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After backlash from cyclists, Ald. King dropped plan to downgrade the Drexel bike lanes

3:17 PM CST on December 6, 2019

Bike lanes have been restriped on Drexel in the previous, bike-friendly configuration. Photo: Steve Quispe

Call it a small victory. In October, 4th Ward alderman Sophia King angered people who bike with a hastily announced meeting on whether to repaint bike lanes on Drexel Boulevard in Kenwood in a less safe layout to make room for more car parking. King faced well-organized opposition to the proposal, and yesterday the Chicago Department of Transportation confirmed that the bike lane position won't be changing.

Earlier this year CDOT relocated the Drexel bike lanes, which were formerly conventional bike lanes next to the parking lanes on the outside of the boulevard. The department restriped 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.

However, On October 15 King tweeted about a meeting the next day to "discuss adding additional parking on Drexel" between 46th and 48th streets in Kenwood, which was being repaved.  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

While the position of a bike lane on two blocks of a street might seem like a relatively minor issue, many people on Twitter objected to the short notice, and the symbolism of downgrading a bikeway to make it more convenient to drive. (There are multiple churches on Drexel, and illegal parking in the bike lanes on Sundays is common.) They also noted that King had previously stonewalled against bike improvements in the South Loop due to parking concerns.

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. Organizations like Equiticity, The Chainlink, Bike Lane Uprising, and Bronzeville's Small Shop Cycles helped spread the word.

An email alert about the meeting from Small Shop Cycles.
An email alert about the meeting from Small Shop Cycles.
An email alert about the meeting from Small Shop Cycles.

Perhaps as a result, most of the meeting attendees seemed to be in favor of keeping the bike lane in place. Some online commentators expressed concerns about a predominantly white crowd of cyclists parachuting into a community of color to advocate for bike infrastructure. However, judging from the Twitter conversation, many or most of the people leading the charge on the issue were local residents and/or POC. For example, Equiticity's Oboi Reed encouraged supporters to "show up this eve, express your support 4 critical necessity of safe bike infrastructure in our n’hoods."

On the other hand, in situations like this, it is important for bike advocates to be mindful of the key role that houses of worship play in building community and providing social services, especially in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and avoid being dismissive of residents' concerns about having sufficient parking during services. Other residents may feel that they need to park near their homes in order to be safe walking from their cars.

During the meeting, King insted that, “parking is the biggest issue among my constituents.”  However, few 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.

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.”

Regarding the personal safety issue Steven Quispe, who lives on Drexel and commutes via bike to Avondale, said, “Why are [car drivers] more important than [me] when I’m thinking how am I going to commute home at night?”

Yesterday Quispe tweeted photos that indicated the bike lanes were being restriped next to the median, as cyclists had requested. A CDOT spokesperson confirmed "It will be the same layout as before."

Holy smokes! Safety prevails!

Way to go to all the people who mobilized, including @bikelaneuprise, @equiticity, and especially the man who started it all, @Hello_Gello.

Also big ups to @afrodip, @streetsblogchi, and @aarondgettinger for covering this important local story!

— Kyle Terry (@SouthSideKyle) December 5, 2019

Again, this was a relatively minor issue. But it's a reminder to aldermen that they shouldn't underestimate the organizing ability of Chicago's bike community. So it's best to think twice before unilaterally proposing car-centric changes to local streets and holding community meetings on the plan with little advanced notice.

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