Street Smart Chicago

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 »

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 »

Checkerboard City: Take This Job and Shovel

Checkerboard City, City Life, Green No Comments »
"Every Day I'm Shoveling" Photo: Active Trans

“Every Day I’m Shoveling”/Photo: Active Trans

By John Greenfield

After Mother Nature dumped 19.3 inches of snow on us earlier this month, many viewed Chicago as a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but I felt the city became something of a utopia. Drivers were forced to slow down to sensible speeds, and folks helped out neighbors and strangers in numerous ways. The main sour note was the reappearance of “dibs,” the selfish practice of reserving dug-out parking spaces with old junk.

The day after the blizzard, I found cross-country skiing to be the most efficient way to get around. As I shushed down the middle of unplowed side streets from my home to the library to band practice and back, I encountered five different stuck motorists. Helping them push their marooned automobiles out of the snow’s clutches gave me a warm feeling inside.

However, not everyone can strap on a pair of skis to avoid trudging through the white stuff on uncleared sidewalks. When property owners neglect their civic duty by failing to shovel in a timely manner, it creates a significant barrier for people with disabilities, seniors and young kids, and a major annoyance for the rest of us.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke pointed out in a recent blog post that heavy snowfalls make it obvious most cities prioritize driving over walking and biking. Ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection in the wake of a 1979 blizzard that paralyzed Chicago, local mayors have generally done a bang-up job of getting the streets plowed for drivers.

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Checkerboard City: If You’re Going to San Francisco…

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Eric Anderson rides on a Berkeley bike boulevard. Photo: John Greenfield

Eric Anderson rides on a Berkeley bike boulevard/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

When I first visited the Bay Area nearly two decades ago for the 1996 Cycle Messenger World Championships, San Francisco’s vibrant bike culture struck me as a vision of what I wanted cycling in Chicago to be like. I was particularly inspired by the massive amount of two-wheeled traffic on Market Street, the Michigan Avenue of San Francisco, during the evening rush.

The cover of Chicago’s 2014 Bikeways Report, released last week, features a recent photo of a similarly dense throng of cyclists on Milwaukee Avenue. In a few respects our city has pedaled past SF in terms of bike-friendliness. For example, we now have far more bike-share vehicles and miles of protected bike lanes per capita.

It didn’t help San Francisco’s cause that a successful lawsuit spearheaded by a cranky dishwasher and blogger named Rob Anderson in 2005 put the brakes on bikeway construction for several years. His paradoxical argument was that the lanes were a potential threat to the environment. However the injunction was lifted in 2010 and, since then, the city has been working hard to rebuild its rep as a biking mecca.

On a trip to Northern California last month, I mixed business with pleasure by checking in with a couple of colleagues for an update on the Bay Area’s bike progress. My first stop was Berkeley, the East Bay college town where my old pal Eric Anderson now works as the bike and pedestrian coordinator. Known as “Big Horn,” for the giant antique bulb horn on his basket bike, he was a founding father of the Windy City’s Critical Mass. He also recommended me for my first urban-planning job, to be his replacement as the city of Chicago’s bike-rack czar back in 2001.

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Checkerboard City: Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

Checkerboard City, Green, Transit No Comments »
Coortney Cobbs on the Orange Line.

Courtney Cobbs on the Orange Line

By John Greenfield

Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on my transportation news website about the need for better bus and train access on Chicago’s South and West Sides. I caught up with her by phone to hear more of her take on the equity issue.

You wrote a while ago that Chicago’s transit system is one of the things that brought you here.
Yes. I wanted to live in a city where I didn’t have to own a car, because I really care about the environment, and public transportation saves you money. I really like big cities, and I felt like Chicago was an affordable option versus New York or L.A., and I could live here without a car relatively well. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Better Bike Resources for the South and West Sides?

Back of the Yards, Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Humboldt Park, Little Village No Comments »

Robert Calvin rides on the “enhanced sharrows” on Lake Street in Austin. Photo: John Greenfield


By John Greenfield

Last month, African-American cyclists Oboi Reed, Peter Taylor and Shawn Conley released an open letter asking the city, state, and local advocacy groups for a more equitable distribution of bike resources to Chicago’s black communities. Read the letter at

They noted that there’s generally a higher density of bike lanes, with better connectivity, downtown and on the North Side. “Stuff on the South Side and the West Side has really been hit-or-miss, putting in a bike lane that goes from nowhere to nowhere, not really connecting destinations,” Taylor told me.

That’s the case with a couple of the recently striped bikeways I checked out on the West and South Sides last week. The city installed segments of buffered bike lanes–with additional space striped on one or both sides–on Pershing between Western and Ashland, and on 63rd between Central Park and Western, as part of successful road diets. However the new BBLs are “orphans,” because they don’t link up with any other bikeways. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Can We Have Nice Things?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green 1 Comment »
Top: A typical Chicago PBL. Bottom: It's NYC counterpart. Photos: John Greenfield

Top: A typical Chicago PBL. Bottom: Its NYC counterpart. Photos: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

There’s nothing like visiting another city to give you a fresh perspective on your own. Earlier this month I traveled to New York to powwow with other reporters from the transportation news network I work for. Pedaling a Citi Bike around Manhattan, I was struck by the thought that Chicago’s protected bike lanes could be a little nicer than they are.

In both cities, PBLs are generally located curbside, with parked cars relocated to the left of the bike lane to shield cyclists from moving vehicles, and a striped buffer marked between the parking lane and the bike lane. In Chicago, flexible plastic posts, AKA bollards, are installed in the buffer to discourage motorists from driving and parking in the lanes.

New York protected lanes usually don’t have the posts, but there’s generally an extra-wide buffer, and the entire bike lane is painted green. Often, the parking lane is capped with a concrete pedestrian island at the intersection.

That helps remind other road users that PBLs improve safety for everybody—not just cyclists—by shortening crossing distances for pedestrians and calming motor vehicle traffic. We don’t have safety stats for Chicago protected lanes yet, but a study by the city of New York found that the installation of a PBL on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue led to a fifty-six-percent decrease in injuries to all road users.

It occurred to me that Chicago might do well to emulate the New York style of protected lanes. Despite the lack of bollards, I didn’t notice any problems with cars in the lanes during my visit. Meanwhile, the posts by Chicago PBLs often start looking ragged after a few months, and they’re frequently knocked out by car drivers and snowplow operators.

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