Here’s the Director’s Cut of the “Secret History of the Riverwalk Bike Ban” Article

Photo: Barry Kafka
Photo: Barry Kafka

[This article originally ran in the Chicago Reader. This version has additional quotes from city emails that got left on the cutting-room floor due to word count limitations.]

If I’d known city officials were going to try to ban bicycling on the new Chicago Riverwalk, I never would have helped rally support for building it. From the start, the riverwalk extension, which expanded the promenade west of half a mile west of State to Lake and Wacker, was promoted to the public as a useful commuting corridor for cyclists and pedestrians, not just a place to wander aimlessly or lounge with a glass of cabernet.

The city’s pitch to the federal government for a $99 million Transportation (emphasis added) Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act loan to build the esplanade promised, “The project will enhance safety… with bicycle paths and pedestrian trails along the continuous promenade.”

And at a 2013 public hearing on the project, city planner Michelle Woods said she expected that bike commuters would use the promenade as a safe, car-free connection between the Lakefront Trail and the Loop, “which frankly I am fine with them doing.” Assurances like this were a big reason why I wrote half a dozen Streetsblog posts cheerleading the project, which probably helped grease the wheels a bit for making then-mayor Rahm Emanuel’s riverwalk dream a reality.

Fast-forward a few years to the summer 2018, by which time the promenade had become something of a victim of its own success. At peak times during the warmer months, the café zone between State and Clark Street was a lively, but chaotic mix of uses, including families strolling with young kids, seniors walking dogs, fisher-folk, boaters pulling up to the dock, and lots of young professionals sipping craft beer.

I’d be the first to admit you’d have to be nuts to bike at full speed through that mass of humanity. Dismounting, or at least riding at walking speed, are the only safe and non-obnoxious options.

But by early September the city had posted signs implying that cycling isn’t permitted on the path at all. “Share the Riverwalk: Walk Your Bike,” they exhorted. I responded with a blog post pointing out that the signs were bogus because the promenade was funded as a bike/ped facility, and it was still designated as an off-street trail on the city’s official bike map.

In late September, clout-heavy downtown alderman Brendan Reilly introduced an ordinance to officially ban cycling on the riverwalk 24/7. While Reilly had signed off on several protected bicycle lanes in his ward in the past, he also had a history of anti-bike activity, like using aldermanic privilege to block the installation of Divvy stations on the Magnificent Mile, helping to get pedicabs banned from downtown streets, and closing an entrance to the Lakefront Trail at night.

After I posted on Twitter about Reilly’s bike ban plan, he tweeted a taunting response. “Full credit goes to Streetsblog for pointing out there was no ordinance to support the ‘Walk your bike’ signs. As such, we introduced an ordinance to do just that.”

Soon after that, new signs were posted at all the riverwalk entrances stating, among other rules, “Bicycles Must Be Walked” and threatening “Violators Will Be Prosecuted,” even though cycling was still legal.

Earlier this year the city did a makeover of the older section of the riverwalk east of Michigan Avenue, adding new trees, bathrooms, seating, public art, and a WWII submarine memorial. When I first biked on it in mid-May, I was also highly annoyed to see that the straight asphalt path that previously existed had been replaced with a zigzagging concrete one with multiple bottlenecks, that seemed purposely designed to discourage cycling.

The City Clerk’s office confirmed that Reilly’s ordinance still hadn’t passed, but on that ride four different security guards, following orders from supervisors, flagged me down to erroneously tell me it was illegal to bike on the riverwalk.

I wrote about that experience on Streetsblog, quoting Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke, who agreed that “security guards currently have no authority to block cycling on the riverwalk.” He blasted the Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management (F2M), which oversees the promenade, for “the disregard they demonstrated towards cycling with their redesign,” noting that Active Trans had been given no opportunity to provide input on the plan.

Photo: Barry Kafka
Photo: Barry Kafka

Emails I obtained from the department via a public records request show that my riverwalk piece made some waves. “Did you see this blog post?” asked Holly Agra, the CEO of the tour company Chicago’s First Lady Cruises in a May 16 email to Michelle Woods, now working as a project manager at F2M. “Should I ask Alderman Reilly to revisit his plan?”

Woods forwarded the message to Reilly’s assistant Robert Kearney. “Let me know if your office gets feedback on this.”

The same day Burke wrote Woods and her boss F2M commissioner David Reynolds, asking if the city was still moving forward with the bike ban. “The new bike-unfriendly [east riverwalk] design seems to reflect anti-bike intentions as well. All of this threatens Chicago’s ability to grow cycling and connect the Lakefront Trail to a future Chicago River Trail.” He offered to work with them on a compromise.

Later that day Woods sent Reynolds previous correspondence between a Chicago Department of Transportation engineer Oswaldo Chaves and local Federal Highway Administration staffer Michael Kowalczyk. It was an inconclusive conversation on whether Chicago could get away with banning cycling on the riverwalk, despite the fact that the city had gotten the $99 million TIFIA loan partly based on the promise that the esplanade would serve as a bike commuting corridor.

On May 20, the day of Lori Lightfoot’s inauguration, Burke followed up with Woods and Reynolds asking if the total bike ban could be replaced with time of year / time of day restrictions and/or “Walk Your Bike When Congested” signs. There was a note of urgency in his message. “Emotions are high in the cycling community over this,” he wrote. “Some sort of protest on the riverwalk and/or Upper Wacker is a possibility, and I think we can head this off with a reasonable compromise.”

Commissioner Reynolds then wrote his deputy Ivan Hansen, “[Active Trans] is getting ready to protest the riverwalk… I would like to work with them.” He told Hansen to have the security guards stop confronting cyclists before 9 a.m.

That explains why, the next time I cycled on the riverwalk on a sunny afternoon, when a guard flagged me down, she told me biking was only permitted during the morning rush. At the time I was cheekily wearing a t-shirt I’d Sharpied with the text “Hi there! Despite what the signs say, Alderman Reilly’s ordinance to ban biking on the riverwalk (O2018-7034) never passed, so it’s still legal. Thank you!”

F2M continued to negotiate with Active Trans, offering to involve them in a CDOT study of cyclist and pedestrian interactions on the promenade. Meanwhile the advocacy group announced that it was in talks with Reilly, CDOT, riverwalk designer Ross Barney Architects, and various downtown groups bout the possibility of converting one or more lanes of Upper Wacker to protected bike lanes.

In a May 22 email to Michelle Woods and CDOT staff, Burke again urged them to try a “Walk Bikes in Congested Areas, Ride Slowly All Other Times” approach. “It’s important to identify the underlying cause of this problem,” he noted. “Cars take up ¾ of the public right of way… which forces people walking and biking to fight over the remaining scraps – this is an example of that. No one is telling motorists to walk their cars amid the sea of pedestrians downtown.”

After I tweeted out a photo of my Reilly-trolling t-shirt, the alderman responded “Thanks for the reminder – I’ll be sure to pass the ordinance this summer.” True to his word, he reintroduced the bike ban legislation to City Council on May 5/29.

However, in early June, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey told Chicago Magazine that the official city policy currently allows cycling on the path “when the riverwalk is not congested.” Since then, I’ve heard multiple reports that the guards are no longer scolding cyclists, although, as of last week, the threatening signs were still posted at the riverwalk entrances.

Of course, the current détente will end if Reilly gets his way. That seems like a long shot: Cyclists will likely show up in force to testify against the ordinance if the Committee of Pedestrian and Traffic Safety ever holds a hearing on it, and an alderman on the committee told me they plan to fight the legislation.

But in the unlikely event that the ordinance passes, I’ve already announced on twitter that I’ll respond to the unjust law with civil disobedience. As I’ve previously discussed in the Reader, I was the first person to be jailed for riding in Chicago’s monthly Critical Mass ride. So I might as well take one for the team by getting arrested for biking on a bikeway.

  • sjschicago

    I agree with much of what you write on streetsblog, but am mystified by your view concerning bikes on the Riverwalk. Bikes and pedestrians don’t mix. This is why we aren’t allowed to ride our bikes on the sidewalk if we’re older than 12 years old. The issue isn’t only about safety but also about comfort and anxiety. Even if a biker is confident in his ability not to run into a pedestrian, the pedestrian doesn’t know this. An analogy — when pedestrian crossing the street in a crosswalk and a driver (illegally) wizzes by, the driver may know that he is nowhere near (from his point of view) the pedestrian and is putting the pedestrian at no risk, but that doesn’t make it ok.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Bikes and pedestrians don’t mix.” Hmm, in that case I guess we’d better kick cyclists off the Bloomingdale Trail, the Major Taylor Trail, the Burnham Greenway, the North Branch Trail…

  • Curtis James

    Don’t give them any ideas, John!

  • Curtis James

    I’m not a native, but I have lived in Chicago now for 40 years. There are still some things about native Chicagoans that utterly mystify me. Among the many are:

    1. The concept that any Daley, at any time, has been good for the city of Chicago. Add the Cullertons and many other dynastic political grifter families to that sentence;

    2. The idea that the Chicago River is even a river. Read some history, people. The actual course of the Chicago River was altered beyond recognition many years ago. What we have now is a sewage canal that is slowly being cleaned up to a slightly less horrendous state. Has no one in Chicago ever seen a real river? It’s hilarious to see people congregate along the Riverwalk, kind of like seeing picnics on a Superfund cleanup site; and

    3. The idea that the Bears were a tough defensive team during the Dick Butkus era, or that Bobby Douglass was an NFL-quality quarterback. Sorry, nope. Check out how the Packers did against them during those years.

  • JaneHealy

    For years I have routinely used the Riverwalk as my bike access point to my mom’s condo at 222 N Columbus. I bike commute year round and I like to use the Lakefront Trail since it’s out of car traffic. The riverwalk is a safe and comfortable way for me to go visit her regularly. I have few other options that don’t promote anxiety, although I have been using them this past year as the construction was under way. I can take upper Randolph, and deal with what you see in the attached photo; or I can take a terrifying, steep, car-centric, narrow AF ramp up 3 levels to upper Randolph from Lake (competing with delivery trucks, buses, and cabbies the entire way). As I have been hit by cars twice in the past 4 years, you can understand why I am loath to have to deal with some of this tomfoolery when I might have a perfectly lovely access to see my mom. I am ALL for great pedestrian options. But it would have been easy to accommodate bikes AND pedestrians in this space with some careful planning. I am especially cheezed off because this was funded with dollars that explicitly took bikes and bike commuting into account.

  • sjschicago

    So now I suppose I should (belatedly) respond: “Hmm, in that case I guess we’d better allow cyclists on all sidewalks.” Instead, I’ll point out that you didn’t address my substantive argument. Also, assuming that you agree that biking shouldn’t take place on busy city sidewalks, I would ask why you think Riverwalk is different. When I look at Riverwalk (during the day, in the summer) I see a much more hazardous situation than most sidewalks — lots of people, lots of entrances to businesses and restaurants, lots of tourists, etc. I haven’t been on the trails you mention. I do bike and walk on the lakefront trail quite a bit (especially southside), and believe that new separate trails for bikes and walkers is a huge improvement for both groups.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Assuming that you agree that biking shouldn’t take place on busy city sidewalks, I would ask why you think Riverwalk is different.”

    Here’s what the Chicago Department of Transportation had to say in an internal city memo about why, unlike on busy sidewalks, there shouldn’t be a 24/7 biking ban on the riverwalk.

    “While CDOT recognizes the safety issues raised due to bicycle riding on the riverwalk due to the heavy congestion at certain times and at certain sections, an outright ban is too extreme,” the memo stated. “Instead, CDOT recommends that 2FM be empowered/tasked, in consultation with the CDOT commissioner, to promulgate rules and regulations for bicycle use that could restrict such use by season, time of day, day of week, and by geographic area along the riverwalk.

    The TIFIA loan application submitted by the city to secure funding for the riverwalk’s engineering and construction identified bicycling as a mode that would benefit from the intermodal connections that the riverwalk would provide, including safely connecting the Lakefront Trail to the Wacker Drive business district and reducing crashes in the Loop. A prohibition would run counter to the information we provided USDOT in the application process. However, a limitation or restriction that is intended to benefit pedestrians, boat access, and revenue generating uses would seem to adhere to the spirit of the project’s purpose and need.”

    I agree with CDOT that a partial biking ban would be a reasonable compromise, assuming that simply posting signs stating “Walk Bikes When Riverwalk Is Crowded” aren’t deemed sufficient. For example, requiring cyclists to dismount between May and October, during the peak hours of noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m., within the cafe zone between State Street and Clark Street, would eliminate most conflicts without unduly inconveniencing cyclists, since they could enter and exit the promenade via ramps at State and Clark.