Bike lane distribution and equity in regards to the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020


Residents of the 35th Ward leave their comments on where the bikeway network needs help at a public meeting in September 2011. Alderman Rey Colón attended the meeting, operated by Active Transportation Alliance and Sam Schwartz Engineering. 

The first meeting to give city staff input on where to implement bikeways and bikeway fixes arrives in two Saturdays on December 10, 2011, at 23 E Madison (from 10 AM to 4 PM). The open house represents the launch of the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, what the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has been talking about since June 2011.

What is the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020?

It’s a plan for determining where bikeways should go and what kind – out of the many types available – should go there, and developing ways to prioritize the implementation work. It will also be to develop a “tool kit” of bikeway facilities and products. Where do you fit in?

Public input will include identifying the gaps and barriers in the current bike network. Community input will also identify places people might want to bike to in each neighborhood, such as parks, transit, jobs and shopping. From there, a new network of family-friendly bicycle facilities will be developed – from the plan’s fact sheet.

Public outreach is new

This is a new era for Chicago’s citizen cyclists. There’s not been public outreach to decide where bicycle facilities should go; it’s a shame but we can’t change the past. Chicago is very alone in how it ignores the public’s needs when it comes to the creation of a safe bikeway network for cycling; New York City and Portland both consult the community. But Mayor Emanuel has changed the tone. Disregarding the lack of public outreach on the existing cycle tracks (Kinzie Street, Jackson Boulevard, 18th Street),

his administration made a bold step by hiring someone to lead the Department of Transportation who is actually interested in leading the department (and someone from outside Chicago who’s not part of an internal shuffling of commissioners as former Mayor Daley did constantly).

This article is a lesson in how planning can and should work. The result of this planning will be something desirable to you if you attend the public and community advisory group meetings. This is the first time in a long time that city staff (and their consultants, see note 1) who work on bicycle projects are dedicating their time to listen to what you have to say. One issue will be how they understand and interpret what you say – this will manifest itself in the plan documents, to be finalized by June 2012. You should come with an open mind about what needs to be accomplished to make cycling safer in Chicago (the top concern) and be ready to learn and listen to what staff and fellow attendees have to say.


The only public meeting in recent memory was a special edition of MBAC, in June 2009, created by myself and my colleague Joshua Koonce. It had some shortcomings, mainly low attendance and a lack of influence on any change in the Chicago bicycling environment. 

How should bikeways be distributed around town

A couple of Grid Chicago readers have questions about the distribution of benefits (bikeways and bikeway fixes) of this plan. Should they be distributed equally or equitably? The simple answer is yes, but how to figure that out is complex. I’ll be exploring ways that such an abstraction can be “figured out” or evaluated.

Equitable does not always mean equal.

For my master’s project at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) about equitable bike parking distribution in the city, I researched and found many definitions of equity when it comes to transportation investments. One way to look at equity is by thinking of it as “fairness”: Are people paying their fare share? Are they receiving their fare share of benefits? Are they experiencing a fair share of the impacts of a project (either negative or positive)?

The Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 plan makers and participants may have to agree that equity is a value after which they’ll have to define it for themselves so implementers know what goal(s) the plan was set up to achieve.

How to evaluate distribution

A way to determine the planning district’s (see note 2) fair share of bikeways is to look at

  1. how many people  already bike there,
  2. the potential or likelihood for people to start biking if the bikeways are constructed,
  3. how many people live there, and
  4. how many people commute to there/work there and compare this the benefits outlined for the district, or the benefits it eventually receives (note 3).

Working together,  you could make a goal that the planning district should receive a specific amount (measured by distance or by cost) of bikeways and bikeway fixes proportional to those measurements.

For example, if one area has a lot of destinations, a lot of residents, and a lot of workers, but not a lot of people cycling (but a lot of people who would be encouraged to cycle by the addition of bikeways that help make cycling safer), then perhaps it deserves more benefits than an area with a medium amount of people cycling, few destinations, a lot of residents, and few workers. This will be something that people who attend the planning meetings can discuss.

I think the above list is a decent starting place, but there are many other important aspects of a community that should be used to determine equity (fairness). There are other measurements: income (which may indicate the capability to own a car), racial and ethnic makeup, or level of education (some traditional demographic measurements in social justice applications like transportation investments). More relevant to the project at hand, it might be based on the bicycle crash rate, the number of students, the amount of historical transportation investments, or the quantity and severity of barriers in an area (that could make up a “bicycling disadvantaged” index).


Bicycling in parts of the south side, explored in a two part series by Anne Alt, would probably rank highly on a “bicycling disadvantaged” index. Photo by Eric Rogers.

An analysis could be done now to see if wards or community areas in Chicago have an equitable distribution of bikeways. Such analysis, regardless of the findings, may not be very useful. You may find that some areas have more bikeway miles per resident or per worker (or per number of people below the poverty line) than others, but that wouldn’t necessarily tell you that these areas are receiving more than their “fare share” of bikeways (I don’t know, I haven’t done any analysis). It may tell you that bikeways are not equitably distributed but this would not be a failure or shortcoming of any person, agency, or mayor or the mayor’s commissioner. It would inform us that there’s an issue with the process of distribution. A process that involves coordinating construction with resurfacing projects, or federal grant periods that may be rescinded, late, or not approved. Or how bikeways aren’t installed unless the alderman approves it or didn’t ask for them. And “extra” bike lanes may be installed because an alderman uses their own menu funds to pay for it.

This is a good time be cycling in Chicago

Transportation equity should be informed by the people who deliver transportation investments and who receive them. Equity will not be attempted, “calculated”, or evaluated in the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 or any other project unless it’s embedded as a goal or value early on in the plan’s development (see note 3).

The Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 is the moment to change the process of distributing transportation investments like bikeways.

It’s very important that citizen cyclists show up to any and all planning (see the schedule) and community advisory group meetings (see note 4) to represent their neighborhoods, concerns, and desires.

I urge you to explore more strategies to address concerns about transportation equity on the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute’s online encyclopedia.


1. Consultants include Jacobs Engineering, Sam Scwhartz Engineering, and Active Transportation Alliance.

2. The planning districts are for the purpose of dividing work efforts. See a map of planning districts.

3. I want to clarify for readers who haven’t been following the development: The Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 (SCP2020) does not replace the Bike 2015 Plan or amend its goals (to reduce injuries and increase the number of trips taken by bicycle). SCP2020 is a plan for determining where bikeways should go and what kind – out of the many types available – should go there. I don’t think this plan sets in stone what will go where. It will be a plan to guide city staff on where they should investigate, analyze, and prioritize as future locations of bikeways.

4. Email to find and join the community advisory group in your planning district.

2 thoughts on “Bike lane distribution and equity in regards to the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020”

  1. I am encouraged that the city is asking for public input on this plan.  However, I remain concerned that the south side may continue to get shortchanged in the planning of future bike routes due to the challenges I mentioned in my previous blog posts.  The long-term trend has been to put the bulk of the routes where there are already plenty of cyclists, while leaving significant gaps in the bike route network on the south and west sides. 

    The greatest potential for growth in transportation cycling is in areas where there is almost none of it now due to hazardous road conditions.  These are also some of the areas of greatest need, where there are fewer transit options and income levels are lower, making it difficult to afford a reliable car.

    I’ll do my best to help get the word out.  I hope that enough south siders will voice their concerns and offer ideas, so that some of our connecting streets can be made safer and more people will ride between south side neighborhoods.

    One of the things I like best about riding on the south side compared to the north side is the lack of congestion.  If I don’t have to wait on a freight train, riding 5 miles from Beverly to Pullman is a much faster trip than riding the same distance through Lincoln Park and Lakeview.  I’d love to see a lot more people riding on the south side 5 years from now.  I hope this plan will make that a reality.

    1. “The long-term trend has been to put the bulk of the routes where there are already plenty of cyclists, while leaving significant gaps in the bike route network on the south and west sides.”

      Take a look at the goals in the Bike 2015 Plan again. One says to get 5% of all trips under 5 miles by bike. If we don’t plan broadly across/around the city, we will probably never reach this goal. I believe it’s too ambitious, or, that our current rate (or even the planned rate under Mayor Emanuel) won’t get us there. We went from 0.5% of work trips by bike (who knows the distance) in 2000 and 1.1% of work trips by bike in 2010. 

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