The North Shore Bike Path is the southern end of a dedicated bike route, which extends practically the entire distance from Milwaukee to Chicago. The path weaves its way though forests, past prairies, over rivers all the while skirting the presence of built spaces as best it can and then suddenly terminates in the Chicago neighborhood of Edgebrook. A planned extension of the project would weave it through the southern most portion of the Cook County forest preserves along the North Branch of the Chicago River. While this is a positive step in bringing more bike-friendly infrastructure to the city a quick look at the plan makes one thing abundantly clear: the bike path exists in a vacuum and really this is sub par without more impressive bike infrastructure. It’s great that the city and county can afford to put in high-quality bike routes for recreational use in the forest preserve, but if real change is going to happen the quality, safety, and visibility of bike routes in the entire city must raise to a level that rivals city’s like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, when biking becomes an honest transportation option.
The Northwest Side seems an unlikely place to begin thinking about biking. The area of the city is served by limited mass transit routes. The CTA Blue Line is the only ‘L’ that runs through this part of the city and Metra’s model of serving mostly commuters is generally unreliable for many types of trips. Although busses are common the area, service is often infrequent and slowed by the heavy traffic in this car-oriented part of the city. None of this makes for what might be called a “bike-friendly” community. Most paths are recreational only and often accessed by car too. However, let’s be imaginative in our thinking. Granted, I am making an extreme statement, but: let us, an American city with major financial woes, spend a whole lot of money-making a car-centric corner of the city bikeable beyond recognition. How could that ever work?
The Northwest Side has some characteristics that put it in a good position to be a great trial ground for the bike friendly infrastructure that would make a Hollander or Dane feel right at home. First, the lack of transit access shouldn’t be seen as a hinderance to this type of system. Indeed, adding more bike infrastructure would help make the area more transit-oriented without having to necessarily add more transit options. Many parts of the Northwest Side are relatively close to some decent transit options the issues isn’t that they’re not their, but rather how do we get to them. Bikes might be the answer. Jefferson Park Transit Center is located within a 2.0-2.5 mile radius of much of the Northwest Side or a 10-15 minute bike trip. From here, people can transfer to the Metra, ‘L’, and numerous bus routes.
Secondly, the area is neighborhood heavy; what I mean by that is the Northwest Side definitely epitomizes the definition of Chicago as a city of neighborhoods. The numerous neighborhoods offer much for and would benefit from better bike infrastructure thus creating a mutually beneficial positive feedback loop. The neighborhoods allow many residents the opportunity to do much of their errands within their neighborhoods. This part of the city benefits from good schools, libraries, grocery stores in most areas, and relatively busy business districts. A bike trip to the store doesn’t require long car trips to other parts of the city when you’re on the Northwest Side and that facet of life here should be utilized. What I am saying is the idea behind bike lanes on the Northwest Side shouldn’t revolve around commuters or cross-town trips, but daily errands, visits to friends, getting to school etc. The Northwest Side offers great potential for developing into a bikes-first, cars-second part of the city. But again the hindrance: little to no reliable or safe infrastructure.
Thirdly, the area benefits from some strong spines that help bring cyclists into and out of the Northwest Side if they wish to do so by bike. Milwaukee Avenue is slowly but surely developing into an increasingly better bike street, the same goes for Lawrence and Elston. While all three need work (lots of it) the role they play as major bike routes shouldn’t be overlooked. Additionally, the North Shore Bike Path is important in that it can double as a safe passage through the neighborhood even if it isn’t the most convenient. It also provides an ideal example of what safe bike paths look like.
Fourth, the area is planned in an odd way that makes car-ownership easy, but also has pedestrian and bike-friendly streets. The old, established neighborhoods sprung up before car-ownership was common and many areas still center around rail lines in a way that supported bus, streetcar (fingers crossed), or pedestrian routes to these areas. A relatively low population density when compared to other parts of the city and the ability to build private parking easily also means car-ownership isn’t unreasonable as well. This however, could benefit bike infrastructure. Because of the ability to privately park cars (lots of alleys feed into private garages) many streets could facilitate the lost on-street parking (possibly up to 50%) that would accompany radical changes to incorporate high-quality bike lanes. Hopefully, this could be achieved an in the process raise the visibility of biking as an option increasing ridership. If successful, a goal should be to make biking such a viable option as to lower the number of cars per household, thus decreasing even more the amount of traffic in the area and on-street parking required.[youtube.com=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W9p4o765No]
And finally, children play the next best role in making the Northwest Side an area that is vivaciously bike-friendly. The primarily residential area has lots of families with children. Bike lanes should be designed so that kids can use them safely, whether they’re going to school, the store or library, or simply enjoying themselves. This is why the Northwest Side would be a great place to start implementing more high-quality models of bike infrastructure in Chicago–ones that may even verge on extreme for American eyes. The area is also home to many residents who age in place. Biking should be accessible for older residents as well. It adds even more mobility for all. If making an area that is car-oriented into an area where kids can safely bike most places then something impressive has been achieved–it’s an undeniable success.
It seems like an impossible cause in a car-oriented area, but there are examples of what can be done to achieve this. Even if the infrastructure costs more than simply painting stripes on asphalt it will cost significantly less than building or expanding new transit options. There is a particular stretch of bike route through Edgebrook and Forest Glen, which in my mind epitomizes the problems with our current infrastructure, but the potential as well (and especially so on the Northwest Side). I live along this stretch: it is the street based extension of the North Shore bike path system. From Devon and Leheigh it runs along Devon Avenue before dipping into neighborhood side streets zigzagging its way to Elston Avenue. The road is potholed though. The streets, though quite, are broad and allow for traffic to speed up decently fast. Major intersections lack stop lights and pit bikers and pedestrians again oncoming cars. There are no markings other than some small, well hidden signs advertising the bike route.
This is not a street for kids to bike along independently. This is not a street that will make for a comfortable ride to the train or grocery store. This is merely there to get sport cyclists to the lakefront, and it doesn’t even do a good job at that. Simple solutions could turn this into a fantastic bike route and exemplify what the entire system should look like. Take from the Dutch (see the video above of a street converted into a bike route): start by using colored pavement to visualize the location of a bike route to drivers. Paint the route red or green or something. Include signs at every crossing indicating this is a bike route and warning drivers they are entering shared space. Indeed, small speed-bumps doubling as crosswalks physically force drivers to slow and recognize they entered a new space. Because on street parking isn’t in high demand here, create larger curb bump-outs to force drivers to slow as they approach intersections and where possible add roundabouts. And finally: keep the street well paved.
For a fraction of the cost of new transit systems an entire network of bike routes, real ones could revolutionize transit in Chicago and on the Northwest Side. This system would easily expand across all neighborhoods along on quieter side streets increasing accessibility to cyclists of all ages and abilities. Following just the path of the North Shore trail’s street portion logical extensions reveal themselves. The route eventually leads to Forest Glen and onto Elston. An extension down Leclaire would serve the community well be bridging the gap to Jefferson Park the Jeff Park transit center, business district, Milwaukee and Lawrence. Stretch this north along Leheigh and Hiawatha and a continuous bike route through the neighborhood emerges. It can then be stretched east along Bryn Mawr connecting to Albany Park bring the Northwest Side closer to the lake and other city neighborhoods.
A bigger vision doesn’t necessarily mean everything will be achieved, however it would position the city in a way to really work on carrying out much more impressive large-scale projects. A focus on the Northwest Side additional is a symbolic step in showing that biking isn’t just something meant for Wicker Park and Logan Square or Lakeview, but it is a form of transportation appropriate for the entire city. A bike network stretched across different levels connected in unmeasurable ways is what will get people onto bikes and out of cars, and not just along high-profile routes in select sections of the city. This is especially important when considering the full spectrum of people who could use bikes, but don’t at the moment. The city wants to make biking and walking a more reasonable option for short trips, but many of those are to grocery stores, the bank, transit stops, and schools and those exist en masse across the city, not just fashionable neighborhoods and the Loop. We were always taught to think outside the box in school, let’s begin doing it again in real life. It almost seems obvious.