It happened nearly 20 years ago, but Chicago cyclist Anne Alt still has vivid memories of one particular bike ride on her way home during evening rush hour. As she tried to navigate around a parked vehicle obstructing the crosswalk at the corner of Clark and Broadway streets, the vehicle’s door abruptly swung open.
“One second, I’m going straight on Broadway. The next second, I’m flying sideways off my bike and landing in the middle of a traffic lane,” Alt said.
Alt was in a state of shock, completely unaware that her tailbone had sustained a fracture, she said.
“I was incredibly lucky because the woman behind me slammed on her brakes, put on her flashers, jumps out of the car, [and asks] ‘are you okay?,’” Alt said. “I’m eternally grateful to that driver behind me who stopped because she literally saved my life.”
Alt is currently serving as the president of the Chicago Cycling Club. She said bike safety in Chicago has only worsened since the incident took place, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
“Chicago did very little during the pandemic,” Alt said. “We lost a lot of ground compared to a lot of other cities that acted more aggressively to make their streets safer.”
With Chicago being rated among the worst big cities in the world for bike safety and traffic crashes involving cyclists on the rise, bike safety advocates are calling on Chicago leaders to speed up their proposed plans to upgrade the city’s cycling infrastructure. Of the cyclists WBEZ interviewed, many said they believe more bike-related injuries and fatalities will occur, if the city does not prioritize a network of protected bike lanes and reduce speed limits.
“I’m glad that they’re experimenting with more types of bike lanes to see what works and what doesn’t,” Alt said.
“But I do feel like it’s going slowly.”
Bike safety in Chicago
There were 1,186 traffic crashes involving cyclists through Aug. 26 this year, almost 30% more than the tally through that date in 2020.
In addition, Chicago ranked 161 out of 163 large cities for bike safety, according to a 2023 City Ratings Report by PeopleForBikes, a nonprofit based in Colorado.
PeopleForBikes rated more than 1,700 cities across the United States and internationally on the quality of their bike networks, according to the organization’s website.
Each city receives a City Ratings score on a scale of 0 to 100. A low score, from 0 to 20, indicates the city lacks safe bikeways or there are gaps in the network. A high score, from 80 to 100, indicates that most common destinations are accessible by safe and comfortable bike routes.
Chicago had an overall city rating of 7. The average rating for all cities was 27.
Rebecca Davies, the City Ratings program director for PeopleForBikes, said there are a lot of beneficial changes when protected bike lanes are added to a street.
“We see higher ridership because more people feel comfortable riding a bike when they know that they have this separated space, especially on those busier, higher-speed streets and higher-volume streets, as well,” she said.
Davies said protected bike lanes also improve the experience for people who are driving, as it creates more clarity on the road.
“Everyone knows where they’re supposed to be,” she said. “When you don’t have dedicated spaces for people traveling at different speeds, it gets very confusing for people.”
Davies said Chicago’s rating can significantly become better, if the city prioritizes reducing speed limits on bigger roads.
“Maybe a difference of five or even 10 miles per hour might not sound like a lot to someone, but when you look at the data, it makes a significant difference in the likelihood of injuries and fatalities,” Davies said.
A 2020 report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials found that as speed limits and speeds increase, so do fatalities. A person hit by a car traveling at 35 miles per hour is five times more likely to die than a person hit by a car traveling at 20 miles per hour, according to the report.
A 2019 study from the University of Colorado Denver and the University of New Mexico, found that with added bike infrastructure, fatal crash rates in Chicago dropped by 38%. However, specifically protected and separated bike lanes are significantly associated with fewer fatalities and better road-safety outcomes.
Reducing speeds is an area of focus as the city moves forward in expanding and updating Chicago’s bike network, said David Smith, the Complete Streets Director for the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT).
Smith said speed studies have shown that people driving over the 30 mph limit on stretches of both Augusta Boulevard and Kedzie Avenue declined after CDOT installed protected bike lanes.
In addition, Smith said the city has plans to narrow travel lanes to reduce driving speeds and repurpose excess space to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and transit users.
“Reducing speed is really critical,” Smith said. “The faster that somebody is driving, the more likely that someone who is particularly outside of a vehicle is likely to get seriously injured or killed.”
Bike network growth
In March, CDOT released its latest 2023 Chicago Cycling Strategy, outlining the department’s plans to install the next 150 miles of new and upgraded cycling infrastructure over the next couple of years. According to the strategy, 85% of the identified projects call for protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways that are comfortable for people of all ages and abilities, not just for experienced bicyclists.
“We know that both protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways offer a level of comfort that really is suitable for a wide range of people,” Smith said. “We’re designing our streets to be friendly for people of all ages and all abilities, and really to develop a system where anyone can get around by bike.”
The strategy acknowledges that Chicago’s bike network is not evenly distributed throughout all parts of the city. There are plans to begin a new Neighborhood Bike Network planning and engagement process in the Brighton Park, Gage Park, and McKinley Park neighborhoods.
According to a WBEZ analysis of maps of Chicago’s bike network growth through the years, as of August 2023, the Archer Heights, Garfield Ridge, Montclare, Mount Greenwood and O’Hare community areas lack bike infrastructure, in general.
The strategy calls for expanding the city’s downtown protected bike lane network in 2023. Protected bike lanes are also planned for key corridors along Belmont, Damen, Kedzie, and Milwaukee avenues, as well as Clark, Division and Halsted streets.
In addition, the city plans to upgrade all existing protected bike lanes with concrete curbs and convert all existing buffered bike lanes to protected bike lanes. According to the strategy, CDOT finalized designs for protected bike lanes on Kedzie Avenue, Augusta Boulevard, and Milwaukee Avenue in 2022 and will continue upgrading more routes in 2023.
Some advocates remain skeptical about the city’s current plans, noting that the city made slow progress with previous plans and that some prior goals have not yet been met.
In 1992, the city released The Bike 2000 Plan in order to make Chicago bicycle-friendly by the year 2000 and overcome the “traditionally hostile environment to bicycles.” The plan also recommended the city would develop a minimum of 300 miles of bikeways by the year 2000.
By 2010, the city only had 193.2 miles.
In addition, The 2020 Streets for Cycling Plan indicated the city would have 645 miles of bike infrastructure over the next coming years.
As of June 2023, Chicago’s bike network had about 433 miles of on-street bikeways and off-street trails. There were 40 miles of protected bike lanes — just 9% of the city’s total.
“We are not making progress—things are getting worse,” said Rony Islam, an organizer with Chicago, Bike Grid Now!. “So, when we see these kinds of action plans that come from D-O-T, it oftentimes is not enough.”
In 2018, CDOT held a public meeting to discuss the reconstruction plans for Milwaukee Avenue from Belmont Avenue to Logan Square, which included pedestrian, bicycle, and bus stop improvements, as well as traffic signal and landscaping enhancements. While there was support for various concepts, especially installing protected bike lanes, business concerns about the loss of on-street parking and technical challenges with the separated bike lane concept led to the decision to proceed with dashed bike lanes, according to the city’s summary report of the public meeting.
In January 2023, CDOT confirmed its intention to implement dashed bike lanes, curb extensions, and raised crosswalks over the next couple of years. However, this decision faced criticism from cyclists who’ve long advocated for protected bike lanes for increased safety.
Advocates said they would like alderpersons to more often utilize their authority to prioritize such projects. “The alderman could say yes or no to a project,” said Alex Perez, an advocacy manager at Active Transportation Alliance. “So if they say no, that could pretty much just kill the continuity of a bike lane happening.” Also, jurisdictional issues with roads owned by the state and county can hinder safety improvements, according to advocates.
The future of Chicago’s bike infrastructure
In early August, Chicago, Bike Grid Now! invited Chicagoans to the Lincoln Square community for the “Taste of the Bike Grid” tour.
The event offered people a chance to explore what riding a bike could be like if the city had a bike grid, which the organization describes as a network of streets designed to prioritize cyclists and pedestrians, making roads safer and more accessible for all.
Islam said the purpose of the tour was to showcase that there are low-stress residential neighborhood streets in Chicago that could be part of a well-formulated bike grid.
“The bike grid isn’t only for people who are biking. Everyone at some point relies on a transportation system,” Islam said. “Whether they’re pedestrian, they’re walking, rolling, driving, or biking in the city of Chicago, we think the bike grid makes every Chicagoan safer, including folks who are driving.”
Chicago, Bike Grid Now! is calling for the city to transform 10% of Chicago’s streets, or at least 450 miles, into a bike grid. The organization is also advocating for a reduced speed limit of 10 mph in some residential areas, as well as other traffic-calming measures like speed humps, raised crosswalks, curb extensions, chicanes, and more narrow roads.
Earlier this year, during the mayoral campaign, Mayor Brandon Johnson and several other candidates endorsed the idea of a bike grid featuring 10 mile-per-hour, bike-friendly streets.
One of Johnson’s campaign promises was to fully invest in biking infrastructure and safer streets, further stating the need for dedicated streets with slow speeds and protected bike lanes. Johnson also mentioned some of these investments in his 2023 Mayoral Transition Report.
“I hope that the mayor, during his term, is able to implement many of those recommendations. It will go a huge way towards improving bicycling in the city and changing people’s lives,” Davies said.
The mayor’s office did not immediately return WBEZ’s request for comment about this story.
CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi, who was appointed in December 2019 by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, resigned earlier this month, and Chicago transportation advocates released a statement urging the Johnson administration to appoint a “bold” and “visionary” commissioner.
Islam said the transportation community wants a commissioner who is willing to work with Chicagoans, hear their concerns, engage with them and bring them into the planning process.
“There’s a real sense of urgency with this, with our conversation, with the work that we’re doing,” said Sophee Langerman, an organizer with Chicago, Bike Grid Now!.
“We have friends and people in the community who are getting hit by cars weekly, who are getting hit by drivers weekly,” Langerman said. “It’s pretty terrifying. Our lives are on the line.”
To view CDOT’s current projects on bike infrastructure, check out Chicago Complete Streets.
To find your ward and alderperson, visit here.
Jessica Alvarado Gamez is a Roy W. Howard Fellow for WBEZ. Follow her @AlvvJess.
Correction: The comparison year for a 30% increase in the number of traffic crashes involving cyclists has been corrected; it’s 2020, not 2019.