield
This afternoon I did a little editing to make a riverwalk warning sign reflect reality. Photo: John Greenfield

Last week I took a bicycle ride on the Chicago Riverwalk wearing a t-shirt I made explaining that it’s still legal to bike there. “Hi there!” it reads. “Despite what the signs say, Alderman [Brendan] Reilly’s ordinance to ban biking on the riverwalk (O2018-7034) never passed, so it’s still legal. Thank you!”

In case you’re new to the issue, the newer section of the riverwalk, constructed a few years ago, was originally promoted and funded as a cycling facility, and it appears as an off-street trail on the city’s bike map. And although Reilly introduced the ordinance last September, it never became law. However, shortly after he proposed the ban, the city posted signs at the entrances to the facility threatening that bike riders will be prosecuted, and security guards routinely flag down cyclists to tell them they can’t ride on the path.

My t-shirt stunt got Reilly’s attention.

In response, I pledged that if Reilly’s ordinance passes, I will perform an act of civil disobedience against the unfair ordinance.

Why is it an unjust law? Pitching the riverwalk as a bike/ped facility to get a $99 million loan, and then banning cycling, is an unfair bait-and-switch. In addition, the older eastern portion of the riverwalk, which used to be a straight, broad asphalt path that was easy for cyclists and pedestrians to share, was reconfigured this spring with a bike-hostile zigzagging route and bottlenecks. The guards are now telling people on bikes that they can’t ride on the older section as well, which means we’ve essentially lost a low-stress bike route that previously existed.

The older, eastern section of the riverwalk before and after this year's redesign. Images: Google Maps, John Greenfield
The older, eastern section of the riverwalk before and after this year’s redesign. Images: Google Maps, John Greenfield

Last week Streetsblog Chicago also held an informal Twitter poll to ask our followers what the best policy towards biking on the riverwalk would be. Yes, the respondents were probably mostly sustainable transportation advocates, but the result do show that a full 99 people are against Reilly’s ban.

True to his word, Reilly took some action on the ban this morning at Lori Lightfoot’s first City Council meeting as mayor. According to the City Clerk’s office, a resolution was introduced today stating that no final action will be taken on any ordinances that were introduced prior to Lightfoot’s inauguration that are considered “fail to pass,” with a few exceptions. Therefore, Reilly reintroduced the bike ban to the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee as a new ordinance.

This afternoon I stopped by the riverwalk to engage in a little more IRL trolling, shooting a photo of what the signs at the entrances to the promenade should say, in light of current laws.

There, I fixed it for them. (And, yes, I restored the sign to its original, inaccurate status after shooting the photo.) Photos: John Greenfield
There, I fixed it for them. (And, yes, I restored the sign to its original, inaccurate status after shooting the photo.) Photos: John Greenfield

When I rode the length of the riverwalk this afternoon, I was flagged down twice by security guards who told me I wasn’t allowed to ride. Once again, I referred them to my t-shirt for an explanation of why that wasn’t the case. In general, the guards who have confronted me on the path have been polite, or even cordial — they’re just doing their job, after all. Today the guards actually smiled and chuckled at my shirt. “Well, I can’t stop you if you’re going to ride,” said one of them.

In case you’re wondering, I am aware that there’s an issue of white privilege at play with my t-shirt stunt and my promise to disobey Reilly’s ordinance if it passes. While I’ve been unfairly arrested and jailed by downtown police before, at no point in the process was I afraid for my physical safety. Would I feel as comfortable risking arrest if I was a person of color? Probably not.

However, the Chicago Police Department’s past bike enforcement practices include writing exponentially more tickets in African-American neighborhoods as majority-white ones, and citing otherwise-law-abiding Black cyclists for riding on downtown sidewalks roughly three times as often as their white counterparts. That strongly suggests that if Reilly’s riverwalk bike ban passes, officers will be more likely to target African Americans for violating it, potentially putting them in harm’s way.

So white privilege was a factor in why I felt relatively at-ease flouting the de-facto riverwalk bike ban. But I believe that if I can use that privilege to call attention to this issue and help prevent Reilly’s ordinance from passing, I’m pushing back at an unfair law that would disproportionately impact people of color.

On the bright side, lately the Active Transportation Alliance has been brainstorming with Ross Barney Architects and Friends of Downtown on a solution for a low-stress bikeway on Upper Wacker Driver that would provide a safe alternative to the riverwalk. An advisory committee of more than twenty public and private sector entities, including Reilly’s office, is also involved. This summer they’ll be collecting data and input. If you’d like to get involved with the project, contact Steve Simmons, steve@activetrans.org, 312-216-0472.

  • hopeyglass

    While I very much appreciate the penultimate 5 paragraphs, although I do wish the CTA for other folks ways of addressing this may be safer/more accessible to them was brought up sooner, there is still something that is off-putting about “Thoreau” like moves for this admittedly annoying series of events.

    I suppose it’s great to use privilege like that, but how many of those security guards were underpaid folks (I’m assuming BIPOC) who probably just didn’t want to deal with stuff like this? I mean, it’s sort of an outdoor mall, no? I don’t like a lack of bike infrastructure, but having ped infrastructure like this that doesn’t have bikes is also not a total loss, even if others find it a Pyrrhic victory.

    I guess in an summer and city where young black and brown folks are barred and threatened away from public spaces, without recourse/with very, very strong consequences should they be arrested, this just … doesn’t come across as great. Additionally, Thoreau wrote that tome as a way to verbalize his opposition to war and slavery, but got arrested because he didn’t pay his taxes. Which is against the law, obviously.

    So… I’m gonna say comparing actions like this to taking a stance to violently enslaving people for a long time and bringing so much text and social media to it is also… a little off. Sorry for all the ellipses, I’d like to remain polite and verbalize something that others may feel dissonant about. You are, of course, within your right to get arrested and do it publicly, but the bigger picture here may be about alternatives/policy/tiny fiefdoms of aldermen/why a mostly private-public space seems to be such a sticky wicket. I’d love to read a take on that. But for me, things like Critical Mass =/= this situation. Annoying and intersectional and downer stance checked off for the day.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Thanks for the feedback. “How many of those security guards were underpaid folks (I’m assuming BIPOC) who probably just didn’t want to deal with stuff like this?” I’ve made a point of not blaming the security guards for stopping cyclists — after all, they’re just following orders — and being polite in my interactions with them. As I wrote, the ones who stopped me yesterday seemed amused by the t-shirt. But, yes, it’s unfortunate that their supervisors are putting them in the position of having to enforce a nonexistent law.

  • Jeremy

    I would like to see bicycle riding allowed, especially during morning commute times (even though I will likely never ride down there). I personally approve of the zig-zagging path as a way to prevent people from riding to quickly. I don’t know if pedestrians with visual impairments will feel the same way, so I will respect their opinions.

    What bothers me more about the Riverwalk, is how Rahm allowed parts to be privatized by the nearby property owners. This has resulted in parts being closed before 11:00 pm and people with dogs being kicked out. I think the entire Riverwalk should be under Park District control so there are a standard set of rules that are consistent with the rest of the city’s parks.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Really, Upper Wacker? We had a perfectly good “trail” before — leading, very importantly, to the Lake Front Trail. There was, it seems to me, room for accommodating both peds and bikes down there in the “East Riverwalk” area. Does anyone know if this (i.e. accommodating both peds and bikes) was part if the “design brief” for the project — i.e. discussed / attempted in the design development process? If not, that was a very bad mistake and missed opportunity.

    But back to Upper Wacker: First, where exactly will this “low-stress bikeway” begin (I mean, on the west end)? I am concerned of how exactly is one will access this low-stress bikeway. Second, where/how will it end at the east end, in that ugly, dirty, concrete, shadow-filled area where Upper Wacker means multiple on- and off-ramps under Lake Shore Drive? Plus, do you really think that cars speeding east on Lower Wacker, where Upper Wacker drops down to meet them (since Upper Wacker itself dead-ends) can be made to “go slowly”? Wacker here is essentially a freeway and the place where it meets Lower Lake Shore Drive is essentially a freeway interchange. And remember, we already had / and could have again a great solution including a nice, wide trail underpass at the mouth of the Chicago River! Federal transportation funding and Chicago River Design Guidelines — as well as common sense — point to bike accommodation along the river wherever possible.

    Here is the view where Wacker meets the LFT: https://www.google.com/maps/@41.8874161,-87.6143774,3a,90y,101.29h,86.5t/data=!3m5!1e1!3m3!1smJ9ml-N1VG2x9CpTABqnwQ!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo2.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DmJ9ml-N1VG2x9CpTABqnwQ%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D14.044798%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100
    And here is the “dead end” of Upper Wacker: https://www.google.com/maps/@41.8876444,-87.6174997,3a,75y,89.55h,79.51t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s2FtBxadsNjU9qLXPVXUiCQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Does anyone know if this (i.e. accommodating both peds and bikes) was part if the “design brief” for the project — i.e. discussed / attempted in the design development process?” Unlike the newer west riverwalk project, there was no community input process for the recent east riverwalk remix, nor a pre-release of the specifics of the redesign.

    For example, the Active Transportation Alliance, which is usually given the opportunity to weigh in on projects like this (they were heavily involved in planning for the Lakefront Trail separation project), was not given an opportunity to weigh in on the east riverwalk redesign.

  • Mike Harris

    Gotta say I’m entirely on Reilly’s side with this one. No disrespect intended to you personally, but bikes and pedestrians simply don’t belong on the same thoroughfares. They too easily cause injury due to the momentum from their speed, and the weight of the rider. Same principle as driving a car: when you are at the helm of something that can cause injury, you are responsible to make sure you don’t cause injury. Too many bicycle riders are — in my opinion, at least — entirely unmindful and uncaring of causing injury. Also, pedestrians, unlike bikes or cars, are under an understandable perception that in pedestrian spaces, suddenly changing their position (i.e. the equivalent of “changing lanes”) will not cause them injury. That can no longer be true when bicycles are introduced. Additionally, said pedestrian spaces — again unlike bike/car spaces — have children in them who won’t have the maturity or understanding to know that they cannot move quickly or unpredictably when bikes are about. As a society, we have a responsibility to make such spaces safer.

  • Tooscrapps

    They can easily coexist. No one is doing a TT on the Riverwalk.

  • Austin Busch

    The city saw the amenities paying fees on the west side, and realized that for cheap or with grant funding they could get even more usage fees on the east side. Bikers just weren’t making as much money as winery patrons.

    On the brightly cynical side, I’m therefor quite sure there’s at least someone in city hall who would be very receptive to revenue-generating road tolls…

  • Turner

    Bless you for your concern for pedestrian safety, but you’re missing the forest for the trees.

    What we lack, apparently, are some rigorous, inclusive, evidence-driven design guidelines for evaluating and planning spaces shared by cyclists and pedestrians, and a foundational desire to understand a site’s constraints before building stuff. This is possible! You just have to want to do it.

    Instead, we get a grumpy alderman waving around a blunt and binary regulatory instrument after the facility’s already been built, with no apparent research or stakeholder input at the design phase, which is when these problems should have been resolved.

    As a result, we end up with:

    “Let’s take money for a bike facility and then prohibit bikes from it,”

    and,

    “Let’s build something without a meaningful and/or transparent evaluation of the plan, and then use a city ordinance to hot-fix the problems caused by our bad design,

    and,

    “Let’s enforce that city ordinance even though it doesn’t actually exist!”

    None of those are a non-motorized traffic / shared space problem. They suggest, rather, a remarkable failure of governance. That’s the problem we need to be talking about.

  • Ryan Benson

    Great article- I was scratching my head yesterday when a security guard told me to get off my bike on the riverwalk as I have been using the riverwalk for the last 8 years to commute to work. Now I can politely tell the security guards thanks but no thanks.

    In the morning, there is no pedestrian density issue that should ban commuters from riding on the riverwalk.

    Personally, I could understanding if they banned riding between State Street and Michigan Avenue in the afternoon based on pedestrian density, but east of Michigan Avenue there is no pedestrian density problem in the afternoon.(I don’t ride west of State Street so I don’t know how it is past there).

  • BlueFairlane

    That video gives me anxiety. I can’t for the life of me figure out why people are so hellbent about bicycling this thing, as that looks like the most unpleasant route I can imagine. There’s a constant stream of people to weave around in a very tight area and about a million places to get hung up so that you wind up taking your bike for a swim. Personally, I’d rather just take Wacker.

  • ChicagoCyclist
  • ChicagoCyclist

    Also, what are officially called “Shared-use paths” (also, Google) are extremely common in the Chicagoland area, in Forest Preserves, along larger roads, etc. etc.

  • Michael

    Just returned from 2.5 month assignment in Japan. The cultural of respect and courtesy is simply amazing and, frankly, i find it difficult to be back here. Perhaps it is this cultural difference that explains why a country with bicycle commuting rates nearly 30x higher than America has less than a third the number of bicycle involved accidents.

    In Japan, the pedestrian is king. If a bicycle is on a sidewalk they will just ride as slow as the pedestrian until a space opens to pass… no bells, no “on your right” or shouting out. After traveling throughout Japan over the 2.5 months, I only ONCE had someone give me a hard time on a sidewalk when i didn’t see that they were behind me… and when i turned around, it was, of course, two American tourists on rented bicycles.

    There is just a whole different level of expectation of bicycle riders in Japan than America. They are slower; more deliberate; no one owns a racing bicycle (100% upright handlebars like an old style Schwinn); virtually all riders stop at lights and stop signs and crosswalks as do pedestrians; if it is crowded they get off and walk their bicycles; respect and courtesy is off the charts. Of course, this runs through their entire culture – not just bicycle riders – and includes how people drive, walk and virtually everything else.

    While I’m back in the country now, I have not been home to Chicago since October and headed back next week. Hoping that things have calmed down on our streets – even just a bit – since I left, but I’m not all that hopeful. Chicago is now full of transient transplants and has become the kind of place where you hold a door open for someone and they just walk through without even acknowledging your existence… nit the “friendly midwest” city i grew up in. Anything is possible, but cultural change takes a long time to correct, and until we do change I suppose I’ll just have to suffer through this horrible period in our city or bit the bullet and decide I’ve had enough and move away from my birthplace and home to our family since my great grandparents came here after the great fire to help rebuild the city.

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