“A Visitor from Chicago” by Wolfgang Scherreiks


John near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Photo by Wolfgang Scherreiks.

Last month while visiting Berlin I met up with local journalist and bike blogger Wolgang Sherreiks near Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing between West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War. I interviewed him about the local bike scene, and then he asked me about Chicago. The following article originally ran on Wolfgang’s bike culture website, fahrradjournal (“Bikejournal”). Grid Chicago reader Greg Dreyer kindly translated it from the original German.

Earlier this week John Greenfield from the sustainable transportation blog Grid Chicago came to Berlin for a short visit as part of a two-week trip that also includes stops in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and a few other Dutch cities. Fahrradjournal talked to him about biking conditions in Chicago, the so-called “Mary Poppins Effect” and his first impressions of Berlin.

Writing projects

In addition to Grid Chicago, John freelances for national bicycle magazines writes a transportation column called “Checkerboard City” for Newcity, a Chicago free weekly. The name of the column comes the fact that Chicago, the third largest city in the USA, is a flat town, whose streets run like a chessboard. Since June 2011, he and his business partner Steven Vance have written Grid Chicago, blog covering walking, biking and public transportation issue the region.

Thanks to the fact that there are two main writers plus several guest contributors, the blog is updated daily. And John says there is a lot to report about in Chicago, especially since Rahm Emanuel became mayor last year. Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, made several campaign promises regarding sustainable transportation and now he putting those word into action. Specifically, the city is in the process of building 100 miles of protected bike lanes, introducing a large-scale bicycle sharing system, and building the Bloomingdale Trail.

The Bloomingdale Trail

John is particularly excited about this project to convert a 4.3 kilometer (2.7 mile) elevated railroad line. It will be redesigned as a “linear park” and greenway for pedestrians and bicyclists, running through the middle of the city. Environmental activists have supported this project for many years. At an estimated total cost of $46 million for the basic construction, plus an estimated $30-45 million in enhancements and ongoing operating costs, it won’t be cheap. For those who are interested in the project, here is a little introduction:


Portland aside, how does the American reality look?

John was looking forward to riding a streetcar in Berlin, a form of transportation that Chicago gave up on in the 1950s in favor of automobiles. Despite the current spirit of optimism that cycling will become more popular, the percentage of trips made by bike in Chicago is still rather modest. Portland, Oregon, with its approximately 600,000 inhabitants, is known as the city that one looks to in the USA as a bicycling Mecca, as we Berliners look to Copenhagen or Amsterdam. While in Portland only about six percent of all trips to work are made by bike, that’s roughly six times as many as in Chicago, John says. Although he says his city is doing a good job of promoting bicycling, not much is being done to discourage driving, and the main reason more people don’t bike is because they are afraid being hit by cars. He says Chicago should get rid of its minimum car-parking requirements for new buildings. He thinks it might make sense in some cases to remove on-street car parking in order to make room for protected bike lanes. And he feels the price of gasoline is way too low in the USA compared to Europe.

The Mary Poppins Effect

In addition to urban planning and politics Grid Chicago covers sustainable transportation culture. For example, John’s colleague Dottie Brackett from the Chicago bike culture blog Lets Go Ride a Bike wrote about the Mary Poppins Effect, the notion that nicely dressed women on upright Dutch-style bikes get treated better by motorists. Since John is a man, and Dick Van Dyke co-starred with Julie Andrews in the movie Mary Poppins, he wants to test whether there is a “Dick Van Dyke Effect.” He will first commute downtown wearing Lycra and a helmet on a Bianchi racing bike, then do the same trip wearing a suit and hat on a Pashley roadster. “I’m wondering if I will be treated better if I’m dressed well than if I look like a typical sport rider,” John says. The results will appear soon on his blog.


Wolfgang Scherreiks with his Pashley Gov’nor.

Relaxed Bicycling in Berlin

John brought his own bicycle along for his reconnaissance of European cities. How do Berlin traffic conditions seem to an American who just got off the plane? He thinks Berlin is a good city to pedal in, with a relaxed atmosphere and auto drivers and cyclist who look out for one another and are considerate. Because of that, he also sees no reason to wear a helmet here. And here there are lots of bikeways, compared to American standards. But these standards, he concedes, will always be somewhat lower than in Europe.

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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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