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.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Roosters lead rally for pedestrians' rights

by John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in this week's Time Out Chicago,]

Last Wednesday, Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s Randy Neufeld became a walking punch line, donning a chicken suit to help Portage Park residents cross the road.

Partnering with the federation’s Drive With Care campaign, since June police issued 179 warnings to Northwest Side drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians. Next week they’ll write tickets.

But earlier this year residents were outraged after a driver struck a crossing guard at this intersection. Members of community organizations wanted to remind motorists about walkers’ rights, says campaign coordinator Falon Mihalic.

At the demo, a dozen folks aged four to 73, carrying signs reading “Stop For Pedestrians,” flanked the fowl as he marched across the street several times during rush-hour traffic. Drivers braked, then beeped, smiled and waved as the parade passed. “It’s like a pedestrian Critical Mass,” said a spectator.

Afterwards Miriam Correa, with son Steven in his kung fu uniform, said, “We live in the neighborhood. It’s important that we can cross the street safely.” Chester Kiercul, who owns the adjacent Capitol Club agreed. “A couple of my customers have been hit walking to the bar.”

At a similar protest with poultry going on across the neighborhood at Central and Belle Plaine, Jim Boratyn from IDOT, which funds Drive With Care, looked on. Asked why the state is bankrolling dudes in rooster suits, Boratyn said, “If we can save one life it’ll be worth every penny.”

Biking the Bensenville Dead Zone

by John Greenfield

One of the more surreal bicycle rides you can take in Chicagoland is a late-night tour of the “Dead Zone,” a spooky swath of the northwest suburb of Bensenville. But you’d better move fast – all the buildings in the area are likely to be razed soon for the O’Hare airport expansion.

As detailed by Ben Joravsky in the July 3 Chicago Reader, the City of Chicago has already bought up most of houses and businesses in this section, about 15% of the area of the town, located just southwest of the airport. Mayor Daley wants to tear down the buildings to make room for more runways at America’s second-busiest airport.

But about 40 homeowners are refusing to sell and are fighting the land grab in the courts. Last year a DuPage County judge blocked Daley from demolishing any of the buildings until an environmental impact study could be completed.

Now the City of Chicago says it has jumped through this hoop and is asking the judge to lift the injunction, so the bulldozers may be fired up any day now. In the meantime hundreds of abandoned, boarded-up buildings are still standing, a modern-day ghost town.

Last Saturday night I recruited a bunch of guys from a barbecue at West Town Bikes community cycle center to ride out to this city of the damned. After briefly crashing a bachelorette party in Logan Square, the ten of us pedaled west on bike-friendly Addison St. to the city limits then took Irving Park Rd. out to O’Hare. Cycling on sections of this high-speed four-lane as a solo rider might be pretty harrowing but our numbers allowed us to take a lane when necessary.

One of the crew, wearing an ill-gotten City of Chicago safety vest, suggested we detour to Bensenville’s Saint Johannes Cemetery, just across a fence from the airport. Daley will be digging up skeletal remains dating back as far as the 1820s and relocating them elsewhere to make room for the runways.

Turning onto an access road for the offices of freight carriers like Luftansa and Korean Air, we found a rutted dirt road that took us to the boneyard. The old tombstones and obelisk monuments looked eerie in the moonlight, a strange contrast to the FedEx jumbo jets on the other side of the chain link.

photo by Kevin Monahan

Leaving the cemetery we took a wrong turn and wound up slogging through a construction zone that was carpeted with thick, sticky clay. I tried to bushwack my way back to the right road but was blocked by an impassable creek. We finally made it back to the highway with our fenders jammed with mud.

Half a mile later we came upon some of the vacant businesses: an auto repair shop, a dry cleaners and Tasty 2 Gyros, its windows boarded and half of its backlit, plastic sign torn down. As Ben Joravsky recommended, we then cruised around the loop formed north of Irving Park by Orchard, Hillside and Garden, just east of York Rd. The streets were completely silent as we passed house after house with empty driveways and windows covered with plywood. A smashed mailbox suggested that teens had driven by with a baseball bat.

As we stopped to snap a picture in front of one of the homes, security guard John Reeves drove up to give us a friendly warning. We were welcome to view the homes from the street, still owned by Bensenville, but needed to stay off the properties, owned by the City of Chicago.

Reeves reminisced about his youth when he used to commute on a Fuji road bike from 75th Street on Chicago’s South Side to Kedzie and Madison on the West Side. “Once I got that 10-speed I could keep up with the girls,” he said. “You know, fixing flat tires is a better way to meet women than walking around with a puppy.”

We went to explore the neighborhood on the south side of Irving Park and saw that a few of the houses were still occupied. It must be very strange to live on a block where all the other homes are empty.

Soon a couple of security guards began to follow us around in their Chevys and my companions didn’t like having headlights shined on them. They tried to ditch the cars by detouring across yards and through a townhouse development but one of the guards chased us back onto the highway, briefly driving into oncoming traffic before telling us he’d called the Bensenville cops.

We decided to return to the big city, taking Green St. and Franklin Ave. as recommended by the Chicagoland Bike Map. These potholed streets headed southeast for a few miles through silent industrial areas. Riding after 2 am we encountered zero cars until we reached downtown Franklin Park, its business district filled with taverns and taquerias.

At 2:30 am the boys and I stopped at the Paradise Club, 7068 W. Belmont in Chicago’s Schorsch Village neighborhood, for a nightcap. I’d read about the place in James Teitelbaum’s excellent guide Tiki Road Trip. The joint used to be purely a tiki bar but in recent years Eastern European immigrants took it over so now the vibe is a delightful mix of Polynesian and Polish.

There was a bit of confusion as our gang of sweaty cyclists entered the bar full of Slavic regulars. After some concerned discussion in Polish between the attractive young barmaids and the owner, a lady with a spiky, blond hairdo and a shiny, green jacket, they studied our IDs carefully and ushered us away from the bar to a table.

Deciding that we weren’t with the Liquor Control Board, they warmed up to us and brought rounds of Okocim beer and a couple of tasty tiki drinks: a Mai Tai and a Banana Spider made with fresh fruit. As Eurodisco played on the sound system I surveyed the décor: bamboo walls, tanks of tropical fish, Tahitian carvings, and a flamingo-filled fountain and a large Buddha sculpture behind the bar. This festive setting was a pleasing antidote to the desolation of the Dead Zone.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Sauganash Trail

By John Greenfield

The Sauganash Trail is short and sweet. This new rails-to-trails, AKA the Valley Line Trail, officially opened June 21 in the Sauganash community on Chicago’s Northwest Side. It’s only one mile long, running from Bryn Mawr to Devon near Kostner, and after you check it out once it may be years until you ride it again. It’s basically a road to nowhere, terminating abruptly at busy Devon, a mile from any recommended bike routes.

But it’s a delightful little path, extremely well designed and executed and it’s already getting great use by locals. If you lived nearby you’d probably find yourself using it several times a week for accessing Bryn Mawr to pedal downtown, for strolling, walking your dog, jogging or helping your kids travel safely around the neighborhood.

The trail is located on an old railroad embankment now owned by ComEd and the City of Chicago is leasing the right-of-way for a dollar a year, says Maria Castaneda, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Transportation, which helped plan and build the project. It’s the city’s third rails-to-trails after the Burnham Greenway and the Major Taylor Trail on the Southeast and Southwest Sides, respectively. The Bloomingdale Trail is currently in the works for the Near Northwest Side.

The biggest challenge of building the path was replacing old railroad structures at Rogers and at Peterson with bike-ped bridges, says Castaneda. Since this work involved disrupting the traffic below the bridges it was done during off-peak hours.

View from the bridge over Peterson

“People in the neighborhood love the trail,” says Pat Malloy, assistant to Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th). “Some people have said they were skeptical at first – they were worried about kids hanging out there causing problems. But actually this seems to improve the situation from when it was an abandoned rail line. Now any time of day you’ve got people walking, skating and biking, so troublemakers have to worry about being seen by their neighbors.”

Malloy says another big perk is that kids who live on the north side of the community no longer have to cross four-lane Peterson to get to activities at Sauganash Park. Now they can get up on the trail via a dandy access ramp at Thome, ride or walk over Peterson and exit via the off-ramp at Rogers, just south of the park.

The path may eventually link up with other greenways, says Malloy. The suburb of Lincolnwood is looking into extending the trail north from Devon while the Cook County Forest Preserve District hopes to build a path through the LaBagh Woods along the Chicago River, connecting the south end of the Sauganash Trail to the North Branch Trail.

Last Wednesday I encountered cyclists Paula Getman and Mike Kenny at the southern end of the new path. They had discovered it by accident as they followed the signed route to the North Branch Trail and had just taken a quick spin up and down the Sauganash. “The surface is great and I love the little exit ramps,” said Kenny. “This is a great way to cross Peterson, that’s for damn sure,” sais Getman.

“This is a little strip with great potential,” she added. “It’s like the little bits of riverwalk along the Chicago River – they’re great as long as they last and hopefully they’ll all connect some day.”

The path was in fact smooth as glass and free so far of the gang graffiti that constantly has to be painted out on the Burnham Greenway and the broken glass that plagues the Major Taylor Trail. Inside the pleasant green tunnel with a soundtrack of chirping robins it’s easy to imagine you’re no longer in a city of three million.

At Devon, a sign in the median portrays Sauganash, “The Englishman,” a Potowatami chief born Billy Caldwell to a Wyandot Indian mother and an Irish father and educated by the Jesuits at Fort Detroit. Sauganash settled in Chicago in 1820 and was elected as a judge a few years later, eventually controlling a 1,200 acre tract of land at the current site of the neighborhood. But in 1836 he sold most of his land and relocated to Iowa join his tribesmen who had been forced west by the federal government.

As I returned south I met Bob Gorman, a local, and Michael Wacker, visiting from Lake Geneva, WI, who said they were out for a stroll and to discuss business. “I like that they replaced the old tracks,” said Gorman. “They were a gathering place for troubled youth." Wacker says he grew up nearby, “So there’s a nostalgic element for me.”

Michael Wacker

Passing by Sauganash Park, I saw a couple of young moms taking full advantage of the new trail’s potential for car-free intra-neighborhood travel. Having picked up their young kids from day camp, they were also pushing toddlers in strollers while walking the family dogs along the bike path.

Day campers at Sauganash Park

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mayor Daley's Bike to Work Rally Address

[At Friday's Bike to Work Rally, seated from left: Mayor Richard M. Daley; Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France; Andy Clarke, Executive Director of the League of American Bicyclists; unidentified; Alex Wilson, Director of West Town Bikes, who received an Individual Achievement Award from the mayor.

Last Friday, June 13, Mayor Richard M. Daley addressed a crowd of hundreds of bicyclists at Chicago’s annual Bike To Work Rally in the mayor's eponymous plaza. Notably, Daley memorialized cyclist Clinton Miceli, 22, who was killed that Monday when an SUV driver opened a door Miceli’s path, throwing him into traffic. The following is the mayor's speech, edited a bit for clarity.

Good morning. Thank you very much Ginger, Rob, from Channel 5 for those kind remarks. Thank you for MC-ing. Let’s give them a round of applause. Greg LaMonde, a hero for all of us, world-champion cyclist, three-time Tour de France winner. Let’s give him a round of applause. Welcome to Chicago.

I want to thank all those who are participating in the Bike to Work Rally, all of those that made a difference here over many, many years in making this city a bike-friendly city. All the advocacy groups, all the cyclists, all the bike shops, all over the city that have really made the city what it is today.

Like any thing else, riding a bike is dangerous. At this time I’d like to have a moment of silence in memory of a young man, Clinton Miceli, who unfortunately was killed this week in a collision with a car. Let’s just have a moment of silence for Clinton. [Five seconds of complete silence.] Amen.

With Clinton in mind I ask everyone operating a motor vehicle or bicycle, please obey all safety laws – share the road. Use common sense when you open the door of a car. This has become a more bike-friendly city. So I ask anyone in a car: when you park your car please use common sense in opening the door because you’re going to save someone’s life from serious injury.

This is a great rally because we’re really embracing what we’ve done for many, many years in this city: alternatives to vehicles. You’ve been environmentalist, those who’ve biked to and from work and on weekends. Bicycle riders were doing this long before gas prices started going up. Every day you help save the environment.

I want to thank all those who have participated in this wonderful rally, all the sponsors, all the government agencies: Department of Transportation, CTA, the Park District and those who have participated with us in regards to this bike rally.

What we’re trying to tell people is get informed going to and from work, working with parking plots, developers and making it bike-friendly going to and from work. We hope to build more bike stations here in the city of Chicago, not only in the downtown area but all over the city.

I also want to thank the CTA for their great response in regards to a bike-friendly CTA system. Public transportation, walking and biking, it all goes together. I just want to congratulate everyone being here, those who ride their bikes to work every day, those who enjoy it, this is a wonderful family occasion.

One of the things that we’ve been talking about and that we have now coming to the city of Chicago is a criterium that is coming July 27 on a Sunday. Some of the world’s greatest cyclists will take part for the first time in Grant Park. I hope that there will be many of these in the future.

[I’d like to see] more bike trails, especially longer ones in the downtown. I hope to get 50 miles, using the railroad tracks, that’s my dream some day, so all of us don’t have to go out to other states to do the 50-mile or 100-mile bike rides that many of us want on the weekends. I just want to thank all of those who participated and worked with us to make this bike rally so friendly. Have a wonderful day - go biking. Thank you.


Public transit and bicycling can be routes to romance

By John Greenfield

[This piece also runs this week in New City magazine,]

It might seem like living car-free would make dating difficult. But as Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay’s steamy El-train scene in“Risky Business” shows, alternative transportation can actually rev up your love life. Here’s testimony from Chicagoans who really “get around.”

Aurora Butterfly, a poet and co-organizer of the World Naked Bike Ride, says she’s had her share of make-out sessions on deserted Metra cars. But the CTA’s #66 Chicago Ave. bus was where she first flirted with relatively well-heeled suitors. “One was a voice-over artist who was deliciously beautiful, and the other was a successful animator and e-entrepreneur who looked like Batman,” she reports.

“Since it was the morning commute, they were too tired to lay it on thick,” she says. “It was more of a hunt-and-peck, secret glance style of courting, peeking over the marketing textbook.” Dating professionals was a nice change from her usual starving-artist types, says Butterfly. “They were thoughtful enough about the environment not to drive downtown even though they owned cars,” she says.

“Pete,” a musician, was entering the Damen Blue Line station soon after 9/11 when he saw an older lady standing on the stairs, wailing. After a young woman helped him get assistance for the senior, the two of them talked on the platform about how after the Trade Center attacks it seemed important to look out for other people.

On board they chatted and complimented each other’s eyeglasses as other passengers looked on. She gave him her business card as she got off the train, saying she’d love to go out some time. “I swear one guy in the train gave me a thumbs-up,” says “Pete.” Three weeks later he finally got the nerve up to call her, she invited him over to her apartment, and one thing led to another.

“Hannah” and “Dan” first met while building chopper bicycles at sessions organized by the Rat Patrol bike gang. She’s Jewish; he rolled with the Scallywags, punk-rock Christians whose members ride double-tall bikes and are sworn to celibacy before marriage.

The two mechanics got to know each other better on the Perimeter Ride, an all-day, all night, 100-mile bike tour around the city, ending with skinny-dipping in Lake Michigan. Needless to say, “Dan” gave up his vows. Nowadays the couple lives together at the Hub, a housing co-op owned by riders from Critical Mass. Vive le velo love!

Bike, ped and transit facilities in Cleveland, OH

By John Greenfield

There’s only one major bike lane in Cleveland, but it’s a really good one.

I recently spent a long weekend in this city of about 500,000 (roughly three million metro) located on the south shore of Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It’s a highly underrated town. With its lakeshore to the north, rather than the east, it’s basically a miniature Chicago flipped 90 degrees to the left. But Cleveland also boasts some pleasantly rolling terrain; lush green spaces; really cool old architecture and super-friendly people.

I was also pleasantly surprised to hear about some exciting transportation developments in the Forest City, as it’s called. I got the skinny from Ryan McKenzie, who used to work on walking, bicycling and transit projects for the nonprofit EcoCity Cleveland and now runs the local car sharing service CityWheels.

Ryan and his wife started the car service with their own money and no help from government funds or charitable donations. “It’s pretty idealistic and naïve and we’ve suffered for it,” he says. “But I think we’ll persevere and get our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Currently, City Wheels has 200 members and only four cars: two at University Circle near Case Western Reserve University and two at nearby Oberlin College. But six more cars will be placed in downtown Cleveland, Shaker Square and Cedar Fairmount in June. Ryan is also hoping a federal grant for $500,000 will come through this summer, allowing him to add 30 more vehicles to the fleet, which should allow them to break even.

Well, how is bringing a bunch of cars into the city going to help with congestion and air quality problems?

“In a mid-size, conservative, Midwestern city like Cleveland car sharing helps people have the courage to own fewer cars,” Ryan explains. “It’s like the patch for smoking. It helps you quit the addiction but still have some access to the nicotine.”

Ryan says that by eliminating the need to own a second or even first automobile, car sharing helps members embrace walking, biking and public transit and reduce their miles driven by over 50%. Some clients have sold their vehicle or avoided a planned purchase, and when they do drive it’s a hybrid or other “greener” car rather than a noisy, polluting beater, he says.

I originally met Ryan a few years ago when he came to town with City of Cleveland staff to study our bike facilities. “Seeing and riding on bike lanes in Chicago has helped a lot,” he says, adding that the visits also inspired Cleveland to install 500 Chicago-style inverted U bicycle racks over the past two years. Indoor bike parking was created at the local city hall and there’s a budget to build a bike station near the Cavaliers’ basketball arena.

Short stretches of bike lane were recently striped as part of improvements to the 2/3 mile-long Detroit-Superior bridge downtown. The rehab also included converting six travel lanes to four to make room for a wide sidewalk with sheltered benches and public art pieces that doubles as weather vanes and sun dials.

But the big transportation news in Cleveland is the construction of a bus rapid transit line along the east side’s Euclid Ave. Corridor. The system features dedicated bus lanes and futuristic-looking shelters on raised medians in the center of the street. Customers will be required to pay at the kiosks in advance, speeding boarding times.

Due to this forward-thinking plan, as well as quality existing bus and light rail service, last year the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority was rated North America’s best public transit system by the American Public Transportation Association. As a bonus, the new bus line is paralleled for several miles by that first-rate bike lane I mentioned.

But there seems to be a disconnect here: why is Cleveland getting a space-age rapid transit system when it has only a smidgen of bike lanes?

“The City is underfunded, understaffed and demoralized,” Ryan explains. “They barely have the resources to fill a pothole or stripe a street line.” Since the City is responsible for maintaining the roads and has trouble keeping up with routine maintenance, it’s hard to get support for new bike lanes, he says.

On the other hand, construction projects like the Euclid Corridor that are largely bankrolled by federal money are easier to push through, Ryan says. “But it was a tremendous struggle to get the bike racks, the bridge and the bus rapid transit,” he says. “The process took years and quarts of blood were spilled.”

Ryan says community activists have to be very vigilant in Cleveland and not declare victory when a project is planned but when it’s installed. “There’s not the commitment from government here for alternative transportation projects,” he says. “It’s not like Mayor Daley who says, ‘I’m a cyclist and I’m all for it.’”

I asked Ryan for a list of local bike landmarks to check out. That Sunday morning after a breakfast of frittata and espresso at Presti’s Bakery in Little Italy I took a spin downtown on Euclid. Parts of the avenue were still heavily under construction as all aspects of the streetscape are being improved: sidewalks, roadway, street trees, benches and lighting. But several of the Jetson-esque bus kiosks were already in use and for the most part the bike lane was a smooth ride.

I crossed over the Detroit-Superior Bridge into the Ohio City neighborhood and headed to Fridrich Bicycle, 3800 Lorraine Ave., a family-owned shop that’s been in business since 1883. It’s a big, utilitarian space that feels like a hardware store, in a good way. There’s lots of interesting old-fashioned accessories like wire and wicker baskets and large rubber mud flaps to screw onto your fenders.

I rolled on and crossed the Columbus Ave. Bridge to an industrial area within an oxbow of the Cuyahoga to check out the Ohio City Bike Co-op. Similar to Chicago’s West Town Bikes and Blackstone Bike Works, the co-op offers an earn-a-bike program for kids, bike safety and repair classes and more.

I didn’t have time to check out the city’s nine-mile lakefront trail or the Towpath Trail which winds more than 100 miles through the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation. But downtown I got to speak with a couple of cyclists who were on their way home from cheering a friend in the Cleveland Marathon.

Jack Lavelle, an elementary school student told me he’s usually comfortable biking on local streets but always wears a helmet. David Postel actually goes to college at Loyola in Chicago but he grew up in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. He says that while less people bike there, Cleveland is actually a very easy place to get around.

“Drivers are courteous to bikes and transit is really good,” David says. “There are free trolleys downtown. The transit workers are friendly and the buses are clean and they all have bike racks. And our train system has as many stops as Chicago’s El, but most people in Cleveland don’t know that.”

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Ride of Silence

By John Greenfield

Wednesday, May 21, I rode in Chicago’s Ride of Silence, part of a worldwide tribute to bicyclists who have been killed by motor vehicles.

The memorial originated in Dallas in 2003 after endurance rider Larry Schwartz died when a bus sideswiped him on a deserted highway. This year cyclists in almost 300 cities participated, demonstrating that bikers should be allowed to ride safely, without fear of being struck by cars.

Although the message of the Ride of Silence is similar to that expressed by Critical Mass participants, its means are different. Instead of taking over the streets, memorial riders roll slowly in single file, wordlessly. Rather than celebratory, the mood of the procession is solemn and contemplative.

The ride had special resonance in Chicago because this has been a bad year for bike fatalities. According to CDOT figures from 2001 to 2005 an average of six cyclists per year were killed in crashes here; at least three died between February and April of this year alone.

While previous local rides drew at most 50 participants, about 200 showed up at Daley Plaza this year, including family and friends of young people who died this year: Matthew Manger-Lynch, Tyler Fabeck and Amanda Annis. Many people pinned signs to the back of their shirts or bags commemorating them, as well other fallen Chicago riders like Ryan Boudreau, Blanca Ocasio, Tom McBride and Isai Medina.

Organizer Elizabeth Adamczyk distributed cloth armbands to cyclists: black for those who were there to honor others; red for those who had been injured by cars themselves. “You’re a survivor if you’re wearing red,” she said.

Lauren Vega, who sported a “You’d look hotter in a helmet” sticker on her own headgear, wore a black armband. “I’ve only had one crash,” she said. “It was me versus the alley and the alley won. I’ve never had an altercation with anything moving, but this ride is just a good idea.”

Before the riders hit the street, Adamczyk addressed the crowd. “We’re here to raise awareness that cycles have a right to share the road legally,” she said. “We’re not here to be confrontational with motorists. We’re going to let the silence roar.”

She then read from a poem written for the occasion by Mike Murgas ending, “Tonight’s ride is to make others aware / The road is there for all to share / To those not with us or by our side, / May God be your partner on your final ride.”

Cyclists then rolled out of the plaza, heading west on Randolph St. with riders and police cars “corking” the late rush-hour traffic. As we headed north out of the Loop, almost all riders respected the request for silence and the relative hush made the line of bicycles seem like a funeral cortege, in an effective way.

Although the front of the line stopped at all stoplights, the rest of the procession did continue through intersections as signals changed from green to red, so a few blasts of car horns did break the calm. But overall, bystanders seemed intrigued by the long string of serious, silent bicyclists as we headed up Wells St. and Lincoln Ave. to Lincoln Park.

I had to leave at Fullerton, but friends told me the riders stayed on course with little static from cars. The cyclists visited the sites of recent fatalities on the North Side, most of them marked by white-painted Ghost Bikes locked nearby with signs memorializing the fallen.

First they headed to the intersection of Lincoln / Damen / Irving Park in North Center, where Matthew Manger-Lynch, 29, was hit by an SUV on February 24. From there the group rode south to Western Ave. and Logan Blvd., a complex crossing in Logan Square where Tyler Fabeck, 22, was struck by an eastbound driver on Aril 20.

After rounding Logan Square’s Centennial Monument, the procession continued to the corner of Kedzie Blvd. and Armitage Ave. where two young women were killed within the space of a few months. On September 11 of last year Blanca Ocasio, 19, was hit by a right-turning garbage truck. Amanda Annis, 24, was struck there on April 30 when a car ran a red light.

The ride concluded at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, where Isai Medina was killed by a vehicle that hopped the curb as Medina stood on the sidewalk with his “chopper” bicycle.

All of these people will be missed by their loved ones for many years to come. Chicago’s Ride of Silence served as a reminder to motorists to drive with care and be mindful of their vehicles’ potential to take lives.