Roundabout Answers: Debriefing Rahm Emanuel About His Bike Trip Around Lake Michigan

Photo via Rahm Emanuel
Photo via Rahm Emanuel

[This piece also runs in the Chicago Reader.]

Many critics have argued that ex-mayor Rahm Emanuel was harmful to Chicago overall. They cite the closure of 50 public schools and half the city’s mental health clinics; his use of the tax-increment financing program to give hefty incentives to developers; and, most damningly, the alleged cover-up of the Laquan McDonald police murder.

Still, I’d argue that the silver lining of the Emanuel’s tenure, perhaps the one thing that many Chicagoans can agree he did a decent job with, was transportation. From constructing several new CTA stations and overhauling the South Red Line tracks, to building safer streets for walking, to opening dozens of miles of new bikeways and launching the Divvy system, the administration racked up a number of transportation wins, generally with an eye on equity, if not always.

So it was fitting that Emanuel chose to kick off his retirement from City Hall by leaving on a 900-mile-plus bicycle trip around Lake Michigan with a friend on the day after the Lori Lightfoot inauguration. I caught up with him by phone this week to debrief him about the trip and ask a couple of questions about transportation policy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Greenfield: What were the most memorable or unexpected sights and encounters on your bike trip?

Rahm Emanuel: Just the people all around all four states. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. They were quick with their hellos and their smiles and very generous with their help.

A typical anecdote was, I was in a town in the upper part of Wisconsin near the U.P. border and I was outside a restaurant where the sign said the place didn’t open until 11:30 or 12 for lunch, and it was like two hours before they opened. And I knocked on the window and kind of yelled through the wooden door to ask if we could get some coffee. And the woman said, “Come on in, I’ll put a pot on for you.”

Some people knew who I was. In Indiana they said, “We made some pecan pie hoping you would stop by.” So it was just a lot of generosity and kindness.

Just to grab a picture of what the ride was like, there’s a clarity and vastness to [Lake Michigan] that reminds me of the Caribbean, yet the land – the rolling hills, the trees and everything else – reminds me of New Hampshire or Maine. You get an incredible perspective, especially in upper Michigan and Wisconsin.

Rahm Emanuel on the Lakefront Trail on the morning of May 21, departing on his two-week trip. Image: John Greenfield
Rahm Emanuel on the Lakefront Trail on the morning of May 21, departing on his two-week trip. Image: John Greenfield

John Greenfield: You’re 59; you’re no spring chicken. How did you body hold up on a 900-mile bike trip – any physical issues?

Rahm Emanuel: Yeah, the right knee where I got my surgery [to repair a torn meniscus in March.] When I was doing physical therapy, the most I rode was 25 or 30 miles. The first day on the trip we did 89. The first three or four days were a stress on my knee. But after that, nothing else. It’s just that two week in a row of doing 55 to 70 miles is a lot. It was tiring, but at the conclusion of the trip I was both exhausted and exhilarated simultaneously.

John Greenfield: Did your bike have any mechanical problems – any breakdowns?

Rahm Emanuel: It was interesting, the first day, when it was raining, I popped a tube in the front tire. And on day 12, it was raining, and I popped a tube on the back tire. That was it.

John Greenfield: Any run-ins with dangerous motorists?

Rahm Emanuel: No, but I’ll give a big shout-out to Google Maps; their bike directions were incredibly helpful in guiding us to really great [low-traffic] back roads. Michigan does a really good job of converting old rail lines to bike paths, and they’re incredibly well maintained. So no problems at all.

John Greenfield: In terms of transportation, what was your proudest transportation accomplishment – walking, biking, CTA – as mayor?

Rahm Emanuel: All of the above. I think we put together a comprehensive mobility plan for the city. You look at airports, both O’Hare and Midway, and the modernization. You look at CTA, the modernization. You look at protected bike lanes and bike-sharing. You look at The 606 and the Lakefront Trail, the separation of the bike and running paths there.

So we had a comprehensive view of transportation, whether it was by car or bike or running, aviation, bus or train, and then we modernized and invested in them, so you can go seamlessly from train to bus to airplane. I’m not going to pick one project, but one of the things I’m proud of is that we had a comprehensive strategy to modernize any mode you took and made it something that you could rely on in a convenient way.

John Greenfield: One of the centerpieces of your administration was the extension of the Chicago Riverwalk. [Downtown alderman Brendan Reilly is currently trying to pass an ordinance banning cycling on the path.] Have you ever taken a bike ride on the riverwalk?

Rahm Emanuel: No. I’ve strolled down the riverwalk, the entire length from Lake Shore Drive to the fork in the river. But I’m not going to get into politics. I’m not going to comment on it. Not going to do it.

  • BlueFairlane

    I feel like a lot of Rahm’s transportation successes illustrate a big problem with his reign overall, in that he always went for the big, flashy, expensive projects that mostly just put a nice veneer over what is actually a troubled system. His new CTA stations all cost way too much money that mostly went to substance-less architectural flare as opposed to basic elements, like functional roofs. The Navy Pier flyover is an expensive, ongoing boondoggle, and I expect that it will need to be repaired almost as soon as it’s finished … assuming it’s ever finished. Loop Link was a boondoggle that failed to live up to its highly-publicized promise in a way that probably killed BRT anyplace else. The Bloomingdale Trail turned out nice, though it’s paired with gentrification in a way that only reinforces the view so many have that Rahm was focused on building only one kind of Chicago. So while he did have successes, I think it’s worth a deep think about what he was successful at. I think if he could have taken the money he spent on expensive prestige projects and spread it around the city in the form of an actual bike network while strengthening the day-to-day functionality of CTA, he’d have been much more impactful on the city as a whole.

    As far as the ride goes, my wife and I went up the the UP for a long weekend while he was in the middle of his ride, and I think we stopped at the US 2 overlook at Epoufette the same day he did. (He posted the same picture I took.) We kept hoping we’d see him, but we didn’t.

  • Bob

    Good guy, bad politician.

  • R. C. Munson

    If Rahm is a Good Guy, he certainly is a better politician.
    We were very fortunate to have Rahm as Mayor. In addition to taking a comprehensive approach in transportation, he was systematic in other areas as well.

    The judgments made against him are many, but we tend to focus on blaming politicians when the blame really rests with our governments being the captive of special interests. Instead, they should be serving the public’s interest. And the blame for that, ultimately, is with the citizenry.

    We should expect Rahm to return to national service and I hope he does.

  • kastigar

    It’s a nice ride. I did this – twice – about the same age as Rahm.

    http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/LakeMichigan

    http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/LakeMichigan2007

    Everybody should take the time and go for a ride like this. Lots of options, places to stay and enjoy.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I agree with you on most of this, but I think the Navy Pier Flyover is going to win over the doubters. I just can’t even explain the lack of stress/weight relieved when biking over the Pier and the Grand and Illinois intersections. Bike lane striping fades quickly, and mayors of the future could pretty easily either remove or undermine the bollards and other street improvements. But the Flyover? That ain’t going anywhere. And beyond easing gridlock and dangerous pinch points, it sends a *huge* visual message to all of those people driving on LSD that bikes are not only here to stay, but that we’re welcome.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think you and I have been disagreeing about the flyover since about 2012, before this was even Streetsblog, and nothing’s sold me on it yet. Sure, it’s great to not have to stop at a couple of lights, but is it $64-million great? Personally, I really don’t think it is. I mean, I’ll guess we’ll see how it shakes out when they finally finish the thing in, like, 2022 or something, but I strongly suspect the general response will be, “Gee, this sure is a narrow path for this many people. And why are they closing it for repairs already?”

    Also, I doubt drivers on LSD are even going to notice it enough to get any visual message.

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