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BFC Spotlight: Chicago

Last week, we announced the latest round of Bicycle Friendly Communities. Chicago, IL is one of the 42 new and renewing communities this round, and the Silver-level community has made a lot of strides since the last application period four years ago. We caught up with Ron Burke, the executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago, to talk about where the Windy City has improved and where it still needs a lot of work to be a truly bicycle-friendly place.

What does this award mean to you and to Chicago?

Like Bicycling Magazine naming Chicago the 2nd most bike friendly city in 2014, the League’s award reflects that Chicago has made a lot of progress in recent years.  But we have a long ways to go before Chicago is truly bike friendly for the average person who will only bike in low stress environments with relatively little interaction with cars.

What was the city’s biggest accomplishment in the past year?

Opening of the “606” multi-use trail and park on a former elevated train line; expanding Divvy bike share with another 1750 bikes and 175 stations; the first concrete-separated protected bike lane in Douglass Park           

Photo by Andy Ross / Courtesy of Active Transportation Alliance

What’s on the to-do list for the next year?

Filling in the gaps in the on-street bike network and upgrading protected bike lanes from plastic bollards to more permanent and attractive forms of separation; creating a plan with the Chicago Park District to create separate spaces for cyclists from runners/walkers on the very crowded Chicago Lake Front trail, including short-term improvements;  further expansion of Divvy, including into the suburbs for the first time.

A growing number of cities, big and small, are working on becoming more bicycle-friendly, and many have BFC awards. How does competition factor into your efforts? How do you view Chicago in comparison to similarly sized cities in terms of bike-friendliness?

Competition has helped motivate Chicago Mayor Emanuel, who realizes that people and businesses are more likely to locate to Chicago if it’s a vibrant city with great biking, walking and transit. 

How do we compare?  The percentage of people biking is growing very fast, but we’re still behind other cities like Philly and DC.  We have grown the on-street network of protected and buffered bike lanes faster than any U.S. city in the past 4+ years, but our bike mode share is smaller than some other cities in part because we have fewer off street trails. In addition, there are large sections of Chicago’s massive 220 square mile foot print that are relatively empty, with low densities of people and businesses and distances between destinations that aren’t very bike friendly along with a lack of Complete Streets to encourage biking.  If Chicago’s north side were a separate city, for example, it would have one of the highest bike mode shares in the nation.  This demonstrates that a city’s bike-friendliness really requires healthy, economically vital communities with Complete Streets – bike lanes alone don’t do it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Chicago will be truly bike friendly when nearly all of its residents have low-stress bike networks within a block or two of their homes and offices.  These should be continuous, connect to day-to-day destinations, and you’d feel safe with your kids riding there.  We have a ways to go, but recent progress has been exciting!  Let’s keep it up.