Wednesday, October 1, 2008

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.


Bob said...

Obviously - all of us who are interested in this need to show up on the two Sundays and make sure there's a large turnout, and that this type of event is supported.

Get there - any way you can.

charlie said...

Good post John. I find myself so frustrated whenever I read about this kind of stuff. It seems that people are so afraid of taking any chances to make things cool.

Fargo said...

I hope that the north half goes well enough to overcome the horrendous shortcomings of the south half. That portion sounds reasonable.

The south half doesn't even sound like it's worth doing. Anything good about that portion has been so severely compromised that it makes a mockery of a wonderful concept. I hope that someone can enjoy it in spite of its butchery by committee.

I'm that surprised CBF even agreed to schedule such a horrible version of the second part.

Greg Cantori said...

Nice summary and commentary. It appears from Bogota to Portland that attempting to make Ciclovia anything other than a city sponsored and run event is doomed for trouble. The insanity of raising private funds to pay for unnecessary public staff (police)for a 100% open to the public event is obvious here. As Gil Penalosa has said: All it takes is political leadership and will.

Unknown said...


This is a great project, I want to commend you on touring non-obvious routes like 63rd street.

Anonymous said...

Evanston is having a Sunday event in October too:


Bike the Ridge is an historic family event when for the first
time the City of Evanston allows bike riders to travel the
lengths of Ridge Avenue during "Bike the Ridge," scheduled from
8 to 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 26.

Ridge Avenue will be closed to ALL vehicular traffic from Howard
St to Church St during this event.

Rain or shine, bike riders of every age are invited to travel
the newly-paved Ridge Avenue from Howard Street to Church Street
and back again or anywhere in the middle. It is illegal to bike
on Ridge Avenue at any other time, so come out and enjoy this
non-competitive, city-sponsored, first time ever, bicycle
special event.
* A special letter is being sent to ALL residents with
driveways and parking lots who live on Ridge explaining driveway
* Unsignaled side streets that intersect with Ridge will
be barricaded and will not have Ridge Avenue access. These
streets will require a volunteer. Signaled intersections
(east/west) will be open as normal and patrolled by an officer.
Please volunteer or participate during this once-in-a-lifetime
* Bring yourself, family and friends and bike down the
brand-new roadway; kids are encoura ged to come in costume and
preview their Halloween attire.
* Volunteer to help keep people safe during the event,
oversee a barricaded street.
* Visit with clubs and organizations in the Ridgeville
Park on the corner of Seward and Ridge Avenue; buy snacks, water
from Oakton PTA, reap giveaways, register your bikes with the
Evanston Police Department, or get your bikes fixed by the Pony
Shop and first aid from St Francis.
* Observe the Evanston Bicycle Club parade in costume down
the lengths of Ridge Avenue, led by an Evanston Police
motorcycle officer.
* Bike the Ridge is supported by Evanston Bicycle Club,
the Ridgeville Park District, St Francis Hospital, the YMCA,
Oakton School PTA.

We are looking for more support so if your school, club or
whatever would like to participate - email us. We need lots of
volunteers to oversee the barricades.

To volunteer contact:
Ann Rainey,