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Biking Chicagoland
Katie Murray

Photo: Katie Murray
Chicago, health-conscious? Athletic? A city of bikers? We’ve all heard the claims of Mayor Daley’s goal to “make the city of Chicago the most bike friendly city in the United States,” but is this really possible? Can we outdo urban areas known for their healthy and active residents— San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Boulder?
These are places where people choose oatmeal for breakfast instead of fried eggs and sausage, because they
actually prefer the taste. Can we go head-to-head with cities known for their beautiful scenery and fresh air instead of deep dish pizza, ribs, beer, and hot dogs? Sure, we’re the City of Big Shoulders, but we didn’t earn that title for sticking rigorously to our yogalates routine. We’re known as the superfans, sitting on the sidelines, and overindulging on food and drink instead of getting in the game. With this reputation, can Mayor Daley really convince us to put down our fork and hop on a bike?

Well, if anyone ever doubted the Mayor, they might be backpedaling, because he’s already done so much for the cause. And now is the perfect time to get even more of Chicago, literally, back on the bike again. Gas prices have skyrocketed and with no sign of prices coming down, people are trading in the family SUV for a Yaris. They’re riding scooters. They’re walking places they never walked before. And however altruistic we think we are, a shrinking pocketbook is much more influential than the world’s dissipating oxygen levels. It’s at times like these that the ol’ bike starts looking like a great new way to get around.

Since the second Mayor Daley took the helm of the city, he’s pushed and prodded (much like his father) towards cycling-centrific existence. He’s focused much of his work as Mayor on making Chicago a more “green” city. In this second-city, tailpipe emissions from automobiles and trucks account for almost half of Chicago’s air pollution. If more people rode their bikes, instead of hopping in their car for quick errands, much of this could be eliminated. Aside from the rising gas prices (and aided by the nice weather of summer), biking in Chicago just makes sense. The city is flat and relatively compact. Ride a few miles in Chicago and you can really cover a lot of ground. So for many of us, biking more and driving our cars a little less, really is a smart move.

Making Strides, But Still Behind
In 1992, Mayor Daley announced the Bike 2000 plan. At the time, it was surprisingly aggressive…because biking wasn’t seen as a major issue that the city needed to tackle. Yet tackle it he did. Since then, Daley, along with the help of many others, created a network of over 100 miles of on-street bike lanes and 50 miles of off-street trails. And he worked with local public transportation officials to allow CTA riders to bring their bikes with them onto the “L” and buses. It has opened up a whole new horizon for biking, allowing people to transport their bikes to places they never could before. While the bike/CTA combination seems wonderful in theory, those who have tried to move their bikes through the CTA system know that the experience can be more frustrating than waiting for a bus that’s not coming. If someone isn’t on duty to let you through the bike gate, you have to awkwardly throw your bike over the turnstiles. You have to live by the non-rush hour schedule (you can’t bring bikes on the CTA during crowded periods). Other riders get annoyed with you and your bulky bike. You can’t figure out how to flag a bus down and get your bike on the front (hey, it’s not easy). But while they’re still working out all the kinks, there’s no doubt that biking and the CTA working together is definitely an accomplishment.

Photo: Bike to Work, Katie Murray
While the biking successes are mounting, Mayor Daley and his team of cycling enthusiasts show no signs of stopping in their pursuit of getting more Chicagoans to cycle. They’ve recently announced the new Bike 2015 plan. In this plan, by the year 2015, they hope to achieve two major goals: to increase bicycle use, so that 5 percent of all trips less than five miles are by bicycle, and to reduce the number of bicycle injuries by 50 percent from current levels. To do so they want to create a bikeway network that connects all Chicago residents and neighborhoods, make all streets safe and convenient for biking, and improve bike parking. They’re also focused on education. They want to inform bicyclists, motorists and the public about safe riding and to launch a promotional campaign to encourage more people to ride. These aren’t modest goals, but very soon Chicago really could be the United States’ “most bike friendly city,” which will allow Mayor Daley to ride off into the sunset.

Light a Fire Under the Bike Seat
Build it and they will come. While that might be enough for hard-core cyclists, it’s not enough for the rest of the city. In order to motivate the Chicago masses to dust off their bike, hop on that old banana seat and get pedaling, it takes more than just building some new bike lanes. You need to give Chicagoans a reason to ride: fun activities that will plant the biking seed and keep it rattling round and round in their head (just like those beads you used to put on your bikes spokes). The Chicago Bicycle Federation, a group who is dedicated to “working to make the Chicago area a better place to live, work and play,” has taken the lead in many of these efforts. The Chicago Bicycle Federation starts every summer off with a unique ride, Bike the Drive. The Sunday of Memorial Drive, LSD shuts down allowing Chicagoans to cruise across the hallowed ground that only car tires usually touch. Watching the sunrise over the lake while riding the 30 miles is truly an awesome experience, and when you’re pedaling over the exits (that feel more like mountains) you’ll have a newfound appreciation for all your car does for you each day. This year, more than 20,000 participants, the maximum capacity, discovered the exhilaration, and the good food, offered at Bike the Drive.

There’s also the Bike to Work Rally—a biking pep rally put on by the Mayor and the Chicago Bicycle Federation. Held early in the summer, it’s an attempt to wake up downtown commuters out of their same-old
morning routine and remind them that cycling is a great, alternative way, to get to work. There’s no better way to shock them out of their bedhead comas than with a free breakfast, free t-shirts and raffles prizes. Here, commuters are reminded that there’s a recent addition to the city that’s made biking easier for downtown workers—the new bike parking facilities at Millennium Park. The McDonald’s Cycle Center is a stateof-
the-art facility on the edge of Millennium Park that offers 300 secure bicycle parking spaces you can rent for $15 a month or $99 for the year. And, if you’re hesitant about showing up to work stinky and dirty, have no fear—they also offer lockers, showers, and towel service. There’s a bicycle repair shop, if anything should happen to go wrong. And if riding to work isn’t enough of a wake up call, a coffee bar and internet station are also available to help you greet the day. And this year, for many downtown summer events, the city is offering free bike valet services. For events such as the Outdoor Film Festival, Lollapalooza, Jazz Fest, Air & Water Show you can ride your bike, drop it off, and enjoy all that the city has to offer.

Photo: Cycle Center, Katie Murray
Come On Ride It
Of course, the city is full of people who have long been passionate about biking, not just because the mayor told them to. These are the people who love riding, day or night—in fact, many of these people probably prefer to ride at night. These are the people who are always excited about the annual L.A.T.E. ride (Long After Twilight Ends). This is the 25-mile bike ride that takes all night (starts after midnight) to ride through downtown, Greektown, the north side, and many other parts of the city. It’s a convivial environment and everyone is out for a good time. They even offer some fun contests, like the best light-decorated bike. All in all, a good idea, but the overcrowded streets make it a very slow go, (especially along the stretch of Lincoln Avenue with drunken revelers spilling out of the bars and harassing late night bikers). If you like the idea of a late night ride, but want to avoid the crowds, you have another option. For the truly adventurous, The Naked Bike Ride is available, protesting oil dependency and to “liberate the street from winless caravans of guzzling self-hating mongers and to inject the hearts of our neighborhoods with the reality of our beautiful bodies.” It’s a “bare as you dare” event, alerting everyone to “ride naked at your own risk.” Whether you ride totally naked or choose to cover conspicuous areas, rest assured that this is a highly-guarded event, in an attempt to keep the police and media away. Information isn’t available until right before the ride—kind of like a rave for cyclists. So if dodging the cops while trying to keep certain areas protected is your idea of fun, check out The Naked Bike Ride.

Critical Mass is an international movement with less than mainstream views about biking. Their goal, for many of the riders, is to “take back the street” from “cagers” (people who drive in their cars all day long). The rides start at Daley Plaza at 5:30 pm the last Friday of every month. Always riding to a new location, their message is that cars shouldn’t rule the road. Often, the cyclists are riding en masse, clogging the streets so motorists can’t get through. With Critical Massers passionate about their movement, and car-commuters passionate about getting home on a Friday afternoon, the two often clash over precious space on the roads. It’s great to see bikers so zealous about their cause—but if you’re in a hurry, ending up near a Critical Mass bike ride (whether walking or in a car) isn’t where you want to be.

Rider Without a Cause
You don’t have to ride to make a political statement or to protest anything. If your only cause for riding is pulling yourself away from a Married With Children DVD marathon, that’s good enough. And Chicago is full of options for places to ride. Many major streets and thoroughfares throughout the city have bike lanes, which make it easier to get around the Chicago grid, running errands and hopping from place to place.

If you fear the urban jungle with angry cabbies, people swinging car doors open into bike lanes, motorists not seeing cyclists, and not being able to get through lights in time, you still have choices. The most obvious, of course, is the lakefront path. It has miles and miles of paved and (mostly flat) landscape with absolutely gorgeous views of the water and the skyline. If you choose to ride north from downtown, your eyes are in for a treat—the beautiful lake, tennis courts, volleyball courts, golf course, beach bums… and lots and lots of other people on the path with you. If you like a flurry of activity whizzing past you, ride north to experience the
quintessential Chicago summer activity. If you happen to love the lake, but would prefer a more subdued and serene environment, head south on the Lakefront Path. Starting at Navy Pier and heading south, you’ll see a whole other Chicago, one of vast expanses, the gorgeous museum campus, parks, McCormick Place and lots
of undisturbed lake front.

Photo: North Along Lake Path, Katie Murray
Busse Woods
If you’re having one of those days where you are craving to get out of the city, but you don’t want to cross the state line, Busse Woods might be a good choice. Just northwest of the city, it’s the perfect place to throw the bike on the bike rack and explore the open roads. What it offers is 11 miles of smooth pavement through winding woods, open valleys, with little peeks into the nearby lake. While it offers a nice smooth surface with many wooded areas, don’t expect to be all by your lonesome—many other cyclists, runners, walkers and in-line skaters will be hot on your trail, so make sure you stay in a single file line. From beginning to end, Busse Woods gives you a quick romp through a forest-like setting without having to trek to the boonies.

Illinois Prairie Path
If you are seeking a ride that’s a little longer, that has a few more twists and turns, try the Illinois Prairie Path. What makes this path so interesting is its heritage: it used to be a rail line that was abandoned years ago and then converted into trails for the public. When riding the trail, you can almost imagine cruising along a train as it twists and travels through the western suburbs. Starting in Elmhurst, you’ll move through Villa Park, and into Wheaton. There are also arms that run into Elgin and Aurora. Altogether, it’s a network of over 60 miles of paths stretching through Cook, DuPage, and Kane Counties. There are countless other biking trails throughout the Chicago suburbs and some excellent paths in central Illinois and southern Wisconsin. If you prefer to stay within the city’s boundaries, Chicago offers an almost endless array of choices for bike rides—try Hyde Park or the Lakefront Path to Evanston. Or explore the UIC area or Ravenswood. Wherever you decide to take out your bike, whether you’re riding to express yourself or just want some exercise, make sure you bring some comfy bike shorts (but remember—wear spandex at your own risk), a good bike lock, a water bottle, and most importantly, a helmet. It’s all the protection you’ll need in the fight as Chicago battles to become the
United States’ most “bike friendly city.”

Listings associated with this Feature:

McCormick Place Navy Pier
Millennium Park

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