The new buffered bike lanes, still under construction, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
[Update: on Friday 5/11 The Puerto Rican Cultural Center's Jose Lopez provided his organization's perspective on the Paseo Boricua bike lanes. Click here to read Lopez's comments.]
Bicycling doesn’t discriminate. It’s good for people of all ethnicities and income levels because it’s a cheap, convenient, healthy way to get around, and a positive activity for youth and families. So it’s a shame that cycling, especially for transportation, is often seen as something that only privileged white people would want to do. And it’s unfortunate when proposals to add bike facilities in low-income communities of color, which would be beneficial to the people who live there, are viewed as something forced on the community by outsiders.
This has been an issue even in bicycle-friendly Portland, Oregon, where plans to build protected bike lanes on North Williams Avenue, a business strip in Albina, the city’s historically African-American community, stalled after resistance from longtime residents. The neighborhood has recently seen an influx of young whites, and black community leaders complained that the city government showed little interest in creating safer streets in the neighborhood before the newcomers arrived. At a public input meeting about the proposed facilities, one resident even called them “the white lanes of gentrification.”
People in Humboldt Park, a largely low-income Latino and African-American community on Chicago’s West Side, once opposed bike facilities as well. So it was a good feeling yesterday when I took my first spin on new buffered bike lanes under the giant Puerto Rican flag arches of the neighborhood’s Division Street business strip. I viewed them as a sign of how much attitudes about cycling have changed in Humboldt Park over the last decade. And as the city moves forward with the Streets for Cycling plan to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes within Mayor Emanuel’s first term, the story of the Division Street bike lanes offers a lesson on the need to engage local people in the process.
A crew stripes new, high-visibility crosswalks along the Paseo Boricua as part of the bike lane project.
In 2003, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) installed bike lanes in gentrified, bike-crazy Wicker Park, located just east of Humboldt Park, on Division from Ashland Avenue to Western Avenue, the border between the two neighborhoods. The stretch of Division in Humboldt Park between Western to California Avenue, known as the Paseo Boricua (“Puerto Rican Way”) and defined by the flag arches, is the same road width. But Chicago aldermen have final say on whether bike facilities get built in their wards and Billy Ocasio, Humboldt Park’s alderman at the time, opposed extending the lanes into his ward, according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales.
“Community organizations with strong Puerto Rican roots had a big influence on Billy,” explains Alex Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit bike education center and retail shop West Town Bikes / Ciclo Urbano, located on the Paseo at 2459 W. Division. “Back then bicycles were seen as a tool of gentrification rather than a tool for community building. There was a sense that bike lanes were being imposed rather than proposed, and Humboldt Park and the Paseo Boricua do not like being told what to do. There was the question, are you accommodating wealthy white people riding their fancy bikes, or are you working with a community that has struggled to preserve its cultures and traditions?”
The Paseo, lined with Puerto Rican cafes, restaurants, bodegas and salsa clubs, has retained its character over the past decade, but times have changed since Ocasio vetoed the lanes. Wilson, who’s white, says he worked hard to get the blessing of local community leaders before opening West Town on the Paseo in 2009. Since then his organization has taught safe cycling and mechanics skills to hundreds of at-risk kids in Humboldt Park. The store also offers affordable repair services in a neighborhood that already had a vibrant cruiser bike culture as the home of the Chicago Cruisers, a mostly Puerto Rican club that organizes rides with dozens of members parading on classic Schwinns.
Eugenio Damian with his Schwinn at the southeast corner of Humboldt Park’s namesake green space.
In the years since West Town opened, biking become steadily more popular in Humboldt Park. Wilson says the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, a local health, education and cultural services organization with a big influence on the Paseo, has embraced cycling as a way to promote fitness. And two months after West Town opened, Roberto Maldonado was appointed to replace Ocasio, who left his job as alderman to serve as an advisor to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.
Lorna Morales, Alderman Maldonado’s constituent services advocate since last July, says she didn’t know about the controversy surrounding the Division Street bike lanes, but she’s excited to see new bike facilities in Humboldt Park. “It’s awesome,” she says. “The bike lanes are very important considering that Division Street leads to Humboldt Park [the neighborhood’s namesake green space], and it’s very important that people can get there safely. This community has one of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the city so we’re always looking at ways to encourage healthy living. The bike lanes are a great addition to that.”
Mural outside West Town Bikes / Ciclo Urbano.
Morales says there was strong support for the Division lanes from the ward’s recently formed traffic and safety committee, made up of residents of all backgrounds and ages, including Shacora Hawkins and Demonta Foster, teens who got involved through West Town. “It was very important to include the youth, the business owners and people from local community organizations,” Morales says. CDOT bikeways planner Mike Amsden recently gave a presentation to the committee about the city’s bike plans, including the proposed lanes on the Paseo, and the agency’s progressive new commissioner Gabe Klein will attend the the next meeting on June 21.
Support for biking in Humboldt Park is so strong nowdays that the committee is looking into installing protected bike lanes on Division west of the Paseo, Morales says. This stretch, between California and Kedzie Avenue, runs through the middle of the large park and, in addition to encouraging biking, protected lanes would calm traffic because they would require removing a travel lane, AKA a “road diet.” This would also shorten pedestrian crossing distances, making it easier to walk from the north side of the park to the south side.
Alex Wilson says the city was wise to delay striping the buffered lanes on the Paseo until resistance to bike facilities from Humbolt Park residents was replaced by enthusiasm. “This is bike lanes when the community was ready for bike lanes, so this was a good move socially and politically,” he says.
Wilson feels CDOT is doing a decent job with the community outreach for the Streets for Cycling Plan, including multiple public input meetings held across the city. But he adds that the agency should keep the Division Street experience in mind as they move forward with installing the protected bike lanes. “There’s this mindset among planners, ‘Build it and they will come,’” he says. “But sometimes I think [bike] education and encouragement doesn’t get a fair shake. The city needs to think about the folks who will actually use all these new bike lanes. They should consider, how much is this a plan for pavement and how much is it a plan for people?”
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011. We switched to writing at Streetsblog Chicago in January 2013.
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