Sunday, August 9, 2009

A proposal to fight street congestion

By John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in New City,]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Chicago's recent bike parking challenges

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

by John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winston's Tweed Ride

by John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in New City magazine,]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MS and messengering

Interview with Guenevere Nyderek by John Greenfield

[This will also run in Cog Magazine,]

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

How did you first get started as a messenger?

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

What do you ride?

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

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

What exactly is MS?

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

How did you figure out you have it?

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

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

How does messengering help with your MS?

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

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

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

What do you see in the future for yourself?

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

South by Southwest: Bike touring in the Obama age

Mural in Mamou, LA

by John Greenfield

It's 5 am on January 24, four days after Chicago's own Barack Obama becomes our first African-American president. My girlfriend and I are freezing with our loaded touring bikes on a Green Line platform in Garfield Park. We're heading to Midway Airport to fly to sunny Jacksonville, FL, where we'll start a two-month bicycle trip to Los Angeles.

I'm optimistic that the inauguration marks the start of a new era of open-mindedness in this city and this nation, and I'm curious about cycling across the South during this time. I've bike toured all over the rest of the U.S., but have so far avoided this region that I've associated with intolerance - both racial and anti-bicycle bias.

Superstition mountains, AZ

We arrive at Midway and approach the Southwest Airlines check-in with our bicycles when we are stopped by an employee, a 50s-ish African-American lady. “You know you can't bring those bikes on the plane without boxes,” she says. “Right,” I reply, “We're planning on buying the boxes here.” I've always done it this way at O'Hare.

“I've worked at Midway for five years and I've never seen bike boxes here,” she says. In a rush and annoyed by what I take as her being un-helpful, I curtly ask to double-check with her supervisor, who confirms that Southwest doesn't have boxes. A quick survey of the other airlines is also fruitless but we're able to reschedule our flight for later that day. Leaving the bicycles with my girlfriend, I ride the El up to O'Hare, buy boxes and come back, an epic four-hour round-trip.

Forida's Gulf Coast (Photo by Elizabeth Winkowski)

When I return, we argue about whether or not I was rude to the woman. I think about it for a minute. This lady grew up during a time when whites were often openly disrespectful to African-Americans. I’m a younger, white, male bicyclist (already considered an annoying species by airline employees) implying I know her job better than she does. It just may be possible that I'm the jerk here.

We box our bikes and return to the counter. The lady sees us and her face lights up. “Oh, you were able to get the boxes after all.” After describing my trek across town, I swallow my pride and say, “Ma'am, I'm sorry if I was short with you. I should have been more tactful.” She takes my hands in hers, looks me in the eyes and smiles. “No problem - apology accepted.”

Moonrise east of Phoenix

Afterwards, my girlfriend grins at me and says, “That was an Obama moment.” She confesses that while I was on the El she had already apologized to the employee for my behavior and the lady had said, “That's OK honey, he's a man.”

This little incident of compassion turns out to be typical of the openness we experience on our 3,500-mile journey. As we roll along the Gulf Coast, through Cajun country, across the vastness of Texas and through the Great American Desert to the Pacific, I find my stereotypes about the South to be false.

Bicycle hobo in west Texas

Instead, with our funny-looking bikes as icebreakers, we meet dozens of friendly people from every background and enjoy amazing acts of hospitality. I like to think that some of good vibes and kindness we receive from people very different than us can be credited to the “Obama Effect.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kat Ramsland unveils "1000 Ghost Bikes"

by John Greenfield

Chicago artist Kat Ramsland opened her exhibit “1000 Ghost Bikes: A New Chicago Monument,” along with bike-related works by Jay Strommen, Nancy Anderson and Elizabeth Groeschen, on Saturday, June 6, at Lill Street Arts Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood.

Inspired by the Ghost Bike movement in which white-painted bicycles are installed at bicycle crash sites, as well as the Ride of Silence memorial bike procession, Ramsland asked Chicagoans to dedicate a miniature ceramic white bicycle to a loved one who was hurt or killed in a crash. She received dozens of stories, many of them heartbreaking, and assembled the bicycles and text into an installation that honors the cyclists and draws attention to the need for safer streets.

Ramsland met with VWYF at a Ravenswood coffee shop and discussed how her interest in public policy as well as a family crisis fueled the project, despite the fact that until recently she didn’t know how to ride a bike.

Tell me about your background with cycling and your background with art.

It’s probably easier to start with my background in art. I’ve been making art and paying attention to the art world for pretty much all my life. I graduated from DePaul with a major in photography and a minor in sociology. I’m really interested in public art and public policy. Then I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for grad school and I’m in the program for the masters of art education. This is my thesis project about how public art can change public policy.

Any art is a direct response to cultural events. Right now I think we’re in a really exciting time where there are people who are emerging from the art world, or even outside the art world, who are incredibly educated and incredibly conscious of what’s happening socially, as far as environmental concerns, economic concerns, and obviously the war is a big issue these days. One of the biggest movements I’ve noticed recently is bicycling culture. In just about every city you’ll find cyclists who are devoted to being year-round commuters.

And with bicycling comes inherent problems such as the vulnerability and visibility of a cyclist on the road. Last summer I went out to Portland and I spoke to Carl Larson, who started Ghost in Portland about eight years ago. I asked him how he felt they had changed the political landscape and city infrastructure. I had already gone into this interview knowing that Ghost Bikes had become an international movement. You’ll find these memorials all over the world. So I was really interested to learn that Carl had given up his duties as the Portland Ghost Bike guy and had given them to someone else.

He was convinced that for the most part Ghost Bikes was unsuccessful. It was really surprising. I said, “How can you say these are unsuccessful? You just told me that your city officials apologize when they have to move one or take one down, even though they’re not publicly sanctioned.” He said, “The average commuter still doesn’t realize what it is, that a Ghost Bike is a monument marking the site where a cyclist has died in a car collision.” So there’s an issue of them being too subtle.

There’s also an issue of people assuming that biking itself is dangerous, not the cars that hit them, when bicycling is doing so many great things for the political landscape. It’s keeping people healthy; it’s helping them live with a minimum carbon footprint, and it’s not feeding this car fetish America has, which is a huge economic factor.

So I decide that for my thesis I was going to do an art project and not just going to have a regular gallery show. I wanted to demonstrate how public art can change public policy. There are a lot of inherent issues in this but primarily I wanted to tackle the issues that Carl had mentioned, of Ghost Bikes being too subtle. So I decided to make a monument of a lot of Ghost Bikes with a bigger, more visible presence.

Secondly I wanted to address the issue that people are being deterred from being bike commuters. I figured if I could make it more universal it might encourage people to educate themselves on bicycling safety and also encourage public officials to change our city’s cycling infrastructure and policies.

So I put out a citywide call for dedications to people who have been injured or killed in a cycling collision and I’ve gotten a lot of responses, a lot of really sad stories. But by dedicating a single bike within the larger monument I’m hoping that anybody can walk up to it and say, that’s my neighbor or that’s somebody I’ve never met but they’re still here, and therefore make more of an impact.

Part of the reason I think Ghost Bikes are so successful, and also unsuccessful is that they are specifically for people who have died. They’re successful in the fact that of course a tragic incident has a lot of impact. But also unsuccessful in that it’s just one person and unless you know that person or you know exactly what a ghost bike is it might not mean anything to somebody who’s walking by or a driver who only sees it for a second and assumes it’s a parked bike.

I opened up the field to people who have been injured because many people who are injured in bicycling collisions are left with monumental medical bills. Sometimes they’re left with serious brain injuries. Sometimes they’re left with a gigantic fear of ever biking again.

A lot of bicycling injuries do not get reported unless a vehicle has actually been damaged in the collision, in which case insurance needs to know about it. I also read an article that says policemen at the site of a bike collision usually won’t report it unless the cyclist has to go to the emergency room. My research shows most of these injuries are the fault of the car driver.

There’s a huge population of people that have been injured on bikes – everyone knows someone. And the ramifications just go on and on and on. But until now they haven’t been given any voice.

Have you personally experienced a crash or has someone you love experienced a crash?

I myself am not a cyclist. Until last year I didn’t know how to ride a bike. When I proposed this to the thesis committee at SAIC they said, “We will not let you write this until you learn how to ride a bike.” So I went out and I got a used bike and I went for three blocks and then ran into a chain link fence and got stabbed by the handlebar. It wasn’t anything serious. It was just in a parking lot but I couldn’t stop myself. And I’m waiting to get a bike right now that actually fits. I’m incredibly excited.

Every other year of my childhood my parents would purchase me a bike, thinking that if it was just cute enough I would learn how to ride it. But when my brother Austin was 12 and I was eight he got hit on his bike by an elderly driver. He spent a week in the hospital, had skull fractures, arm fractures and a lot of stitches. I wasn’t allowed to visit him at the hospital but I knew this horrible thing had gone on.

My parents fought with the insurance company because they just wanted to get him a new bike. The company paid the hospital bills but they would not pay for a new bike which was the only way my brother had to travel at the time. And it was really important that he wasn’t deterred from getting back on the bike since my family, they’re huge cyclists. The do GRABAAWR, this 500-mile bike ride across Wisconsin, every year. They are constantly biking.

That’s why they thought it was so important for you to learn to ride?

Definitely. I was the girl who was the van following the bikers on the trips. I think I had six bikes growing up and I never rode any of them. It was a big thing to see my brother get badly injured in a small town in Minnesota. There was a lot of fear for me and I never learned. I was fine on the training wheels – you can ask my dad. When I had training wheels I was good to go. But as soon as those suckers came off and my brother had his accident it was quits for me.

But my family is still really into the bike scene. My brother married a custom bike builder in Portland and they’ve decided to make it their whole business. My sister-in-law Natalie owns Sweet Pea Bikes ( I’m going out in September for a custom fitting and she’s going to build it from scratch. I’m so excited.

Tell me about some of the memorable dedications you’ve received.

I have gotten a lot of dedications that are incredibly sad, from people who say things like, “My coworker got hit last week. She’s still in the hospital and she’s going to need ten months of physical therapy.” The one that sticks out in particular was a young girl named Robin whose parents dedicated a bike to her. Robin was in a youth program in Chicago for bicycling safety and education when she got hit. Her parents are adamant that it was not an accident. They’re very, very angry. And they’re really pushing for publication of new bike safety laws. And what struck me the most is they’re certain this wasn’t an accident. Their daughter was going through all the right steps of learning how to be a safe urban cyclist when she died. Her parents got in touch with me through Active Transportation Alliance.

How else did you publicize the project?

Flyers, the Internet and I contacted all the bike shops and if there was any sort of interest I stopped by. A big help I had was from Willow Naeco from the Ride of Silence [Naeco also edits the Chicago Critical Mass Derailleur.] She’s been incredible. She passed out flyers at all the meetings and at Critical Mass and she’s just been so wonderful. Which is also the reason why any sales from the gallery show that’s going up in conjunction with the monument are going to be donated to the Ride of Silence.

In this bike culture there’s a lot of art being created. Bikes are a universal symbol of childhood and innocence and speed. If every kid’s best friend isn’t their dog then it’s their bike. It’s a universal thing; you’ll find bikes in every country. So I thought I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t include other bike art within the school show. So I invited local artists to submit.

How many bicycles are going to be in your monument?

I ended up deciding to only make the monument with as many dedications as I got – about 80. So there are going to be 80 little white bikes. I made them out of glazed porcelain. Going with the Ghost Bike tradition I wanted to make them very simple.

The monument at Lill Street Arts Center

Is there anything in particular you’d like to see happen because of your artwork?

Definitely. Chicago is rated pretty high on the list of bicycle-friendly cities. However we also have one of the highest crash ratings in the nation. I’m hoping to educate the public, get them involved and just let them know that this is issue that’s happening. Everything that Ghost Bikes don’t do, when someone sees them for a second and it doesn’t recognize what it is, I’m hoping the monument will. I want to make people stop for a second and wonder what it’s all about and ask questions and get educated about it and maybe take a stand themselves.

I’m also hoping to affect public officials. There’s a line between the public and the public official. The public officials hold all the power in changing public policy. But if I can sway enough of the public, then public officials will have to pay attention to the growing Chicago cycling community and these safety issues. And getting media coverage is the way to do that.

Are you going to be taking any more dedications at the art show?

Yes. This project doesn’t just start on Saturday because the problem doesn’t just stop on Saturday. This monument definitely has the ability to grow with time. I don’t see this stopping. And these stories from people need to be told by somebody, anybody. And hopefully action will be taken.

More info about "1000 Ghost Bikes" is available at Ramsland's blog,

2009 Chicago Ride of Silence

By John Greenfield

It’s Wednesday, May 20, and dozens of bicyclists are gathering in Chicago’s Daley Plaza for the 2009 Ride of Silence, part of a global tribute to cyclists who have been killed by motor vehicles.

The memorial ride began in Dallas in 2003 after endurance rider Larry Schwartz died when a bus struck him on an otherwise empty highway. This year people in nearly 300 cities are participating, to honor the crash victims and make a statement that streets should be safe for all users.

While the message of the ride is similar to Critical Mass, instead of a rowdy parade the 10-mile Ride of Silence is a solemn procession and its mood is quiet and reflective. “This is not meant to be a fun ride,” says organizer Elizabeth Adamczyk, addressing the Chicago crowd through a PA system on a bike trailer. “We’re out there just like a funeral procession to memorialize all those that have gone before us and we're also celebrating the fact that we’re still here riding. Tonight we’re going to let the silence roar.”

As he waits for the ride to begin, daily bike commuter Mayur Thaker says he’s participating because safety is an issue for all bicyclists. “The main thing is to raise awareness in the eyes of motorists as well as cyclists,” he says. “I hope that drivers will start looking out for cyclists on the road.”

There are many memorials to fallen local riders visible at the plaza. Those who have lost friends and loved ones wear black armbands; people who have been injured themselves wear red band. Green bracelets are handed out honoring Apple Store employee Tyler Fabeck, 22, who was killed in April 2008 at Western and Logan in Chicago. Several people have signs pinned to their backs remembering attorney Gerry Bolkema, 53, rear-ended by a car in northwest Indiana in May of last year.

Zip-tied to the handlebars of Laurie Chipp’s touring bicycle there’s a photo of her grandmother Marcella Kilter, standing by Lake Michigan with her own cruiser bike. Kilter learned to ride a bike right before her 42nd birthday and would ride 20 miles every day in the country near Peru, IL, Chipps says. In 1991, when Kilter was 73, a distracted driver adjusting her car radio struck the cyclist. Her leg was broken and healed incorrectly, ending her road riding habit. “She lived eight more years,” says Chipp, “and she’d ride a stationary bike on the porch for exercise, but it just wasn’t the same.”

Soon the crowd of about 200 rolls out of the plaza with an escort of several bike cops stopping car traffic for them. A sign on the back of Howard Kaplan’s bike says, “Shhhh! Ride of Silence,” and nearly everyone seems to be complying. The complete hush of the group is striking and some bystanders seem confused about the purpose this Mass-like ride; participants pull over to explain and hand them flyers.

The procession heads into River North to visit the white-painted “ghost bike” memorial for artist Clint Miceli, 22, at 900 N. LaSalle. In June of last year Miceli was killed when a car door opened on him, throwing him into traffic. Friends and family are trying to raise money for Active Transportation Alliance’s Clint Miceli Memorial Fund, which will be used for bike safety education projects; a benefit takes place on Saturday, June 13, at Emerald Isle, 6686 N. Northwest Highway in Edison Park.

After friends light memorial candles at the memorial, the group rolls into the sunset up Clybourn Ave. A boy on the sidewalk yells, “What parade is this? Is this the bike parade?” At Tyler Fabeck’s ghost bike under the Kennedy Expressway, the crowd spills into the street as more candles are illuminated.

A few miles later the group fills the street at Armitage and Kedzie, where pharmacy student Blanca Ocasio, 19, was killed in September 2007 by a right-turning garbage truck. A few months later, teacher Amanda “Mandy” Annis, 24, was struck at the same location in April 2008 when a car blew a red light. As riders light candles at Ocasio’s ghost bike, diners at the nearby Streetside Café ask, “Why are you guys so quiet? Make it loud.” Someone hands them a flyer.

Two blocks east at Humboldt the ride stops in the parkway by Annis’ recently-installed ghost bike, which seems to have been placed at a different location than the crash site so as not to detract attention from Ocasio’s memorial. Friends embrace tearfully as birds sing in the twilight.

The ride ends at Western and Augusta at the ghost bike for engineer Isai Medina, 50, who was killed nearby in 2006 when a vehicle hopped the curb as Medina stood on the sidewalk with his “chopper” bike. “I think we really made a bold statement tonight,” says Adamczyk to the crowd. “Thank you guys for cooperating,” says one of the bike cops. “I wish every Critical Mass was like this.”

Chicago's North Side Critical Mass

by John Greenfield

The North Side Critical Mass is the newest of Chicago's five neighborhood Critical Masses - smaller, more intimate rides that harken back to the early days of the Daley Plaza Mass, when it was possible to fit the entire group into one saloon. Other "local motion" masses include Wicker Park, Pilsen, Oak Park, and Evanston. The North Side event gathers at 6:30 pm on the second Friday of the month at Senn Park, 5887 N. Ridge in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Julie Hochstadter started a Far North Side Riders discussion group on the Chainlink social networking site earlier this year. "I just thought it would be fun to start a group for all the riders up north," she says. Out of these discussions the idea for the new Mass developed, and fellow North Siders Tony Riccardo, Hector Soriano and Rachel Friend promoted the ride, which started in March, says Hochstadter.

On Friday May 8 at 6:30, a handful of bicyclists are gathered under Senn Park's statue of Young Lincoln by Charles Keck. A scruffy youth called "Rufus" is spraypainting "Happy Friday" on a billboard trailer towed by Uptown Bikes founder Tim Herlihy. "The first ride in March was so cold," Rufus recalls, "afterwards at the bar my buddy stepped outside and sat down inside a stranger's car to roll a joint. The guy came out and yelled at him, so my buddy kicked in a tailight and ran into the night."

As more cyclists trickle in, Soriano hands out laminated spoke cards with the ride's logo, a take-off of the North Face label, designed by Garth Katner. "I like this ride 'cause it's small, so each rider has more say in what we do," says Riccardo, who's brought a big sound system trailer with buzzy bass. He's aiming to open a new community cycle center in Albany Park by the end of the summer, ideally in the neighborhood's community center, 3403 W. Lawrence.

Friend passes out cue sheets for the NSCM Garden Ride, visiting neighborhood green spaces all over the Mid-North area. With Soriano's speakers blaring out Mellencamp's "Cherry Bomb," the group of about 30 rolls out of the park and heads towards the vibrant Andersonville business district. The Puppet Bike rolling theater happens to be set up along the strip, with furry animal puppets dancing to bluegrass on its miniature stage for an appreciative crowd. Out side of the new bar SoFo (South of Foster) patrons dance to U2's "Vertigo," blasting from Riccardo's trailer.

The group heads east on Wilson into a grittier section of Uptown. Kathy Schubert is towing her new dog on her Bike Friday, a mop-topped, "schoodle," or schnauzer-poodle mix, named Suzie. After continuing south on Kenmore, the cyclists stop in the street by Ginko Organic Garden, 4055 N. Kenmore, where a man and woman are sitting on a bench. The mob hoots and hollers until the couple kisses, prompting applause from the pedalers.

Returning to Wilson and heading west the crowd passes the American Indian Center and a mansion owned by the heirs to the Abbot Laboratories fortune. In Lincoln Square, diners at the Fiddlehead Cafe groove to "Wild Thing" by the Troggs booming from the rolling sound system. The ride stops for a moment on a bridge over the Chicago River to admire the view, then rolls into Ravenswood Manor, where the disgraced ex-governor lives. "To Blago's House!," someone shouts.

As more beer is consumed, riders are getting rowdier. "I love this shit, this makes my day," belows one as the Mass heads north on Kedzie through a a section of Albany Park with many Middle Eastern businesses. Stopping across from La Pupusas Salvadoran restaurant on Lawrence, the cyclists are confronted by a couple of police officers in an unmarked car. Herlihy, older and wiser then most of the participants, explains the situation and the cops drive off.

The ride stops at a number of community gardens along the way, at Turtle Park, Northside College Prep and Waters Elementary School, where a new Astroturf lawn was recently installed. Friend lies down on the springy surface and exclaims, "Ah, the smell of Dioxins from outgassing plastic turf."

The bicyclists roll southeast on Lincoln into a full orange moon to the sounds of "20th Century Boy" by T-Rex, towards Fizz bar, near the six-way intersection with Belmont and Ashland. Over beers and burgers on the patio they celebrate another successful North Side ride. "There was even more spectator response than last time," says John Ladner, whose flashing spoke lights were a hit with bystanders. "We get a lot more love on these neighborhood rides."

Friend points out the motley crew of cyclists assembled around the long table. "As you see, our ride is a mix of hipsters, nerds, non-drinkers and alcoholics," she says. Riccardo's wife Marlene adds that this diversity is the strength of the North Side Mass. "In all these rides you get to meet all kinds of people, "she says. "We're like a family, but with new members joining us every month."

Interview w/ Owen Lloyd from Blue City Cycles

by John Greenfield

Chicago’s newest bike store Blue City Cycles opened last month at 3201 S. Halsted in a former barbershop on the main drag of the South Side’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Co-owners Clare Knipper and Owen Lloyd are veterans of various local shops and community cycle centers – Lloyd and I have worked together at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

The new store is small but stocks a variety of new Schwinns, ranging from road to utility to single-speed to the charming “Jenny” model, a canary-yellow cruiser with white fenders and brown leatherette saddle and grips. Blue City also has a good selection of commuter accessories and the basement is full of old bikes waiting to be rehabbed and sold. I caught up with Lloyd, who will be handling most of the mechanic work, on a Thursday afternoon.

Tell me about your experience with bicycles. What stuff have you done that’s prepared you for opening a shop?

I’ve worked in various bike stores and retail settings for the last ten years. I also took a two-week course in frame building and repair at the United Bicycle Institute of America in Ashland, OR, about two years ago.

You used to be head mechanic at Blackstone Bicycle Works [a bike education center and shop in Hyde Park on the South Side] – what did you learn there?

Blackstone was good because it was the “leanest” bike shop I ever worked at. Not having an awful lot of money to spend, we stocked basic retail goods. It was like, “What do we need to have to get the job done and provide people with basic bicycle service? – flat fixes, tires, lights, locks, helmets. But we didn’t have the money or the market to go get lots of stuff. The other bike shops I’ve worked at had a higher volume and were able to have a lot more retail goods. But Blackstone was nice because it’s a bare-bones bike shop.

Why are there so few shops on the South Side and what made you decide to open a shop here?

Some of the neighborhoods may be too low-income to sustain a full-service shop. They can make it worthwhile for the local hardware store to keep some repair goods on hand. Also, the South Side is less densely populated then the North Side so it may actually be easier for adults to get around by car all the time.

The reason Clare and I decided to open the shop here is I’ve lived down the street from here for three years and I noticed the neighborhood had a lot of cyclists and there wasn’t a local shop to take care of them. The closest one [Art’s Cycles in Pilsen] is three miles away. Kozy’s, the big local chain, opened up in the 1940s near here at 35th and Ashland. The only reason they closed that location is because their North Side shops were making a lot more money.

But there was still a market and a purpose for a bike shop in the community. And it seems like the number of people riding bikes in the neighborhood has increased over the last three years. So we figured there’s still enough business in the neighborhood to sustain a small store.

What made you decide to open your own shop?

I guess it’s the classic American dream thing – open your own small business and be your own boss. At several of the jobs I’ve worked at, including the bike shops, in the end I got fed up working for other people. So I figured working for myself might be a good idea.

In the small bicycle shop industry you hit a ceiling in terms of how much money you can earn as a mechanic, even at shops that pay well. So one way to maintain your independence is to open your own shop and see if you can make a better living. Right now I’m not making a better living; maybe I will in five years. Maybe I won’t. But as long as I can earn as much as I did at other shops I’ll be happy.

What other shops have you worked at in Chicago besides Blackstone?

I started out at Working Bikes [Cooperative, in Tri-Taylor,] then I spent two seasons at Rapid Transit in Wicker Park and then Boulevard Bikes for a season.

You and I worked together at Boulevard a little bit and it seems like the layout of your shop is pretty similar. Did Kevin [Womac, the owner] give you any help in opening your own shop?

He gave me advice here and there, like he suggested that I be a Schwinn dealer which was a very good idea because the company has good name recognition in the neighborhood. I asked him about how much inventory he started with and various things like that. A lot of the mentoring I’ve gotten from folks like Kevin, and Chris Stodder and Justyna Frank at Rapid Transit is just seeing how they run their shops, seeing what I like and what I don’t like. That’s helped me out as much if not more than outright asking people.

Does your shop have any particular philosophy or goals?

Right now we’re trying to be a commuter and neighborhood shop and we’ll have to see what people in the neighborhood want. I’ve tried to keep the price range of the bikes we stock at the cheaper end of the scale. We’re trying to get the price point between three and seven hundred dollars, to try to provide reasonably-priced bikes to get people out there and riding.

Now that the shop’s open are you still going to be able to do frame building?

The store will probably take some time away from frame building but I’ve always worked full-time as well as doing frame building on the side. I’ll offer frame repair and fabrication services through the shop. Chicago doesn’t seem to want to support a full-time frame builder. In Portland you can’t throw a rock without hitting a frame builder. The coasts seem to be able to sustain more frame building at the moment but I think it will catch on here eventually.

Where do you see the shop going the future? What’s it gonna look like in two years?

It’ll probably be a lot grubbier in two years. The floor plan might change if we need more or less workspace. Hopefully we’ll have at least one more repair area and a washtub. Originally we’d hoped to open a café along with the shop, but that didn’t pan out. So in a couple of years it would be awesome if someone opened a café next door.

What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you while working at a bike shop?

One time I was working at Rapid Transit and I was making fun of one of the mechanics who wasn’t there. It was his day off but it seemed like he would always show up on his day off. I was sort of mocking him and making fun his beard and the moment I stopped talking about him he walked in through the door, almost like there was a psychic connection, and I just totally lost it.

It seems like beards are big at Rapid Transit.

Yeah, something in the water there makes people get facial hair and tattoos.

There’s also the story of the ants in the bottom bracket. At Working Bikes at the time, a customer would pick out a bike and we we’d fix it up on the spot and they would leave with it. As I was working this particular bike I noticed there was an ant on the brake lever. I brushed it off and kept working on the bike. Then there was another ant and another ant and another ant. And I stopped and I thought, where the heck are these coming from?

So I started tapping at the frame with a wrench and ants just started pouring out of one of the vent holes in the bike and out of the seat tube. There was a live ant nest in the bottom bracket of this Schwinn ‘cause the bike had probably sat outside behind someone’s garage. It had been donated that day. So I said to the customer, “You might have to come back for this – we’re going to have to fumigate.” That was totally bizarre. It’s the only time I’ve found living creatures inside of a bicycle. I’ve found a few dead ones before.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

SmartBike DC

By John Greenfield

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a bunch of locations in downtown Chicago where you could rent a bike at the spur of the moment, allowing you to make connections between other transportation modes, run errands or go on a spontaneous cruise?

This is already the case in Washington, D.C. On a recent visit to our nation’s capital, I met with Jim Sebastian, Supervisory Transportation Planner for the district’s department of transportation. He showed me around the city’s new public, self-service bike rental program, SmartBike DC, the first of its kind in the U.S.

Automated bike rental is already commonplace in Europe with various services now established in several French, German, Spanish and Scandinavian cities. Established last year, Paris’ Vélib’ service has become the leader with 20,000 bikes available from 1,450 kiosks, located every thousand feet or so in the city center.

Jim Sebastian

I met with Sebastian outside his office at one of the ten existing rental racks, holding a grand total of 120 bikes, near Metro rapid transit stations scattered evenly throughout the central city. Unlike many of the European services which allow anyone with a credit card to rent a bike, for now Smartbike DC requires users to sign up in advance on line, pay a one-time $40 use fee, and wait to receive a swipe card in the mail. Swiping the card at the bike rental rack allows you to un-dock one of the bikes; at the end of your session you place the bike back into the rack and it locks automatically.

“I don’t think we’ll go to the Paris model where all you need is a credit card,” says Sebastian. “I could steal your credit card, swipe it into the system and make off with a bike and you’d be responsible.” He adds that while Washington’s bike infrastructure has improved in recent years, it’s still not up to Parisian standards, so it might not be a good idea to have tourists using automated rental bikes in hectic D.C. traffic. “That’s a crazy combo I think,” he says.

D. C.’s system was created as part of the city’s recent contract with Clear Channel Outdoor to provide bus shelters with advertising placards, similar to Chicago’s deal with JC Decaux which led to the installation of thousands of bus shelters at no cost to the city. Clear Channel provides the district’s bikes and other hardware and handles the day-to-day operations of the rental system.

Chicago has been kicking around the idea of an automated bike rental system for a few years now, but it’s going to take some time before we get one. According to CDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda, last year the City put out a request for proposal for such a program. They received two responses, but neither was deemed a good fit for Chicago because they did not meet the City's criteria of offering bikes at low cost or no cost to users.

Earlier this year JC Decaux submitted a proposal to add a bike-rental component to the existing bus shelter contract, says Castaneda. Currently the City is reviewing that proposal, while also considering issuing a new RFP to seek more proposals. Castaneda adds that Chicago is looking at existing programs like Vélib’ and SmartBikes DC to determine how many bikes and which locations would work best for our town, as well as to determine the fee structure and liability issues.

D. C.’s bikes are designed to be comfy, low-maintenance and theft-resistant. With their small frames, ape-hanger bars and unevenly sized wheels they look a bit like clown bikes. Full fenders, a chain guard and a three-speed internally-geared hub makes them weather-resistant while motion- and light-sensitive head and taillights ensure that if it’s dark out and you’re riding, the bike is illuminated. A front luggage rack is handy for stowing a bag or briefcase. “I call it the no excuses bike,” says Sebastian.

To deter thieves from stripping off components, the bicycles feature unique parts that are not compatible with other bikes. The bolts require a special star-shaped wrench. While the Parisian system provides skimpy cable locks to riders, SmartBikes DC requires users to bring their own locks, unless they are just taking a bike from one rental rack to another across town. But Paris loses about 300 bikes a year, according to Sebastian.

Helmets are also BYO and are strongly encouraged but not compulsory. Members are obliged to sign a document saying that they’ve read the booklet Safe Cycling in Washington, D.C., based on a guide written for the City of Chicago by Dave “Mr. Bike” Glowacz.

Each D. C. rental rack has slots for 9-15 bikes but to allow some “slack” in the system they are not fully stocked each day, so there’s space for parking bikes that have been ridden from other locations. A special van that can carry nine bikes at a time is used for redistributing bikes and maintaining them.

Sebastian let me take one of the bikes on a test ride on a few blocks of bike lane streets. With its fat tires and upright sitting position, the bike was a lot of fun to ride. It seems like a design that would be comfortable for users of various sizes and experience levels.

Afterwards, Sebastian updated me on other bike and pedestrian initiatives in Washington. He’s got a handful of staffers working under him: one coordinates bike lane and bike rack installation; another plans off-street bike trails; another deals with ped issues; another is responsible for a Safe Routes to School initiative; and another works on programs to promote transit use and ride sharing.

There used to be only a few bike lanes in this city of about 600,000 (5.3 million metro) but within the last few years they’ve reached 37 miles of lanes. This compares favorably to the roughly 110 miles in Chicago, with a population about five times as large.

The District has installed about 900 on-street bike parking racks. Sebastian says the district has been successful in encouraging office building managers to provide bike parking inside the garages. “It’s a carrot approach,” he says. “we can provide them with ‘U’ racks on rails, but often the company will buy their own racks.”

The District recently broke ground for a new bike station at D.C.’s Union station, a hub for Amtrak, commuter rail and Metro trains. Currently there is space for 50 bikes outside the station but theft and vandalism are common. The 500 square-foot bike station will provide secure indoor parking for 150 bikes, using the same Josta brand double-decker racks that were installed in Chicago’s Millennium Park Bike Station, as well as rental and sales of bike accessories.

Chicago's first elevated railway

By John Greenfield

[This piece also ran in Time Out Chicago magazine,]

On May 27, 1892, the Windy City’s first elevated railway, the steam-powered Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, AKA the “Alley ‘L,’” rumbled into action, leaving from a downtown station at 550 S. Holden Ct., a glorified alley between State and Wabash. “This essentially helped put Chicago on the map as a major metropolitan area,” says CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski. Tracks were erected above City-owned alleys all the way to 39th St., bypassing an 1872 law requiring signatures from adjacent property owners to build along streets. 300 VIPs boarded the six-car train for the 3.6-mile maiden voyage to the Spartan south terminal at 39th. There a dining car was added so a nosh could be served to the bigwigs on the return trip. Soon afterwards public service commenced with trains running as frequently as every 2.5 minutes for the 5-cent, 14-minute, one-way run. The downtown station was decommissioned in 1949 and a parking garage built around it in the ‘50s; in 1998 both structures were demolished to make way for a surface lot.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Strange signage on the lakefront path

By John Greenfield
Photos by Hui Hwa Nam

Lakefront path at Lawrence Ave.

Q: What's up with those signs in Uptown where streets cross the Lakefront Trail? Are cars are supposed to stop for bicycles or are bikes supposed to yield to cars?

A: This unusual signage is at Montrose, Lawrence and Foster, where the path not only intersects these east-west streets but also meets on- and off-ramps from Lake Shore Drive. Street traffic gets stop signs while cyclists and skaters on the trail get yield signs.

According to CDOT spokesman Brian Steele, the path used to cross these streets about 50 feet east of the LSD ramps and there were no signs for either street or trail users at the crossings. Recently the city improved the path at these locations by widening it and adding soft-surface jogging lanes.

View from LSD off-ramp at Montrose Ave.

CDOT also opted to bend the trail west towards the ramps, creating curves in the path that encourage bikers and bladers to slow down. The new layout also means cars are already stopped when they encounter trail users. Since there’s usually more traffic on the path than the roadways, non-noxious transportation gets the right of way.

So why the yield signs? Just like on-street yield signs, these direct folks on the path to slow down or stop when necessary, says Steele. “I don’t believe these intersections are confusing to any of the users and they’re certainly a much safer environment than the old configuration.”

View from the Lakefront Trail at Montrose

Randy Warren from Chicagoland Bicycle Federation disagrees. “These signs are completely inappropriate,” he says. “Bicyclists are being told to yield to stopped traffic.”

Warren thinks the ensuing confusion may be causing crashes. “I got a call from an insurance company after a cyclist got hit,” he says. “It wasn’t clear who had the right of way. The motorist was saying the cyclist was supposed to stop for him. The signs just don’t make sense.”

Sunday Parkways throws a bash on the boulevards

by John Greenfield
[This piece runs in this week's New City magazine.]

Sunday morning and Humboldt Boulevard, usually dominated by speeding metal boxes, is filled instead with smiling faces: tots on trikes, parents with strollers, joggers, bladers and every kind of bicyclist. It’s like a more family-friendly Critical Mass, minus the pissed-off motorists. Are we in some alternate universe?

No, says a green-skinned alien who’s waving to folks as they roll past a temporary skate park that’s been set up for the occasion, hip-hop on the sound system. He’s actually 50-ish Rafael Boria, in costume to promote his son’s skateboard company, but he refuses to break character. “Coming from planet Yuron, I am pleased to see you Earthlings have created this inviting environment,” he monotones.

It’s Sunday Parkways, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s scheme to turn roadways into temporary car-free space for healthy recreation, inspired by Bogota, Colombia’s Ciclovia (“Cycle Way” in Spanish) which draws up to two million residents every week to play on a seventy-mile street network.

The bike federation is staging two three-and-a-half-mile pilots of the program along Chicago’s boulevard system this month: last week’s North Side route which winds from Logan Square’s Centennial Monument to Garfield Park; and another test on October 26, from Garfield Park to 24th and California in Little Village. The federation organized and paid for these events but hopes to persuade Mayor Daley, an outspoken cycling advocate, to fund and expand Sunday Parkways next year.

Just south of the eagle-topped monument in Logan Square, Armitage Baptist Church has set up a makeshift café, handing out free java to fuel the cyclists. A few blocks down the route an “activity station” at Palmer Square Park hosts aerobics, yoga and fencing demos. “This is a great opportunity to meet your neighbors,” says Gloria Alcala, watching with her daughters Viviana, 9, and Valeria, 7, who have balloon animals tied to the front of their two-wheelers.

Marcus and Juvy Radford push their daughter Zoe, 2, past the Humboldt Park boathouse, where salsa dancing, a steel drum concert and capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines combat with music and dance, take place. “I think we should have this more often—and later in the day,” says the drowsy mom. A Henry Rollins lookalike pedals by, carrying a female friend in the front cargo hold of his Dutch work bike.

At the south end of the route in Garfield Park, at a live taping of the local TV show “Chic-A-Go-Go,” hostess Miss Mia and her puppet sidekick Ratso are leading a crowd of kids and their parents in line dances like the Cuban Shuffle, the Soulja Boy and the Cha-Cha Slide. They’re swarmed by a flock of Canada geese and Park says, “We’re trying to get geese to dance with us.”

At 1pm, just before rain sets in, city workers start moving traffic cones and barricades to open the streets to motorized traffic. “Oh, they’re letting the cars back in,” says a hipster. “Yeah,” replies a senior. “That sucks.”

A memorial for Blanca Ocasio

by John Greenfield

On Thursday, September 11, over 150 relatives, friends and neighbors gathered in Logan Square to honor Blanca Ocasio, placing a “ghost bike” at Armitage and Kedzie where she was struck one year ago. Ocasio, a 19-year-old pharmacy student nicknamed “Chi-chi,” was pedaling eastbound on Armitage when a garbage truck overtook her and swung south onto Kedzie, trapping her underneath.

Six months later schoolteacher Amanda Annis, 24, was killed on her bike at the same location after a car ran a red. The advocacy group Logan Square Walks is lobbying for safety improvements at the intersection such as adding a red light camera, tightening curb radii and striping bike lanes; workers recently repainted the crosswalks and stop bars.

Ocasio’s family requested the memorial from Chicago Ghost Bikes, which has installed several other tributes to fallen cyclists. The crowd assembled at Palmer Square, two blocks north of the intersection, many wearing t-shirts with Ocasio’s image and messages like “Lost a friend but gained and angel,” and “R.I.P. Chi-chi girl.” Blanca’s father Ramon told them, “As she looks down from heaven at us I know that she’s smiling,” urging them to be careful when driving.

Her loved ones then walked with lit prayer candles to the crash site, followed by dozens of cyclists walking their vehicles. After the white bike was chained to a light pole, mourners added candles and flowers. Chicago Ghost Bikes’ Howard Kaplan hoped the event provides closure for Ocasio’s family, adding “They probably feel they’re a little less alone with their loss.”

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Biking to work on Inauguration Day

Kathy Schubert and Steve Timble

By John Greenfield

Each year Active Transportation Alliance (formerly Chicagoland Bicycle Federation) holds Winter Bike to Work Day on January 20, marking the anniversary of Chicago’s coldest day in modern history. This year the date happened to coincide with the most memorable inauguration in modern history, when Chicago’s own Barack Obama became our nation’s first African-American president.

The alliance commemorates that frosty day in 1985 - when temperatures at O’Hare Airport hit 27 below zero with wind chills as low as 93 below - and celebrates cold-weather commuting by serving breakfast to bicyclists at Daley Plaza. This year dozens of folks showed up for a healthy combo of cocoa and cheesecake, mingling on the plaza’s incredibly cold granite surface for as long as their feet could stand it.

I interviewed the cyclists about the significance of biking to work in freezing weather on the day of Obama's inauguration. They also told me whether they believe the progressive new president will have a positive impact on walking, biking and transit in the U.S.

Randy Neufeld

“Winter Bike to Work Day is a fun way to get people thinking about biking in the toughest conditions they can imagine,” said Randy Neufeld, Chief Strategy Officer for the advocacy group, at 8:30 am. “We also happen to have only about two and a half hours left of George Bush.”

Neufeld said the most significant aspect of the new regime for transportation is that Democrats will dominate Congress. “A new transportation funding bill is coming up this year and [Minnesota congressman] Jim Oberstar is in charge of the process,” he said. “He’s a friend of mine and a friend of cycling. That coupled with an administration that is going to be open to some major changes means we’re likely to win big.”

He said his biggest hope for the bill is that major financial incentives can be put in place for state and municipal governments to promote non-noxious travel modes as a way to fight climate change. “If you put a carrot out there that encourages [local governments] to reduce emissions, they’re going to go for that money.”

Cyclist Jeff Bar said he bikes to work every day, so riding on Inauguration Day has no special significance for him. “I hope there will be some positive changes for biking but I’m a little cynical,” he said. “At least we’ll have the right guy in office.”

Jeff Bar

Steve Timble, Associate Publisher of the Chicago Reader dropped by the plaza before checking on employees passing out copies of the paper’s special inauguration issue on State Street. A longtime bike commuter, he had opted for the El train that morning.

“This is a very special day to be biking or taking transit to work,” he said. But he cautioned that while having a progressive president in office will help with transportation change, work has to be done on a micro level as well. “For example, if you want to get a bike bridge built in your community you need to work with your alderman, mayor or congressman.”

He said the upside of the down economy is that this is a great time to be advocating for appropriate transportation. “CTA ridership is at an all-time high – that’s what I’m jazzed about.”

Bike activist Kathy Schubert said that with a failing economy and two wars to deal with, Obama shouldn’t be expected to solve all the nation’s transportation woes as well. “He’s got so much on his plate he can’t possibly get to everything.”

William James

William James, who immigrated from England 35 years ago, confessed that the free breakfast coaxed him back on his bike for the first time in a month and a half. Dressed in thin layers, he said he said he was toasty warm despite the brisk weather. “The secret is a bottom layer of cashmere.”

“I think there is some symbolism here,” said James. “We’re hoping that the new president will be a lot more proactive on green initiatives. I think there’s going to be a general elevation in the public consciousness about saving energy and reducing one’s carbon footprint. Personally, I’m hoping for a revolution.”

Stacey Meekins

Asked whether Obama can make a difference in encouraging healthy travel modes, transportation planner Stacey Meekins said, “God, I hope so. It’s still an uphill battle but we have a better shot now with someone who will listen. But it doesn’t come down to just one person.”

“I’m super stoked,” said traffic engineer Dave Miller. “I think Obama shows the kind of priorities we want to see. But we need to keep pressing elected officials to improve cycling.”

Lauren Sailor, far left; Dave Miller, far right

“The most important thing is your personal transportation choices,” said Lauren Sailor. She had just passed out about 20 homemade balaclavas on behalf of Bike Winter, a grassroots group that promotes all-season cycling. “Change starts with the individual.”