Impressions of Chicago from the head of the Boston Cyclists Union

[flickr]photo:5983814572[/flickr]Pete Stidman with a rental from Bike and Roll Chicago

Pete Stidman, Executive Director of the Boston Cyclists Union, came to Chicago last week for a meet-up of the Alliance for Biking and Walking, and crashed on my futon while he was in town. The cyclists union is a young organization with only a few hundred members, but it’s already having an impact on getting more bicycle lanes, bike parking and a cycle track built in Boston, a city which has been notoriously bike-unfriendly in the past. One of the union’s most exciting programs is Bike to Market, with volunteers repairing over 600 bikes for free at farmers markets in underserved neighborhoods. Stidman told me more about his organization and gave me his impressions of bicycling in Chicago.

What does the Boston Cyclists Union do?

Basically we try to make it healthier for Bostonians by promoting the use of the bicycle for everyday transportation. We started out doing a lot of advocacy work, helping to get bike lanes and bike paths and so forth. But now we also have a Bike to Market program where we repair bicycles at 16 different farmers markets in Boston. At the markets we also do safety education and bike theft prevention, like giving low-cost locks and $5 helmets to youth.

[flickr]photo:5983252513[/flickr]Stidman fixes a bike at a Boston farmers market – image courtesy of the BCU

So what brings you to town?

I’m here to do the membership development training from the Alliance for Biking and Walking, an uber-group that helps all the city and statewide bike advocacy groups improve their game.

So they’re teaching you strategies to help expand your membership. What were some of the highlights of the conference for you?

Kate McCarthy, who runs the membership program for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is a really dynamic person. The SFBC has all kinds of different ways that they recruit new members. Like they have a Valentine’s Day event that’s like a dating game that they play with cyclists. You can also send bike valentines to people over the Internet, which is a great way to get new people’s info and possibly recruit them.

They’ve started to do energizer stations all over San Francisco where they do a different thing every time you see them. It might be like coffee or pastries or bagels, or just a pump and lube station. Cyclists pull over and the coalition has a chance to tell them about their current projects.

You’ve been bicycling in Chicago since you’ve been here.

Mainly up and down Milwaukee Avenue. But I experienced the new cycle track, which is pretty amazing. Chicago’s been a very different experience for me because the streets are so wide.

A column that I saw in the Sun Times called drivers the new smokers. The guy was freaking out because of the cycle track and its encroachment on the space for cars. It just seemed so overblown. We creep by on narrow streets in Boston and we haven’t had any backlash like that against the bike lanes. The backlash just seems ridiculous in Chicago where the streets are so wide.

Boston has narrow, curving, European-style streets.

Closer to it. There’s no grid in the city of Boston. The mayor likes to say the street pattern is based on cow paths.

Other than wide streets, what was your impression of what it’s like to ride a bike in Chicago?

It seems like the cars are pretty aggressive. Similar to Boston they sometimes barnstorm you, driving too close. It does feel like there’s a little more room on the streets. I guess I expected to see more even more bike lanes and cycle tracks and other kinds of facilities around the city. Maybe it depends on what part of town you’re in.

Yeah, there are no bike lanes, really, in the central Loop, south and east of the Chicago River. That may be changing in the future but that’s always been taboo. They’ve been putting in more and more bike lanes but not in the Loop, which would be a really useful place to have them.

Did you get a chance to ride on the Lakefront Trail?


I rode it for just a few block yesterday, past one of the marinas near Millennium Park.

Any other thoughts about Chicago compared to Boston?

In a way all the different cities are starting to compete with each other in terms of who’s going to be the biggest, baddest biking city in the country. Right now I think Portland and Minneapolis are battling it out. So every time I go to a new city I kind of check out their potential. I think Boston will overtake Chicago.

I say that just in a friendly, competitive manner. You have a lot more space here to do a lot of things – you might be able to put in a lot more bike lanes. But Boston is much more dense, so that gives us a competitive edge.

Well, the same issue of Bicycling magazine that rated Chicago as the best big city for bicycling in the U.S. [November 2001] rated Boston as the worst city for bicycling. What effect did that have on the bike scene in Boston?

Bicycling magazine actually did that three times to Boston. Since about 2008 the city’s been a lot more serious about putting in bike facilities and our cycling rate has doubled since then.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

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