Officially the City of Chicago has gone for hard and soft measures to increase cycling in the Windy City. The ‘hard measures’ of bicycle tracks and lanes along with the ‘soft measures’ of education, traffic awareness and advocacy.
Chicago currently has more than 170 miles of on-street, buffered and shared bicycle lanes with more in the way of off-street paths (including the Lakefront Trail which is a shade over 18 miles).
In its Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, the city is aiming to have a 645 mile network of bicycle facilities in place by 2020 – the aim being that there is a quality bicycle facility within a half mile of every citizen of Chicago. They have also just launched a bike share scheme.
Into all this rode the Portland 2 Portland team on their way across the USA, The Republic of Ireland, Wales and England to the RIBA headquarters in London. The riders led by Peter Murray, Chairman of NLA: London’s Centre for the Built Environment, had been pedalling away since 27 April. The team stayed in Chicago for a couple of days as part of their research project.
I had a chance to ask a couple of riders about their experiences so far. In particular, what they feel would improve cycling in Britain. Especially as the North American experience of motor car dominance in their cities is very similar to the United Kingdom including the solutions they are looking to.
Bob West stated: "Some of the key points from our US experience would be the strength of political champions needed to get and keep things moving; significant federal funding; advocacy groups that actually do things like school/adult training programmes and help with projects rather than just shout from the sidelines [and the] belief that safer infrastructure will get more, less confident people cycling."
When asked about any difference in experiences between cycling in the US and UK, he furthered: "The people involved in campaigning for, and those actually delivering, improvements are passionate and have looked at European models; for the most part, car and truck drivers have been extremely courteous and give us plenty of room. [The are] less differences in approach between states than expected."
Ben Hockman had the following to say about Chicago:
“My main experience of cycling in Chicago is that it is quite a hostile experience. They certainly have some fantastic facilities such as the lake front trail that we rode in on that it’s a joy. However this is a very leisure orientated facility, even if it does feed into a potential commuter route for those that can get to it and down into the centre of the city.
"Having spoken to a few bike shop guys, bike advocates and city officials, the existing grid system is a major threat and potential opportunity. At some of the points where the grid is intersected by a diagonal street you have nightmare 6-way junctions that I, as a confident city cyclist, was intimidated by, to the degree that I got off and walked to make a left turn (granted I wanted to get some pictures too.) But you also have very busy roads heading into the city that are a major problem to cross…
"Mayor Rahm and Gabe as Commissioner for transport have a very entrepreneurial spirit and can do/WILL DO type of approach, as well as an understanding of the importance of communicating the aims through various means……the day we visited the ATA there was a positive front page story about bike lanes in Chicago and the benefits for the city. Even though our taxi driver the next day thoughts all bike lanes were a waste of space and time!
"The most important thing is strong leadership and strong working relationships and communication between the various agencies trying to enact good cycling infrastructure / culture…."
The team will be publishing their experiences and studies in print and digital format. The problems that Chicago faces and, more importantly, are proactively facing up to are far from unique. But, like other cities in North America and the United Kingdom the problems of trying to untangle transport networks where once the car reigned supreme are massive, requiring great boldness and vision. The team will be reporting on the varying degrees of boldness and vision in what should be an absorbing comparison between cities, countries and continents.
You can join in either for one of the legs of their grand voyage across the US, Ireland, Wales and England or, if you prefer watching the Tour de France instead, you can make a donation. All monies will go to Article 25, Architecture for Humanity and the Architects Benevolent Society.