Most meeting attendees opposed King’s plan to turn Drexel bikeways into car parking

Attendees at the Drexel meeting. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Attendees at the Drexel meeting. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Last night, dozens of residents and cycling advocates showed up for Alderman Sophia King’s meeting about proposed changes to Drexel Boulevard in Kenwood to create more car parking, which would impact the existing bike lanes. The vast majority of attendees opposed changing the street to accommodate more driving.

The current layout on Drexel.
The current layout on Drexel.

Recently, the Chicago Department of Transportation relocated the Drexel bike lanes, which were formerly conventional bike lanes next to the parking lanes on the outside of the boulevard, restriping the bikeways next to the grassy median, and upgrading them to buffered lanes, so that cyclists wouldn’t have to worry about getting struck by opening car doors, among other benefits. This layout also eliminated conflicts between the bike lanes and 11 “T” intersections.

The proposal to move the bike lane back next to the existing parking lane, and turn the lane next to the median into more parking.
The proposal to move the bike lane back next to the existing parking lane, and turn the lane next to the median into more parking.

However, last night King discussed the possibility of changing the layout for the 4600 and 4700 blocks of Drexel Boulevard. (A CDOT spokesman said the department was aware of the meeting but did not send a representative.) The options included:

  • Keeping the current layout, with the bike lanes closest to the median
  • Moving the bike lanes back over to old door-zone location and and turning the median bike lanes into parking lanes
  • Using the lanes closest to the median for bikes during the day and for car parking at night
Option 3
The proposal to let people park in the bike lane at night.

Mobilization for the meeting largely happened through Twitter, with some people who bike expressing outrage about the alderman only announcing the meeting on Twitter one day in advance.

At the start of the meeting King requested that the tone of the meeting stay respectful, since she received some unkind words on Twitter from residents who were angry about the proposed changes. The hearing stayed relatively calm, with some moments of debate between attendees and the alderman about the importance of biking.

After King made a few remarks about the proposed changes, the floor was opened for public comment. Most of the speakers were in favor of keeping the bikeways as-is, or at providing some kind of bike accommodations. Some people apologized to the alderman for the heated online rhetoric, which is a reminder that it’s a good idea for bike advocates to be thoughtful when interacting with elected officials and other decision-makers. I don’t believe in tone policing, but I do think that we need to consider the best strategies when advocating for better policies and infrastructure.

While King was attentive throughout the meeting, she made references to “the bike lane people” and comments like “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as a biker on Drexel,” which suggests that she sees people who ride bikes to be a marginal group, even though they seemed to make up the majority of the meeting attendees. If we’re going to win and preserve bike infrastructure, it is important to consider how to build a critical mass of supporters that is not as easily seen as marginal.

From hearing King speak, it was clear that her priorities lie with constituents who express parking concerns, despite her identifying as a “bike advocate.” She said, “Parking is the biggest issue among my constituents.” Notably, King was responsible for stalling CDOT’s plans for bikeway improvements in the South Loop for about a year due to concerns about the impact on car parking.

While a few of last night’s attendees expressed concerns about parking on Drexel, but the ones that did seemed to be interested in finding a way that all road users could be accommodated. King spoke about residents feeling unsafe walking home at night after having to park further away from their doors.

Steven Quispe, who lives a block from Drexel and commutes via bike to Avondale, said, “Why are they more important than [me] when I’m thinking how am I going to commute home at night?”

This point about safety was a particularly interesting one for me because it touches at the core of why debates about public space can be so contentious. People want to feel safe and comfortable when traveling in their neighborhoods. People driving home deserve that, as do people biking home. Ideally, one’s feeling can co-exist without diminishing other residents’ feelings of safety.

Chris Willard who works and lives in the ward expressed his desire to maintain the relatively bike-friendly status quo, “It’s beautiful, it’s safe. I want people to know about it because it’s one of those streets that inspire people to ride.”

While King did not make a commitment either way, the resounding message from attendees was that the bike lane on Drexel is important for the community, offering one of the few bikeway options for South Side residents commuting to the Loop and the North Side.