Making the Southwest Side Bikeable Requires Addressing Environmental Racism

Sharing the road with trucks on the California Avenue bridge over the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Image: Google Maps
Sharing the road with trucks on the California Avenue bridge over the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Image: Google Maps

Yesterday I made my first presentation as the Southwest Side representative for the Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council. There are eight representatives throughout the city. As representatives, we’ve been asked to discuss the assets, challenges, and next steps for our region at the quarterly meetings.

My region includes Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Archer Heights, Marquette Park, Gage Park, West Lawn, West Elsdon, Clearing, Garfield Ridge, Back of the Yards, Little Village, and Pilsen. It’s a huge region with neighborhoods varying in  demographics and challenges. Much of my region’s neighborhoods are predominately Latinx.

As someone who is still getting to know some of these neighborhoods, I highlighted some assets knowing that there’d be many more I’d learn about down the road. Major parks in the region include Harrison, McKinley, and Marquette. The area also has access to the Pink and Orange lines, in addition to major bus routes like Pulaski, Western, Ashland, Archer, and Cermak. Shopping districts include 26th Street, which is the highest grossing shopping and tax revenue hub in the city after the Magnificent Mile.

The Southwest Region.
The Southwest Region.

Discussing the challenges in the region was a bit tricky because I don’t pretend to know all the challenges, particularly because I just started in my role and am still getting to know the different issues. Based on my experiences living in Little Village, working in Brighton Park, and frequenting Pilsen, I have been able to pick up on some of the overarching themes in some of the region.

Biking on the Southwest Side means not having a lot of options for low-stress routes and also often dealing with poorly lit streets when biking at night. Some of the low-traffic streets that would otherwise be good bike routes, such as 25th Street in Little Village, are riddled with potholes that, ironically, make it stressful to ride there.

As it stands, biking on the Southwest Side requires sharing the road with truck drivers. When I used to bike into Brighton Park to my job working with students from Kelly High School, I would typically have to deal with plenty of truck traffic. I would ride on California Avenue to cross the Sanitary and Ship Canal on a bridge a block south of 31st. Just south of the bridge, truckers would often be turning right to enter an access ramp to the Stevenson Expressway, crossing my path.

Looking back on it, I guess I must have been pretty gutsy because I seldom saw people biking around there. My students considered me a marvel because they didn’t know many people who biked into Brighton Park. I still reminisce about how they used to watch me bike away from the second floor of Kelly.

Groups like the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization have conducted truck counts in the neighborhood to quantify how it impacts the quality of life in the neighborhood. Most recently, Neighbors for Environmental Justice and LVEJO, among other groups, have voiced concerns about a new asphalt plant in McKinley Park bringing more truck traffic and pollution to the Southwest side. Similar concerns about pollution and truck traffic have been raised about the future Hilco warehouse and distribution center, a one-million-square-foot facility, in Little Village at the former Crawford Coal Power Plant site.

The new MAT asphalt plant is located just south of McKinley Park and the Pershing Road bike lane. Image: Google Street View
The new MAT asphalt plant is located just south of McKinley Park and the Pershing Road bike lane. Image: Google Street View

The danger of heavy truck traffic in Chicago’s industrial neighborhoods was underscored last March, when a semi driver struck and killed high school student Anthony Macedo, 14, as he stood at 51st and Western in Gage Park.

Any conversation about bikeability on the Southwest Side has to take into account residents’ real concerns about trucks and pollution. We can’t install bike lanes next to a factory spewing toxins into the environment without considering the risk posed by the poor air quality, or stripe lanes on a road plagued with heavy truck traffic without factoring in that danger. Doing so means failing to take a holistic approach to community planning, and it continues the legacy of the environmental racism and inequity our communities have faced for too long.

As someone who has been working and living on the Southwest side, I see environmental justice as being a core part of starting a conversation about mobility justice and how we can makes Southwest Side neighborhoods more walkable, bikeable, and transit-friendly.

  • Daniel Joseph

    Can you please correct the caption of the photo. 31st Street does not have a bridge crossing of the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal. The photo appears to be either the California Avenue or Kedzie Avenue at the canal.bridge

  • Alvin

    The southwest side had heavy industry and factories long before Latino immigrants moved there. So how are those industries examples of “racism” or “inequity”?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    For starters, environmental racism is an ongoing issue. From a Sun-Times article linked in this post:
    https://chicago.suntimes.com/2018/8/6/18473279/fed-up-residents-on-south-west-sides-fight-city-hall-over-influx-of-polluters

    In an unprecedented effort, a coalition of neighborhood activists from Little Village as well as neighborhoods on the South and Southeast sides are demanding the city implement so-called “environmental justice-based reforms,” which would alter how officials make city-wide decisions about which areas should house most industrial and manufacturing businesses.

    The moves come as a scrap metal plant is planning to move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side and an asphalt plant popped up overnight across the street from McKinley Park on the South Side. The efforts also come amid a backdrop of a $5 billion redevelopment plan for Lincoln Park where one of that neighborhood’s last manufacturing districts is slated to be converted into glitzy new homes and offices and possibly the much-touted corporate headquarters for Amazon.

    “It’s environmental racism — that’s what I feel like it is,” said Cristina Martinez, a longtime McKinley Park resident, after a late-July community meeting about the asphalt plant, which opened with minimal input from residents.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Let’s also note the scrap metal yard did not want to move from Lincoln Park, Alderman Hopkins used every tool in his box to legally harass them until they had no choice.

  • Alvin

    Not sure racism is to blame every time some group disagrees with something. The fact that an asphalt plant opened in an area that had a long history of industry and factories does not necessarily mean a racist conspiracy is at work.

    The more that racism becomes that default explanation for every time you lose an issue, the more the term racism loses any meaning at all.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The larger issue is that undesirable stuff, like polluting factories and warehouses that generate tons of truck traffic, tends to get located in lower-income and working-class Black and Brown communities where residents have less money, time, and clout to oppose them, compared to their counterparts in middle- and upper-class, predominantly white neighborhoods. It’s a factor in poor health outcomes in POC communities, such as the asthma epidemic in Pilsen that was linked to the Crawford coal-fired power plant.

    Meanwhile the trend is towards the elimination of all industrial land uses near affluent communities to make room for upscale development — things like the city truck facility next door to the Hideout, near North and Elston, being relocated to Englewood.

    You can argue that these issues aren’t necessarily a direct result of racism. But it’s pretty clear that concerns about health and safety of residents of residents in Black and Latino communities have tended to have less weight in decisions about whether to locate harmful industries than the interests of residents of whiter, wealthier, well-connected neighborhoods.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    Linda,
    Thank you so much for taking this on. I live in this region and have had two neighbors seriously injured in separate biking accidents due to the negligence of drivers. Exacerbating the situation is the dismal and aggressive attitude of a small but noticeable group of drivers. Many of us deal with harassment on a weekly basis due to egomaniacs in metal boxes. I sincerely hope that major changes can be made to our built infrastructure. Currently, the mass of concrete is a landscape of death that compounds the violence and mistrust found throughout our area. We need protected bike lanes. We need some car free streets in transit rich areas. We need dedicated BRT routes on Ashland and Western Avenues as well and safe bike connections to other areas. Urban renewal screwed the Southwest Side, as part of the major impetus for capital projects was preventing traffic flow from the “bad” Southwest side into the loop and Lincoln Park. This is the reason that Ogden Avenue and its trolley lines were cut off at Division and why Blue Island Avenue and its trolley line was cut off at Roosevelt. When people say “environmental racism”, it is this process of ghetto-ization of certain areas via insurmountable infrastructural hurdles.

  • dbqs

    Wonderful! One problem I run into as a frequent bike commuter on the SW side is the lack of good ways to bike OUT of this area. There’s no real safe way to get north across the river/55 until you get up to Loomis in Bridgeport. And there’s hardly a consistently safe way to get across from say, Western to Halsted from Pilsen down through Englewood.

    The only real decent bike paths I encounter on a day-to-day basis are those through Loomis (which continues on to some low-stress routes in Pilsen/University Village) + 33rd in Bridgeport and Root in Canaryville (which end in some low-stress route options through Bronzeville). But getting over to those points from Brighton/McKinley Park can be a challenge, especially for a more inexperienced rider, considering the truck and traffic-heavy choke points of Ashland, Pershing, Archer, 47th, Western/etc.

    Biking locally within the neighborhood is *fine* if you know the side streets well, as in I can run over to a grocery a mile away or to the park without much trouble at all, but it’s the commuting in/out of the area that worries me. Would love to see Divvy expanded out to Midway at least but doesn’t even make sense until there’s better infrastructure to support safe riding.

  • David P.

    TRPCLRMNTCST, do you know of any links to the history of those changes to the street designs? I’m aware that Ogden was eventually extended to Lincoln Park and then cut back in the 90s after the viaduct was torn down, but I don’t know a lot about the history of changes in the street grid like that. I’ve been here 11 years and have learned a lot, but am not local :)

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    https://forgottenchicago.com/features/the-extension-and-removal-of-ogden-avenue/
    this is the best source for ogden avenue info. a good place to get a sense of the streetscape is the old viaduct under the CNW tracks just south of Goose Island, Im still looking for stuff about blue island avenue, which was torn down along with Little Italy and Maxwell Street. Florence Scala and other neighborhood activists were not as successful as Jane Jacobs in preserving their neighborhood from being destroyed to build a highway.n The most lamentable cultural mindset of this city is its geographical segmentation into “good” and “bad” areas but the real estate developers make buku bucks off of it.

  • Roland Solinski

    I’d love to see bike facilities added across the river at Western. Could either close a lane each direction on Western Blvd bridge or convert one of the sidewalks to a multi-use trail, probably on the west side of Western. Right now the boulevard bike lanes just end at Rockwell.

  • JeBuS

    As a lifelong resident of the Southwest side, my biggest ask is for more river crossings for pedestrian and biking. Loomis is the last “mellow” crossing as you go west. As someone who lives near California & Archer and worked near Ashland & Lake, I’d go a mile out of my way to use Loomis, rather than California (who was the joker that put in a bike lane leading to a highway on-ramp?), Western, Damen, or Ashland. Those are all heavily trafficked by heavy trucks and often riddled with potholes. Many bike lanes are practically invisible because they’ve been worn out by vehicular traffic.

    Unfortunately, as has been noted, there is a lot of industry on both sides of the canal between Harlem and Ashland. It makes it difficult to find spots to build new crossings. There are exactly 11 crossings between Halsted and Harlem. That’s 11 crossings for all of the North-South traffic for 10 miles. For comparison, the same distance on the North side, roughly 10 miles from Halsted to Devon, has 21 crossings over the river.

    There aren’t mellow routes on the Southwest side simply because there are no routes.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Don’t the bridges have to cross not only the river but also the canal and the Stevenson? Not exactly cheap to bridge across compared to the North Branch…

  • JeBuS

    Yes, and to add further barriers, there’s railroad tracks / rail yards paralleling most of it, too.

    It wouldn’t be cheap or easy to build crossings. But it certainly makes for some effective segregation.

  • Carter O’Brien

    We have the exact same problem on the NW Side. Everyone is super jazzed about a river trail (and rightly so), but completely absent in all discussions is problem which is fundamental to having major expressways and a river that cut right to/from the heart of the city and extend out in every direction.

  • Brian Cashin

    A city’s bike-friendliness level can be determined by the ease or difficulty of crossing freeways and major arterial roads. The Stevenson is probably the trickiest freeway in Chicago to cross.

  • Dennis McClendon

    >part of the major impetus for capital projects was preventing traffic flow from the “bad” Southwest side into the loop and Lincoln Park. This is the reason that Ogden Avenue and its trolley lines were cut off at Division and why Blue Island Avenue and its trolley line was cut off at Roosevelt.

    Nonsense.

    Ogden was extended in the 1920s from Union Park through Old Town to intersect Clark at Lincoln Park. The Depression and war years meant the scars never healed, and so in the 1960s—when the Southwest Side was still a thriving prosperous neighborhood with new housing going up—wide, little-used Ogden was seen as a blighting influence on poor, gang-ridden Lincoln Park. Expressway construction had by then made Ogden unnecessary as a crosstown route. The Ogden streetcar was replaced in 1951 by buses—promoted for years as a way for West Siders to reach Lincoln Park Zoo—which lasted until 1981.

    Blue Island Ave never went further north than Harrison & Halsted. The part between Harrison and Roosevelt was vacated for construction of UIC. The streetcar line was improved with buses in 1952, and that line still comes downtown, just as it always has.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think if history has shown anything, it’s that maintaining segregation is not only immoral, but it’s also terribly expensive. I’d sure rather see my tax dollars supporting needed infrastructure on the SW Side than more band-aid solutions that aren’t ever addressing root problems.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I can’t speak to the 60s or 70s, but by the time I got a license in the 80s and periodically drove through the area, the Ogden flyover was widely viewed & utilized as a safe “express” alternative to getting stuck at lights as you went by/through Cabrini Green. In other words, Ogden was absolutely acknowledged as infrastructure that reinforced the segregation of Cabrini Green. My recollection is that like the Western bridge at Belmont, it came down when the maintenance expense was unjustifiable, which tracked with development plans elevating in importance once it was clear the towers were coming down.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    thanks for clarifying. I take issue with the phrase “improve with buses”. Having a light rail route on ogden that would connect to the lincoln yards and north/clybourn red line as well as the lakefront would help ameliorate the current segregation

  • Dennis McClendon

    Maybe so. That obviously wasn’t an option that CTA could consider in the early 1950s.

    So what was the racist part, exactly?

  • Dennis McClendon

    And that prevented Southwest Siders from visiting Lincoln Park how, exactly?

  • Carter O’Brien

    I didn’t say it did – I was speaking to your comment about blighting Lincoln Park.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Surely you don’t think the city truck facility was relocated to make life more beautiful for affluent Lincoln Parkers. The city made a strategic decision to sell high-value real estate for redevelopment.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Ben Joravsky discussion of the issue: “The North Side gets upscale development and at least $14 million a year in TIFs. The South Side gets garbage trucks, and if all goes well, a dry cleaner.”
    https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/rahm-tif-fleet-facility-deal/Content?oid=23541180

  • White liberals want the city government to paint bike lanes and widen roads for them in the name of “combatting environmental racism”.

  • No. Areas around noise and dirt are cheap and therefore attract lower rents.

    Also, are you arguing that the whites around North and Elston are racists? If so, how do you expect the narrative to evolve around today’s efforts to “combat environmental racism” in Pilsen as Pilsen follows the same cultural change as Wicker Park?

    There is no “crisis” which progressives identify which is not of their own making.

  • Are the people who buy cheap homes by the airport victims of environmental racism? How about the people who live in trailers by the dump in Tornado Alley?

  • How enormously cynical do you have to be to gentrify a neighborhood and then demand the city paint bike lanes for you in the name of “combating environmental racism”?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sound like you need an explainer. Lynda, who’s a first-generation Mexican American who grew up in Chicago’s blue-collar Hermosa neighborhood, isn’t arguing that painting bike lanes is the solution to environmental racism.

    Rather, the environmental racism she’s referring to is the continuing concentration of heavy industry in Chicago’s Brown and Black communities due to the fact that residents have less clout to oppose it than folks in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. As a result, polluted air and heavy truck traffic makes these areas less healthy and safe places to ride a bike. Therefore, until more is done to address that underlying issue, she argues, striping bike lanes is basically lipstick on a pig.

    Got it?

  • Dennis McClendon

    I think I’m starting to understand:

    Allow industrial employers in industrial areas? Racist.
    Don’t allow industrial employers in industrial areas? Racist.
    Enable conversion of industrial areas to nonemployment uses? Racist.
    Enable conversion of industrial areas to employers who might attract market-rate housing? Racist.
    Allow property values and rents to rise? Racist.
    Don’t allow first-wave immigrants to profit from their investment decades ago in these neighborhoods? Racist.

  • Alvin

    That is the problem — when everything is “racist” then nothing is racist. The term is much too often used to salvage bad ideas and failed policies.

  • Faustus

    The people who live in Little Village are probably more concerned about jobs than the eco ranting of a far left wingnut.

  • It’s a method for extracting a take from any transaction between a commercial operation and the city.

  • Thanks for the explainer, John Greenfield, but we’re still in the dark. How did White Supremacists have the prescience to launch this racist conspiracy to install a power plant in a white neighborhood fifty years before the first “black and brown” residents set foot there?

    Also, may I submit that anyone who spells the word “latino” with an ‘x’ is white. White as you are. And certainly part of the culture of “gentrification” which jumped over the downtown area from Wicker Park twenty years ago in search of cheap alternative art spaces and hangover tacos.

  • outerloop

    Ogden was disconnected many years before the towers’ fate was determined.

  • Dennis McClendon

    We mustn’t confuse equality of results with equality of opportunity. A Lincoln Yards–type development would also be welcomed to Burnside or Grand Crossing or West Garfield Park. TIF districts are both available and already in place all over the South and West Sides. The city can’t just magically make a market for luxury housing appear.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    I’m referring to studies done the Chicago Central Commission in the 1960s that warned of a “tipping point” when minorities outnumber whites downtown, the white flight would become an exodus. The way to combat this was to cut off access from minority areas and create bullwarks in between downtown and the south and west sides. This is the reason for UIC’s location and the fortress-like design of Dearborn Park development.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    We understand that you apparently don’t see the built manifestations of environmental racism, but at the very least, do try to open your eyes to the problem. There are a lot of voiceless, vulnerable people who have to inhabit this place. Thanks

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    We are not talking about “everything,” we are very specifically addressing infrastructural hurdles to safe and equitable communities.

  • Alvin

    The phony charge of racism is the default defense of failed liberal ideas and policies.

    That’s why to the left, everything they disagree with is automatically racist. Easier to just reflexively/automatically label an idea as racist, rather than to make a sound logical argument.

    And as that label is increasingly overused in arguments for political effect, it tends to undercut the rhetorical value of those arguments.

    Just ask noted liberal Bill Maher about political correctness and the overuse of “racism” as a knee jerk strategy that is ruining progressive causes:

    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/bill-maher-political-correctness-is-a-cancer-on-progressivism

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    It is always nice to hear from a representative of the Cato Institute funded with Koch Brothers money. Enjoy the yacht this summer!

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    this is a great example of how over-rationalization always supports the capitalist decisions made by the unfeeling bureaucrats

  • Anne A

    Agreed. Most crossing locations over the Stevenson are very hazardous.

  • Anne A

    Ogden was cut back much earlier than the 90s. See the Forgotten Chicago piece referenced below.

  • David P.

    It must have been the tearing down of the viaduct that I was thinking of.

  • Carter O’Brien

    It certainly took quite some time for the towers to come down, but everyone who lived anywhere near Cabrini – including the residents – knew the writing was on the wall by 89 or 90.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    This is an important set of comments, which highlights the very, very large number of natural and man-made (some very old) major “barriers” to cycling and (even more so) to walking — not only on the south side of the City of Chicago (vs. the north side), but also (maybe even more dramatically!) throughout the south suburbs (vs. those on north side of the metropolitan region). There are of course historical and geographical reasons for this. But before the ascension of the private automobile (and the concomitant construction of the interstates) and the emergence of environmental science and laws, these barriers (rivers, canals, rail lines, large industrial land uses) were not really seen as destroying the social fabric and “health” of the south side communities, and thus did not lead to discontent and disinvestment. But as the city and region grew — in terms of population, number of highways, number of cars, number and size of trucks, number and size of manufacturing and industrial facilities/districts, and in terms of “diversity,” which sadly led (through federal, state, and local policies, but also through the actions of private, for-profit industries) to segregation and to a burgeoning low-income, marginalized population — these areas began to be places where low-income people (especially black and brown) were pushed. That is an effect of a late-period, mature, untempered, ruthless capitalist “system,” combined with systematic racism (which, alas, appears to be universal, throughout all places and all times — from ancient Egypt, to Rome, to the Aztec empire, British empire, to, yes, the American empire). “Undoing” the the barriers on the south side of the city and in the south suburbs completely will not be easy. Nor does it appear that we (city or region) can or will be able to afford it. Plus, large, powerful interests (governments and economic development entities and private companies/industries) believe that the future prosperity depends upon the freight and logistics industries. They are increasing the number, scale, and negative impacts of barriers to walking and cycling, while we work (of necessity, incrementally) to overcome these barriers.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    This is an important set of comments, which highlights the very, very large number of natural and man-made (some very old) major physical “barriers” to cycling and (even more so) to walking — not only on the south side of the City of Chicago (vs. the north side), but also (and maybe even more dramatically!) throughout the south suburbs (vs. the suburbs on north side of the metropolitan region). There are of course historical and geographical reasons for this — the rail lines coming in from the west and south. But before the ascension and dominance of the private automobile (and the concomitant construction of the interstate highways and state arterial routes) and the emergence of environmental science and knowledge, and laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, these barriers (rivers, canals, rail lines, large industrial land uses, and the smaller roads of that time) were not really seen as destroying the social fabric and “health” of the south side communities, and thus did not lead to discontent and disinvestment. But as the city and region grew — in terms of population, number of highways, number of cars, number and size of trucks, length of freight trains, number and size of manufacturing and industrial and freight facilities/districts, and in terms of “diversity,” which sadly led (through federal, state, and local policies and laws, but also through the actions of private, for-profit companies and whole industries) to segregation and to a burgeoning low-income, marginalized population — these areas began to be places where low-income people (especially black and brown) were pushed by market and by policy forces. That ‘pushing of poor people to bad areas’ is basically an effect of a late-period, mature, un-tempered, ruthless capitalist “system,” combined with systematic racism (which, alas, appears to be universal, throughout all places and all times — from ancient Egypt, to Rome, to the Aztec empire, British empire, to, yes, the American empire). “Undoing” the huge physical barriers on the south side of the city and in the south suburbs completely will not be easy or fast (think, 50 years or more). Nor does it appear that we (the city or the region) can, or will be able to, afford it. Plus — and perhaps worst of all — large, powerful interests (government agencies and economic development entities and private companies/industries) believe that the future prosperity of Chicago and the region depends largely upon the freight and logistics industries. These entities (and this economic vision) are actually increasing the number, scale, and negative impacts of barriers to walking and cycling on the south side of the City and in the south suburbs, while we (poor cycling advocates) struggle (of necessity, very incrementally) to overcome these barriers.

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