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Steven, Bike and Roll Chicago’s Josh Squire and John (note that the signs were compulsory, so our journalistic credibility should be intact). Photo by Serge Lubomudrov.

Last week dozens of key players in Chicago’s sustainable transportation scene gathered under one roof at the Illinois Institute of Technology (3241 S Federal St) to help Active Transportation Alliance (formerly Chicagoland Bicycle Federation) celebrate 25 years of advocacy.

Joining them was U.S. Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary Polly Trottenberg, there to accept Active Trans’ Extra Mile Award to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for his leadership in providing safety initiatives and sustainable transportation to local communities. Also in attendance were two legendary transportation gurus: Mia Birk from Alta Planning + Design in Portland, Oregon, and “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz from Sam Schwartz Engineering in NYC.

It was an inspiring celebration and a terrific opportunity for Steven and me to network and learn more about local initiatives. While the $150-a-plate price tag was understandable for an upscale fundraising dinner for Active Trans, it was a bit steep for a couple of humble bloggers. Fortunately, Ben H. and Suzanne C. generously offered us seats at their tables so we could report on the event for you.

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Futuristic Trek bike in the silent auction – photo by Serge Lubomudrov

We spent much of the night chitchatting with a wide array of other Chicagoans who are working to make walking, biking and transit use safer, more convenient and more popular. The drink of choice was the “Transportini,” a safety-yellow concoction of vodka, lemonade and Midori.

But it was the spirit and rhetoric of the evening that were most intoxicating. Over my vegetarian plate of polenta and orzo (bicyclists need carbs, right?) I enjoyed some truly stirring speeches.

Active Trans’ Executive Director Ron Burke opened by discussing the history of the nonprofit, which started in 1985 with no paid staff and only seven members and now has over 6,000 members and 40 paid staffers, more than any other U.S. bike advocacy group. “Nowadays it’s less and less acceptable now to build communities and build transportation solely around cars,” he said.

“This summer I was at a Metra station in Naperville and I was talking to a guy who biked up,” Burke added. “He said twenty years ago his bike was practically the only one at that train station. That day there were 250 bikes at the station. I see bikes on buses in the dead of winter at 10 pm. I see bikes accounting for a third of all traffic on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. I see bikes stacking up on racks all over the region.”

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Burke with Rubani Shaw, vice president of Active Trans’ board – photo by Serge Lubomudrov

He noted that, thanks largely to lobbying from Active Trans and other in the room, Mayor Rahm Emanuel committed to building 100 miles of protected bike lanes. “We have a bit of a tailwind now – we’re turning a corner,” he said. “But I think you all know there’s still so much more to do and we look forward to the next 25 years working with you to make it happen.”

Next Gabe Klein, CDOT’s progressive new commissioner, took the podium. “You know, I thought Ron liked me until about a week and a half ago when in two throws he dunked me in the dunk tank at Open Streets, in 55 degree weather,” he joked.

He asserted that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a politician that “gets it,” understanding the importance of sustainable transportation. He lauded Emanuel’s recent proposal for a congestion user fee initiative that would add a fee to those parking in the Central Business District in private garages during peak periods. “The goal is to relief congestion, move people out of their cars to transit, where it makes sense, and raise up to $20 million for infrastructure improvements and traffic safety annually.” Steven and I are curious whether this money will actually be earmarked for transportation or whether it will just go into the general city coffers.

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Wall-to-wall transportation planners and advocates – photo by Serge Lubomudrov

Klein then presented a roundup of recent active transportation developments in Chicago. CDOT completed the Kinzie Street protected bike lane (PBL) soon after Emanuel and Klein took office, to demonstrate that the lanes could be built quickly and cheaply and show people how effective they could be in increasing bike traffic, he said. Within a few weeks the street went to 22% mode share for bikes to 49%, and eventually up to 51% – it’s unknown how many of these new bicyclists on Kinzie Street came from parallel corridors. The agency plans to complete PBLs on Jackson, 18th, and Elston this fall. Next spring CDOT will build 22 more miles of protected lanes by mid-May, Klein promised.

He announced that the previous day his agency got $36.5 million in state and federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) funds to build the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway. “We just worked through a couple of design charettes with the public and I think we have some really good ideas for creating park space and active space,” he said.

Emanuel’s third major bike initiative, a large-scale bike share system, also received $18.5 million in CMAQ funding, Klein said. The goal is to launch the system by June 2012. “That would be record time but I think we can do it,” he said. “The RFP’s out on the street now. We’re talking about 3,000 bikes in June and another 2,000 within two years. My goal is to get it up and running before New York.”

Klein announced that a draft of the Chicago Pedestrian Plan will be released for public comment in December and the final plan will be out in March. “We’re focusing on actions, not just talk,” he said, promising over 100 new leading pedestrian interval signals, $1.4 million for pedestrian countdown signals and $1.4 million for re-painting crosswalks and introducing high-visibility, zebra-striped “international” crosswalks.

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Gabe Klein – photo by Serge Lubomudrov

CDOT constructs and owns most downtown Chicago Transit Authority stations, and Klein heralded the new Morgan Green Line station, which should be completed in May, and the long-awaited Grand Red Line station, which should be done before the end of this year. He also announced that a new Green Line station will be build at Cermak Road, using mostly Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds. CDOT was also recently awarded a $100 million CMAQ grant to rebuild the Clark/Division Red Line station, 100% of the funding.

As for the city’s bus rapid transit pilot, the Jeffrey Boulevard Corridor will kick off construction next year, the East-West Corridor [Union Station to Navy Pier] will start in 2013 and the Western Avenue Corridor is in the early planning stages, Klein said.

He ended his speech by paying tribute to Apple’s Steve Jobs. “He was able to give people what they hadn’t even envisioned that they needed yet and then once they had it they couldn’t live without it. I think all of us in the transportation industry could take a lesson from that.”

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Sam Schwartz – photo by Kelley Ryan

Next up was Sam Schwartz, the man who coined the word “gridlock.” He has served as First Deputy Commissioner of the New York Department of Transportation and as New York’s Traffic Commissioner, writes a daily “Gridlock Sam” column for the New York Daily News and is the President and CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering. “Please don’t blame me for gridlock and don’t come up to me with parking tickets,” he said.

30 years ago as NYC’s Traffic Commissioner Schwartz introduced the first protected bike lanes, five miles on 5th Avenue and Broadway. “They lasted all of six weeks and the mayor made me take them out because there wasn’t an [advocacy] group like this,” he said. “You can’t underestimate the importance of the kind of work you do.” His speech and slideshow focused on efforts to improve conditions for pedestrians in New York, including his proposals for new pedestrian bridges from Brooklyn and Queens to Manhattan.

The next speaker Randy Neufeld, the first Executive Director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (CBF) and currently Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund, which donates money from the local bike parts manufacturer to bicycling causes. After detailing CBF’s many accomplishments over the past 25 years, he discussed the present and the future. “This is the most exciting time in our history because our dreams, which we once thought were preposterous, are truly within our reach,” he said. “But we still face stern opposition to change.”

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Randy Neufeld – photo by Serge Lubomudrov

He asked the audience to see things from the perspective of residents whose streets will be radically altered by the upcoming 100-mile protected bike lane network, using the metaphor of a stranger coming in and rehabbing your kitchen. “You’d ask, ‘Why is this happening, what are you going to do and how much is it going to cost ?’ And then they’d say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll like the new kitchen, they have nice kitchens just like this in Europe.’ Change is very hard.”

He stressed the importance of the Active Trans’ Neighborhood Bikeways Campaign. “We need to organize support and demand for this metropolis-changing system,” he said. “We need to counter and, where possible, win over opposition.”

The last speaker was Mia Birk, who helped turn Portland, Oregon, into a cycling Mecca when she served as Bike Coordinator there in the 1990s. She is currently the President of Alta Planning + Design, specializing in bicycle and pedestrian facility planning and implementation. The company oversees Washington, D.C.’s bike sharing program and will likely bid to run Chicago’s new bike share program. Birk recently published the book Joyride: Pedaling Towards a Healthier Planet.

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Mia Birk – photo by Kelley Ryan

She stressed the importance of cities taking bike facilities seriously and properly funding them, but asserted that they are a bargain. She noted that all of Portland’s recent bike improvements – 325 miles of bikeways, expensive bridge improvements, numerous encouragement activities, thousands of bike parking racks – cost roughly the same as one mile of urban freeway.

Birk said it’s key to know your market when promoting biking. About a third of the population is uninterested or unable to cycle. One percent of the population is “strong and fearless” and will bike under any conditions. Another six to eight percent is “enthusiastic and confident” and responds quickly to bike lanes and trails. “But that leaves about sixty percent of the population that are interested in biking but they’re concerned about safety,”

“For this group you need a much higher level of separation from cars and a lower level of stress than you have right now in Chicago.” She argued that our city can win over the “interested but concerned” group by providing more protected bike lanes, bike boulevards and off-street trails, and through encouragement activities like ciclovias, personalized travel encouragement programs and Safe Routes to School.

She concluded with some advice about the inevitable backlash to Chicago’s protected bike lanes proposal. “Changing built infrastructure and deeply engrained habits is really hard stuff – it touches people at a very deep and visceral level so of course there’s a reaction,” she said, warning Gabe Klein and the politicians in the room to grow thick skin and get ready for the backlash, “because you know you’re heading in the right direction.”

Read her speech about backlash in full

Birk advised Chicago bike planners to document their progress and arm themselves with numbers. “Count bicycles on your roads and trails before and after you do things and regularly from then on, pull it together into a report, broadcast it to the media and get your story straight.”

“I wish you the kind of success we’ve had in Portland,” she said. “I wish you a city full of stylish women and fit kids on bikes. I wish you [a League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Community rating of] gold and then platinum, and then you’ll crack the list of the world’s best cities. And along the way, as you’re doing it, enjoy the ride.”

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