Saturday, October 11, 2008

NW Indiana Bike Map / Riding to the Dunes

By John Greenfield

Northwest Indiana is terra incognita to most Chicagoans, but the new Northwest Indiana Bike Map is going to help change that. The map was produced this year by the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission and the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation and is now available for free in many Chicago bike shops. You can request a copy by calling the planning commission at 219-763-6060 or visiting

The new map picks up where the federation’s Chicagoland Bicycle Map leaves off, covering the entire Indiana lakefront region and beyond, using the exact same format as its Illinois counterpart. “NIRPC contracted us to help out with this so if it looks very similar to our map that’s no surprise,” says Keith Holt, South Side Community Liaison for the federation.

He says it makes sense that the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation helped create the map. “Northwest Indiana is basically part of the Chicago metropolitan area, and keeping it isolated by the state border doesn’t help cycling in the region. While other Chicago organizations have to stop at the border, we don’t.”

“The map was sorely needed,” says Holt. “I’ve always heard from people who were looking for good routes into Northwest Indiana. They’d say, ‘I wanna do it but I want to be safe and I don’t want to get lost.'”

Since he grew up in the South Shore neighborhood on Chicago’s Southeast Side, Holt says he already was familiar with some of the routes locals would take to the border for cheap beer and cigarettes. In the past he has referred cyclists to informal routes posted on the Internet by groups like the transportation advocacy organization Calumet Citizens for Connecting Communities, which also helped identify recommended routes for the bike map.

Now that there's a detailed map, Holt says more Chicagoans, such as members of the South Side’s Major Taylor Cycling Club, will consider the Hoosier Riviera when they’re looking for places to ride. He notes that since the map is a first-timer a few bugs may surface as cyclists give the routes a spin. “Some of these may not be the absolutely best routes yet,” he says. But the map will be edited and updated regularly as trails that are now under development are completed, such as the Pennsy Greenway which will connect Lansing, IL, with Crown Point, IN.

When you first look at the map, you may be surprised by how many inches of solid purple and blue lines there are, symbolizing existing paved and crushed limestone bike paths. In fact, you can already pedal from the Loop to the east end of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, about 70 miles, almost entirely on trails. Years ago I had done this trip on Route 12, a more direct route that stays closer to the coast but includes some truly nasty industrial stretches and several miles of riding on harrowing, high-speed highways.

Of course, you can get to the Dunes without a car very conveniently by catching the South Shore Line interurban train from the Loop’s Millennium Station – it has stops near both of the park’s campgrounds. But if you’re not in a hurry, bicycling the green, serene, off-street route is well worth the extra time and effort. It used to be a little tricky to navigate between the four trail segments that make up the route in Indiana, but with the new map it’s mostly a no-brainer.

From downtown Chicago, take the Lakefront Trail to the end of the line at the South Shore Cultural Center at 71st St. Follow the signed, on-street route, basically following Route 41, to the Burnham Greenway, which ends at Wolf Lake State Park. From there you can take Avenue O / Burnham Avenue /State st. / Sibley St. to the start of the largely urban Erie Lackawana Trail which heads southeast through Hammond, IN. Due to construction you’ll have to detour on Northcote / Hawthorne / Ridge to pick up the south half of the trail.

(Mural near Dan Rabin Transit Plaza, Hammond)

In the town of Griffith you meander a bit through the Oak Ridge Prairie County Park to get to the Oakland Savanna Trail. You’ll head east on this for a few miles through cool, wooded areas carpeted with ferns, then wiggle northeast a bit on streets through Hobart to pick up the Prairie Duneland Trail which heads northeast to Chesterton. From there you can pick up Waverly Rd. and head north to the crushed limestone Calumet Trail.

At that point you’ll be at the entrance to the shoreline’s most popular beach which also has an RV-style campground. But if you’re spending the night you should head a couple more miles east from there along the trail, or take Highway 12 if you’re in a hurry, to the Dunewood Campground near the Beverly Shores train stop. The wooded, car-free, walk-in sites at this location provide a much more tranquil camping experience.

You can get groceries and firewood at a convenience store near the train stop; unfortunately the nearby liquor store recently closed so if you care to imbibe, pick up supplies at Pat’s Liquors in Chesterton, which has a good selection of local beers and plays hippie music on the sound system.

Spend a day or two at the Dunes if you can – there are many hiking trails and deserted beaches to explore in the area and the waves are often big enough for body surfing. The view of the Three Mile Island-style cooling tower for the power plant in Michigan City, IN, to the east just makes the experience more surreal. Next door to the plant, the Shoreline Brewery & Restaurant, 208 Wabash, makes a worthwhile side trip. Their t-shirt shows the cooling tower next to a mutant fish with the legend: “Don’t drink the water – drink the beer.”

When it’s time to ride home you’ll want to return on the Prairie Duneland Trail, but for a change of pace you might consider using the map to choose a grittier, though still very bike-able, on-street route from Hobart to Hammond, where you can make your way back to Chicago’s Burnham Greenway and Lakefront Path.

To fight beach withdrawal symptoms, you might want to make one last stop at the Marina Grill, 6400 S. on the Lakefront Path. Located in a former Coast Guard building, this Carribean / New Orleans-style restaurant features seating on a porch overlooking a harbor in Jackson Park. Mellow “yacht funk” like Al Jarreau and Earth, Wind and Fire plays on the speakers. It’s a great place to chill with a drink (although its currently BYOB due to new management) before finally heading back into the hustle-bustle of the big city.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New York's Summer Streets: lessons for Chicago

by John Greenfield

For years now New York City has looked to Chicago as the model for big-city bicycling improvements. For example, New York, with almost three times the population, has installed only a fraction of the number of bike parking racks our city has, and when NYC adopted our theft-resistant, square-tube racks they called them “Chicago Racks.” We’ve also had them beat in terms of miles of bike lanes proportionate to city size, education and outreach programs, and other metrics.

So it’s ironic that New York beat us to the punch this month by staging three ambitious, highly successful ciclovia events, called “Summer Streets,” with only a few months of planning. Meanwhile, after years of fundraising and negotiations between the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, the City and community members, Chicago is finally getting around to staging Sunday Parkways on only two days in mid-fall, October 5th and 26th, on compromised routes.

As VWYF readers know, the ciclovia movement began in Bogota, Columbia, where for decades residents have been biking, walking, skating and hanging out on a network of largely car-free streets on Sundays. Nowadays the events regularly draw over 1.5 million people to recreate on a 70-mile route each weekend. This year ciclovias have begun to take off in the U.S. In addition to Chicago and New York, Portland, OR, staged a wildly popular event, also called Sunday Parkways, on June 22 and San Francisco will be holding “Sunday Streets” on August 31st and September 14.

Despite the efforts of the hard-working staff of the bike federation and other boosters since 2003, Chicago’s Sunday Parkways promises to be the least inspiring of the bunch. Our two ciclovias, bankrolled by the CBF via grants, will be taking place after peak bicycling season, on two separate 3.5-mile routes through neigborhoods a few miles away from the city center. The South Side route includes many blocks of gritty, treeless terrain and a half-mile that hugs the Eisenhower Expressway. The events will be far from car-free: autos will be driving on service roads parallel to most of route and in some cases four out of six travel lanes on the boulevards will have cars on them.

Contrast this with the three Summer Streets events that took place during prime cycling season on a 6.9-mile route through the heart of Manhattan. The route went from Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge, along Park Ave. and Lexington Ave., through some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the country. As in other cities with successful ciclovias, expenses were largely covered by the city government, in this case the NYC Department of Transportation. Best of all, motor vehicles were almost completely banned from the route.

I traveled to New York last weekend to check out the third and final run of Summer Streets firsthand on Saturday, August 23. When I joined the route on foot at 14th St. at 10 am the weather was lovely and the streets were packed with smiling people, mostly cyclists with a few walkers, joggers and skaters.

Police officers and traffic aides were directing motorized traffic on the cross streets while yellow-shirted volunteers held up signs reminding non-motorized traffic to be prepared to stop at the intersections. The volunteers I spoke with said they’d had no problems with participants disobeying traffic signals.

Heading south on Lexington, I soon met up with my friends Michael and Shenglan and their two-year-old daughter Altai, who was pushing a toy stroller. “We’re walking in the middle of the street,” cried Michael. “There’s throngs here, Altai, throngs!”

As we continued down Lexington we encountered an aerobics demo in front of a gym, a kids area with games and chalk drawing, and a live music stage featuring an opera singer, then a funky cello player. Other scheduled events along the route included African and salsa dancing, double-dutch jump-roping, yoga, bike handling classes, break-dancing, akido and a “hackey sack zone.” It was a vibrant scene.

At an info tent for Transportation Alternatives, NYC’s advocates for biking, walking and transit, who spearheaded the event, I asked deputy director Noah Budnick to explain the New York / Chicago role reversal. How was his city able to pull off such a daring, successful event in a few months while the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation labored for so long and faced so many roadblocks?

TA's Noah Budnick

New York’s achievement is particularly striking since bike planning was fairly dysfunctional there only a few years ago. When NYC DOT’s bike director Andrew Vesselinovitch resigned in 2006 he sent a letter to colleagues, reprinted in
the New York Times, savaging then-commissioner Iris Weinshall for shooting down half of his proposals for new bike lanes. Budnick gives a lot of credit for Summer Streets to the DOT’s progressive new commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan who took over in 2007. “This absolutely wouldn’t have happened without her,” he said.

Budnick called New York’s political situation last year a “perfect storm” – ideal conditions for proposing an ambitious green transportation initiative. Along with the arrival of the new commissioner, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced PlaNYC, his environmental sustainability plan which included targets for bicycling improvements and a proposal for congestion pricing. So when Transportation Alternatives brought up the idea of Summer Streets last winter, the City was all ears.

“The commissioner was completely committed to Summer Streets and Mayor Bloomberg said ‘Alright, let’s give this a try,’” Budnick reported. “I’ve heard the CBF has had a lot of resistance from the police but we had a police commissioner who wanted to proactively make this happen.”

Asked if he had any advice for Chicago and other cities planning ciclovias, Budnick said, “Whenever you try to do anything new in a city there are going to be people who will complain and give reasons not to do things, which is why it takes political leadership to make things happen.” Staging the events on Saturdays rather than Sundays in NYC avoided the resistance from churches which has led to delays and compromises in planning Chicago’s Sunday Parkways. The early hours for Summer Streets, 7 am to 1 pm, also minimized conflicts, said Budnick. “New York City’s not up before noon on Saturday,” he said.

As we spoke, a fire truck left a station along the route with its siren blaring but had no problem making its way to the cross street. “They could have said, ‘You can’t do this here because there’s a firehouse on this street,’” said Budnick. “But as you can see it’s actually easier for the truck to get through traffic when there are no cars.”

He urges cities like Chicago to make no small plans when staging ciclovias - “You can’t do this by half measures.” He added that the events should cover significant mileage, be completely car-free, and take place on consecutive weekends so that the attendance and community support can build. “Anything that waters it down sucks the energy out of it.”

Good news and bad news about Sunday Parkways

Central Park Ave., along the Oct. 26th Sunday Parkways route

By John Greenfield

I’m pleased to announce that Sunday Parkways, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s proposal to create temporary space for non-motorized recreation along Chicago’s boulevard system, will become a reality this October 5th and 26th from 9 am to 1 pm. I’m less happy to break the news that the event will take place on fewer days, for less miles, with more car traffic and worse scenery, than originally hoped for.

Don’t get me wrong. Sunday Parkways is a terrific idea and I applaud the years of hard work by bike federation staff and others who did the planning, organizing and fundraising that has made this dream come true. I’ve written several articles over the years cheerleading the concept. I realize that compromises had to be made in order get approval for the event. But it’s a bummer that, due to factors beyond the CBF’s control, the original vision for the event has been watered down so much.

The CBF began plotting Sunday Parkways in 2003 after Chief Strategy Officer Randy Neufeld rode in Bogota, Columbia’s, Sunday Ciclovia. Since the 1980s, residents of that city have been coming out to play on a network of pedestrianized streets. Participants enjoy biking, jogging, pushing strollers, skating, doing aerobics and yoga, dancing to live music, or just hanging out with their neighbors in the car-free space. Nowadays the event takes place every Sunday on a 70-mile route, regularly drawing over 1.5 million participants.

Bogota's Sunday Ciclovia

The ciclovia movement has spread to other Latin American, European and Australian cities. Guadalajara, Mexico, in particular has been a model for the CBF, which invited Chicago clergy and community leaders on a fact-finding trip in spring 2007 to experience the city’s Via Recreativa firsthand.

That year El Paso, TX, pioneered the first ciclovia in the U.S., albeit with a total turnout of only 5,000 over four Sundays in May. On June 22 of this year, Portland, OR, debuted a much better attended event, beating out Chicago to be the first to use the “Sunday Parkways” moniker. New York City is also planning a ciclovia, called Summer Streets, on three Saturdays this month, liberating almost seven miles of Park Ave. from car traffic.

Portland's Sunday Parkways

Chicago’s initial proposal was to create a 7.5-mile route along the boulevards connecting three large green spaces on the city’s west side: Douglas, Garfield and Humboldt parks. The route would pass through the neighborhoods of Little Village, North Lawndale, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. While cars were to be virtually banned from the boulevards, cross streets would still be open to motorized vehicles. Cyclists, walkers and skaters on the Sunday Parkways route would obey traffic signals to allow cross traffic to flow smoothly.

The plan was to run pilots on three summer Sundays. One Sunday the event would take place on the northern half of the boulevard route; on the second Sunday it would take place on the South Side; on the third Sunday the entire route would be used.

There were a few of years of near misses due to funding shortfalls and opposition from residents who felt alienated from the planning process and worried that church attendance would be hurt. But this year the federation managed to got a critical mass of community support behind the proposal, raised the $400,000 needed to stage the trial runs, and got final approval from the Mayor’s Office.

Unfortunately, the latest version of Chicago’s ciclovia is very different than the original vision. After I bicycled the final route, published on the federation’s website, I discussed Sunday Parkways with CBF Board Member Lucy Gomez, a Logan Square Neighborhood Assocation employee who is also co-chairing the Sunday Parkways community stakeholders committee.

Gomez says there had been some confusion among cyclists about the dates for Sunday Parkways. The bike federation had originally applied for permits to hold the event this August. Chicago Department of Transportation staff saw these dates on the permit application and posted them prematurely on CDOT’s bike webpage, she says. However, due to conflicts with other summer events, Sunday Parkways was pushed back to the middle of the fall.

Volunteer traffic aides at Bogota's Sunday Ciclovia

In Bogota and other ciclovia cities, traffic control is handled by volunteers, keeping costs low. But in Chicago, union requirements dictate that only paid police officers and Traffic Management Authority aides may be used to regulate motorized traffic. These City staffers will be bankrolled by the federation, rather than by public money, as was done in Portland. So, due to CBF budget constraints, this year’s pilot had to be reduced from three to only two Sundays. “In the ideal world we would have loved to have three dates,” Gomez says.

The October 5th event will take place north of the Garfield Park Conservatory; October 26th will take place south of the conservatory. Due to competing special events like Bears games this fall, there will be no date that unites the two halves of the Sunday Parkways route. “There wasn’t enough traffic management staff available for the whole 7.5 miles,” says Gomez.

The reduction from three to two dates could hurt Sunday Parkways chances of coming back in 2009. Earlier this year Gil Penalosa, Bogota’s former parks and recreation director and the international expert on the ciclovia movement, told me he encourages municipalities to try out the event on a few consecutive weekends to allow momentum and support to build. “The first Sunday is when people complain the most,” Penalosa said. “The second goes a lot more smoothly and the third is fantastic.”

Now, in Portland, a liberal West Coast city with more than three times the bicycle mode share of Chicago, it was relatively easy to get support for shutting down streets to create recreation space. It was a case of preaching to the converted. Even though it was held on a gloomy day, their first and only ciclovia was a runaway success.

Portland's Sunday Parkways

While bicycling has made big gains in Chicago in recent years, there’s bound to be a much steeper learning curve here. It’s likely that turnout will be relatively low the first time each of the two separate Chicago routes is piloted, particularly for the October 26th South Side event which includes several less-than-scenic streets.

With no second or third chance for word to spread and popularity to grow on each half of the route, drivers caught unaware by the road closures may grumble to their aldermen that they were inconvenienced for nothing. If there’s enough opposition, the event won’t return next year. This worst-case scenario is unlikely, but entirely possible.

Gomez talked me through the current route plans. Many Chicagoans have been picturing boulevards that are almost completely liberated from motorized traffic, where they and their families can recreate free of the sound, smell and danger of automobiles, but that won’t be the case this year. All the service roads (the smaller streets which parallel the central main drags of the boulevards) along the route will be open to car traffic during the ciclovia.

Service road along Humboldt Blvd.

Heading south from the northern terminus at the Logan Square Monument at Logan (2600 N.) and Kedzie (3200 W.), two of the four central travel lanes will be occupied by autos as well: one lane will be used for parallel parking for churchgoers and another lane will provide access to these parking spots. This is a concession to Logan Square clergy who had opposed Sunday Parkways early in the planning process, stalling it. Therefore, only two of the six total travel lanes (including the service roads) on Kedzie will be reserved for non-motorized uses, separated from auto traffic by barricades.

Logan Square Monument

“I don’t use the term ‘car-free’ to describe Sunday Parkways,” explains Gomez. “We say temporary closures of sections of the boulevards. We’re making some accommodations so people will have access. This is the case in Bogota and Guadalajara. It’s not uncommon that there’s some give and take for different reasons.”

As the route turns east onto Palmer Blvd. (2200 N.), cars will be allowed on the lanes north of Palmer Square Park and banned from the lanes south of the park to allow access to St. Sylvester Church at Palmer and Humboldt Blvd. (3000 W.)

Heading south on Humboldt the configuration will be the same as Kedzie, with only 1/3 of the travel lanes free of cars, until Bloomingdale Ave., (1800 N.) South of Bloomingdale cars will be banned from the central lanes of all the boulevards.

The route enters Humboldt Park at North Ave. (1600 N.) The park’s inner loop drive will remain open to motor vehicles, but cars will not be able to cross Humboldt Blvd. within the park. The course continues south to Franklin Blvd. (500 N.), then west to Central Park Ave. (3600 W.), heading the south through Garfield Park to the conservatory, the southern terminus of the October 5th route.
Humboldt Park

Despite all the car traffic, the scenery on this North Side route will be quite pleasant. But, as usual in Chicago, the South Side gets the short end of the stick. Only about six blocks of the October 26th event, whose northern terminus is the conservatory, takes place on boulevards. About a third of this route is on grittier streets that are not nearly as conducive to relaxed strolling or socializing. A half mile is on Harrison St. (600 S.), which butts up against I-290, the Eisenhower Expressway.

The CBF’s annual Boulevard Lakefront Tour bike ride uses Independence Blvd. (3800 W.) south of Garfield Park. But Gomez says crossing the Ike from Garfield Park at Independence was deemed too dangerous for Sunday Parkways due to the presence of expressway on- and off-ramps. Instead the route continues south from the conservatory on Central Park to cross 290.

From there, instead of taking Independence and Douglas Blvds. to get to Douglas Park, the route heads east along the noisy, smoggy Ike on Harrison (which is normally one-way east-bound but will be made two-way for the event.) It then turns south on Kedzie and east on Roosevelt (1200 S.) These are nearly tree-less, commercial streets that don’t lend themselves to ballgames, BBQ-ing or other positive forms of hanging out which the boulevards encourage.

Shuttered grocery store on Kedzie

From Roosevelt the route continues south down the western side of Douglas Park’s ring road, Sacramento Blvd. – the rest of the park will remain open to cars. The course continues south from the park on Marshall Blvd. (about 3000 W.), then east on 24th St. (also a boulevard) to the route’s southern terminus at 24th and California Ave. (2800 W.) in Little Village.

Douglas Park

Could the City have allowed Sunday Parkways to stay on the boulevard system by closing the Eisenhower Expressway ramps at Independence? Probably not, since the Interstates are under federal jurisdiction. “Getting on-and-off closures for the expressway system is always extremely difficult,” says CDOT spokesman Brian Steele.

Fair enough. But why was the nasty Harrison / Kedzie / Roosevelt detour chosen instead of having the route continue south from the Ike on much pleasanter Central Park, designated as a recommended route on the City’s bike map, then head east along lush Douglas Blvd. (1400 S.) to Douglas Park?

Via e-mail, CBF executive director Rob Sadowsky acknowledges that this is a good question but implies that the final say on the detour was out of the federation’s hands. “We worked with a retired commander of special events police to design the route in consultation with community representatives from each of the five neighborhoods,” he writes. “There were so many considerations taken into account including traffic management, specific sites of high levels of gang activity, access to hospitals and the expressway, and costs.”

“We all have ideas of pure boulevards,” adds Gomez. “But occasionally there’s obstacles we have to negotiate. In Bogota part of the route is along an expressway. It’s not pleasant but it gets you where you’re going.”

Despite the setbacks of fewer dates, less miles per event, more car traffic and a less scenic route than hoped for this year, Gomez says she has great expectations for the future of Sunday Parkways. “We have a vision that this will be successful and will happen more often in the future,” she says. “We don’t want this to be a one-time event, we want this to be a regular event.”

“This is going to be a great thing for Chicago,” she adds. “If you look at videos from Bogota and Portland you see people who are smiling and happy. Cars create a certain amount of stress in our lives, whether you’re a driver or a pedestrian. Sunday Parkways is going to make the boulevards feel like a happier place.”

I agree wholeheartedly. And I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Sunday Parkways will be back next year, bigger and better.