Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Divvy for Everyone Makes Bike-Share More Accessible

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Garfield Park, Green No Comments »

Divvy employee Michael Clark (red cap) and friends take a spin in East Garfield Park./Photo: John Greenfield

Before the Divvy bike-share system launched in June of 2013, city officials promised that attracting an ethnically and economically diverse ridership was a top priority. “Since we’re using public dollars, it’s important that the folks who are using the service reflect everybody in the community,” said Scott Kubly, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation at the time. “It’s a challenge, but we’re going to crack it.”

That hasn’t happened yet. Like most American bike-share systems, Divvy’s membership has skewed white, male, young, educated and relatively affluent.

The system currently has about 30,000 annual members. Of the hundreds who responded to a recent survey, sixty-five percent were male, and seventy-nine percent were non-Hispanic whites—a group that makes up only about thirty-two percent of the city’s population. The average age was thirty-four, the majority of respondents have middle-to-upper incomes, and ninety-three percent have a college degree or more.

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Checkerboard City: Biking in Boston – It’s More Than A Feeling

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Pete Stidman with the Cambridge bike counter. Why can't we get one of these on Milwaukee? Photo: John Greenfield

Pete Stidman with the Cambridge bike counter. Why can’t we get one of these on Milwaukee Avenue? Photo: John Greenfield

When Pete Stidman, the former director of the Boston Cyclists Union, visited Chicago for a conference a couple of summers ago, I let him crash on my futon. I have since realized that the blazing temperatures in my Logan Square living room on that particular weekend made sleep nearly impossible. I visited my cousin in Beantown last month and Stidman, who’s now working as the active transportation specialist at a planning firm, returned that (dubious) favor by taking me on a bicycle tour of the area’s burgeoning bike network.

Boston, a city of 655,884 residents (4,628,910 metro) has come a long way since 1999, when Bicycling Magazine ranked it as the nation’s worst city for biking. When I meet up with Stidman at the lovely Brewer Fountain in Boston Common, the city’s biggest downtown green space, he explains that much of the blame for that title can be traced to the city’s then-large population of “vehicular cyclists.”

Vehicular cyclists are cult followers of John Forester, author of the book “Effective Cycling” and son of “The African Queen” writer C.S. Forester. John preaches that cyclists are safest when they operate like drivers, pedaling in the center of the lane. Of course, most people aren’t willing or able to bike twenty miles per hour to keep up with cars, but Boston’s Foresterites have actively lobbied against installing bike lanes, arguing that they’re unnecessary and, paradoxically, dangerous.

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Checkerboard City: Hittin’ (Up) the Bong

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Photo: John Greenfield

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

I like to think of myself as a gonzo transportation journalist, the Hunter S. Thompson of pedestrian, transit and bike writing. After all, I’m the guy who wrote the book “Bars Across America: Drinking and Biking From Coast to Coast.” But I steer clear of drunk cycling, and I’ve had little experience with illegal mind-altering substances on my car-free road trips. One bicycle journey I took from Kansas City to St. Louis along the Katy Trail did end in a psychedelic mishap, but that’s a tale for another day.

However, I had a smokin’ good time in late August on a train-and-bike excursion to Richard Bong State Recreation Area in southeast Wisconsin. It was the latest of several fun excursions I’ve done this summer, taking advantage of Chicago’s status as the nation’s railroad hub, with great Amtrak access, plus convenient commuter rail service via Metra and the South Shore Line.

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Checkerboard City: The Divvy Perimeter Ride

Bicycling, Bridgeport, Checkerboard City, Englewood, Green, Lawndale, Little Village, South Shore No Comments »

New Divvy station outside Comer College Prep in Grand Crossing/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

This year’s Divvy bike-share expansion, beefing up the system from 300 docking stations to 476, is moving at warp speed. One-hundred new stations have been installed since mid-April, and the rest should be in by early June.

As Divvy grows, the city is also trying to make it more equitable. After the expansion, the portion of the population that lives in the service area will grow from about thirty-three percent to fifty-six percent, and several low-income communities are getting stations for the first time. Meanwhile, CDOT is working on a strategy to provide Divvy access for residents who don’t have credit cards, and they promise they’ll have a major announcement about this by early summer.

To get a sense of how the stations are working out on the terra nova, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, I set out to pedal the perimeter of the completed service area on a sunny afternoon last week. I began my quest at the southeastern-most outpost of the system at Rainbow Beach in South Shore, a mostly African-American community. There was an eerie fog on the shoreline, and the sound of the waves mingled with birdsongs as I undocked my Divvy. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Take a Slow Ride

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green 3 Comments »

Participants in the “West Side Slow Roll Into Spring”/Photo: West Humboldt Park Development Council

By John Greenfield

“Slow Roll Chicago is helping to bridge Chicago’s geographic divides,” says cofounder Oboi Reed. “We’re getting people from all over the city to show up for rides that are not in their neighborhoods.” The group, whose focus is getting more people on bikes in low-to-middle-income communities of color, is putting on thirty-one bike tours this year, mostly on the South and West Sides.

These include neighborhood rides every Wednesday evening during the warmer months, organized with local nonprofits, neighborhood groups, and churches. “These rides are created with input from the people who live and work in these neighborhoods, so there’s a sense of ownership and involvement,” says Reed, a board member and occasional writer for the transportation news website that I edit.

The Chicago rides were inspired by Slow Roll Detroit, which was launched in 2010 by Jason Hall and Mike MacKool. The Motown events take place every Monday night and regularly draw about 4,000 participants for a relaxed, law-abiding pedal around the city. The Slow Roll movement has spread to several other U.S. cities, as well as three Swedish cities, Berlin, and even the city of Slemani, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Rickshaw Republic

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Wrigleyville No Comments »
Darren Hilton outside Wrigley Field. Photo: Peter Mueller

Darren Hilton outside Wrigley Field/Photo: Peter Mueller

By John Greenfield

“Some people think pedicabbers are nuisance, but we’re really only here to help people,” says Darren Hilton, forty-two. A former bicycle messenger, he’s been in the bike taxi business for five years. “As pedicab operators, our job is to give visitors red-carpet service and keep them coming back to Chicago.”

Hilton says Chicago’s pedicab ordinance, which passed City Council about a year ago, is too restrictive, and has led to some of his colleagues being slapped with thousands of dollars in fines. He has received a few $500 tickets himself.

The purpose of the local ordinance was to regulate what some officials saw as a somewhat anarchic industry. The law was introduced by 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney, whose district includes Wrigley Field. Downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly pushed to include geographic restrictions: pedicabbers are now banned from State and Michigan, between Congress and Oak, at all times. They’re also prohibited from working in the Loop during rush hours. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Transit Platforms

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, City Life, Dime Stories, Green, News etc., Politics, Transit 4 Comments »
Rahm Emanuel and Chuy García. Photos: John Greenfield

Rahm Emanuel and Chuy García/Photos: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As I’ve discussed with noted Rahm-hater Tony Fitzpatrick, the talented artist and storyteller whose column occupies the other side of this page, there are many issues to consider when deciding who to support in Chicago’s April 7 runoff election. These include jobs, education, crime, privatization, transparency and ethics, to name a few.

However, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of transportation when choosing whether to reelect Mayor Emanuel, or anoint his challenger, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García. The need for a safe, efficient transportation system is a huge factor in quality of life for all Chicagoans.

With that in mind, here’s a comparison of how the candidates differ on key traffic safety, walking, transit and biking issues. Note that this article does not represent an endorsement of either candidate.

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Checkerboard City: School of Bike

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Stan Treger bikes to class on the DePaul campus. Photo: John Greenfield

Stan Treger bikes to class on the DePaul campus/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

I kind of hate the phrase “bike season.” Thousands of Chicagoans get around on two wheels all year ‘round. Even in January, there’s still something of a bike rush hour on the Lakefront Trail and Milwaukee Avenue. And all you really need to keep cycling through the Chicago winter is a bike with fenders and lights, and more-or-less the same clothing you’d wear to stay warm while waiting for the bus.

That said, it’s been fun to observe how, following another cold, gray, snowy winter, this month’s sunshine and relatively balmy temperatures have inspired countless people to drag their dusty steeds out of basements. Like rivers swelling from the vernal thaw, the city’s bike lanes are starting to fill up with riders once again.

As part of this spring awakening, a dozen different higher learning institutions will be challenging their students, faculty, and staff to try bicycling to school. The second annual Bike2Campus Week takes place from April 20-24, highlighting cycling as a green, cheap, healthy and fun way to get around. Read the rest of this entry »

What Would Jesús Ride? A Conversation With Mayoral Challenger Jesús “Chuy” García About Chicago’s Transportation Challenges

Bicycling, Green, Politics, Transit 2 Comments »
Jesús “Chuy” García at a Woodlawn bus shelter. Photo: John Greenfield

Jesús “Chuy” García at a Woodlawn bus shelter/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

For most of the campaign, mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” García has been relatively quiet about transportation issues, except for his vocal opposition to Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement program. Most recently, following the revelation that a former top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied for awarding the latest red light contract to Xerox, García announced that he would shut down all of the city’s traffic cameras on his first day as mayor.

The Emanuel campaign has noted that, before the Cook County commissioner joined other candidates in criticizing automated enforcement, he supported it. On March 11, 2014, García was part of a narrow majority of commissioners who approved an intergovernmental agreement that allowed Safespeed, LLC to install a red light camera on County property in suburban Forest Park.

Campaign finance records show that Citizens for Jesús García received a $1,500 contribution from Safespeed one day before the vote. When I asked about this issue, a García spokeswoman stated that the donation was from Safespeed president and CEO Nikki Zollar, a “thirty-year-old friend” of the commissioner, and it did not influence his decision.

Shortly before the February 24 municipal election, García, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from UIC, broke his relative silence on other transportation topics by releasing a transportation platform ( The document suggests that he is well informed about transit funding and transit-oriented development, although there’s little mention of pedestrian and bike issues. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: A Walk on the Wild Side

Bicycling, Bucktown, Checkerboard City, Green, Transit 1 Comment »
Rebecca Geissler and Tim Garibay. Photo: Katharine Rovinsky

Rebecca Geissler and Tim Garibay/Photo: Katharine Rovinsky

By John Greenfield

As someone who’s pedaled three sides of the Continental United States, I can tell you that traveling cross-country by human power is an amazing way to see this great land of ours. You experience the geography and the people in a totally different manner than you would rushing by at eighty miles per hour.

Two young Chicago urban planners will soon be traveling coast-to-coast in an even more intimate way than I did. This April, Rebecca Geissler and Tim Garibay, both twenty-seven, will embark on an epic walking trip from the Golden Gate Bridge to Coney Island. They expect that, hiking about thirty miles a day, they’ll complete the roughly 3,300-mile pilgrimage in four or five months.

“I’ve secretly always wanted to run away from home,” she explains. “Not in a negative sense, but I think it’s going to be very liberating to drop everything and go out and see what happens.” Read the rest of this entry »