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Biker in Cook County Forest Preserves

A cyclist takes a ride in the Cranberry Slough Nature Preserve on Sept. 20, 2019. Cook County is looking to expand its biking paths throughout the county.

Manuel Martinez

Cook County wants to make biking more accessible. Here’s how.

Cook County leaders are creating the region’s first-ever bike plan — and one that emphasizes equity.

They imagine a place where bike paths don’t abruptly end on a busy street, where people feel empowered to bike instead of drive to get their groceries and where everyone can enjoy using two wheels.

“Right now we have some places and communities that just do not have access to trails the way that others do,” Jennifer Killen, superintendent of the county’s transportation and highways department recently told the Cook County Board of Commissioners during a virtual meeting. “We know that this bike plan, and more importantly the implementation of it, is one way that we can rectify that.”

The county plans to finish the plan this summer. In the meantime, here are six things to know about the effort.

What’s the plan for making Cook County more bike friendly?

A countywide bike plan is an ambitious goal. Cook County is vast, with roughly 560 miles of roads, more than 130 municipalities including the city of Chicago, where aldermen have a say into what does – and doesn’t – go into their wards. Have you ever biked from one neighborhood to another and noticed a difference?

Killen said the county is guided by three main principles for a countywide bike plan. One is to make cycling safer for people of all ages and abilities — from a child to an experienced rider — by expanding a network of trails that aren’t on busy streets, or by creating a buffered bike lane on roads to separate drivers and bike riders.

Another goal is to make it easier for people to ride their bikes instead of driving for everyday habits, like buying groceries and getting to work.

And there’s a key focus on making biking more equitable.

What does access look like now?

Unequal. The majority of side paths on county roads are in higher-income communities, according to the county.

And consider how close county residents live to a paved trail. More than 70% of Asian residents and more than 60% of white residents live less than two miles from a trail, compared to fewer than 50% of Black residents and less than 45% of Latino residents, according to the county.

How does collaboration fit into the plan?

The county is looking to complement what other communities are doing, and help as needed.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Killen said. “Many times it’s filling in the gaps.”

For example, the county is planning to build a bike bridge that spans five rail lines. This would link the South Side of Chicago to the south suburbs to the county forest preserve trails.

What’s the price tag?

Currently unknown. Killen said it was premature to talk about how much the plan might cost to implement.

Expanding access to bike trails is one thing. How about providing bikes to rent?

The county is interested in pursuing some kind of bike-sharing program, Killen said.

Meanwhile, the Cook County forest preserves want to bring back a bike-sharing program that ended in 2019, spokesman Carl Vogel said. The forest preserves, which are a collection of nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas, from wetlands to towering trees, is bidding out a proposed contract now.

How can I weigh in?

You can. The county has created a website where residents can share their bike experiences and suggest ways to improve them. One unique way is to ‘pin’ your idea to a map.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.

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