Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Getting Pilsen Going

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Pilsen, Transit No Comments »
Alex Velazquez and Ray Arroyo. Photo: Active Trans

Alex Velazquez and Ray Arroyo/Photo: Active Trans

By John Greenfield

Last September, the Chicago Department of Transportation launched the Go Bronzeville transportation demand program in the historic Near South neighborhood otherwise known as the Black Metropolis. The initiative provided resources for residents interested in getting around their community and the city on foot, bike, transit and car-sharing, with the goal of reducing the number of drive-alone trips.

Many of the people who participated in the free workshops, walking tours and bike rides found that using active transportation helped save them money, improved their health and gave them new opportunities to spend time with their family, friends and neighbors. Now, CDOT plans to run TDM programs in another four neighborhoods, at a cost of about $250,000 per community, mostly funded by federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants.

Pilsen, the largely Mexican-American community located three miles southwest of the Loop, was a logical choice for the next location, according to CDOT deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel. The area is well served by transit, including several CTA bus routes, the Pink Line and Metra’s BNSF line, and it has nearly a dozen Divvy bike-share stations. The Go Pilsen program debuted on June 4. Portland, Oregon-based Alta Planning + Design helped design the program, and the Active Transportation Alliance’s Maggie Melin is coordinating it on the local level. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Life in the Bike Lane

Bicycling, Bridgeport, Checkerboard City, Edgewater, Green, Little Village No Comments »
Riding in the Broadway protected lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

Riding in the Broadway PBLs/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

For a bike-infrastructure geek like myself, this is the most exciting time of the year, when the city is in the thick of rolling out the season’s new lanes. Most of the twenty miles of new bikeways planned for 2014 aren’t as groundbreaking as in previous years, when protected lanes debuted on Kinzie, Dearborn and Milwaukee. However, there are some interesting projects going in this year, and it’s always a treat to ride a bikeway for the first time, a thrill akin to unwrapping a present.

I set out to pedal a gaggle of new lanes, a journey that will take me many miles from Edgewater on the North Side to Auburn Gresham on the South Side to Little Village on the West Side. I start my trip at Bryn Mawr and Sheridan, where I’m pleased to see that the Chicago Department of Transportation has solved an annoying problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Construction Cycle

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Loop, Transit No Comments »

Dumping infill to build out the Chicago Riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

If 2013 was Chicago’s Long, Hot Summer of Transportation, then 2014 is the Summer of the Big Projects. Last year featured well-publicized game changers like the South Red Line rehab and the Divvy bike-share launch, but this year’s initiatives might not be so obvious to casual observers. That’s partly due to the changing of the guard at the Chicago Department of Transportation.

After forward-thinking, sharp-dressed commissioner Gabe Klein stepped down in November, he was replaced by the CTA’s head planner, Rebekah Scheinfeld, who’s only the second female chief in CDOT history. While her management and sartorial style is lower key than Klein’s, she’s no less progressive. “A lot got kicked off in the last two-and-a-half years,” she recently told me. “My goal is to continue that momentum, to make sure that we are bringing these projects in on time and on budget.”

One planned initiative whose future is somewhat beyond Scheinfeld’s control is the expansion of Divvy from its current 300 docking stations to 475. In January, Montreal-based Bixi, which provides the bikes and stations for the system, declared bankruptcy, putting the supply chain in jeopardy. However, Alta Bicycle Share, which runs Divvy for CDOT, is looking into alternative suppliers in case Bixi goes belly-up, and Scheinfeld says she expects the city will meet its expansion goals this year. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Cheap Trip—A Rockford Rendezvous

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green 1 Comment »
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A historical marker for Cheap Trick along the Rock River Bike Path/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

“Rockford could be fun,” said the editor of this magazine when I proposed writing a travelogue about the Forest City. “I mean, who goes there?”

Actually, there are plenty of reasons to visit Illinois’ third-largest city. I’d been to the area earlier this spring to play a gig at Pig Minds, a quirky vegan brewpub in nearby Machesney Park. We camped down the road that night in Rock Cut State Park, which feels surprisingly spacious and wild, considering it’s only a couple miles square and located just outside of Rockford.

Despite this foray, I’d never explored Rockford proper until a couple weekends ago. That’s odd, since it’s the home of power-pop legends Cheap Trick, and their magnum opus “In Color” is one of my favorite albums of all time. Oddball guitarist Rick Nielsen, known for his flipped-brim caps, checkerboard-patterned threads, and multi-neck axes, still lives in the city and is one of its most ardent boosters.

“I love Rockford,” Nielsen says in his four-page spread in the town’s official visitor guide. “This is where my friends live, this is where my family is from, where I got kicked out of band in junior high [for calling the teacher an 'incompetent, drunken fool']. It’s home.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Is Bronzeville Chicago’s Next Bike Mecca?

Bicycling, Bronzeville, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Bike Brozeville members in the Bud Billikin Parade. Photo: Bronzeville Bikes.

Bronzeville Bikes members in the Bud Billiken Parade/Photo: Bronzeville Bikes

By John Greenfield

“When we first started Bronzeville Bikes, the question was, ‘If we build it, will they come?’” says cofounder Bernard Loyd. The group encourages cycling in the Near South community once called “The Black Metropolis” with free repair sessions, neighborhood tours and more. “The answer was a resounding yes.”

Loyd is president of Urban Juncture, a firm that is currently building a food-themed complex called Bronzeville Cookin’, featuring Jamaican, vegetarian and Southern-style restaurants, plus a produce store and rooftop garden, by the Green Line’s 51st Street stop. In the fall of 2012, before Divvy bike-share launched, he was involved in discussions with the city about making the system accessible to locals. “But Divvy requires a credit card, and many residents don’t have one,” he says. “Bronzeville Bikes came out of the realization that while Divvy can be part of the puzzle, we also want to help folks use their own bikes for exercise, transportation, commerce.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Her Bike Shop

Bicycling, Bucktown, Checkerboard City, Green 1 Comment »
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Scout, Annie Byrne and Lauren Wiscomb at BFF Bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Let’s Go Ride a Bike blogger Dottie Brackett once gave a presentation on women’s cycling where she recommended Dutch-style bikes with upright bars, fenders, chain guards and skirt guards as being practical for commuting in nice clothes—save for one clothing item. “I can wear any kind of skirt on this and be fine, except for a pencil skirt,” she said. “So I don’t wear pencil skirts.”

However, the Holy Grail of a bikeable pencil skirt is now available at BFF Bikes, Chicago’s first female-focused bicycle store, which opened on March 15 at 2113 West Armitage in Bucktown. Last week co-owner Annie Byrne showed me how the stylish black garment, made by Seattle-based Iva Jean, works. “When you open the zipper in the back, it converts from a pencil skirt to an A-line skirt so you can get full leg extension while pedaling without having to hitch it up,” she explains. Then she dumps a bottle of water over the high-tech fabric. “It rolls right off it like Teflon.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Ice Ice Divvy

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, News etc. No Comments »
Divvy rider in the Dearborn protected lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

Divvy rider in the Dearborn protected lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

From its June 28 launch to New Year’s Eve, Chicago’s Divvy bike-share system racked up an impressive 759,788 rides. But the acid test for the new system has been the remainder of this kidney stone of a winter, Chicago’s fifth snowiest on record, featuring more than twenty days with subzero lows. I checked in with general manager Elliot Greenberger to see how Divvy has been faring during the Chiberia deep-freeze. “Weather has been a challenge this winter, not only for us but for all kinds of transportation systems that have been around for decades,” he says.

The biggest difficulty of keeping Divvy running has been making sure the docking stations are clear of snow when people return their bikes, which has been tricky since we’ve had so many days of precipitation followed by frigid temperatures. Crew members have been using shovels, ice picks and road salt to keep the docks clear.

However, maintaining the bikes themselves hasn’t been a big problem during the cold season. “There have been no major issues with mechanical problems or tires losing their pressure faster,” Greenberger says. “But with all the dirty snow, keeping the bikes clean is a challenge. They don’t look great, but it’s nothing we can’t solve with a rag and some cleaner.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Travel Options in the Black Metropolis

Bicycling, Bronzeville, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
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Young Bronzeville residents at the Cargo Bike Roll Call/Photo: Steven Vance

By John Greenfield

In the early twentieth century, Chicago’s Bronzeville community, aka the Black Metropolis, was home to African-American innovators and barrier breakers in business, music, art, literature and other fields. Now the neighborhood is ground zero for another first, the Go Bronzeville travel demand management program. This campaign, launched in September by the Chicago Department of Transportation, offers free resources, events and support for residents who want to make more trips via walking, biking, transit and car-sharing, instead of driving alone.

TDM programs in other U.S. cities have helped lower the number of single-occupancy car trips, saving participants time and money while improving their health, as well as fighting traffic jams and lowering emissions. CDOT is using federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds to conduct campaigns in five different Chicago communities. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Pedaling Fine Gifts

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Holidays, Transit 1 Comment »
The Malört water bottle. Photo: Tim de la Motte

The Malört water bottle/Photo: Tim de la Motte

By John Greenfield

The holidays are all about consumption, but the nice thing about giving a sustainable transportation-oriented present is you’re encouraging the recipient to use less resources, by walking, biking or using transit when possible, instead of driving. Most of the following gift ideas are also locally produced and available at independent stores, which means a minimum of fuel was expended in transporting them, and by spending money at a mom-and-pop instead of a big-box you’ll be promoting pedestrian-friendly retail. Unfortunately, one present you can’t give right now is a glitch-free Ventra card.

However, you can promote one of Chicago’s more successful transpo initiatives by giving the gift of Divvy. The bike-share system will be operating all winter long, so if you buy your loved ones twenty-four-hour passes ($7) or yearly memberships ($75), they’ll be able to hop on one of the baby-blue cycles right away. Passes and memberships entitle the holder to an unlimited number of thirty-minute trips, so they’re perfect for short trips and errands, plus “last mile” rides from transit to one’s final destination. DivvyBikes.com; email Gifts@DivvyBikes.com to purchase gift certificates. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Exit Interview

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, News etc., Transit No Comments »
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Gabe Klein tries out Chicago’s first pedestrian scramble/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Maybe we jinxed things by naming transportation czar Gabe Klein as the city’s best department head in this magazine’s October 31 Best of Chicago issue, because the very next day he announced he was stepping down. Can’t really blame the guy since, two-and-a-half years after he took the job, his wife is still living in his previous hometown of Washington, D.C., where he’ll be returning to launch new transportation technology enterprises in the private sector. Still, it’s a shame that the poster boy for reconfiguring urban streets to serve all road users, not just drivers, is leaving the Windy City in his bicycle taillights. I caught up with him at his downtown office for a final chat.

To ask the classic annoying job interview question, what was your biggest weakness as commissioner?
Coming to town and not necessarily understanding all the history of how the city works meant there was a bigger learning curve. I came in with Mayor Emanuel and had this idea that we were going to set the world on fire and change transportation in Chicago. That’s a double-edged sword. If I didn’t think that way, we wouldn’t have been able to get as much done, but you also rub some people the wrong way. So maybe I could have been a little less boisterous? I don’t know. Read the rest of this entry »