Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Car-free Parks Movement

Cities across the United States are creating more space for walking, running and biking by shutting down roads through parks and neighborhoods.

This article was originally published in the May 2008 issue of Parks and Recreation Magazine.

By John Greenfield

If the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives gets its way, 2008 will be the year New York banishes motor vehicles from Central Park and Prospect Park all summer long.

Nowadays, cars are only allowed on the parks’ perimeter roads during weekday rush hours and the holiday shopping season. But the group argues speeding autos still threaten the safety and serenity of the intended users: pedestrians, cyclists and others seeking a break from the city’s cacophony. “These parks are the crown jewels of New York and right now car traffic dictates how and when people can use them,” says TA spokesman Wiley Brown.

His group has collected over 100,000 signatures in support of its proposal for a car-free summer and the city’s new transportation commissioner says she’s thinking it over. Assuming this pilot program is successful, TA plans to push for banning autos altogether. “There’s so little time left for cars already it makes sense to just close the parks and be done with it,” says Brown. “We’ve reached a tipping point.”

New York’s proposal is part of a national trend to create safe, inviting places for exercise and relaxation by removing the sight, sound, smell and danger of car traffic. Dozens of cities have recently moved to restrict auto access to parks and other public spaces, according to Ben Welle from the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence in Washington D.C.

Others are planning ciclovia (“bike path”) programs in which networks of streets are temporarily closed to driving and open for non-motorized play. Last summer El Paso, TX, staged the first ciclovia in the U.S. and now Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland and Portland, OR, are working on similar events.

“Cities are beginning to reach a boiling point,” says Welle. “They realize that if all they do is plan around cars they’re not going to be healthy places for people. The obesity crisis, global warming and a migration of people back to the city are pushing this issue to the forefront. Residents want spaces that accommodate people rather than cars. We’re trying to put forward the idea that closing roads can revitalize parks.”

But proposals for road closures often meet stiff resistance from motorists and neighboring communities. They argue that traffic will become snarled, cars will be diverted onto residential streets, parking will suffer and shops and museum will lose patrons.

In 2003, for example, the National Park Service proposed expanding car-free hours on Beach Road in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, to weekday non-rush periods (it was already closed on weekends). Joggers and bicyclists were thrilled and the plan received overwhelming support at community meetings.

However, drivers and nearby residents rallied against the change, and local officials refused to back the plan. The park service abandoned the idea. “The commuters were able to garner more political support,” says park superintendent Adrienne Coleman. “There needs to be cooperation from the surrounding jurisdictions; otherwise its just not going to happen.”

Despite worries from residents, studies have shown that park road closures do not contribute to congestion or parking problems. In San Francisco, a 2007 report commissioned by the mayor found that car-free Sundays on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, in place since the ‘60s, double the number of visitors with little effect on the adjacent neighborhoods. Patronage of the park’s De Young Museum and local businesses actually increases on Sundays.

The San Francisco Bike Coalition used this study to successfully lobby for “Healthy Saturdays” last summer, ending seven years of debate on the subject. “Golden Gate Park is a retreat from urban pressures,” says the coalition’s Leah Shahum. “It needs to be a safe, welcoming place. We wanted Saturdays to look like Sundays.”

Wiley Brown says the minimal affect park road closures have on congestion can be explained by what he calls “induced demand.” When you allow people to speed through parks, you give them an incentive to drive. “Some people think traffic is like water: if you block it from one place it will just go somewhere else. We’ve found that this is not true.” Instead, when roads are closed less people choose to drive, a phenomenon sometimes called “traffic evaporation.”

“I’m not really convinced,” says John Corlett from the American Automobile Association’s New York chapter. “Some of these advocacy groups have a results-oriented approach – ‘Let’s achieve the objective and worry about the impact later.” He says that AAA does not have a knee jerk reaction against closing park roads and he has heard no complaints from motorists about Central Park. But he argues there should be careful study before further closures take place. “The Department of Transportation moves cautiously and I know TA isn’t too happy with that but I understand the DOT’s reasoning.”

If local authorities can be convinced, Boston may be the next big city to remove autos from parkland. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, a 1.6-mile stretch of Memorial Drive along the north bank has been car-free on Sunday afternoons for over 30 years. The resulting greenway, is known as “Riverbend Park.”

In January, the Charles River Conservancy proposed opening a five-mile stretch of the westbound lane of Boston’s Storrow Drive, on the south bank of the river, to non-motorized uses on Sunday mornings. “We want to bring a sense of quietude to the river because right now it’s not as peaceful as it could be,” says the Conservancy’s Nicole Brown. Unlike Memorial, Storrow passes under the streets that intersect it. “The beauty of Storrow Drive is you could get a vigorous, uninterrupted five-mile workout.”

She’s optimistic that the state Department of Conservation and Resources, which owns the road, will eventually support the plan. “Car-free days are hot topics,” she says. “But when we’ve explained the hours and that people can still drive east into the city, people have generally gotten behind this.”

In Phoenix, the Parks and Recreation Department’s new “Silent Sundays” at South Mountain Park and Preserve bans autos from the road to the mountain’s summit once a month, all year ‘round. “It’s a bigger success each time we do it,” says park supervisor Kim Keith, adding that he’s received a lot of positive feedback via e-mail. “80% of the messages are from road bikers who use the road to get to the top of the mountain and like the fact they can relax and not worry about cars. The other 20% are from hikers who appreciate the clean air and quiet.”

The ciclovia model, already common in Latin America and Europe, is the wave of the future for road closures in North American cities. Bogota, Colombia, pioneered the concept in the ‘80s, creating a car-free street route where residents could not only run and bike but also push strollers, play volleyball, skateboard, dance, do aerobics and yoga or just hang out and enjoy the social environment. Today Bogata’s ciclovia takes place each Sunday on a 70-mile network, regularly drawing 1.5 million participants. Every February 1st is Dia Sin Carro, “Car-Free Day,” when private autos are completely barred from the city.

Gil Penalosa, Bogota’s former parks and recreation director, speaks passionately about how ciclovias promote health and a sense of community. “Ciclovia provides a wonderful opportunity to walk, bike and socialize. It’s magical because all of the sudden you are invited to occupy a space where you are normally forbidden.” He calls the event an “exercise in integration” which encourages folks from all walks of life to interact with people of different ages, backgrounds and economic levels.

The ciclovia model is cheap and flexible, Penalosa says. “It doesn’t cost you one cent in capital investment. It can be as successfully in huge cities as small towns. The main thing it requires is political will.” He suggests that municipalities should try it out for a few consecutive Sundays to allow momentum and support to build. “The first Sunday is when people complain the most, the second goes a lot more smoothly and the third is fantastic.”

Last year El Paso, a poor city with only about 25% of the green space of an average American town its size, became the first U.S. municipality to hold a ciclovia. Just across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, car-free days had been drawing 60,000 participants on Sundays.

“Because Juarez was so close to us it wasn’t such a radical idea,” says Shamori Whitt, who coordinated the event for the west Texas town. “68% of the women in El Paso are overweight and 78% of the men, and 10% of the population has diabetes. You can’t really argue with those numbers.” The city was able to raise $100,000 in contributions, used mostly to pay police to manage intersections so the ciclovia would not affect cross traffic.

The event took place every Sunday in May on a linear route that included Scenic Drive, a mountain road with a breathtaking vista. “People said they never appreciated how beautiful the view was until they were able to get up there on a bike,” says Whitt. While many cyclists and bladers enjoyed the challenge, she suspects the steep grades intimidated others – there were only 5,000 total participants in this city of 700,000. Next year the ciclovia may be moved to flatter, more populated areas so more people can take part.

Despite the modest turnout Whitt says the ciclovia inspired her. “I was excited that people were getting to know their neighbors. Little kids were coming out of their houses to wave and we saw a lot of dogs out there. We had to set up water stations for animals next to the water fountains for people.”

At four times the population of El Paso, Chicago is proposing a ciclovia, called Sunday Parkways, which could draw much larger crowds this summer. No stranger to car-free events, every year the city hosts Bike the Drive. 15 miles of Lake Shore Drive, an 8-lane superhighway, are closed to traffic, drawing 20,000-plus cyclists. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is spearheading the Sunday Parkways effort and has raised much of the $400,000 needed to run three to five trials, pending approval from the mayor’s office.

The proposed 7.5-mile route uses the city’s historic boulevard system connecting three large parks on the west side of town, largely through low-income areas. In 2006 when the bike federation first pitched the idea it faced opposition from churches along the boulevards who felt alienated from the planning process and worried street closures would hurt church attendance. They complained to their alderman and the project was stalled.

In the spring of 2007 the federation invited church representatives and other community leaders on a fact-finding trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, to experience its ciclovia. Called Via Recreativa, “Recreational Path,” Guadajara’s event is a seven-mile route that draws up to 500,000 participants each weekend. It has brought a wave of customers to businesses that had previously been shuttered on Sundays.

Wowed by what they saw, including churches holding outdoor services along the route, the Chicago clergy decided to endorse Sunday Parkways. In turn, the bike federation agreed to move the proposed ciclovia hours until after services let out. “Now the churches who had challenged us in the past have joined our stakeholders committee,” says the bike federation’s Adolfo Hernandez.

“They’re supporting Sunday Parkways because public health is a major issue in these neighborhoods,” Hernandez says. “Our main goal is to get more people to be active. We’re trying to change the way people view these streets and the way resources are used in the city.”

Safety Dance: A New Bike Safety Ordinance

Chicago’s reckless driving ordinance is on the books. Now City Hall is considering a crackdown on bicyclists

Originally published on Gapers Block 3/13/07:

By John Greenfield

On Wednesday, March 12, City Council gave the final OK to Mayor Daley’s bike safety ordinance which will slap motorists who endanger cyclists with $150 fines. The penalty jumps to $500 if a crash occurs.

Five risky moves by drivers are now verboten: Turning into a cyclist’s path (AKA the “left hook” and “right hook”); parking or driving in a bike lane; passing within three feet of a pedaler; and opening a car door on a bicyclist (AKA the “door prize.”)

“This really represents a continuation of what the mayor and CDOT have been trying to accomplish for the past 15 years: making streets safer for cyclists,” said Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele.

Bicyclists and motorists alike cheered the new law. “This is very positive,” said bike courier Seth Chambers, “It’s a great idea.” A three-year veteran of the Loop’s mean streets, he once suffered a shattered arm when a car smashed into him while making a left turn. “Obviously this is a big issue for me.”

“We think it’s great news that the ordinance passed,” said Beth Mosher from the American Automobile Association’s local chapter. “This is going to go a long way in keeping everyone safe on the roadway.”

“We really like that this ordinance tells motorists they need to show due diligence to bikes on the road,” said Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s Rob Sadowsky. While he said traffic laws are hard to enforce, he feels the ordinance will be a godsend to cyclists who get hurt by cars.

Sadowsky broke his elbow four years ago when a passenger exiting a cab kicked the door open into a bike lane. In the ensuing lawsuit the defense argued Sadowsky should have been riding as close to the right as possible.

“This ordinance clearly states that by riding in a bike lane I was operating my vehicle appropriately,” said Sadowsky. “With this ordinance in place my case would have settled six months earlier.”

City Council passed the law unanimously with no debate. But during discussion of the ordinance at a Traffic Committee hearing a week earlier, several aldermen called for cracking down on dangerous bicyclists as well.

“How many of ‘em are stopping at stop lights?” asked Ald. Willie Cochrane (20th). “How many of ‘em are stopping at stop signs? How many of ‘em are putting up their hands when it’s time to make a turn? Those are serious issues.”

Ben Gomberg, Chicago’s Bike Program Coordinator, responded that the City is exploring ways to increase compliance, including increased ticketing of cyclists. One strategy recommended by Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan is: “Develop and implement an enforcement program targeting particularly dangerous bicycling.”

Although the bicycle federation was contracted to help write the bike plan, Rob Sadowsky said his group differs with the City on the issue of traffic citations for cyclists. “We do not endorse using few and precious police resources to target behavior that is relatively insignificant. Inattentive and reckless drivers are causing fatalities – that’s where our resources should go.”

“We don’t believe it’s a waste of police resources to enforce laws designed to ensure the safety of public way users,” responded CDOT’s Brian Steele. He added that the City also works to spread the word about safe cycling with education programs like Mayor Daley’s Bicycling Ambassadors, outreach specialists who appear at schools, parks and special events.

A crackdown on bicyclists would be a step in the wrong direction, said Michael Burton from the transportation advocacy group Break the Gridlock. “I think it’s mostly hype, this idea of a bicycle menace. What’s the incidence of bicyclists hitting pedestrians or drivers? Where are the injuries or fatalities?”

In contrast, Burton said, cars kill an average of 40,000 Americans a year. “When a car hits a cyclist or another driver or jumps a curb and kills a pedestrian it’s not even considered news anymore,” he said.

“If more people biked instead of clogging the roads with cars we’d have safer streets,” said Burton. “So we should be working to make life easier for bicyclists instead of ticketing them.”

The March 12 City Council meeting started on a decidedly pro-bicycle note as local politicians honored former alderman Leon Despres, a legendary South Side progressive and cycling enthusiast, on his 100th birthday.

As Despres looked on, Mayor Daley credited the Hyde Parker with bringing bicycling issues to the forefront for the current generation. “You’re a great bike rider,” said the mayor.

No More Door Prizes?

Chicago aldermen rubber-stamped Daley’s proposal to fine drivers who endanger cyclists, but they want to crack down on bikes as well.

[Originally published on Gapers Block on 3/10/08:]

By John Greenfield

On Wednesday City Council’s Traffic Committee unanimously passed the mayor’s bike safety ordinance which would dock drivers $150 for several types of fouls against cyclists. The fine would jump to $500 for offences that results in a crash.

The new law covers five dangerous moves by motorists: opening a car door on a bicyclist; parking or driving in a bike lane (which forces pedalers to swerve into traffic); passing within three feet of a bike; and turning left or right into the path of a cyclist, AKA the “left hook” and “right hook.”

The unanimous approval means the ordinance will almost certainly pass when it goes before City Council on Wednesday, March 12, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele.

“If we establish and widely publicize these ordinances, motorists will know that they risk people’s lives with this kind of behavior,” testified Ben Gomberg, the City’s Bike Program Coordinator, at the meeting.

Committee members applauded the mayor’s effort to make streets safer for cyclists but griped that more needs to be done to keep bicyclists from breaking laws. Ald. Bernie Stone (50th) said he is “absolutely delighted” to pass the ordinance and has received many calls and e-mails in support of the plan from constituents.

But Stone added that the recent death of a cyclist, struck by an SUV while he was running a red last month at Lincoln and Irving Park, highlights the need to enforce traffic codes for bikes as well. “Are we going to insist that bicycles obey the rules of the road? Yes, it’s true that a bicycle is less likely to cause a fatality but if everyone would pay attention to what they’re doing they’re wouldn’t be any fatalities.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said that he appreciates bicycling as a “a great way to travel” that aids traffic problems in his downtown ward but said cyclists, especially couriers, need to be “held accountable” for their actions. “There are many great bike messengers out there but a few bad apples are endangering public safety.”

Gomberg responded that the City’s Bike 2015 Plan includes strategies for making messengers “safer, more responsible and more popular.” The plan recommends mandatory safety training for bike couriers and selective enforcement of traffic laws by police.

The plan also proposes a crackdown on lawbreaking by the general cyclist population. “All vehicle must share the road,” said Gomberg. “Cyclists have the same responsibilities as motorists. It’s a level playing field.”

Vanessa Smith and Pilar Tena, who pedaled to the hearing, disagreed. “Cars and bicycles aren’t comparable,” said Smith, noting that a bike and rider weighs about 200 pounds while a car weighs closer to 3,000. “I think the laws should be different for bikes and cars.” She suggested that cyclists should be allowed to treat a stoplight like a stop sign, and a stop sign like a yield sign, as is currently the law in Idaho.

“It would be a downer if they start enforcing all of the traffic laws for bikes,” said Tena. “Part of the freedom and efficiency of bicycling is that you don’t have to follow the same rules as cars.”

“Stop lights are for everyone,” maintained Beth Mosher, spokesman for American Automobile Association’s Chicago chapter, “Everyone has to play by the rules of the road. The onus of safety falls on everybody: drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.”

She was pleased to learn the safety ordinance was approved. “AAA supports this. There are too many bike and pedestrian fatalities.”

Between 2001 and 2005 there were more than 6,000 reported crashes between cars and bikes; 30 bicyclists were killed in Chicago, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Sunday Parkways

Sunday Parkways may be coming to a street near you.

[Originally Published 8/19/07 in Time Out Chicago:]

By John Greenfield

“How come you park in a driveway and drive in a parkway?” goes the old joke. But if the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation gets its way, folks soon will pedal, walk, skate and party in the city’s parkways without having to worry about car traffic.

An initiative called Sunday Parkways would ban car traffic on certain Sunday afternoons along a 7.5-mile route of the boulevard system connecting Little Village, North Lawndale, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. The result would be temporary greenways for non-noxious transportation, and more open space for families to exercise and hang out—a cross between a massive block party and a supersized Lakefront Path.

The plan was hatched in 2003 when the group’s chief strategy officer, Randy Neufeld, rode in the Sunday Ciclovia in Bogota, Colombia, where every week for years, nearly a million people have been coming out to play on the 75-mile network of streets temporarily closed to motor vehicles. Stoked, Neufeld wanted to bring the concept home to Chicago.

Mayor Daley has given his blessing, and CBF is asking community groups for their support to test Sunday Parkways on a couple of days in late summer or early fall. If it’s successful, the network could be expanded to include more neighborhoods. Because cross-streets will still be open to cars, with nonmotorized traffic obeying traffic signals, the surrounding street network will not be affected. Police and volunteers will monitor the area.

Structured events would include fitness classes, such as aerobics and yoga, organized by the Mayor’s Fitness Council in the parks along the route. Ideally, the open parkways would inspire pickup soccer games, drum circles and barbecuing. CBF has been meeting with and recruiting community organizations like the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, the Little Village Development Corporation and the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce.

“Sunday Parkways will make Logan Square more vibrant and increase the quality of life,” says Josh Deth, head of the Logan Square chamber. “Since the planned route is centered on the boulevards and traffic will continue to flow on Fullerton, Milwaukee and Armitage, we don’t expect any negative impact on businesses.”
“[The] focus on healthy physical activity will especially benefit low-income neighborhoods where asthma and obesity rates are high. And it’ll be cleaning the air…so of course the Lung Association supports that,” says Lilliana de Santiago of the local chapter.

CBF executive director Rob Sadowsky says the biggest roadblock to Sunday Parkways is a lack of cash. Putting on two pilot days will cost at least $150,000, mostly for police and traffic management. But it’s a tough time to find public money for health initiatives, so CBF is seeking 100 percent private funding for this year’s rides in the form of grants from foundations and corporations.

Another concern comes from clergy who are worried that it will become more difficult to drive to services, Sadowsky says. He recently met with church reps to brainstorm parking options for parishioners.
But he points out that Humboldt Park’s New Covenant Church is embracing the plan, and might encourage members to stroll along the boulevards to another church’s services on some weeks and invite other congregations to visit them on foot on other Sundays. Sadowsky seconds the idea. “The health of the physical body is an important expression of faith.”

What's up with the Western Avenue Overpass?

By John Greenfield

[Originally published 4 5 07 in Time Out Chicago:]

Q What’s up with the Western Avenue overpass at Belmont and Clybourn Avenues? There are a bunch of three-street intersections on the North Side, but this one has an overpass.
A The overpass was built in 1960, around the same time that similar structures were built at Archer/Ashland Avenues and Pershing/Western Avenues on the South Side to address growing traffic congestion, according to CDOT spokesman Brian Steele. At the time, the area’s main traffic generator was Riverview Park, a 74-acre theme park that opened in 1904, bordered by Western and Belmont Avenues, the Chicago River, and Lane Tech High School. Once billed as the World’s Largest Amusement Park, Riverview drew hundreds of thousands of visitors with attractions like the Bobs and Jetstream roller coasters, and a merry-go-round with hand-carved horses.

But by the late ’60s, operating expenses were rising and the owners decided to sell the valuable land to a developer. The park closed at the end of the 1967 season and was quickly demolished; DeVry Institute of Technology, the Belmont District Police Station and the Riverview Plaza shopping center now occupy the site. Because there’s no on-street parking on that stretch of Western, venues below the overpass like Underbar and the Viaduct Theater rely on the de facto parking spots between its massive concrete support pillars. Underbar mixologist Geoffrey Wilson reports that tipsy patrons have been known to have sex in their cars in the secluded space under the bridge, so in a way the overpass is still helping people take thrill rides.

The Bratwurst Triangle

Originally published in Bicycling (on-line edition) 3/14/07:]

By John Greenfield

Riding a century is tough, but try doing two of ‘em, back-to-back, in the middle of winter, in the heart of the Midwest. Since 2004, dozens of cold-weather cycling nuts have done just that, relaying from Chicago to Milwaukee and back each February for the Frozen Snot Century.

The last three Snot rides were a blast, but there’s a thin line between a groove and a rut. So this year my girlfriend Elizabeth and I attempted the Bratwurst Triangle, linking three sausage-loving cities: Chi-Town, Brew City and Madison, WI. Although this was her first overnight and we met with some truly nasty weather, we polished off the polygon in a multi-modal manner.

Friday morning we loaded our bikes on Metra, Chicagoland’s commuter rail, to catch a lift towards Mad City, de-training a few miles south of the Cheddar Curtain. As we mounted our steel ponies, conditions were ideal: blue skies, temperatures in the low thirties and a friendly wind for our 70-mile ride northwest to the capital of America’s Dairyland. We arrived at sundown at a cozy brewpub where Bike Federation of Wisconsin staff greeted us.

But as I scarfed down a plate of the triangle’s namesake encased meats, I noticed a blizzard outside the window. Afterwards, we foolishly stopped for more road soda at the UW student union. When we emerged, the streets were frosted with several inches of powder and motorized traffic had slowed to a crawl.

We tried to ride the two miles to our homestay in the whiteout but our steeds shimmied scarily on the slippery surface. I soon heard the distinct twang of a broken spoke on my rear wheel, and Elizabeth pulled to the side of the busy four-lane, too shell-shocked to ride further. We were trudging through the storm when our hostess Robbie called, offering to pick up my girl and her bike.

I was loading the Bianchi into the Toyota when a police car pulled up behind us. I thought we were going to be scolded for blocking the road. Instead, the officer, a laid-back dude with a “Fargo” accent, offered to give my bike and me a ride home as well.

The next morning the roads were clear, but I needed a new spoke and we faced the prospect of a strong headwind for our 80-mile ride east to Milwaukee. Robbie begged us not to bicycle there because another storm was predicted to dump 25 more inches on the City that Beer Built.

I called Paul, who was leading the regular Frozen Snot ride up from the City that Works. I guess people were scared off by the forecast since only five guys had the cajones to ride this year. When he picked up, the crew had been pulled over in a ritzy suburb because one of them was enjoying a can of High Life as he pedaled along.

Paul had to put his cell down when the officer addressed the group and I heard every word of the lecture. “Now I know you fellas are out here to have a good time,” said the man in blue, “but you have to obey the rules of the road just like everybody else. I don’t want to see your friend there get splattered all over the road.”

After the cop released the Snot riders, Elizabeth and I decided that discretion is the better part of valor and hopped the Badger Bus with our bikes to rendezvous with them. Safely in Cream City when the flakes resumed, we rode to the designated tavern for a few pints of What Made Milwaukee Famous.

When the Snotters finally arrived they were completely fried. The hard crosswind had made riding a chore and blown snowdrifts onto Route 32, forcing them to bike in the middle of the road in front of impatient drivers. Most of them decided to sleep in the next day and take Amtrak home.

The massive storm never materialized but the next morning there was a layer of wet snow on the streets and freezing rain blew off the lake. Still, Elizabeth wanted to ride 60 miles south to Waukegan, IL, where we could catch Metra back to the Hog-Butcher to the World. I was impressed that she was willing to take on such crappy weather.

Swaddled in Gore-Tex, we started the slow slog southward through the slippery slush. The roads cleared as we left town, but the wicked sleet beat on us as we pedaled against the crosswind. Entering the Land of Lincoln, I realized we were running out of time to catch the train back to the Big Onion, so we sprinted eight miles to the station, arriving with a minute to spare.

After I’d lashed our bikes to the inside wall of the train, Elizabeth said, “Wow, that’s the fastest I’ve ever ridden in my life.” We walked to the next car to find Paul and another Snotter named Rubani. They’d slept in and left by bike from Brew Town at a brisk pace, beating us to the station. We sat down next to them and I passed around a pint of Jim Beam. Cozy in our liquid blanket of booze, we watched the scenery roll past as the train carried us back to Sweet Home Chicago.

The Frozen Snot Century

[Originally published 2/22/07 in Time Out Chicago:]

By John Greenfield

Cycling a “century” (100 miles in a day) is daunting for most bicyclists, but try doing two of them, back to back, in the middle of winter in the heart of the frozen tundra.

Since 2004, dozens of cold-weather biking nuts from Chicago and Milwaukee have been doing just that, rendezvousing each February for Bike Winter’s Frozen Snot Century ride. Speaking from firsthand experience, it’s a lot of fun—the combo of physical challenge, camaraderie and sightseeing is the perfect cure for cabin fever. The tradition continues Saturday 24.

The Bike Winter organization—with chapters in Chicago; Milwaukee; Madison, Wisconsin; and Ann Arbor, Michigan—promotes all-season cycling with how-to workshops, rides and arts events. A few years ago when I was working for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, I met Dave “Schlabo” Schlabowske, the City of Milwaukee’s bicycle coordinator, at a conference in St. Paul. Over a few pints, we hatched a scheme to unite Chi-town and Milwaukee’s fledgling Bike Winter scenes with a tag-team tour.

The FIBs (fucking Illinois bastards) spun up the coast of Lake Michigan about a hundred miles to party with the Cheeseheads and crash on their floors or couches. The next day, the whole group pedaled back to the Windy City for a reception at the Critical Mass Art Show, a display of probike, anticar artworks. The following morning the Badgers rode home and the flatlanders slept in. Schlabo christened the event after the crystallized mucus that resulted.

Amazingly, it proved that the most important advice for the would-be winter cyclist is “Just do it!” Over the years, FSC riders have dealt with icy temperatures, stiff headwinds and horizontal rain, but as the Irish say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing.

To adjust to changing conditions, I dress for the FSC with lots of layers: wool socks, polypropylene long johns, polyester work pants, a T-shirt, a wool shirt, a sweater, a jacket, a raincoat in my saddle bag, warm mittens, a fleece skullcap under my helmet and neoprene booties over my bike shoes. My skinny-tired road bike is winterized with lights and fenders. And I’m off.

You can make the ride almost entirely on off-street trails, but due to limited daylight and the muddy conditions of said trails in winter, we mostly ride on Sheridan Road in the Land of Lincoln and Route 32 in America’s Dairyland.

The scenery ranges from the high-rises that line Chicago’s lakefront trail, to the posh North Shore, to the working-class Wisconsin cities of Kenosha and Racine, to a wooded bike path on the south side of Milwaukee from which we emerge to see the less-than-awe-inspiring Brew City skyline. Along the way, a hearty group of riders stop for a shot of antifreeze at a friendly tavern like Cruiser’s in Beach Park, Illinois.

All are welcome to join the Chicago-Milwaukee-Chicago ride on Sat 24. It’s free—but keep in mind that it’s an unsupported, ride-at-your-own-pace-and-risk event, and don’t forget to R.S.V.P. so organizers can make sure there’s sufficient floor space for everybody in Milwaukee. Be sure to strap on a sleeping bag and ground pad to your rack unless you like sleeping on hardwood.

The mileage and the cold of the FSC might intimidate you, but when you reach the 20-foot-tall, wooden Wisconsin-shaped sign just south of Kenosha—the one that says, the people of wisconsin welcome you—you’ll know it was worth it.

Car-free Camping in the Indiana Dunes

[Originally published in Time Out Chicago 8 22 06:]

by John Greenfield

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore might be the most beautiful place in the Hoosier State—which, to some, might not sound like much of a ringing endorsement, especially since it’s flanked by steel mills and power plants. But this nearby national park features 25 miles of natural beach, hiking trails through forests, prairies and marshes. And, of course, there are the dunes themselves: massive mountains of fine sand, perfect for a sliding barefoot sprint and leap.

Bring your tent, sleeping bag and hiking gear and head to Millennium Station at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue to catch Metra’s South Shore Line train (round-trip ticket, $11). The South Shore does not allow conventional bikes onboard; however, folding bikes are permitted and would be useful for exploring the greater Dunes area. It’s a relaxing, scenic, 90-minute train ride to the Beverly Shores stop and National Lakeshore Dunewood Campground. You can chat up your fellow passengers, and, best of all, alcoholic libations are permitted, so you can start to unwind early with no risk of a DUI.

The train stop, a historic ’40s structure, is handily located next to convenience and liquor stores, where you can stock up on supplies and firewood. From there it’s a quarter-mile hike south to the campground ($15 a night) in a serene wooded area. The fact that sites don’t have built-in driveways is a bonus; you won’t have to compete with Winnebagos and generator-powered TV sets.

Pitch your tent and go explore. The campground is near the Dunewood Trace hiking trail that leads to the Dorothy Buell nature center and other trails. It’s also a pleasant one-mile walk down a quiet road to a low-key beach where you can swim, sunbathe and pick pebbles to your heart’s content. The waves can get big enough for body surfing, but watch out for dangerous riptides. A couple miles east of the campground is Mount Baldy, the largest of the dunes. Visitors who tackle the steep, sandy climb out of the parking lot are rewarded with a spectacular view: Northwest of the lake you can just make out the towers of the Chicago skyline.

Every visit to the Dunes is different. Last time we went, a folk singer in the campground’s amphitheater performed a set of songs about Great Lakes maritime tragedies. When we cried out for “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, he happily obliged. Then we walked down the road to the Beverly Shores Policeman’s Ball, a benefit for the tiny town’s handful of cops, held inside the firehouse. Friendly conversation, pulled-pork sandwiches and Jell-O shots were plentiful, and afterward the party headed to the lake for a bonfire on the beach. You can’t do that in the big city.

For more information on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, contact the National Park Service (219-926-7561 ext 225,

Car-free Road Trips

[Originally published in Time Out Chicago 7/27/06:]

By John Greenfield

With a great public transit system and bikeable streets, Chicago is an easy place to live without a car. But in summer, even hard-core car-haters could use a quick escape from the city. Now that bicycles are permitted on CTA, Metra and Amtrak (see “Getting around,” page 63), there’s no reason a summer road trip should require $3.25 per gallon and time wasted in traffic.

Before you head out on any long trip, pack a few survival essentials: water, flat-fixing stuff (such as a pump, patch kit and tube), sunblock, lock, raincoat, snacks to avoid “The Bonk,” a sudden, devastating drop in energy—and of course, a map. For trips in the six-county region, check out the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s Chicagoland map ( For downstate trips, the Illinois Department of Transportation publishes a series of nine regional bike maps ( And if you’re taking your bike on Metra,be sure to bring a bungee or inner tube—conductors usually welcome cyclists, but they’ll insist you secure your bike.

North Branch Trail via CTAThis paved bike trail winds for 18 miles along the north branch of the Chicago River through quiet forest preserves. Take the CTA Blue Line to Jefferson Park and ride northwest on Milwaukee Avenue to the trailhead at Devon Avenue. The path ends at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, where you can find tranquility in the lush Malott Japanese Garden set among 385 acres.

If you feel like taking in a concert at the outdoor Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, pack a picnic and take Lake-Cook Road east for one mile from the Garden to the Green Bay Trail bike path, then head north for a half mile.

On your way back to the city, stop by Superdawg (6363 N Milwaukee Ave, across the from the south end of the North Branch Trail). You can’t miss the giant, winking, Tarzan-and-Jane wieners on the roof, and you’ll dig the tasty chow, retro packaging and old-fashioned carhop service.

Fox River Trail via MetraThis paved bike path runs for 33 miles, connecting the old river towns of the far Western Suburbs. It’s a long ride to the trail but you can cover about half the distance on the Illinois Prairie Path, a 55-mile web of crushed limestone trails originating in Maywood. Or take the easiest route— hop aboard Metra, which takes you right to multiple stops along the Fox River Trail in a jiffy.

For a full day’s ride, take the Union Pacific District Northwest Line from Chicago’s Ogilvie Center (500 W Madison St) to Crystal Lake and head south from the station a few blocks to the trailhead at Main Street and Crystal Lake Avenue. End your ride in Aurora at Walter Payton’s Roundhouse (205 N Broadway), a huge entertainment complex, which was built in an old, circular railcar-repair facility. They’ve got a great outdoor patio, and surprisingly good food and microbrews. Catch a ride home at the Metra station right next door.

St. Louis to Galesburg via Amtrak
We Illinoisans are lucky in that three major passenger rail lines span the state from Chicago to various points along the Mississippi River. As a bonus, Amtrak allows unboxed bikes on most of its Illinois trains for $10.

One option for a satisfying 200-mile, long weekend trip is to take the train from Union Station (500 W Jackson St) to St. Louis, and then ride north along the Mississippi, before heading east to catch a different line home from Galesburg, Illinois. The six-hour ride to St. Louis can drag, but hanging out in the café car drinking Budweiser and chatting with the colorful clientele make the hours fly by.

The train drops you off in the shadow of the Gateway Arch—be sure to ride the cramped, retro-space-age elevator to the top. Its a stone’s throw from the city’s riverfront bike path, similar to our Lakefront Trail but with more industrial scenery. About ten miles north of downtown, take in the breathtaking view as you cross back into Illinois on the bikes-and-pedestrians-only Chain of Rocks Bridge.

From there you can take bike paths and secondary roads north along the Mississippi, through some of the state’s least-populated areas, sleeping at cheap motels or camping. Along the way be sure to visit Villa Katherine, a bizarre, Moorish-style castle in Quincy. Nauvoo, the remnant of a Mormon city that was once bigger than Chicago, features the riverfront homestead of the religion’s founder and prophet Joseph Smith, a re-creation of his temple, and Baxter’s Vineyards, Illinois’s oldest winery. Toast the end of your journey at a friendly tavern in the railroad town of Galesburg, birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg.

Push to walk buttons - power or placebo?

By John Greenfield

[This also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

What’s up with those push-to-walk buttons at intersections? Do they work or are they just there to make you feel empowered?

Good question. The New York Times reported NYC deactivated most of its pedestrian switches in the 1980s but thousands of sucker buttons were still in place by 2004. CDOT’s Brian Steele assures us this isn’t the case here. “When you press it activates the walk signal and lengthens the green,” he says. Does rapid-fire jabbing help? No, says Steele. “It’s like an elevator – pushing once is enough.” Some newer stoplights are programmed so that, late at night, side streets never get a green unless a waiting motorist or ped is detected. Under-pavement sensors automatically register cars but if you don’t notice the button you’ll never get a signal. Unfair, but Steele promises CDOT’s researching pedestrian-triggered automated walk signals. ‘Round midnight we tried to cross busy Chicago Ave. at sleepy Paulina St. and found Steele’s right. If we pushed the button in any manner, or if a driver was also waiting to cross, we’d get a walk signal in about a minute. Not pressing meant our light stayed red indefinitely. So as Curtis Mayfield sang, “Keep On Pushing.”

Chicago's Water Taxis

Water taxis add a touch of Zen to the morning commute

by John Greenfield

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

For office workers who need to get from downtown Metra stations to their jobs elsewhere in the Loop, a ride on a water taxi provides a pause that refreshes.

“It’s so peaceful,” say Patrick Giordano, an attorney who practice energy law. “And the environmental benefits are very important.”

Giordano says some days he has to drive to work from Evanston but usually he takes Metra to the Ogilvie Center, 500 W. Madison St., walks a block east to the river and catches Wendella’s Chicago Water Taxi to his Michigan Ave. firm. “It makes you feel like you’re in Seattle taking the ferry from Bainbridge Island into the city,” he says.

Wendella makes runs every 15 minutes or so between Madison, LaSalle St. and Michigan all day long on weekdays, plus trips to Chinatown on weekends. Shoreline Water Taxis offers rush hour service from Adams St., near Union Station, to Michigan for commuters, plus additional routes to Navy Pier and the Museum Campus for tourists. Shoreline is a little pricey, but Wendella, at $2 a ride, $40 for a monthly pass, compares favorably to the CTA.

At 8:27 on a Tuesday morning, two dozen professionals file onto Wendella’s eastbound water taxi; most of them are silently reading the paper or listening to iPods as the yellow, checkered boat pulls away from the dock. Away from the cacaphony of car traffic, the ride is calm and quiet as architectural gems like the Civic Opera House, 333 Wacker Drive and the Merchandise Mart tower above the vessel. CTA buses chug across bridges overhead while a seagull cries nearby.

Upstairs in the bridge Captain Doug Chyna says “Welcome to my cubicle, the best one in the city. It travels.” While his work is usually pleasantly uneventful Chyna says he occasionally has had to rescue people attempting suicide by jumping off the bridges. “That makes for an exiting day,” he says.

As the passengers leave the river at Michigan Ave., deckhand Eric Mackey cheerfully sends them off to their desks: “Remember folks - the week is almost half over.”

Chicago Water Taxi,, 312-337-1446
Shoreline Water Taxis,, 312-222-9328