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48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman, CDOT Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly, 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, and Active Transportation Alliance staff member Lee Crandell stand in front of a crowd of over 60 local residents to discuss a recent aldermanic trip to Copenhagen.

Earlier this year, three Chicago alderman along with two staff members from the Department of Transportation traveled to Copenhagen to learn about the city’s cycling infrastructure. Last Thursday, two of the alderman who took part in that trip – Ameya Pawar of the 47th Ward and Harry Osterman of the 48th Ward – held an event at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood to discuss their experience. They were joined by CDOT Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly, one of two CDOT staff members whom accompanied the aldermen to Copenhagen. The other was Bicycle Program Coordinator Ben Gomberg.

Scott Kubly began the presentation by discussing the history of Copenhagen’s cycling movement and describing some of the infrastructure elements that have allowed cycling to become so successful in the city. Kubly said that his biggest takeaway from the trip was that the city wasn’t always a bike utopia.

“If you go back as recently as the 1970s, it was very much a car-culture,” Kubly said. “They were building freeways. There was a time when all of this fantastic public space that we saw was dominated by parked cars. They’ve spent the last 30 to 40 years incrementally improving their infrastructure.”

In discussing memorable aspects of their trip, Alderman Pawar spoke fondly of Copenhagen’s “bike butlers”. The program is designed to discourage poor bike parking practices in crowded spaces.

“It’s really great,” Pawar said. “These folks hang around the bike parking areas at train stations and places where a lot of people park. Most people will park very respectfully, but then there’s always a couple people who are rude. In those cases, the Bike Butlers move the bike and then put a seat cover on it that says ‘We really appreciate you, but please be respectful next time.'”

Alderman Osterman was struck by the positive messages that Copenhagen sends to cyclists. Special infrastructure such as angled trash bins, foot rests at intersections, and electronic bike counters all communicate to cyclists that their choice to ride a bike rather than drive a car is appreciated and welcome. Osterman expressed the need to bring such positive messages to Chicago as a way to encourage people to ride their bikes.

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Steven rides past a 24 hour bike counter on Nørrebrogade (“gade” means street in Danish), apparently the world’s busiest bike street, with upwards of 45,000 cyclists a day. The Census Bureau counts just 13,400 Chicagoans biking to work in its last 5-year American Community Survey estimate. Photo by Brandon Gobel. 

Osterman also took note of the lack of health clubs in Copenhagen. “People eat and drink to wonderful extremes, but everybody there is as thin as Alderman Pawar,” Osterman joked. “It’s because they ride their bikes everyday.” He added that getting more kids in the U.S. on bikes could help a great deal in fighting childhood obesity.

Following an overview of their trip and experiences, each alderman took a few moments to describe some of the specific improvements planned for their wards in the coming months.

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Alderman Harry Osterman unveils the proposed design for a bike parking hub at the Thorndale Red Line Station.

In the 48th Ward, Alderman Osterman outlined plans for a “bike hub” in an unused space across street from the recently-renovated Thorndale Red Line station. Osterman said that he got the idea following his trip to Copenhagen and began working with a local architect on the design just a week after he returned. The hub will provide parking for up to 70 bikes and a map will highlight nearby cycling routes in the area. The installation of a Fixit stand will allow cyclists to perform minor bike repairs. A spot will also be reserved for the eventual placement of a bike sharing station as part of the city’s bike share network that is expected to launch next spring.

Osterman sees the new bike hub as a way to both improve safety and attract new businesses to the Thorndale area.

“Thorndale for me is a particularly challenged street because of some illegal activity from gangs,” Osterman said. “This is going to be a way to bring people to the street physically, which is going to help us open some businesses.”

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Hundreds of bicycles are parked outside a market in Israels Plads (“plads” means square or plaza in Danish), near an entrance to the Nørreport Metro subway station. Every street in Copenhagen is a “bike hub”, with tens of bicycles park and always a stone’s throw from a bike shop. Photo by Steven. 

Osterman also described eventual plans to extend the Lakefront Trail to Thorndale, rather than it’s current northern terminus a block south at Ardmore. He also mentioned the potential for a protected bike lane on Broadway, which prompted a few cheers from the audience.

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Alderman Ameya Pawar discusses plans for a neighborhood greenway on Berteau Avenue in the 47th Ward.

In the 47th Ward, Alderman Pawar discussed the upcoming installation of a neighborhood greenway on Berteau Avenue between Clark Street and Lincoln Avenue. Neighborhood greenways, also known as bike boulevards in other cities, involve changes to residential streets to make them safer for cyclists. He stressed that the greenway concept wasn’t an easy sell to nearby residents at first.

“It was somewhat… well, actually, not somewhat… it was very controversial when we first started,” Pawar told the crowd.

Following a series of public meetings, Pawar worked with CDOT officials to develop a plan that local residents have since grown to appreciate. While the final plan will not include previously planned traffic diverters that would have blocked vehicular traffic at certain intersections, it does call for a series of bump-outs, chicanes, removal of some stop signs, and a pedestrian refuge island at Clark Street.

“What we’re trying to do with the neighborhood greenway is say that the street belongs to everybody,” Pawar said. “It should be safe for cyclists, it should be safe for pedestrians, and it should be safe for cars.”

Having experienced the cycling culture in Copenhagen, it was clear that both alderman have now developed a greater appreciation for the importance of high quality cycling infrastructure and how it can greatly benefit both the health of citizens and the health of the economy.

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Mikael Colville-Anderson, founder of Copenhagenize Consulting and author of Copenhagenize.com, shows Brandon Gobel neighborhood cargo bike parking in Copenhagen. Photo by Steven. 

“Part of what drives a lot of economic development decisions in the city is automobile traffic,” Osterman told the crowd. “If someone wants to open a business, they hire someone to count cars. We need to change that paradigm and say that we have to count people.”

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  • Mcass777

    How do you transform Milwaukee av. where local car traffic and lots of bikes share the tight confines? I am sure there are tight streets in Copenhagen, wondering what they did.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jordi.parra Jordi Parra

      In narrow or very busy streets, it’s common to place the bike lane between parked cars and sidewalk, this way bikers are closer to pedestrians than they are to traffic. And of course, passengers in the car are very careful when opening their doors because there’s a quite constant flow of bikes. Sometimes, there’s also a step between bike lane and road, so cars don’t take over the bike lane.

      I lived there for a while and it was amazing, there’s a lot to learn from that city.

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

      They got rid of parking or they got rid of cars.

      There’s a perfect example of a street, in a shopping area that resembles Clark Street in Andersonville and Milwaukee Avenue through Wicker Park. It’s called Nørrebrogade (same street where that picture of me was taken) in the Nørrebro (“bro” means neighborhood in Danish).
      For that street, they got rid of parking in all places and cars in some places. In the places where they don’t allow private automobiles, there are bus lanes. And the side streets allow a little of both but not enough to restrict the space. They also use a lot of road space on the side streets for bike parking and for restaurant seating. It demonstrates, along with car-free State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, that businesses don’t go out of business when you remove cars. Nor do they lose business.
      Here are some photos:
      http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=norrebrogade

  • nonya

    how on earth does it make sense to spend a bunch of money to extend the lakefront path north a block from ardmore, which is one-way for cars and has two way bike lanes to get to kenmore/winthrop, to thorndale, which is two-way for cars and does not have room for bike lanes? why screw with something that’s already fine?

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

      You could ask that question about any infrastructure project: “How on earth does it make sense to spend a bunch of money to do X? Why screw with something that’s already fine?” But your point would still not be understood.
      Extending the Lakefront Trail would go along with a land reclamation project and return the lakefront north of Ardmore to public access (how it was before residences were built there). A longer Lakefront Trail and park would provide more recreational opportunities, new beaches, and a safer commute to points north of Ardmore.

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