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Deconstructing Ald. Reilly’s Radio Interview About His Riverwalk Bike Ban Ordinance

Photo: Barry Kafka

Recently downtown alderman Brendan Reilly went on The Roe Conn Show (no, it's not a program about caviar thieves) on WGN Radio to talk about about his proposed ordinance to ban biking on the Chicago Riverwalk.

As Streetsblog readers know, the city of Chicago pitched the recent riverwalk expansion to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the public as a bike and pedestrian commuting route that would “enhance safety… with bicycle paths and pedestrian trails along the continuous promenade” in order to secure a $99 million Transportation Innovation and Finance Act loan for the project. However, last September introduced the legislation for a 24/7/365 ban on cycling on this bike/ped path.

Brendan Reilly
Brendan Reilly

Read this article to get up to speed on the whole surreal saga. But in a nutshell, Streetsblog helped overturn a de-facto biking ban on the riverwalk -- security guards have stopped inaccurately telling cyclists that it's illegal to bike there -- but the alderman has pledged to get his ordinance passed by the end of the summer.

Let's take a look at some of the comments from the radio show. While there were some infuriating and/or factually inaccurate statements, Reilly did indicate that he has softened his stance on the total bike ban somewhat, and he made a very sensible statement about traffic safety on Wacker Drive.

Host Roe Conn kicked off the discussion with the following intro. "I'm sick and tired of people riding bikes. If I could ban one thing in town, other than the rat... I would ban the bicycle. I'd ban anything on two wheels essentially."

No analysis needed. But I'd add that later in the program during a discussion of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's proposal for motorist ticketing reforms, Conn admitted that, many years ago when he worked in the Wrigley Building and there was metered parking on Michigan Avenue, he used to drive to his office every day and park out front, never fed his meter, and racked up zillions of parking tickets.

Reilly introduced the riverwalk cycling issue thusly. "There are some bicycle advocates who believe that bicycles belong literally everywhere. But I keep reminding people it's the riverWALK for a reason. It's not the riverBIKE."

Presumably the alderman is referring to Streetsblog here. But, no, we don't believe bicycles belong everywhere. For example, adult cyclists generally don't belong on sidewalks because riding on them is illegal, and they're intended as pedestrian-only zones.

But for Reilly to argue that the riverfront path was intended as a pedestrian-only space is revisionist history. But don't take my word for it -- here what the Chicago Department of Transportation had to say on the subject in an internal memo which Streetsblog obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, in which CDOT officials described the alderman's bike ban ordinance as "too extreme":

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.

On a positive note, Reilly indicated that, as CDOT recommended, he's giving up on the idea of a full-time biking ban. "We're actually working on some compromise legislation that would, during times of year when [the riverwalk] is not real densely populated... We're thinking May through October no bikes down there."

As Conn pointed out, that would mean cycling would be permitted "just in time for icy, sleety rain," which would be a pretty absurd policy, since most bike commuting takes place during the warmer months.

The riverwalk is a key car-free bike commuting route between the Lakefront Trail and the Loop via the ramp at the riverside Vietnam War memorial at State Street and the Dearborn protected bike lane -- it's just about the only safe and pleasant way to make that connection.

Reilly did say he'd be open to allowing cyclists to use the riverwalk during "early morning hours [and] later in the evening." However, it's not clear if he was only talking about the colder months, or May through October as well. But even if it's the latter, that wouldn't accommodate bike commuting  between State and the lake during the PM rush, so that would be unacceptable.

A more reasonable compromise would be requiring bike riders 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, which would eliminate most conflicts without unduly inconveniencing cyclists.

Rendering of the proposed protected bike lane on Upper Wacker Drive.
Rendering of the proposed protected bike lane on Upper Wacker Drive.
Rendering of the proposed protected bike lane on Upper Wacker Drive.

Reilly did mention the possibility of converting a lane of Upper Wacker Driver to a protected bike lane, a solution that he has been discussing with the Active Transportation Alliance, riverwalk designer Ross Barney Architects, and various downtown stakeholders. "There's a lot of capacity, and [motorists] drive a little too fast up there. It's super-wide. It's a pedestrian hazard as it is. Adding one lane for protected bicycle use, I think would be OK. But I hear bicyclists loud and clear: They want a safe way to get from east to west, and west to east."

Adding a two-way protected bike lane on Wacker won't eliminate the need for bike access on the riverwalk, since there's currently no safe or convenient way to get from the Lakefront Trail to Upper Wacker without riding on the promenade. But everything Reilly said in that quote makes total sense.

It's good to know that the alderman and I are on the same page once in a while, which is also true of our shared appreciation for the 1980s "yacht rock" band Toto.

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