Sunday, August 9, 2009

A proposal to fight street congestion

By John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in New City,]

It should be easy to travel Chicago, especially the Loop, without a car. The flat grid makes walking a breeze. We’ve got over 100 miles of bicycle lanes and more than 10,000 bike racks. CTA, Metra, taxicabs and even water taxis and pedicabs offer eco-friendly options for getting downtown and around town.

So why is the Central Business District clogged with cars that foul the air and endanger walkers and cyclists, while transit faces perpetual budget shortfalls? Answer: while the City of Chicago fails to invest in green transportation (Federal money paid for those bike lanes and racks, and the city spends a measly $3 million per year on the CTA), it continues to encourage driving, especially downtown.

Mayor Daley lifted a longtime ban on new Loop parking garages and built Millennium Park on top of a three-level garage with room for more than 2,000 cars. Recent zoning changes force developers to provide a parking spot for every housing unit. The Traffic Management Authority has changed traffic signal times to favor cars over pedestrians, and removed crosswalks on Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, making it easier to drive and harder to walk.

Instead, Chicago needs to start discouraging driving and promoting healthier modes by charging motorists a toll for the privilege of driving into the Loop, and using the cash to fund bike, ped and transit projects. Sounds crazy? This scheme, called “congestion pricing,” is nothing new.

In 2003 Mayor Ken Livingstone took a big risk by instituting a $12 congestion charge for motorists entering gridlocked central London. The policy is enforced with video cameras and drivers who don’t pay face stiff fines. At the same time the city added hundreds of buses to its fleet to make transit more appealing. Traffic flow and air quality improved significantly and bicycle use skyrocketed. The gamble paid off—Livingstone won the next election by a comfortable margin.

Hizzoner has shown that he can bulldoze Meigs Field in the middle of the night and still get reelected by a landslide, so why not take bold action on this? Slap a hefty fee on commuters and tourists who selfishly choose to drive into the Loop, or better yet the whole Central Business District between Division, Halsted, Roosevelt and the lake. Sit back and enjoy the results: a safer, greener, friendlier Chicago.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Chicago's recent bike parking challenges

As meter privatization gives drivers road rage, bicyclists face speed bumps of their own.

by John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

Three recent bike parking setbacks have cyclists racking their brains for a safe place to dock their rides. As a former Active Transportation Alliance employee and parking division manager of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Bike Program, I contacted my old employers to get the lowdown.

Problem: Last month, cyclists panicked when the city announced plans to replace 30,000 parking meters with pay-and-display boxes by year’s end. Meters are often the only secure, U-lock–friendly place to park a bike. Since CDOT only installs 600 federally funded bike racks a year, Active Transportation Alliance’s Rob Sadowsky sent a “Save Chicago Bike Parking!” bulletin to members, urging them to lobby for more replacement racks in the city’s 2010 budget.

Response: CDOT has so far installed racks on a handful of blocks where meters have disappeared, and when new blocks are converted, one to two bagged meters will be left standing for several months pending a permanent solution (e.g., installing more racks, cutting off the meter heads and bolting on rings to create “post-and-ring” racks, as in Toronto), says CDOT spokesman Brian Steele.

CDOT is studying how cities like Toronto and Portland, Oregon, dealt with meter loss and is looking for new funding sources, such as federal stimulus money, to pay for more inverted U or post-and-ring racks, Steele says. In the meantime, if you notice blocks with neither meters nor replacement racks, you can request installation at or call 311. Installation generally takes a month.

Chase Bank pulled its sponsorship of the Grant Park bike valet, a “coat check for bikes” at Monroe Street and Lake Shore Drive, which parked a total of 16,000 cycles at last year’s Outdoor Film Festival, Taste of Chicago and other fests.

Grant Park bike valet sponsored by Chase (formerly Bank One)

Response: The Mayor’s Office of Special Events is placing an undetermined number of self-park racks at the former valet location, says spokeswoman Cindy Gatziolis. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Millennium Park’s bike station (239 E Randolph St, 312-729-1000, can accommodate up to 75 bikes for daytime fests, and bike valet will still be available at Lollapalooza.

Problem: Last year, CDOT and the CTA spent $1 million to build parking areas with double-decker racks and space for a total of 382 bikes at four El stations: Midway, Jefferson Park, Damen (Blue Line) and Sox/35th. However, the racks sport a small, fixed locking ring that doesn’t allow locking both a bike’s frame and a wheel to the rack with a U-lock.

Cyclists such as Howard Kaplan, webmaster for the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry, ( say the racks aren’t secure.

Response: CDOT will retrofit the racks with more effective, moveable locking arms this summer, according to Steele.

To get your voice heard on these issues, attend the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, Wednesday June 17 at 6pm at Daley Bicentennial Plaza (337 E Randolph St).

Winston's Tweed Ride

by John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in New City magazine,]

Kentucky Derby Day in Chicago, and a pair of southern belles in floppy derby hats are staggering tipsily on high heels from the Metra commuter rail station at Ashland and Cortland. Just west, forty bicyclists, nattily attired in vintage woolen formal wear and mounted on English steeds, combine alternative transportation, fashion and alcohol in a far more dignified manner.

It’s Winston’s Tweed Ride, a tour of former speakeasies that celebrates booze, bicycles and Brits, hosted by the group British Bicycles of Chicago. The jaunt was inspired by January’s Tweed Run in London, where dozens of fixed-gear and single-speed enthusiasts donned dashing duds for a leisurely pedal from Saville Row, famous for its traditional “bespoke” custom clothing.

“This is a civilized ride hearkening back to the wonderful times of 1930s bike touring,” says Chicago organizer Garth Katner, splendidly dressed in britches, sports jacket, bowtie and fedora. The leather handlebar bag of his fat-tired Robin Hood three-speed is adorned with antique pins from UK cycling clubs. “We’re wearing natural fibers – no Lycra louts.”

Actually, tour guide Lee Diamond wears a t-shirt and tights. “I went to nine different thrift stores and couldn’t find any tweed,” he apologizes. “That’s OK – I didn’t even dress up for my wedding.” The 10-mile ride departs at 1 pm from Jake’s Pub in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, visiting scores of classic pubs like Glascott’s, Halligan’s, Emitt’s and Lottie’s, and gangster history sites like the spot where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place in 1929.

The lads and misses pedal at a stately speed, ringing bells and giving the “Queen’s wave” to diners at Wicker Park sidewalk cafes on this perfect spring afternoon. Since the crowd only stops to drink at a few of the taverns on-route, it’s a surprising sober affair. “The ride’s been slow and genial, with lots camaraderie and dry English humor,” says Suzanne Nathan, in woolen skirt and scarf. “Like when the light turns green people shout, ‘Carry on, carry on.’”

Pausing across from the Gold Star bar on Division St., Diamond announces that the strip used to be a rowdy nightlife district known as Polish Broadway. “This pub has a particularly seedy reputation because above it was a hotel of ill repute,” he says. “It’s also supposed to be haunted.” Outside the nearby Inner Town Pub, a Ukrainian Village dive, Katner complains, “This bar told us not to show up because we’d ruin the atmosphere.” The genteel throng boos loudly.

The outing concludes at the Hideout, a honkytonk in an industrial zone, where the group hoists pints on the patio as the sun sets and the Sears and Hancock towers illuminate. Unable to choose between all the charming ladies in their long coats, flapper caps and aviator goggles, Katner hands out “Most Snappy Lass” prizes to all of them. “Most Dapper Chap” goes to Mexico native Hector Soriano, impeccably attired in flat cap, necktie, knickerbockers, and golf shoes. He raises the trophy cup in a shout-out to “all my tweeded Mexican friends.”

The handful of actual British subjects present is amused by the display of Yankee Anglophilia. “I’m pretty flattered,” says Yusuf Bangora, from Northampton, England, who rode a Raleigh Superb. “It’s nice that Americans are interested in the culture of my country, even if it is styles from before I was born.”

60s-ish Welshman Alan Lloyd is less polite. He’s vividly dressed in an emerald jacket and britches with red-and-green argyle socks, riding a lemon yellow Raleigh borrowed from his son who owns Blue City Cycles on the South Side. “I’m enjoying that I can one-up them because I’m actually British,” he says. “To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, ‘You Americans say “herb” and we say “herb,” ‘cause the word has a fucking “h” in it.’”

MS and messengering

Interview with Guenevere Nyderek by John Greenfield

[This will also run in Cog Magazine,]

Guenevere Nyderek has worked as a courier in Chicago for a total of nine years. In 2003 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She’s been messengering on-and-off since then and says riding helps her deal with MS. Nowadays she’s helping to organize the North American Cycle Courier Championships which comes to Chicago on Labor Day weekend.

How did you first get started as a messenger?

In 1996 I was going to going to Loyola University in Chicago and hating it when I said to myself ‘I don’t gotta be going to school anymore.’ I got a job at Apex and started making $550 a week after taxes. I had $5,000 in student debt to pay off so I worked for them for two and a half years living as cheaply as possible. I couldn’t spend money on cigarettes or alcohol and I lived off oatmeal and rice and beans. But I did a lot of painting during that period so it wasn’t a complete wash.

What do you ride?

I’m on an Olmo with gears. I used to have a cute little single-speed Benotto but it got stolen so now there’s a Benotto-shaped hole in my heart. I like my knees just fine so I never bothered to ride track. It’s kind of retarded but people do other stupid things for fashion so, whatever.

I don’t think I became an excellent rider until this year. I figured out the key to being successful as a messenger is don’t ride as fast as you can. I value control over my bicycle and I use gears to save my knees. People trying to ride really fast all the time don’t get it. It’s like the tortoise and the hare: slow equals longevity. But I didn’t figure that out until year 13.

What exactly is MS?

MS is a neurological disorder. Lesions, basically scars, form on the brain. It can affect your muscles, sight, hearing, speech, memory, sexual function and continence, depending on where it is on the brain.

How did you figure out you have it?

In 2003 my grandma had just died and stress exacerbates MS. Right afterwards I started having a hard time seeing in my right eye. My optic nerve got paralyzed and the two eyes didn’t match up. I was working at On Time that day. I have no idea how I survived. I was riding with one eye shut so I had no depth perception.

After I was hospitalized the guys at On Time dedicated one day to raise money for my medical bills. The messengers donated half of what they made that day and the company matched it. I really appreciated that.

How does messengering help with your MS?

After I got out of the hospital I got a job at a health clinic and when I’m working at a desk I become kind of a lazy ass. My condition got worse - I was having trouble seeing and was using a cane a lot.

But when I went back to messengering the benefits were immediately apparent – exercise helps keep my body working right. Cycling helps with my balance issues. When I’m getting off a bike though it’s sometimes difficult - I always grab a pole to dismount.

I have had some issues with pissing while working. I usually pee in alleys – I don’t care. When you’re working you don’t got time to find yourself a bathroom. If some cop tries to arrest me I’ll just pull the MS card.

What do you see in the future for yourself?

I don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow. All you can do is live in the present and do the best you can with the time you’ve been given between birth and dying. I’m not worried about dying from MS. It’s more likely I’m going to get killed by that maniac in that gas-guzzling, larger-than-life SUV.