Bicycling in Chicago, a view from the south side – part 2

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People bike during the Perimeter Ride on Doty Avenue, near 103rd Street and Stony Island Avenue. These street conditions are described below in “Bridging the gaps”. Photo by Eric Rogers. 

In Part 1, I examined some of the challenges for cyclists on the south side. It is estimated that approximately 60% of potential cyclists don’t feel safe on city streets, so they ride mostly on very quiet neighborhood streets, or use cars to transport their bikes to paths miles from where they live – if they ride at all. Let’s take a look at who’s riding now and what can be done to get more of Chicago rolling.

Who’s riding now?

Within bike friendly neighborhood areas such as Beverly and Morgan Park, I see a wide range of people riding: children (with and without their parents), teens, senior citizens, and adults of all ages.  Between neighborhoods, where street conditions are usually more challenging, the riders I see are mostly male and relatively fearless.  I don’t have much female company when I’m riding streets like Vincennes Avenue, Torrence Avenue, or 103rd Street.

Clubs and programs are boosting the profile of cycling on the south side. Blackstone Bikes is giving kids in and around Woodlawn the opportunity to earn bikes and the skills to maintain them. Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago (MTC3), Chicago Cycling Club and the new Pioneers Bicycle Club are among the local clubs that regularly ride the south side. Chicago Velo Campus plans to offer scholarships to give lower income kids a chance to learn riding and racing skills.

Bike shop deserts

Some cyclists might be intimidated or insulted by anti-bike trash talking on the street when they’re hit with comments like “Get a real ride!” or “What’s with that raggedy bike?”  There may be safety concerns about being vulnerable to crime and violence while on the street (as mentioned in comments on Reddit). In many areas, there may not be any place within several miles of a person’s home where they can find bike repairs or parts, since most south side neighborhoods are bike shop deserts.

Big box retailers are the most common source for inexpensive bikes, and the ultra-cheap options sold there don’t necessarily offer reliable daily transportation.  The brakes and derailleurs on the cheapest new bikes are usually of low enough quality that they don’t last long under daily use. Wheels may not be strong enough to hold up to potholes and railroad crossings on a regular basis. A better quality bike, bought used, is more likely to be a reliable ride.  I’m only aware of three shops currently selling used bikes south of Bridgeport: Blackstone in Woodlawn, Chicagoland Biycle in West Beverly, and Hegewisch Cycle in Hegewisch.

To increase the number of south side riders, we’ll need more south side bike shops.  We also need to overcome the image of transportation cycling as a poor person’s ride.  In areas where a used bike may be the only way to afford a reliable, decent quality bike, this may be more of a challenge.  Encouraging the growth of new neighborhood bicycle programs similar to West Town Bikes and Blackstone Bikes could be the key in this transition.  Developing a network of neighborhood bike programs could create mutual support –  helpful in areas where cycling is less accepted as a mode of transportation.  Sales of used bikes could be the answer in neighborhoods where income levels may not support a traditional bike shop selling new bikes.

Rails to trails

We have two existing rail-trail conversions: the Major Taylor Trail and Burnham Greenway.  The Major Taylor Trail runs from approximately 83rd Street and Damen Avenue to 134th Street and Halsted Street.  Most of that is off-street path, but there is a gap – an on-street section – from 95th Street and Charles Street to 105th Street east of Vincennes Avenue.  That on-street gap exists because the railroad that was abandoning the line did not give proper public notice, and a developer bought the middle section before the city got a chance to bid on it.

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A sign on the Major Taylor Trail.

The Burnham Greenway runs through the east side from 104th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard to approximately 12400S on Avenue O, adjacent to Wolf Lake.  There is a gap from this point to approximately 146th Street, where the off-street trail continues southward to Lansing.  There are plans to resume construction of the trail and connect the existing sections, but there are significant obstacles to overcome (as shown in the video on this page), and there is no definite date for construction.

Neighborhood groups in Englewood are working with organizations such as Openlands and Friends of the Parks on the development of the New ERA Trail, which would run almost 2 miles east-west through Englewood.  A coalition of many organizations and individuals has met to evaluate the potential of abandoned or underused rail lines in the Lake Calumet area for conversion to trails.  These rail lines were studied in the development of the Chicago trails plan.

The Cal Sag Trail will connect with the Major Taylor Trail, Burnham Greenway and many south suburban communities, trails and bike routes.  Of all the trail ideas in development for the south side and south suburbs, it is the closest to being built.

Getting input

As the plan for 100 miles of protected bike lanes throughout the city is developed, I am very concerned that the south and west sides could still be underrepresented in the planned public meetings for the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 and get a lot less improvement than they need because the city does not perceive a demand.  (The first public meeting is December 10.)  Our current route network is well-used by more “adventurous” riders.  A stated goal of the plan is to convert as many of the 60% as possible into regular on-street riders by creating routes that reduce the chances of traffic conflicts and collisions and make riders feel safer.

Our biggest challenge in the effort to increase bicycling mode share on the south side is that our built and natural infrastructure has been such a formidable obstacle to riders is that a majority of them may not imagine that cycling could ever be a viable means of transportation for them.  Most of them will not have seen the difference that new protected bike lanes are making in neighborhoods far north of them, so they may not visualize how this abstract concept could make a difference in their lives.   Historically, south siders have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of city services, such as street maintenance, so they are more likely to be skeptical that their voices will carry any weight.

We will have to work a lot harder than organizers in north side neighborhoods to get input from the south side communities that have the fewest rideable transportation routes and could potentially benefit the most from gaining cycling as a safe transportation option. Our second biggest challenge will be getting the word out to as many people as possible about the project, public meetings and public input process, so that the ideas and needs of a good cross section of south siders will be represented when it’s time to decide where protected lanes and other improvements will go.

Bridging the gaps

There are many places where improving an intersection, a viaduct or a section of road (from one block to one mile) could bridge a formidable gap in our existing bike route network.  These types of improvements may be enough in some locations to attract more cyclists.  Other locations (such as Vincennes Avenue near 83rd Street) may also need protected bike lanes.

If adequate drainage could be created at the low spots on Doty Avenue that keep washing out (marked with blue pushpins on the map below), this street would be rideable again.

View 103rd/Doty in a larger map.

Conditions there were much better two years ago, but the last two winters have been disastrous for the lowest lying areas, where standing water and freeze-thaw cycles have turned potholes into small canyons.  The worst spots on Doty are bad enough that truck drivers driving huge Streets and Sanitation dump trucks complain about them.  I’ve seen tow truck drivers lying in wait after dropping off cars at the city auto pound at the north end of Doty, apparently hoping for spontaneous business from unsuspecting drivers going to Harborside golf course.

There is another unmarked route that I sometimes use: 103rd Street,Torrence Avenue, and 100th Street.  The segment of 103rd Street shown on the map (in yellow) above has two major hazards for cyclists: the I-94 highway interchange wrapping around Olive-Harvey College, and a long bridge from Stony Island Avenue to Trumbull Park spanning a large rail yard.  From Corliss Avenue (west side of yellow segment) to Trumbull Park (east side of yellow segment), nearly all traffic (including large trucks) goes significantly faster than the 30 mph speed limit, because there are few stoplights or intersections.  The crest of the bridge creates a blind spot, so that cyclists beyond that crest may be invisible to approaching drivers.  Sidewalks are narrow and littered with broken glass.

If a creative solution can be found to make the yellow-highlighted segment of 103rd Street safe for cyclists, it would give us another direct route connecting neighborhoods from across the full width of the city with other neighborhoods, schools, jobs, transit and recreation.  This would be a huge win for south side cycling.

We have another huge gap in the north-south route network at the impassable industrial corridor formed by enormous rail yards from 67th Street to 83rd Street, from Damen Avenue (2000W) to Harlem Avenue (7200W) and beyond.  None of the north-south streets from Damen west are rideable.  Traffic speed and volume are the biggest threats.  Where sidewalks exist, they are narrow and usually have shattered surfaces and abundant broken glass.  IDOT is currently studying options for creating an underpass at Central Avenue, but it is years away from being built.  That project, with its planned bike and pedestrian improvements, is the one bright spot along this grim gap.

There’s a similar gap in north-south routes along I-55 (Stevenson Expressway) and the Sanitary and Ship Canal.  We don’t have any good crossing points west of Loomis Avenue (1400W).  A portion of Western Avenue has bike lanes, but traffic speed and pavement conditions make that option too scary for most riders.  On California Avenue, traffic speed and volume are deterrents to all but the most fearless cyclists, but it could be transformed into a rideable route more easily than other north-south streets across this gap.

Damen Avenue has a truly formidable crossing – a high bridge that spans industrial areas, the Stevenson Expressway, and the Sanitary and Ship Canal.  The highway interchange near the peak of the bridge is enormous.  Would you want to cross this on a bike?  From its start at 33rd Street to Blue Island Avenue (at 2400S), this section of Damen Avenue has only 3 intersections in slightly over a mile: the highway interchange and two industrial sites with sensor-activated stoplights where the light is usually green for traffic on Damen Avenue.  This area is designed for speeding, and drivers do it in abundance.  Viewing the sidewalk here or here reinforces the feeling that pedestrians and cyclists are an afterthought in this road design.

Build it and they will come

If workable plans can be developed and funding can be allocated, strategic bike improvements at well-known gaps in the existing route network could create the right conditions for tremendous growth in transportation cycling on the south side.

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Bike parking at Midway airport is inside the paid fare zone, between the turnstiles and the stairs to the platforms. Photo by Luis Tamayo. 

I recently had a conversation with a friend who lives near Midway.  In the last few years, he has increased his transportation cycling, for health and financial reasons.  He’s seen major growth in cycling within his neighborhood, and to the CTA Orange Line terminal.  He still feels limited in where he can safely go, because major streets with heavy, fast traffic are major barriers.  If Archer Avenue had improvements to protect cyclists, he could feel confident riding Archer Avenue to other neighborhoods and even to the Loop.  He wonders how many of the other cyclists who are regularly filling the bike racks at Midway would do likewise.  Improvements on 63rd Street could help promote shopping by bike at local businesses.  My friend is not athletic.  He’s a regular guy who works long hours at two jobs and would love the stress release and exercise that more transportation cycling could add to his life.

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Porter rides with his parents, Amy and Dan, in Beverly

A family on my street in Beverly rides regularly, but there are many streets where they don’t feel safe riding with their 5-year-old son.  They are eager for improved family-friendly routes so they can ride to more destinations as their son grows and becomes a stronger rider.

If CDOT builds it, the cyclists will come.

Published by

Anne Alt

lifelong Chicago cyclist who has lived in several neighborhoods from one end of the city to the other.

18 thoughts on “Bicycling in Chicago, a view from the south side – part 2”

  1. Another great piece – thanks Anne! It would be interesting to collaboratively build a map of problem spots and possible high-impact improvements.  With something like that, it might be easier to drum up community support for some specific ideas than for a general concept.

    1. Please attend the open house for the Streets for Cycling Plan on Saturday, December 10:
      http://gridchicago.com/2011/events-for-october-to-december-2011/

      The first meeting of the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020
      has been scheduled: it’s an open house that will have mapping
      activities, educational information about innovative bicycle facilities,
      and an opportunity to discuss biking in your neighborhood with CDOT
      staff.

      10 AM to 4 PM
      23 E Madison Street
      Chicago, IL 60602

      1. I hope that as many people as possible will attend the open house.  Peter Taylor (MTC3) and I are co-leaders for our region of the south side for Streets for Cycling 2020.  We’re just starting the process of gathering information and ideas.  As public meetings are scheduled for our region and other areas of the city, we’ll definitely be getting the word out. 

        I’m grateful for this rare opportunity for public input into bike infrastructure planning.  I’d like to see as broad a spectrum of people as possible represented in the process so that the improvements we get make a difference for ALL the 60%.

  2. Thanks for this. I am a South Sider transplanted to Boston so I know the problems you describe. I am male and largely fearless, but I would not bike many of the spots you mention, particularly the viaducts.

      1. I spent a lot of time in Boston when I lived out east.  I don’t remember seeing many viaducts out there except for road viaducts.

        New England never had more than a fraction of the number of rail lines that pass through Chicago, and most of the lines that existed there 50 or 100 years ago have been abandoned.  Quite a few have been converted into rail trails.  The surviving rail lines I remember mostly ran at or below grade with roads passing over them.

        Mark – Do you encounter any rail viaducts in your Boston travels?  Do you encounter any problems with longer road viaducts there similar to what we see here on the south side?

  3. I’m on the south side, but in Hyde Park, where things are relatively good.  Still, I bike with my kids to school and back, and I’d love to see protected bike lanes and more kid-friendly riding areas.  I’m planning on being at the Open House.

    My understanding is that CDOT will be dividing the city into regions and building the same number of miles in each region.  Do you think it’s worthwhile using some of those miles to build on the relatively good biking in Hyde Park?  Or do you think there are too many really egregious southside regions where the money would be better spent to make routes bikeable at some minimal level?

      1. I think that how much of the mileage pie each region will get is a very good question.  It goes back to my concern that the underserved areas of the south side could continue to be underserved if attendance and responses in some of the other areas is significantly higher.

        I was very disappointed when I saw the public meeting schedule the other day.  My first reaction was that it seems designed to *minimize* public input, simply by the timing and small number of meetings.  Having 3 of 4 meetings at 6 p.m. on weeknights is going to make it difficult for a lot of people to participate.

        Just because the areas adjacent to my neighborhood are underserved, I’m NOT going to suggest that Hyde Park doesn’t deserve to get some improvements.  I think there are areas in and near Hyde Park where 1 or 2 miles of protected lanes could benefit a LOT of people.

        I’d really like to see each region get a fair slice of the pie.

        1. I’m so excited to see these two pieces on South Side riding by Anne. I wonder if the SHop- a new art space and community gathering spot next to the Unitarian Church by U of C might be an interesting place to try and have an evening  about cycling on the South Side?

      2. That was my understanding from the Bikeways 101 talk in mid-October.  There were several questions from the audience on the equitable distribution of resources, and I thought this was the solution they presented.  The exact boundaries of the regions had not been determined at that time.

        Perhaps I mis-understood.  That would be disappointing.

        1. I’ve posted a response about this in a new article (to come Monday), but please see John’s comment above about the purpose of planning districts (“The city is being divided into regions for the purpose of dividing the planning work effort, but there’s no minimum or maximum miles for any region”).

        2. I’ve posted a response about this in a new article (to come Monday), but please see John’s comment above about the purpose of planning districts (“The city is being divided into regions for the purpose of dividing the planning work effort, but there’s no minimum or maximum miles for any region”).

    1. The city is being divided into regions for the purpose of dividing the planning work effort, but there’s no minimum or maximum miles for any region.  The prioritization method for bikeway projects also remains to be determined.

      I’m working on some of the route planning on the southwest and far south sides, so I hope to see some of you south side riders at the meetings.

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