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At Grid Chicago, we like to deal with facts and we said before that we would combat bike lane backlash.

The Chicago Tribune published Sunday an op-ed by John McCarron, an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and monthly columnist, about how using bicycles and fast buses to get to work is not practical. I’ve picked 7 misinformed or inaccurate points he makes to tell you what’s real.

1. McCarron says that bus rapid transit won’t work as a practical alternative to commuting by automobile in Chicago.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) systems typically have fewer stops and can reach higher speeds; they may also have priority at signalized intersections, and be able to cross through before anyone else. At least part of the route has a lane dedicated for the buses’ use.  There are several cities in the United States that have some form of bus rapid transit; here are their effects:

Emerald Express (EmX) in Eugene, Oregon – Riders reported in a survey that they had a higher perception of reliability on the EmX bus versus the bus it replaced. They also reported that their trip’s travel time, when using EmX, was shorter. They also gave higher ratings of safety and seat availability on the EmX over the route it replaced. Data suggests that the service is attracting commuters who previously drove or carpooled. (from the project evaluation report)

Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) – Route travel times improved by 26-43% (dependent on time of day) between the existing Route 113 and MAX. Riders also reported shorter trip times when using MAX. Like EmX, the data for MAX also shows that the new bus is attracting new riders. (from the project evaluation report)

Additional systems include Select Bus Service in New York City and the Orange Line in Los Angeles.

2. “[Mayor Emanuel's] main legislative win in Springfield is getting state permission to set electronic speed traps all over town.”

They are not traps; speed cameras, like red light cameras, must have signs indicating to drivers when and where they are in operation. Governor Quinn hasn’t yet signed the legislation but the Chicago Tribune editorial board advises him to.

3. “Check out Kinzie Street behind the Merchandise Mart. If you watch long enough you may see a bike go by.”

The Department of Transportation (CDOT) counted 656 bicyclists in a two hour period in July 2011, representing nearly 50% of vehicles on the road (count data). So it seems you’ll spot a person bicycling for every person you see driving.

4. “But who among us has the time, stamina or ego to ride a bicycle to work?”

I’m not sure who he’s including as “us”, but in the 2010 Census, over 14,000 Chicagoans reported riding their bikes to work*. If “us” means automobile drivers, then many more would bicycle to work if they felt it was safer – 100 miles of incoming protected bike lanes will do that for a city. Time? You’ll have to try out your route on a bike to see which is faster. As for stamina, not everyone is racing to get to work. Ego? Please check it at the door. Citizen cyclists don’t have one.

5. “Besides, I’d look silly in cyclist couture. Imagine me in a Castelli Sorpasso bib tight cycling suit (available online for around $179.95 plus shipping). I’ve never paid that much for a real suit.”

I’m not aware of a requirement to buy new clothes in order to ride a bike to work (or anywhere). If McCarron wore that while cycling to work, he’d probably be the only one. I found it for less at $149.95.

6. “The city’s Department of Transportation has done a lot of stupid things — check out its plan for a subterranean transit center under the corner of Monroe and Clinton — but preserving the old railroad right-of-way between the Merchandise Mart and Tribune Tower isn’t one of them.”

There are plans for this right-of-way, called the Carroll Avenue Transitway, in the Central Area Action Plan. “The Carroll Transitway as currently defined would connect Union Station and Ogilvie Center with areas north of the Chicago River, and include a terminal at Navy Pier. Carroll is named for a partially grade-separated right-of-way that was previously occupied by a railroad spur. A transit line along this route is one of the altematives for consideration.” That statement comes from a Request for Proposals the City issued in 2010, but canceled a month later.

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A photo from 1968 shows the Carroll Avenue bridge in the up position. An abandoned railway goes from here (at Clinton Street and Kinzie Street) nearly to Navy Pier under the Merchandise Mart and other buildings. You can easily see it by going to 100 feet north of the Chicago River on Clark Street. Photo by David Wilson. 

7. “But no, that’s not the plan. Instead we’re going to reinstall bus lanes on already-choked streets in the heart of the Loop.”

As I noted above, faster buses with dependable service (schedules and travel times) have a tendency to attract new transit passengers and reduce the number of people driving alone, the shear number of which causes a majority of congestion.

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BRT, like the EmX in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, uses longer buses in dedicated lanes with signal priority and prepaid boarding to reduce travel times and improve service reliability. Even with the Select Bus Service in congested central business districts like Manhattan. Photo by Streetcar Press. 

What else should we talk about?

I didn’t write about everything; contribute your own response in the comments about the parts I skipped. I like the direction that Jason Tinkey, whose blog is a member of our Network, took in his dissection; here are key excerpts:

It’s the sort of screed we’ve come to expect, full of outdated stereotypes, faulty logic and straight-up misinformation.

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. From 2001-2009,369,629 people died on America’s roads, an average of over 41,000 per year. To put that in perspective, that is just above one per cent of the national population, equivalent to a city the size of Minneapolis being wiped out, or about 120 9/11 attacks. I really think it’s time the streets-are-for-cars-so-everybody-else-can-get-out-of-my-way-or-go-[_]-themselves crowd drops the “war on cars” rhetoric. Unless, of course, they’re willing to confront the crimes against humanity waged in their name over the past couple of generations.

Per capita casualty rates are significantly lower in every other industrialized nation, so why does it need to be this way?

To answer this, we must look at how we’ve built our cities over the past fifty years. It’s no secret that trillions in federal funding has gone to subsidize freeway-centric development.

He’s right about one thing, all the bike lanes in the world are pointless for the elderly or infirm. But then again, so is auto-centric development.

Read Jason’s full article on The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong. You can also read Brent Cohrs response on his Chicago Now blog. Read Doug Gordon’s anthology of bike haters in Brooklyn Spoke. I didn’t hear him say it myself, but apparently transportation commissioner Gabe Klein said on Tuesday to a City Club luncheon that “there is no war on cars”.

*Because of an issue with how the Census collects this data, it could be higher: if more than one mode of transportation was used each day, those surveyed are asked to specify the mode used for the longest distance during the trip from home to work. This would ignore a bike trip from Lincoln Square to the Western Brown Line station to a job in the Loop, counting it as a trip by train.

Updated December 1, 2011, to add a link to information about the effects of Select Bus Service in New York City, an additional link to another response, and fixing readability in the first paragraph about BRT. 

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  • http://brooklynspoke.wordpress.com Doug G.

    Steven, great post as always.

    You should be very happy with McCarron’s piece — when someone writes something that terribly irrational it means he’s been confronted with an uncomfortable truth about an inevitable future that throws the status quo into question.

    What I love about McCarron’s piece is the idea that a $179.95 cycling suit–regardless of whether or not one needs one–makes cycling too expensive, but a $18,000 automobile, insurance payments, gas, maintenance and other expenses are apparently not factors that influence a person’s decision to drive.

    For a complete dissection of McCarron, I suggest this excellent piece from Adam Sternbergh at the NY Times, “I Was a Teenage Cyclist.”

    http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/i-was-a-teenage-cyclist-or-how-anti-bike-lane-arguments-echo-the-tea-party/

    Read this quote from McCarron:

    “Mind you, I have nothing against biking or hiking. I can change inner
    tubes on my single-speed AMF Roadmaster; and the Ira J. Bach Walkway
    overlooking the river along Wacker Drive is, for me, a sacred path.”

    And then read Sternbergh’s response to New Yorker writer John Cassidy.  Sternbergh writes that the “invocation of personal cycling bona fides” is a requirement for any anti-bike-lane screed.  Here’s Cassidy:

    “As a student, I lived in the middle of Oxford, where cycling is the predominant mode of transport, and I cycled everywhere.”

    So, be thankful.  Hopefully this blog and other citizen cyclists can ward off the extreme bike hate we’ve seen in NYC, but it’s always good when the best your critics can do is resort to the same tired irrationality that’s already been played out in other cities.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      I like what you wrote in your blog Wednesday, Doug. 

      That people who write to disparage bicycling always mention their own “commendable” bicycle rides and abilities (based on what Sternbergh wrote “Sternbergh writes that the ‘invocation of personal cycling bona fides’ is a requirement for any anti-bike-lane screed.”)http://brooklynspoke.com/2011/11/30/bike-haters-of-the-week-jon-and-john/

  • Anonymous

    The thing is that is funny to me, is that in some ways, Chicago is behind in modernizing transportation infrastructure. This is something that folks like McCarron would have a hard time accepting and really understanding. We just got our new CTA cars, and we finally just got a new CDOT director with a proven track record of making things happen. With the new push from CDOT for Streets for Cycling, hopefully more folks will feel more comfortable riding to work or just quick errands around the neighborhood. 

    The other thing I always wondered, and something McCarron didn’t even touch on is the use of street cars. He’s not a fan of BRT, but I would like to hear what he thinks about the new street car system in DC and the one in Portland that has proven to be wildly successful. I also always wondered if street cars would be useful in Chicago, and where they would be applied…

    • http://www.bikewalklincolnpark.com Michelle Stenzel

      We need street cars everywhere in Chicago! Here’s info from a friend who’s just starting up discussions on that topic:

      http://www.chicagostreetcar.com/

      • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

        That’s a nice website. It pretty clearly makes a case for streetcars. The CTA does consider light rail in its alternatives analysis and for pretty good reasons (incompatible with current build system) they are eliminated. 

        I’m not going to advocate for streetcars to come back to Chicago except in very key areas and with a good plan attached to how the route would be constructed and operated. 

        I would liked to have seen the downtown circulator streetcar/light rail not fail in the early 1990s. 

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      I don’t think I want to hear him any more, until he starts using “research” as a part of writing an article. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/vanlue Will Vanlue

    Great article! It does a nice job of breaking down myths about riding a bike that are held by  a hand-full of uninformed people.

    And regarding clothes for riding a bike, does McCarron has a specialized driving suit too? If he’s already dropped a bunch of coin on fancy costumes for every activity he enjoys (a writing suit, an eating suit, and the list could go on) maybe he’s short on cash and can’t afford one more outfit.

    If that’s the case, I’d suggest he follow my lead and try not to pay for so much gasoline. Saving only a tank or two of gas will more than pay for all the bicycling clothes that McCarron could need, if he is insisting on a wardrobe change.

    Or instead, he could wear his existing clothes while riding. I’m about to head out on my bicycle in a few minutes I’m I’m planning to wear jeans – it works just fine.

    But I object to something Jason Tinkey said to:
    “He’s right about one thing, all the bike lanes in the world are pointless for the elderly or infirm.”

    There are plenty of elderly and infirm who use bicycle lanes to get around; sometimes a bicycle lane is the safest and easiest option for them to travel around.  Just check out this article from LA:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/14/local/la-me-long-beach-tricyclist-20110314

    And this story out of Copenhagen demonstrates how bike lanes (or in their case, cycle tracks) help the elderly get the care they need:
    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2007/12/cycling-nurses-help-thwart.html

  • http://profiles.google.com/vanlue Will Vanlue

    Great article! It does a nice job of breaking down myths about riding a bike that are held by  a hand-full of uninformed people.

    And regarding clothes for riding a bike, does McCarron has a specialized driving suit too? If he’s already dropped a bunch of coin on fancy costumes for every activity he enjoys (a writing suit, an eating suit, and the list could go on) maybe he’s short on cash and can’t afford one more outfit.

    If that’s the case, I’d suggest he follow my lead and try not to pay for so much gasoline. Saving only a tank or two of gas will more than pay for all the bicycling clothes that McCarron could need, if he is insisting on a wardrobe change.

    Or instead, he could wear his existing clothes while riding. I’m about to head out on my bicycle in a few minutes I’m I’m planning to wear jeans – it works just fine.

    But I object to something Jason Tinkey said to:
    “He’s right about one thing, all the bike lanes in the world are pointless for the elderly or infirm.”

    There are plenty of elderly and infirm who use bicycle lanes to get around; sometimes a bicycle lane is the safest and easiest option for them to travel around.  Just check out this article from LA:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/14/local/la-me-long-beach-tricyclist-20110314

    And this story out of Copenhagen demonstrates how bike lanes (or in their case, cycle tracks) help the elderly get the care they need:
    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2007/12/cycling-nurses-help-thwart.html

    • http://blog.theplannersdreamgonewrong.com jason tinkey

      Fair enough, I was making a pretty broad point there. I was thinking of my grandmother’s case, she can hardly see and has had a hip replacement and heart bypass surgery…she has serious mobility issues and has enough difficulty just walking down the hall. Obviously not a completely representative case.

      Of course, bike lanes in any incarnation, so long as they are part of a holistic complete streets approach to traffic management, contribute to the safe travel of all users.

      • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

        Thanks for responding to Will. 

    • http://blog.theplannersdreamgonewrong.com jason tinkey

      Fair enough, I was making a pretty broad point there. I was thinking of my grandmother’s case, she can hardly see and has had a hip replacement and heart bypass surgery…she has serious mobility issues and has enough difficulty just walking down the hall. Obviously not a completely representative case.

      Of course, bike lanes in any incarnation, so long as they are part of a holistic complete streets approach to traffic management, contribute to the safe travel of all users.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      I went on a bike ride Thursday morning with Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, from near his house to his office (where I worked at CDOT for three years). John, my Grid Chicago co-author, asked him to talk about what he was wearing. 

      Gabe replied that he was wearing a vintage suit from a brand/designer he likes; he paid $50 for it. 

      When I think of senior citizens riding bikes, two events come to mind. 
      1. When I volunteered at the Chicago Center on Halsted in February/March 2010, a center for the GLBT community, someone rode their bike to each of the free lunches we offered on Tuesday. In the winter!
      2. This older woman riding her bike in the most stylish clothing and coiffed hair in Milan, Italy. 

  • Guest

    “John McCarron, an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism”

    Since when did instructors of Journalism become experts on modern urban infrastructure networks? Maybe I (as an architect) should start writing op-ed pieces on the inadequacy of the current system of higher education…

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      He was also on the editorial board of the Tribune for several years and this is apparently he’s a monthly columnist. 

  • http://twitter.com/studiomurmur studio murmur

    McCarron might have been better informed by reading the New York Times two days before his op-ed…http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/26/opinion/the-death-of-the-fringe-suburb.html

    The mayor – by virtue of not consulting the Tribune, but more reliable information sources- appears to be ahead of the curve or at least on par with the shifting landscape in transportation planning.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      He’s catching up to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City’s rockstar transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan (or, JSK). 

  • http://twitter.com/studiomurmur studio murmur

    McCarron might have been better informed by reading the New York Times two days before his op-ed…http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/26/opinion/the-death-of-the-fringe-suburb.html

    The mayor – by virtue of not consulting the Tribune, but more reliable information sources- appears to be ahead of the curve or at least on par with the shifting landscape in transportation planning.

  • http://twitter.com/carfreechicago Carfree Chicago

    I really find the violent “war” terminology appalling. If there is a war between cars and people biking/walking, only one side is fighting and inflicting casualties — with aggressive, reckless and distracted driving. The rest of us are just trying to get to work in one piece.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      Yes! I’m going to publish this comment. 

  • http://twitter.com/carfreechicago Carfree Chicago

    I really find the violent “war” terminology appalling. If there is a war between cars and people biking/walking, only one side is fighting and inflicting casualties — with aggressive, reckless and distracted driving. The rest of us are just trying to get to work in one piece.

  • Tim Jeffries

    Great article Steve – perhaps your best yet. 

  • Tim Jeffries

    Great article Steve – perhaps your best yet. 

  • http://dingdingletsride.com Samantha

    Great article Steve – nice point by point rebuttal. I am appalled that McCarron believes that it’s a bad thing to make the city easier to traverse by cyclists and pedestrians, and that it’s a useless thing for the handicapped or elderly.

    “Meanwhile, his new commissioner of transportation, Gabe Klein, has made
    it clear he’s about making the city easier to traverse by cyclists and
    pedestrians. ”

    Huh? Better quality sidewalks, curb cuts, etc, are essential for giving folks with limited mobility access to the world. I’m thinking about self-propelled or motorized wheelchairs, and the little old ladies in my neighborhood who can walk with their walkers to church because the sidewalks are wide and clear, curb cuts are in place, as well as crosswalks. All pedestrian-friendly tactics that narrow streets and might just slow down cars who have to stop and wait for them – oh the horror. And improving safety for cyclists is a HUGE benefit to handicapped folks – thinking about our own 7-year old here. He can’t walk as far as other kids, but he can ride his adaptive bike. The more options he has to ride the less time he’ll spend cooped up in car being driven somewhere instead of out getting physical exercise and enjoying the world. Not every elderly person can walk un-assisted around the city, nor can every handicapped person be independently mobile. But the more options they have, the better. 

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      That statement you quoted almost makes it seem that those groups are “others” which he’s never apart of. But we’re all pedestrians at some point in our day (assuming we leave the house). I prefer to use “people first” language. I prefer to refrain from grouping people, and instead use “person who is walking” or “people who drive to work”. 

      Thanks for your story about your own child. I know at least one person who is greatly affected by situations about the city that are easy for those with great sight and difficult for those with impaired or no sight. 

  • http://dingdingletsride.com Samantha

    Great article Steve – nice point by point rebuttal. I am appalled that McCarron believes that it’s a bad thing to make the city easier to traverse by cyclists and pedestrians, and that it’s a useless thing for the handicapped or elderly.

    “Meanwhile, his new commissioner of transportation, Gabe Klein, has made
    it clear he’s about making the city easier to traverse by cyclists and
    pedestrians. ”

    Huh? Better quality sidewalks, curb cuts, etc, are essential for giving folks with limited mobility access to the world. I’m thinking about self-propelled or motorized wheelchairs, and the little old ladies in my neighborhood who can walk with their walkers to church because the sidewalks are wide and clear, curb cuts are in place, as well as crosswalks. All pedestrian-friendly tactics that narrow streets and might just slow down cars who have to stop and wait for them – oh the horror. And improving safety for cyclists is a HUGE benefit to handicapped folks – thinking about our own 7-year old here. He can’t walk as far as other kids, but he can ride his adaptive bike. The more options he has to ride the less time he’ll spend cooped up in car being driven somewhere instead of out getting physical exercise and enjoying the world. Not every elderly person can walk un-assisted around the city, nor can every handicapped person be independently mobile. But the more options they have, the better. 

  • Anonymous

    Nice responses!

    That said, I thing BRT is the spork of transit. It’s proposed by politicians too timid and small minded to fund light rail. IMHO light rail provides a lot better bang for the buck. You don’t get improved real estate development surrounding BRT corridors like you get with light rail. If Western had a light rail line running North/South it would totally transform the hub and spoke nature of CTA. BRT marginally improves commuting times. The fixed rail stops are permanent hubs to activity in a way that BRT is not.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      Thank you.

      BRT and surface rail will have the same issues in dealing with surface road congestion. Not all light rail lines have 100% of their route in exclusive right-of-way, just like not all BRT lines have 100% of their route in exclusive right-of-way. 

      BRT can be implemented faster and cheaper than light rail or streetcars. I think we should give it a try in Chicago.

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