Active Trans discusses why it’s not pushing to reopen the Lakefront Trail during pandemic

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

On Wednesday, March 25, one of the first nice days of the spring, Chicagoans headed to the lakefront, parks and trails to exercise and soak up some sun after long days of indoor quarantine. In some cases, dangerous crowding was an issue, and some people broke the rules of Illinois’ Stay at Home order by gathering in large groups, playing contact sports, and letting their children use playground equipment — behavior that could hasten the spread of COVID-19. Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded by closing all of the city’s shoreline park facilities, including the Lakefront Trail, along with The 606 and the Chicago Riverwalk, for the duration of the pandemic.

While that was an understandable response to an emergency, it also eliminated key bike commuting routes, particularly the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail, which many essential workers were using as a safe, car-free way to get to work while avoiding transit to reduce their viral exposure. Kyle Lucas, an immunocompromised person who works essential jobs at a hotel and delivery market, but can’t ride the CTA, launched a petition to reopen the LFT for bike commuting, which currently has more than 675 signatures. (In the meantime, you can find alternative routes on Streetsblog’s Low-Street Lakefront Pandemic Cycling Route map.)

In a blog post in the wake of the lakefront and 606 closure, Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead indicated that the group wouldn’t try to overturn the current ban. However, he wrote, “Additional park and trail closures have the potential to disproportionately harm communities of color, where residents already have few options to safely go for a walk or ride a bike under social-distancing guidelines.”

He also indicated that Active Trans won’t be advocating for opening streets for car-free transportation and recreation as a strategy to reduce crowding on sidewalks and trails, and in parks. “While some have suggested closing streets to car traffic to open them up for safe walking and biking, we are not in a position to evaluate the public health risks or benefits of this approach.”

Whitehead clarified the group’s position on these issues in an interview last week. He highlighted the difficulty of choosing between bad options, and the importance of prioritizing transportation over recreation in this time of crisis.

Sharon Hoyer: What has Active Transportation Alliance’s response been to the closure of the Lakefront Trail, The 606 and Chicago Riverwalk?

Kyle Whitehead: Like a lot of organizations, we’re trying to figure out what our mission means in this time and how we can be helpful. Our position on this issue evolved with the circumstances. When there was first discussion about potential closure or crowding on the Lakefront Trail we felt it was critical to elevate the reality that a lot of people use the trail for transportation. This is something we’ve talked about for as long as we’ve been around. The Lakefront Trail is one of the reasons we were founded as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation over 30 years ago, to do stewardship around the Trail and improve it. A lot of people use the trail for recreation, but a lot use it for transportation, both walking and biking.

Of course that continues in this crisis period when essential workers are trying to get where they need to go, to the hospital or the grocery store or the bike shop, or wherever they’re working. And then also people making essential travel going, again, to the grocery store or bike shop as a customer or for healthcare for themselves or a member of their family. What we do with our advocacy is to make sure that essential travel is prioritized over recreation. We understand people’s desire to go outdoors, but unfortunately under these dire circumstances, it can mean putting yourself or others at risk.

The we saw what was happening when crowds came out to the lakefront and the mayor and governor raised concerns and by the afternoon made the announcement. As we were trying to discuss how to respond to the mayor’s office, and to members and supporters, we’ve let public health guide our decision-making above everything else. Based on what we were seeing on the Lakefront Trail on the warm weather day there’s real concern as to whether or not its possible to keep the Trail open, limit crowding and allow people to travel while maintaining social distancing.

We understand the mayor’s decision to close the [Lakefront Trail] and The 606, and it’s obviously a terrible situation, and there are trade-offs that come with it, and it’s unfortunate that people who rely on the trails for transportation need to choose an alternative route now, but we’re doing everything we can as an organization to contribute to the public health needs here. We want to defer to public health experts as to whether or not it is feasible to keep the Trail open in any capacity.

SH: Have you received any community and Active Transportation Alliance member response to the closures?

KW: We’ve gotten varying levels of feedback and response from our members and supporters and that conversation is critical. It helps determine our advocacy position on this and other issues going forward. The Mayor has tried to highlight the availability of alternate routes, pointing to things like the [city’s] Chicago Bike Map and John [Greenfield]’s Mellow Chicago Bike Map. No alternative is as ideal as the Lakefront Trail, but we’re in a situation where we’re choosing between a bunch of really bad alternatives. We’re trying to choose the one that does the most to protect public health and limit community spread.

SH: There’s concern that closure of the lakefront disproportionally impacts South Side communities, further marginalizing already under-resourced areas.

KW: Equity is one of the pillars of our mission and one of the lenses we were analyzing this issue around. It’s not just the lack of access to safe walking and biking routes, it’s also the access to open space in your neighborhood. It’s one thing to say go for a walk, run or bike ride in your neighborhood and stay close to home; unfortunately in many parts of Chicago there isn’t access to parks and open space nearby and the lakefront is an incredible resource for communities lacking those amenities locally. Again, we fall back to public health needs here and the need to distinguish between transportation and recreation. There isn’t any good alternative here. If that’s what’s necessary to save lives, then that’s what’s necessary. Hopefully, when this crisis is over and transportation goes back to normal, we’ll go back to centering our advocacy on high-need communities.

The polling and enforcement piece of this has been top of mind, too. There’s a history of racism and discrimination in the police department, including around walking and biking, as we’ve seen in the bike-ticketing data over the years. There’s concern that by putting in place an order like this is there an increased possibility that police are going to harass and potentially arrest people of color trying to use the lakefront. Our understanding is that there is a warning and multiple steps before assigning a fine or elevating it to an arrest. It’s not an ideal solution, but at least there are some initial steps before a fine or arrest. The mayor’s office is evaluating fine and fee structures around this, and trying to develop a more progressive system because we know these types of tickets have more impact on lower-income families than they do on middle- and upper-income folks. If we’re going to have a penalty structure, how [do we] structure that so it doesn’t do disproportionate harm to low-income people? It’s a continuing conversation around this issue.

SH: If reopening the Lakefront Trail comes under consideration, would Active Transportation Alliance be in support?

KW: I’m reluctant to comment on a hypothetical situation without knowing the particulars of how it would be implemented. But we’ll continue to discuss internally and externally with our members and supporters and are open to reviewing and evaluating our position going forward. We’re not currently advocating for reopening the Lakefront Trail. The city [government] as a whole — including the mayor’s office, the department of transportation, the park district — have limited resources and in an unprecedented time of crisis like this those resources really need to be centered on public health needs and preventing community spread. We are not public health or operations experts on how this situation could be set up. It’s important to remember that capacity is an issue for our local government right now. Their focus needs to be on limiting community spread of the virus and saving lives.

Here are some tips on preventing the spread of COVID-19, and advice for Chicagoans on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. 

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