When you think of Chicago, you may think of its architecture and art, politics, crime, businesses, shopping, entertainment, beaches, even gangs or gangsters — I’ll bet bicycling isn’t one of the first things about Chicago that pops into your head. But all that changed a few years back and you may be surprised at just how many bicycles are suddenly traversing the streets of Chicago — everywhere you turn, from the lakefront to the parks to the heavily-trafficked Loop.
There have been popular cycling events in Chicago for years. But bicycling in Chicago really blossomed when Mayor Emanuel added bike lanes cutting through one of the busiest streets in downtown, Dearborn, much to the lament of the locals who were used to hopping a bus from Printer’s Row and making it to the office in 10 minutes flat or hailing a cab by Congress Parkway and Dearborn and shooting down Dearborn to make it to work in a jiffy. Those days are gone. To accommodate bike lanes down such a busy street, the parking lane was moved inward and serves as a border between traffic and the bikers, and although this provides better safety for bikers, it brought rush hour traffic up downtown Dearborn to an exasperating crawl.
Mayor Emanuel decided he wanted to make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the nation, emulating Copenhagen; and in 2012, he set that in motion with the Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. We were at #10 when this article was written; now we are probably higher on the list. When Dearborn Street was converted to accommodate this plan, commuters and cabbies alike complained bitterly, especially since the bike lanes were carved out of a street that was a vital vein across the Loop–and in the winter when there was barely a biker in sight and, the whole idea seemed ludicrous. Also, sitting at a light waiting to turn left seems to take forever now and is a true practice in art of patience, especially if one is in a hurry. But time moves on and people have adapted and now Dearborn Street’s bike lane is thriving!
Still tricky, though, is remembering to look both ways when crossing Dearborn on foot — a one-way street for motor vehicles but newly a two-way thoroughfare for cyclists — when previously one never had to give it a second thought. Cyclists are to adhere to Chicago bike laws for everyone’s safety. Dearborn Street is now known as a “complete street,” mimicking those in the Netherlands, which is reputed to be “the most bike friendly nation in the world.” A complete street includes bicycle lanes and proper signage and signals, including stop and go lights for bicyclists as well as motorists and pedestrians. Many more complete streets have since been created in downtown Chicago and the surrounding area.
Cycling in Chicago really seemed to come into full bloom at the advent of two happenings: the summer of 2013 and Divvy bikes, brought to us by the Chicago Department of Transportation. Bicycle rental stations have and continue to pop up everywhere, and people are using them. Often whole Divvy docking stations are empty because they are so popular. When one sees several cyclists, at least one of them is sure to be on a Divvy bike.
It used to be just bicycle messengers zipping through downtown. Now it’s also guys in suits and ladies in dresses. Another recent trend: Whereas for years there appeared to be just one strong, young rickshaw guy offering rides in his bicycle buggy in downtown Chicago, now there are numerous. What a great way to sightsee Chicago! And speaking of sightseeing, what better way to do it than on a bike along Lake Michigan or through the countless gorgeous parks in Chicago.
Although it is still taking some getting used to as more busy thoroughfares are transformed into complete streets, it is exciting that Chicago has become such a bike-friendly city and is set to become even more so through the next several years as the mayor continues to create more bike routes throughout the city.
Hopefully more bike-friendly paths will also be laid throughout the park system. For example, crossing Lake Shore Drive to Buckingham Fountain, there is no bicycle-friendly way to ascend to the fountain. One has to either get off and attempt to walk a bike up steps or a steep grassy hill or ride around the long way to eventually access the fountain area.
Because there are so many more bikers, there are also more bicycle stands at which to lock up bikes. The Chicago Bike Program, brought to you by the City of Chicago, is happy to add more and point the way to those currently in existence.
But there are also more bicycle accidents. Motorists, watch for cyclists! Pedestrians, you too! And cyclists, please bike safely! And then there’s always the annual Naked Bike Ride – put that on your bucket list to see or maybe even join — which in part strives to bring to public attention how very vulnerable cyclists are, especially in the city, as well as promote alternate-energy-friendly means of transportation, namely, the good old bicycle.