Building a bicycle culture in Chicago: does it get worse before it gets better?


Cycling in Copenhagen next to articulated buses. All high-volume intersections are bathed in blue to show where each vehicle operator, people cycling and driving alike, where to maneuver. Photo by Mikael Colville-Anderson, the Copenhagenize author. 

I saw an old post on Copenhagenize, a popular blog about bicycle cultures (which Chicago is not). It’s called, 18 ways to know that you have a bicycle culture. Jokingly, I thought to reply blindly, “Nope, don’t have that”, to all items in the list. Some of the signs seem listed to poke fun at cities with bicycle subcultures, even though they would more likely happen in a bicycle than outside of one. For example, #12 says:

When you see somebody with rolled up trouser legs you think, ‘what a shame that fellow can’t afford a chain guard’. You consider rolling up next to him at the next light to give him some money.

I read each one and I wasn’t able to check off any. So maybe there are 12 more ways to know you have a bicycle culture and I’m just waiting for part two. But instead of waiting I thought to make my own list about 18 – annoying and discomforting – signs that you’re cycling in Chicago. I came up with a list, but it’s grumbling and discouraging so I may publish it later.


How do ensure intersections are made safe for cycling, and encourage cycling instead of discouraging it or influence people to perform risky maneuvers? A busy intersection at Grand Avenue, Halsted Street, and Milwaukee Avenue, near downtown Chicago. 

As I reviewed the list with my friend Tom Gonzales today, he had a good idea:

Find out what’s wrong with the system and processes that built it, not what’s wrong with the street. We all know what’s wrong with the street, or if we don’t, we can usually at least identify those places we don’t like to ride or where we feel uncomfortable.

So instead of pointing out ways that cycling in Chicago is a sucky experience (it’s also a fun, interesting, and extremely useful one), I will channel my energy to investigating why a majority of bike lanes prior to 2011 were built in door zones, utility contractors never reinstall the pavement properly, or that bike lanes end at intersections where you are most vulnerable*. With that knowledge we’ll know how to build a better system and work on creating a bicycle culture where the crash rate is nil, people are injured less often, there’s less pollution in the air, and congestion is reduced.


One sign of a bicycle culture is that the number of people riding bicycles are counted for a census; this bike counter is one way to do that. After many gap years in counting cycling in Chicago, it seems that the Department of Transportation now has a program in place to collect data in a standard and methodical way, that will lead to better quality analysis and reporting of ridership levels. 

* I’ve an idea why this happens and it has a lot to do with left- or right-turn lanes and the desire to maintain parallel parking spaces. They’re called pinch points.

12 thoughts on “Building a bicycle culture in Chicago: does it get worse before it gets better?”

  1. Chicago is about 6 degrees F colder than Copenhagen in January and 15 degrees hotter in summer. It’s also wetter than Copenhagen. I think it takes a milder more pleasant year-round climate for bike culture to really thrive.

    A long bike commute on a hot day can be tough if there are no facilities at work to change. You almost never get those sweat through your shirt days in Denmark. And I know there are many winter riders but you cannot argue that winter riding involves some added expense in gear in harsher conditions. I think the variation in weather is what really stops many people from choosing bicycling as a mode for commuting, which suppresses ridership numbers, which has all kinds of limiting effects for improving safety.

    If you could somehow crack the code to get more people riding year-round, I think that would be a catalyst towards growing bike culture in Chicago. Or maybe try to get periods where you get 20% ridership in the nice Spring or Fall weather and hope people fall in love with it and learn to ride through the tough days.

    1. I think weather is a negligible factor in cycling levels. And facilities at work to change clothes is part of a bicycle culture, needed regardless of weather. 

      The same negligible factor goes for hills: they’re not important to mitigate as a way to get more people cycling. There are several places with hills yet higher cycling levels than Chicago, like Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland. 

      The bike to work rate in Seattle is 2.8%. Chicago? 1.5%. 

      “And I know there are many winter riders but you cannot argue that winter riding involves some added expense in gear in harsher conditions.”

      I agree. What do you wear when cycling in the winter? The same clothes you wear when taking the bus in winter, or walking in winter. Maybe less because you’ll generate a lot of heat. 

      Read on: Why Canadians cycle more than Americans.

      1. Seattle has 72% more of its population riding bikes. San Fran just reported 3.5% of its trips are by bike, or 133% more than Chicago. That’s a lot!

        My wild-arsed guess is terrain is unchanging and I think less of a factor than weather. Hills limit where you go, but a 9 degree day or 90 degree day causes everybody everywhere to reconsider what they are doing outside.

        Re: My winter gear – I don’t have good hand or face protection solutions when I ride in winter. I go slow most places I ride (Schwinn 3-speed here) so I don’t get sweaty but I get wind chill pretty quickly and if I don’t then I get cold and clammy when I get off the bike. I could use better skills to dress in a way that is comfortable for both walking/riding in winter.  All winter activity is better with the right gear but it’s hard to hit the sweet spot of a coat that is warm + breathable + can be your primary non-biking coat in winter.

        Maybe some kind of campaign where you show that the money you spend in gear (say $200) to ride safely and comfortably year-round pays itself off 10x over in health benefits, gas savings, and in cool gear that you keep.

        1. Chicago by land area is by far a larger city than the others mentioned.  Thus on average Chicagoans probably have a longer commute.  Also it may be a matter of demographics/culture.  Certain subsets are more likely to ride than others.

          1.  You make a good point. The density of urban areas has a big effect on how many possible trips you can have in a given radius. If you can do everything you need to do in 1 mile, biking becomes awesome. If it is a 3 mile radius, not so much.

      2. I think if you could get 7% fewer Americans out of cars to match Canada’s 80% auto usage you’d see an explosion in transit spending, bicycle ridership, and walking. The extra $1 or so per gallon gas tax in Canada helps too!

    2. In my experience the people who think that biking is impractical due to cold/hot/wet weather also don’t accept the idea of biking for transportation on beautiful spring/fall days either.  Once people actually try cycling for transportation in “nice” weather, they tend to start riding in cooler/hotter weather, too.  And really, does it matter that there are some days when weather makes biking impractical?  If even, say, 20% of Americans rode to work/school 40% of the year, the economic/political/quality of life benefits would be incredible!  Do we have to use just one kind of transportation regardless of the situation?  Do I need to drive a 20′ truck everywhere/every day because I may need to move a sofa once every few years?

  2. I think that the combination of weather variation (not just seasonal, but wide variations in a single day) and longer distances makes bike commuting more challenging than in places where you can be reasonably sure in the morning of what your evening weather conditions will be, and where you’re not riding more than 5 miles to work.

    The sweat factor goes up a LOT when your trip is longer than 5 miles.  When I lived in Rogers Park, my bike commute to the middle of the Loop was 11-12 miles each way (depending on exact route), and I often had to carry extra gear to be prepared for weather variability.  If I were riding from Beverly now and pavement conditions were better on a few route sections, the most direct route* to the same central Loop location would be 14 miles.  (* This the most direct route workable in terms of safe vs. risky streets and neighborhoods in terms of street crime.)

    On 2 critical streets, pavement conditions are so bad that I couldn’t safely ride there in rush hour traffic.  There would be no room to dodge the huge potholes.  Switching to the next most direct option would add 1.25 miles. 

    The evening commute is more of a concern in terms of safety.  Drivers tend to be at their most vicious then.  All the collisions and accidents I’ve ever had while commuting happened at evening rush hour.  In some neighborhoods, street crime is much more of a problem at evening rush hour than in the morning.

    If overall pavement conditions were better, it would make a HUGE difference in overall safety and quality of the ride.  It would be easier to avoid malicious or careless drivers, or avoid some street crime situations.  If I could change only ONE thing to make Chicago better for cycling, it would be better quality pavement – followed by more bike lanes and better educated drivers and cyclists.

  3. Yes there’s a potty at work, but not a shower. In the summer I’ll sweat for 45 minutes after a ride. I need to cool down.

    1. My solution to that has been to arrive a little early, spend some time in a bathroom stall with a few paper towels and baby powder to dry off, then apply fresh deodorant and get into work clothes.  Having a small fan on the desk to help with the cool-down process makes a difference, too.  It’s not as nice as a shower, but it helps.

    2.  I used to bike commute in TX during the summer when it would get to 110F (I worked second shift and had to ride during the hottest part of the day). 3 things you have to do as soon as you get to work, first is get out of the bike clothes before you start to stink, second is use baby wipes because the stuff they use to kill germs on baby butts is the same thing they use to kill odor in deodorant, third is to get a cold drink to reduce your core temperature right away so you stop sweating. You want as much ice in that drink as you can get, and swallow the ice, too.

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