WBEZ’s Jerome McDonnell talks bike commuting at Active Trans’ annual member meeting


Monday night I joined dozens of Active Transportation Alliance members for the annual member meeting at the American Dental Association offices, 221 E. Chicago. At the event Active Trans staffers reviewed the advocacy group’s many milestones in 2011.

Some of the highlights: this year the organization promoted the Sustainable Transportation Platform to Chicago mayoral candidates and heavily influenced Rahm Emanuel’s decision to include protected bike lanes, the Bloomingdale Trail and a large-scale bike share system in his transition plan. In 2011 Active Trans also launched the Riders for Better Transit and Neighborhood Bikeways campaigns.


This year the group held 24 Better Blocks workshops to brainstorm idea for better walking, biking and transit conditions in seven underserved neighborhoods. The Crash Support Hotline assisted 175 cyclists with moral support and legal advice. Bike the Drive drew 21,000 participants, the most ever, and the new Open Streets on State Street ciclovia drew 15,000 people to play on the iconic thoroughfare.

At the meeting members elected Carol Coletta, Larry Mysz and Elliot Rossen to Active Trans’ board. The organization also inducted bike-friendly 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon and Julie Hochstadter, owner and director of TheChainlink.org into the Active Trans Hall of Fame, and presented the Extra Miles award to the Cook County department of Public Health for its Communities Putting Prevention to Work anti-obesity initiative.


Active Trans’ Adolfo Hernandez inducts Rey Colon into the group’s Hall of Fame

Active Trans’ Executive Director Ron Burke said his organization is doing well financially despite the tough economy, and he closed the meeting with a look at what’s on the horizon for sustainable transportation in the region in 2012 and beyond. We can look forward to the continuing implementation of Emanuel’s bike plan, plus a bus rapid transit pilot in Chicago. The advocacy group is developing bike education curriculum for schools throughout Chicagoland.

Active Trans will be developing Bike to Metra maps to encourage suburban cycle commuting. Progress on the Skokie Valley and Cal-Sag trail projects is likely. The group plans to help lobby against future threats to state and federal funding for green transportation. And the organization hopes to secure City of Chicago sponsorship for Open Streets events in neighborhoods all over town.

The most amusing part of the evening was an address from Active Trans member Jerome McDonnell, host of WBEZ’s “Worldview” global affairs program, about his experiences as a bike commuter and his efforts to get his coworkers at the radio station to ride.

Here’s an excerpt from McDonnell’s speech

I’ve had such a great time biking over the years, so I thought I would describe my involvement as a biker. In many ways I’m grateful to the Active Transportation Alliance for helping me come around. I was a normal kid who grew up with a Schwinn Stingray and a Continental. And then I went and got this cheap bike in college and it was great because I could use it for transportation. I got my girlfriend [now wife] my sister’s bike from home and we would go out and hit the town and buy some gyros and go watch foreign films together.

But I had this long fallow period when I would just walk to the train and then walk to the radio station. And then 15 years ago I moved to a different house and the station moved to Navy Pier. So my commute got all screwed up and I started resorting to the bicycle again.

So this is me on an average day leaving my house in Arlington Heights with my Working Bikes bike. It’s a Schwinn World Traveler. I’ve been trying to up my style quotient recently so I got one of those fancy [Nutcase] helmets that looks like a watermelon. And you can see in this photo that I’m wearing tie-dyed socks. One of my wife’s friends sees me riding back and forth every day and she says to my wife, “Oh yeah, Jerome’s got a lot going on there style-wise.”

But I try to transmit the joy of bicycling and Active Trans has helped me with this. At winter Bike to Work Week a few years ago I got this leopard-print balaclava. [He puts it on under the watermelon helmet.] It creates an interesting contrast. [The crowd guffaws.] So I try to impress heads of state and things with this get-up.

I’ll describe my commute for you. I bike a little over a mile to the Arlington Heights Metra station. I ride the train downtown, where I leave another used bike at the station. Here’s a photo of my friend the Hi Guy. You guys know the Hi Guy, he rides up and down the Lakefront Trail? He lives in Arlington Heights and we park at he same spot at the train station. I’ve been doing this for 14 years or so and I’ve had bicycles stolen when I don’t work hard at locking them up but I’ve had the same one for about two years now so I’m doing pretty good.


The Hi Guy

[Shows a photo of himself in a cubicle sitting on a folding bike.] Here I am at work. I recently bought a folder to get at my office as a spare because I don’t want to have to take the bus. The bus from Navy Pier is like hell so I try to avoid it. WBEZ won’t let me keep a full-size bike inside the station. They’re like an oppressive entity.

It’s also been great to be part of [Active Trans’] Bike Commuter Challenge. I’ve been WBEZ’s team leader the last two years. We’re right on the bike path so we’ve got a lot of people who ride all the time. But we got our butts kicked by the Old Town School of Folk Music. I wanted to recruit a lot of WBEZ people for the commuter challenger this year so we could reclaim our dignity. So I sent out some e-mails and I’ll read you a couple of them:

“Two years ago we won our division. Last year our humiliation knew no end as we came in second to the Old Town School of Folk Music, which leaves us with two options. Under the cover of night we set the Old Town School ablaze and we dance by the fire of a thousand burning mandolins as we rejoice in the sweet taste of vengeance right there on Lincoln Avenue. Or we get a few more people to bike to work.”

So the guys from “848” thought they should have Sarah Darndelles, the team leader from the Old Town School, on their show with me and kind of gin up a little controversy over this. She was actually a way better team leader than me. My idea of trying to get people riled up was to take all those posters you get for Bike to Work Week, with all those pictures of people with no faces riding bikes. Like I said, the station is an oppressive entity and there’s no forum for public art or expression. So I hung the posters in the bathroom stalls and I wrote funny things on them with these faceless people talking to each other about how hard it is to ride their bikes down the street with no eyes.


But this Sarah woman from the Old Town School was kicking my butt and she had raffle items so I got a thirty pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon to raffle and some other stuff. And then I talked to her on “848” and she’s got even more stuff going than me and I had to write another letter to my colleagues. I told them that after our appearance on “848”:

“I wooed our arch enemy Sarah Darndelles from the Old Town School into some innocent conversation to further unearth the secrets of her relentless kindness tactics. I fear to report that it’s worse than we thought. They have a 65-year-old woman who mans the front desk at the Old Town. She hasn’t ridden a bike in 30 years. Sarah fixed up an old bike and loaned it to this woman. Now the old gal wants to ride to work all the time.”

“Sarah rode Bike the Drive with her father the first time this year. Her dad had a heart attack right there on LSD. Two biking doctors and a nurse stopped and administered CPR and saved his life. Sarah is strongly motivated by the idea that bikers are lifesavers and that biking is transformative on a personal level. I would hate to lead an angry, vengeful mob against this woman and burn down her sacred banjo store. I don’t know if I can fight this brand of kindness with PBR and bathroom comics. I need you to bike to work. These sweet folkies are handing us our lunch.”

So the upshot of this story is we came in second again. We managed to beat the Old Town School largely through the help of Working Bikes, which in the middle of the week delivered me ten bikes. Because I really had no idea how many people at the station didn’t have bikes. I thought everyone was like me. I’ve become like an idiot over the past 15 years. I don’t remember being afraid of riding my bicycle through the Loop but I was afraid until I started doing it everyday. And I didn’t remember that sometimes people’s bikes break down and they don’t use them for a long period of time.

So I got all these bikes and we beat the Old Town School but the Center for Neighborhood Technology moved into our division and kicked both of our asses. So that was disappointing but I hear they cheat. So next year we’re going to reveal the truth about CNT and sprawl it all over the radio in an ugly fashion.

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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.

4 thoughts on “WBEZ’s Jerome McDonnell talks bike commuting at Active Trans’ annual member meeting”

  1. Fantastic! Thanks for posting this great recap and sharing this with me!! I am glad Jerome got to tell *his* side of the story… 🙂 SO sad that I missed the meeting this year!

    1. I never gave it a thought to the possibility “Sarah” could have been there!  I am new to the scene.  THAT would have been hilarious.  It was the highlight.  Sorry you weren’t able to make it.

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