Chicago Shifts Bicycling Into High Gear

Major cities around the US are moving forward on plans that encourage bicycling and Chicago just announced an ambitious plan.

With 30 miles of bike lanes completed in just one year (2012), the Windy City is promising another 70 miles before the end of 2015 and a total of 645 miles by 2020. When it’s completed, bike paths will weave through every neighborhood, taking all Chicagoan’s at least a half-mile from home.

Bikers across the country were envious when Chicago removed a car lane downtown and replaced it with a two-way protected cycling lane that even has bike traffic signals, reports Grist

"My vision is to make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the US," says Mayor Emanuel. "The Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 helps bring this vision to reality by identifying a 645-mile network of on-street bikeways that will encourage all Chicagoans to ride their bikes. Over the next few years, we will build more protected bike lanes than any other city in the country, redesign intersections to ensure they are safer for bicyclists, and improve hundreds of miles of residential streets for bicyclists, pedestrians, and the people that live on them."  

Three guiding principles are behind the strategy:

  • every Chicagoan should have access to bike lines within a half-mile of where they live
  • bikeways should be created where people actually live
  • bike lanes should be increased where ridership is already high, while establishing a strong backbone of infrastructure where ridership is currently lower, but has the potential to grow

Really impressive is the extent to which residents have had input. The city teamed up with a local group, the Active Transportation Alliance, which set up meetings across the city in bars, restaurants and homes to figure out where people wanted bike lanes.

The first 30 miles of bike lanes cost about $4 million, which the city sees as a small investment for a big return. Studies show  that safe, accessible bicycling attracts young people and innovative businesses, and Mayor Emmanuel campaigned on that.

Chicago Isn’t Alone

More than 200 cities around the world have bike share programs and last summer, New York City launched the largest bike share program in the US, starting out with 10,000 bicycles parked at 600 stations. Bike share stations are solar-powered and smartphone apps tell users where bikes are available.

The city has plans for an 1800-mile network of bike lanes by 2030. After adding 200 miles of bike lanes between 2009-2010, commuter bicycling rose 13%. 

Capital Bikeshare, Washington DC’s program, and the first in North America, just finished its second year. It has 1100 bikes at 114 stations and is considered a huge success. 

Los Angeles plans to build 1,600 miles of bikeways over the next 30 years and Portland, OR already makes biking easy throughout the city.

Six cities are participating in the Green Lane Project, launched in May 2012 to showcase next-generation transportation alternatives: Chicago, Washington, D.C., Memphis, Austin, San Francisco and Portland.

"Green lanes are dedicated, inviting spaces for people on bikes in the roadway. They are protected from motor vehicles by curbs, planters, posts, or parked cars. They are separated from sidewalks. Some are painted green. The lanes are carefully engineered with rigorous attention to safety, efficiency, and ease of travel for all street users," explains their website.

"The idea is to create the kind of bike networks that will attract the 60% of all Americans who say they would bike more if they felt safer," Randy Neufeld, a bike advocate who helped fund the Green Lane project, told Alternet. "It’s all about helping people from 8 to 80 to feel safe biking on city streets."

242 communities across 47 states are "bicycle friendly," according to the League of American Bicyclists, which grade cities across the country.

In those communities, bicycle commuting grew 80% from 2000-2011, compared with 32% in other cities.

Why Do This?

While US cities are only waking up to the benefits of biking, progressive European cities have long made it a priority. 

In Copenhagen, where 80% of the 1.2 million people commute by bicycle, that adds that up to $357 million a year in health benefits and a net economic gain of $0.42 cents for every mile driven.

It would be relatively easy for the US to realize the same benefits, since 40% of all car trips are to destinations less than two miles from home, notes Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club, in a 2012 essay about National Bike Month.

"After decades of assuming that only cars matter, we really should be playing catch-up on behalf of other transportation modes," says Brune. "Currently, Americans make about 12 percent of all trips by biking or walking. So what if we invested 15 percent of our federal transportation funding on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure? Too generous? How about 10 percent?  Five percent? Believe it or not, five percent would still be more than three times as much as we’re currently investing now, which is a measly 1.6 percent."

It turns out that although most funding still goes to moving cars around, the number of miles driven is steadily decreasing. More business is being done over the Internet, and younger people are showing strong preferences for living in cities where they don’t need cars at all. 

That’s why car-sharing services have become so popular. In the next five years, 4.4 million people in North America and 5.5 million people in Europe are expected to sign up for car-sharing services, according to Frost & Sullivan.

Transportation policy has been slow to respond to these changes, which favor cheaper, cleaner, on-demand travel choices. They are still allocating funds based on increasing demand. But there’s a move on the part of transportation officials to build a national bicycle highway that would connect city, regional, and statewide cycling routes. Let’s hope it materializes.

This year’s best and worst transportation projects reflect these changing values.

Read about Chicago’s Streets for Cycling 2020 plan:

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Comments on “Chicago Shifts Bicycling Into High Gear”

  1. Shane Phillips

    Just FYI, the New York bike share program was delayed due to software problems on the part of the operator (Alta, I believe). It won’t start until around Spring of 2013.


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