Oh, North Avenue. You so conveniently cut a path, straight as all lines, between two parks, how fine. But wait, you are deceiving and unkind. From end-to-end is but a mile and a half, yet, like the Kennedy you’re often not the best bet. Not a bus in sight. Oh, wait there it is behind the line of Autos Germanic, all stuck in the inconvenient slow. And cyclists go fast do they not? Here doubtful, I say, weave in and out best they may, this is a knot better than a Boy Scout’s on his best day. With no money for an ‘L’ and our poor ol’ streetcars rusting in hell this mess remains to stay.
Getting from Wicker Park to Lincoln Park via North Avenue is more often than not an unpleasant and slow experience and speeding up that trip and relieving congestion will take some creative work. A pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Chicago River and Goose Island, as proposed by developers seeking to tap the island’s potential might be just the trick. For cyclists and walkers the new path is modern, fast, and quite smart. The best part of the proposal though is the potential it establishes to make a truly bike-centric section of the city on the Near North and Northwest Sides.
As Curbed Chicago has recently (and previously) reported, the development company South Street Capital is interested in investing in Goose Island as a new addition to a growing number of tech hubs in and around Chicago. As more details emerge about the company’s plans to build on the Goose Island Boatyard site and another site across the street so have plans to better connect the island to surrounding Lincoln Park and Wicker Park/Noble Square neighborhoods. The most significant aspect of this proposal, which has the potential to be financed entirely through private investments, pertains to how well this proposal could catalyze better bike infrastructure projects all over the city, but mostly in an area where it is sorely needed.
Although still in the planning and financing phases, the overall scope of the project includes maximizing on ways to connect the new developments with commercial districts in the surrounding neighborhoods, transportation options (including the Red Line’s North/Clybourn stop and Blue Line’s Chicago stop), and improving walkability and bikeability despite Goose Island’s generally difficult to work with infrastructure. The existing roads and connections are primarily remnants of the island’s former heavy industrial character, which over time has changed to high-tech industry and other modern technologies. This is both good and bad. The good is that there is a lot of infrastructure to work with from broad lightly used streets and old rail right-of-ways. The bad is that pretty much everything needs to be built from scratch.
The city and surrounding communities need to catalyze on the private investments to make public dollars stretch further. Some of the more expensive aspects of these proposals are the two bridges being touted as ways to get bikers and pedestrians on and off Goose Island more conveniently while avoiding more infrastructure encouraging driving. The bridges more than any other piece of new bike infrastructure in this part of the city may be some of the most useful tools in truly helping biking as a means of transportation explode. First, they offer better ways around the borders of the multiple neighborhoods that meet at this juncture than most of the main streets in the areas. North Avenue, as mentioned, is seemingly always a mess and even Division Street, which has relatively speaking very good bike infrastructure, gets tight near the Chicago River and Kennedy Expressway. It also helps connect the area to a new growing job center.
The most important thing though is that the costs of overall expansions may be cheaper because of the private investments. This means the city can spend more on improving on street bike routes rather than spending lots of money on bridges and large-scale projects.
As the city and surrounding communities consider the impact of these proposed developments, considering how biking will be integrated into this will be an important part of moving forward. The near North Side neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Uptown, and Wicker Park/Bucktown are already highly congested and dense and need relief. With no money available for new ‘L’ lines or other high-capacity mass transit (with the exception of the still proposed Ashland BRT) biking is the best solution to relieving congestion, but it won’t work if the projects are too basic. While some relief may come with the extension of Water Taxi service north to Goose Island, biking has the best potential to make this area less congested and relieve the car dependency that still exists.
From this proposal, a master plan for biking in the area needs to be developed which seeks to connect the Bloomingdale Trail to Goose Island, the bridges to existing bike routes and improve those routes to make them high-quality paths, not just painted stripes. Indeed, a large-scale examination of how to improve bike infrastructure radiating from Goose Island could be a role player in connecting the lakefront, the river, and the Loop to the boulevard system and Far North and Northwest Sides. The capacity of the project also needs to be high, so as to facilitate the use of bikes for all kinds of trips in the area and honestly get people out of cars. More than basic bike routes every half-mile to mile are necessary for this to be successful.
Just from anecdotal experience it is clear that a number of streets in the area have the space and low automobile usage to facilitate the construction of new high-quality bike lanes radiating from Goose Island or connecting routes expanding from Goose Island. Even streets with bike infrastructure could easily see major improvements. The wide sidewalks along Division Street could easily absorb barrier protected or curb protected bike lanes from the lake to Humboldt Park and perhaps further for example.
The expansion of bike infrastructure in Chicago needs to stop being done in isolated chunks that result in high-quality infrastructure only at periodic intervals, rather in a consistent way that actually aids the formation of a bike culture legitimately available to all people. Because of the combination of often times ridiculous congestion of these North Side neighborhoods and high-density living with easy access in may parts to mass transit, some of the best opportunities exist here and now to radically improve the experience cyclists have in the city. Failing to take advantage of the impetus being brought about by these privately invested in bridges would be a huge loss for the city.
While the improvements made by the city are admirable, if the city truly wants to become a bike-centric city it needs to take advantage of opportunities like the one being presented to make a big concerted effort to turning streets once entirely the domain of cars into shared spaces like those found in Paris or Amsterdam. This takes confidence though, both on the part of the city government and city residents, to know the investments are worth it. And while it is a shame such potential bike infrastructure improvements help one part of the city out initially before being expanded to other parts, it does set an example. Places like Lincoln Park and Wicker Park have the character and density of bike-friendly European cities and could be the best local examples of how bike culture can and will thrive in the United States if given the chance. Grasping the opportunity to do more with this initial proposal could be the force that really brings the city forward in terms of bike infrastructure. Neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Edgewater would easily benefit form similar projects; it would be a shame to miss a good place to start.
But it can’t be done haphazardly, because let’s be honest, we’re a good biking city, but only by American standards. There is some work to be done yet.