How to make biking better in Chicago, according to 200 cyclists
Chicago has been called one of the best biking cities in America. But local cyclists told us in a new WBEZ survey there’s miles to go to make it better.
How to make biking better in Chicago, according to 200 cyclists
Chicago has been called one of the best biking cities in America. But local cyclists told us in a new WBEZ survey there’s miles to go to make it better.By Courtney Kueppers
Chicagoans love their bikes, and they eagerly share their favorite routes to ride in the city.
Local cyclists also are quick to spout their frustrations and concerns, from safety to inadequate infrastructure. Those worries have been underscored this spring by a series of crashes that have killed riders at busy intersections.
WBEZ recently asked Chicagoans to tell us what they wanted to know about biking in the city and what unanswered questions they had for City Hall transportation officials. Questions from nearly 200 cyclists poured in.
When will there be more protected lanes? Why don’t the police enforce the law when it comes to cars parking in bike lanes? How can I encourage cars to stay a safe distance away without pi**ing them off?
We didn’t just field questions — we posed them to the official at City Hall who is responsible for the city’s bike network. Read his responses here.
But given the outpouring of replies, we also wanted to share what cyclists praise and what they’d improve. Want to add to the convo? Tell us on social media using #WBEZBikeBetter.
What frustrates Chicago cyclists most and needs fixing, they say
When cars and buses block bike lanes
One of the most common annoyances we heard about biking in Chicago is how often bike lanes are ignored by motorists.
“I don’t ‘love’ any bike lanes, because of my biggest frustration: They are almost always blocked by double parkers, delivery trucks, you name it. Looks great on paper, but does not work so well in real life,” wrote Susan Tonon of North Center.
A resident of North Lawndale said “it’s especially frustrating to see cop cars, CTA vehicles, news vans [and] other municipal vehicles do this when they especially should know better.”
West Loop resident Robbie Ellis said he’s “resigned to ride-shares” pulling into bike lanes, but has a creative idea for a solution.
“Honestly I think no one should get a car license to drive in an urban area without doing 50 hours of cycling in a major city — or something like that,” he wrote.
How hard it is to find good east-west routes
Riders love moving north-south in the car-free world that is the Lakefront Trail and on other major thoroughfares, but “east-west bike travel could use some love,” as Benjamin Bedley of Buena Park put it.
“East-west is a lot more difficult,” an Uptown rider wrote. “Crossing the river is always an issue because you are funneled to the bridges, and they are hit or miss as far as bike lanes.”
There are some particular frustrations with Chicago Avenue, where one Wicker Park resident noted there’s a designated bus lane, but not a bike lane.
“So now if I try to be a law-abiding citizen and stay out of the bus lane, I get bombarded with car honks and cars that drive too close to me because they don’t want to share,” the biker wrote.
Eboni Senai Hawkins, who lives in Oak Park, said she chooses “residential streets over ones with lanes” for this reason.
“The ones with lanes are often laid out alongside major traffic routes and I’d rather not play hopscotch with buses,” she wrote.
Bike lanes that go nowhere
Riders in Chicago want not only protected bike lanes, but connected bike lanes. In the current bike network, cyclists say sometimes you’re cruising along and the lane abruptly stops.
“I ride along and all of a sudden, the bike lane is GONE! (Example: Jackson Boulevard),” wrote a cyclist from Oak Park.
An Uptown resident wrote that “bike lanes should be continuous, and all interconnected. As well as protected.”
“My frustration comes from thoroughfares not being connected,” another biker from North Park added.
As a West Rogers Park cyclist put it, it’s often a matter of going across unsafe streets in order “to get to safe routes.”
Riders from around the city stand united in their hatred for potholes and their frustrations in how long it takes to get them filled.
Hawkins said as she’s been eyeing her options to bike from Oak Park to Bronzeville a few days a week and found that “the lanes through the West Side parks are often riddled with potholes.”
Bike lanes can be rendered “useless” when overrun with potholes, like over on Cortland Avenue, writes an East Village biker. That area has become a “rim-bending nightmare,” as a Humboldt Park resident put it.
“All over the South Side the quality of sidewalks, bike paths in parks and even streets are TERRIBLE. So many potholes,” wrote a resident of Hyde Park.
Feeling unsafe when cycling in the city
Longtime Chicago bikers like Elihu Blanks of South Shore described significant improvements over time, from more bike lanes to more input and concern for safety. But there’s still ample work to be done, Blanks said.
A Humboldt Park biker who wrote in thinks “there is no reason why Chicago can’t be among the world’s bike-friendliest cities — it’s flat!”, but there’s a long way to go in making that happen, especially when it comes to rider safety.
“The city is a long way from signaling to cyclists that their safety is a priority,” the cyclist wrote.
Chicago bike enthusiasts want more spaces where they can cruise without competing with cars for space, and they’re confident there’s a desire for it.
“Having been hit and knocked to the ground twice by cars, once seriously, really impacted how safe I feel,” wrote a Lake View resident. “I know lots of people who won’t [bike] because they feel it is not safe. I would like to see more infrastructure dedicated to physically separating cars from bikes for main arteries.”
Like a lot of riders, Liz Kersjes of Andersonville said biking around Chicago is a huge source of happiness for her. But it also comes with some anxiety.
“I would bike even more and farther if I felt safe doing so, but every single time I ride, at some point I think about my safety and whether a car is about to hit me or door me,” said Kersjes.
“Car-free streets for biking would be a joy and so many people would use them for alternate transit. Just look at the Lakefront path — it is packed all the time!”
What Chicago cyclists love
The “606” trail that runs between Ridgeway and Ashland avenues on the Near West Side
There’s a whole lot of praise for the roughly 3-mile elevated trail that transformed a former rail line into a popular bike artery — a project that has earned Chicago some praise in national urban planning circles.
A Hermosa resident told WBEZ the 606 is his “favorite Chicago feature” and said “everywhere besides the 606 is frustrating by comparison.”
Other survey respondents said time of day makes a difference when it comes to the 606: Many often opt to get out early and have the car-free passage nearly to themselves or “when it rains and no one is around,” as Belmont Cragin resident and year-round cyclist Laurie Wettstead responded.
Riders also wish this trail would connect to another favorite: the Lakefront Trail.
The scenic, 18-mile Lakefront Trail
Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of folks we heard from regard the Lakefront Trail “above all” other bike routes in the city — calling it “glorious,” “a treasure,” “ideal” and “obviously the best.” But their praise did often come with this caveat: “If you can access it.”
That frustration alludes to the fact that despite the 18-mile length of the trail, only a few major thoroughfares connect to it and they tend to be high-traffic areas.
“I love the Lakefront Trail, but I hate reaching it from downtown,” wrote a rider from Lake View.
“The Lakefront path is amazing but GETTING there is treacherous for bikers! I’m relatively close, but the roads to get there are ones that go from being one-way to two-way and I always feel like I’m taking my life into my hands if I ride over to the safety of the Lakefront Trail,” wrote another rider from the Andersonville area.
Some riders say they avoid the Lakefront during the busy summer months, but that some parts of the trail can be less congested.
“South Lakefront is beautiful and not crowded like the north Lakefront,” wrote a Hyde Park resident.
Others say improved communication among riders on the trail itself could help make it a better experience for everyone.
“I love biking the lakefront, but as someone who has recently picked up cycling for the first time since childhood, there are lots and lots of cyclists that don’t give a friendly bell ring or ‘on your left’ warning as they pass. It can be scary and dangerous,” wrote Bedley of Buena Park.
The diagonal, and functional, Elston Avenue
Ellis, who lives in West Loop, says “Elston is underrated and really quite efficient for bikes.” And he isn’t alone. The love for Elston, which zips riders from downtown up through the Northwest Side, is real.
“Elston is great and would be so much better if they regularly swept/shoveled the bike lane and didn’t park in it,” wrote a respondent from Bucktown.
The northwest street’s bike lanes also garnered this praise:
“Elston is my favorite.”
“Elston in its entirety is awesome!!”
“Elston is great because bikes are protected from the traffic by parked cars and the lanes are painted green which is helpful visually.”
The wide-open stretches of Martin Luther King Drive
Another fan favorite is riding on Martin Luther King Drive, which one Pilsen resident called “such a big street you can cruise down.”
Riders say this part of town feels spacious and well maintained with a relatively low amount of traffic.
Laura Alagna, who lives in Rogers Park wrote, “I love lots of the South Side bike lanes! The one on MLK Drive is wide and beautiful, and has very few obstructions with cars, etc.”
“There’s not a lot of traffic on that road and the architecture along there is really beautiful,” Alagna added.
Protected bike lanes
Nearly half of all respondents told us they love protected bike lanes, which separate bikes from car traffic using curbs, posts or parked cars, and they want more of them.
Kersjes, who lives in Andersonville, said she will go out of her way to bike somewhere if there’s a visual barrier between her and cars.
“If I ran the city and had unlimited money, I would make everything a cement barrier,” she said. Painted barriers, she pointed out, fade.
Blanks, who has been biking in the city for 20 years, said “most bikers don’t like paint on a street.”
“It doesn’t stop a 3,000-pound vehicle from throwing you where it wants,” said Blanks of South Shore, who added that the lack of protected and connected bike lanes “produce an unnecessary risk.”
A biker who lives in West Loop wrote that “hard protected bike lanes on streets are essential. The flagrant disregard for bike lane violations is unacceptable.”
“Give us some real, tangible safety measures, not illusions and theater,” said a cyclist who lives in Uptown.
Is there something you love or hate about biking in Chicago that’s not on this list? We want to hear from you! Share your thoughts on social media using #WBEZBikeBetter.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.