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The Major Taylor Trail, named for the African-American bike racing champ, in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood. Photo by Eliezer Appleton.

On October 12 the article “City Bike Plan Stuck in a Rich Rut” by David Lepeska ran on the website for the Chicago News Cooperative (CNC), a nonprofit news organization which produces the Chicago pages for the New York Times on Friday and Sunday. This piece analyzed Mayor Emanuel’s plan to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes, create a large-scale bike share system and build the Bloomingdale Trail and the Navy Pier Flyover. The original text is at the bottom of this post. An edited version of the CNC article ran in the Chicago edition of the Times as “Chicago Bike Plan Accused of Neighborhood Bias” on October 15.

The original CNC piece included two incorrect statements that I felt were central to its premise that the Mayor Emanuel’s bike plan focuses on the wealthier sections of town and overlooks low-income areas. One of these statements, claiming that the majority of the bike share kiosks are slated for downtown and the North Side, was corrected for the Times version after the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) contacted Mr. Lepeska. The other erroneous statement, which claimed that an upcoming protected bike lane on 18th Street is the only project planned for a low-income community, did run in the Times.

On October 18 I contacted the managing editor of the CNC and told him I felt Lepeska’s article was inaccurate and also misleading because it stated, “Emanuel’s initial plan is drawing complaints about an inequitable distribution of bike-related investment.” The piece only quoted one Chicagoan, past Grid Chicago interviewee Oboi Reed, who expressed concern about the possibility that the South and West Sides might not get their fair share of bike facilities. (The article correctly stated that my blogging partner Steven Vance questioned the first few bike lane locations, but this was because he felt the lanes would be more useful on other streets, not because of a geographic equity issue.)

After the editor and I exchanged a number of e-mails on the subject, the CNC ran a correction to the 18th Street statement in the local print edition of the Times last Sunday, October 23. The CNC made corrections to the online versions on the CNC site and the Times site as of last Tuesday, October 25.

In my discussions with the editor, I shared my own thoughts on the geographic equity issue. He encouraged me to post a letter on the CNC site expressing my views on this topic. Here’s an edited version of the letter I posted.

To the editor

Thank you for correcting two inaccurate statements in the CNC article about Mayor Emanuel’s bicycling initiatives. David Lepeska originally wrote that the majority of the bike share kiosks are slated for the Central Business District and the North Side. In reality the city has not chosen locations yet.

Mr. Lepeska also stated that a protected lane on 18th Street is the only project planned for a low-income area. In fact, the Bloomingdale Trail and a protected lane on Jackson Boulevard will serve low-income communities as well. Protected lanes are also proposed for Stony Island Avenue and Blue Island Avenue in underserved parts of the South Side.

It was important to me to get the facts straight about the mayor’s plan because, as a sustainable transportation advocate, I’m excited about its potential to make biking safer and more convenient for all Chicagoans. The plan could be especially beneficial to low-income residents because cycling offers affordable transportation to jobs and schools, healthy physical activity, and a positive activity for youth and families.

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Mural at Blackstone Bicycle Works, a community bike shop in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

While the headline’s assertion that the bike plan has a neighborhood bias was wrong, the positive aspect of the article was that it highlighted the need to make sure bike facilities are distributed fairly in the future. In fact, there is a higher density of (non-protected) bike lanes in affluent North Side neighborhoods. This is because while residents and aldermen of these wards have lobbied the city to stripe bike lanes over the last several years, there has been much less demand for, and sometimes even opposition to, lanes in low-income areas.

In Mr. Lepeska’s article, Oboi Reed expressed concern that underserved communities might “only see a sprinkling” of protected lanes and bike share kiosks. After reading the piece, I called Reed to ask if he really believes “the lion’s share of the resources are going to go downtown and to the North Side.” He said, “I have no idea if that’s going to happen or not, it’s only a concern. That is not based on what’s in the mayor’s plan, it’s based on the historical precedent that the South Side and West Side have not gotten their fair share of resources when it comes to parks and bike facilities.”

Reed’s concern is justified, but there will be opportunities for residents of low-income communities to have their say on where the facilities should go. This fall the city will be posting its plans for the next 21 miles of protected bike lanes and accepting comments on the locations via the Internet and probably other channels, according to CDOT spokesman Brian Steele. Next year the city will hold several community input meetings to help choose the best locations for the last 75 miles of protected lanes.

It’s likely Mayor Emanuel’s plan will bring dozens of miles of protected lanes and hundreds of bike share vehicles to the South Side and West Side. But to make sure this happens, it will be important for residents of these areas to show up for the public input meetings and tell their aldermen they want bike facilities in their communities. It will be equally important for cycling advocates on the North Side to lobby the city for an “equitable distribution of bike-related investment.”

-John Greenfield

Original text of the CNC article

City Bike Plan Stuck in Rich Rut

By David Lepeska

Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to spend nearly $150 million to make Chicago “the bike-friendliest city in the U.S.” That challenge is considerable, given Chicago’s slow start compared to Portland and other bike-centered cities, and Emanuel’s initial plan is drawing complaints about an inequitable distribution of bike-related investment.

The Chicago Department of Transportation’s $18 million bike share program is to launch next summer with 3,000 bicycles and 300 rental stations–mostly in the central business district and on the North Side. The Bloomingdale Trail, to be built in a 2.5-mile out-of-use rail line extending from Wicker Park to Humboldt Park on the North Side, is expected to cost around $50 million over several years. The city planning commission recently approved designs for a $50 million flyover at Navy Pier, the busiest section of the 15-mile lakefront trail.

Thus far, the city’s lower-income areas are slated for just one project: A protected bike lane on 18th street, in the ward of Ald. Daniel Solis (25th Ward), though more such lanes could be added next spring as part of a four-year $28 million construction plan. The chairman of the city council’s zoning committee, Solis is traveling to Amsterdam this month at the expense of Bikes Belong, a Boulder, CO-based biking advocacy group.

Oboi Reed, a life-long Chatham resident and founder of the Pioneer’s Bicycle Club, said Emanuel is pursuing a good objective, but on a wrong path. “I definitely support getting more people on bikes because a lot of the common health problems African-Americans face are a result of not getting enough exercise,” Reed said. “My concern is that the lion’s share of the resources are going to go downtown and to the North Side – the South and West will only see a sprinkling.”

With the city facing a budget deficit of nearly $640 million and double digit unemployment, Emanuel may find it difficult to justify large spending on bike facilities. “It probably isn’t going to help many low-income and out-of-work folks,” said Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who analyzes poverty and inequality. “You can’t spend all your money on a single priority, ignoring transportation or anything else. Given the situation in Chicago, this much spending seems a bit out of whack.”

From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of Chicagoans commuting by bike increased from about .5 percent to 1.1 percent. The growth is similar to that seen in smaller industrial cities like Milwaukee, Oakland, and Detroit, but still lags behind Portland, which tops the US with 6 percent commuting by bike.

Emanuel has set a goal of installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes–at a total cost of $28 million-–by the end of his first term, in 2015. Protected bike lanes are separated from car traffic by cones, curbs or other impediments. Chicago’s first protected bike lane opened on Kinzie Street, in July. The second lane is to be installed this month, on Jackson Street, with another 20 to be built in the spring -– all in locations chosen by the city.

Sam Schwartz Engineering, a New York-based firm hired by the city to design a 150-250-mile bike lane network, will hold a series of meetings over the next eight months to help determine the best locations for all future bike lanes.

“There’s been zero public outreach on where the bike lanes should go,” said Steven Vance, a former city transportation department official who co-founded GridChicago.com, a blog about sustainable transportation. Vance approves of the city’s efforts to increase ridership but questions the first few bike lane locations.

The lack of outreach could be a concern, according to Alan Berube, research director of the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “If it’s done without public education and public input, there could be some real resistance,” he said.

Ben Gomberg, bike program coordinator at the Chicago Department of Transportation, said the city chooses wide streets that either see a lot of bike traffic or connect main arteries. To save money, CDOT also tries to piggy-back on current roadway projects. The city has applied for state support and federal clean air funds for these projects that could total $50 million.

Berube believes the bike initiatives could help in a city with more than 10 percent unemployment and a poverty rate of nearly one in four residents. “It can connect people to services, to work, and improve their health,” he said. “We need more jobs, but we need accessible jobs too.”

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  • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

    Due to the city’s long-term neglect of many south side and west  side communities, I share Oboi’s concern.  I’m glad that the city is seeking input from people all over the city as improvements to the bike route network are planned.  I intend to do what I can to get the word out on the south side, in the hope that voices from our neighborhoods will be represented in the process and that we’ll get a fair share of the bike route improvements.

    • Greenfieldjohn

      Outreach efforts are definitely going to be key for getting a good turnout of residents from low-income areas at the community meetings. I know that Active Transportation Alliance is working on getting on getting the word out: http://activetrans.org.

    • http://theycallmeOboi.com Olatunji Oboi Reed

      hey AKA60643 – thanks for the comment. per John Greenfield’s comment (and his suggestion for me to get involved on this issue), I am working with Active Transportation Alliance to assist in getting Southsiders to the table as the City begins seeking community feedback. we should talk. can you reach out to John (author of this article) as he has all my contact info? lets connect on this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Nardella/1088523004 Matt Nardella

    The City is only as bike friendly as our least hospitable bike lane.  Thanks, John.

    • http://theycallmeOboi.com Olatunji Oboi Reed

      love that…

  • Andy

    That article was a joke.

    How come they hire someone from New York to write about bike lanes when you or Steven could have do a much better job.

    • Greenfieldjohn

      Thanks Andy!

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