Steven Lane and Johanna Thompson with a map of the West Side region
As as sub-consultant for CDOT’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 to create 150 – 250 miles of innovative bikeways, Active Transportation Alliance has formed community advisory groups in nine regions of the city to collect input from residents. To get involved, find contact info for the advisory group in your part of the town.
Last Sunday I caught up with Johanna Thompson and Steven Lane, co-leaders of the West Side advisory group, responsible for the region bounded by Belmont Street, the Kennedy Expressway, the Eisenhower Expressway and the city’s western limits. They were hosting a drop-in session for community members at New Wave Coffee, 2551 N. Milwaukee in Logan Square, and they filled me in on what they’re doing to solicit feedback from people of all cycling abilities and every neighborhood in their region.
JG: Johanna, what’s your background with bicycling?
JT: I work at the Field Museum and coordinate all of our biking events there. We win Bike to Work Week every year because we have a lot of people who cycle. We also do bike encouragement at my church, LaSalle Street Church, near LaSalle and Division. We put bike racks out every Sunday because there aren’t enough bike racks from the city. I’m also a member of Bike Walk Logan Square. We’re currently working on the Logan Square Blue Line station hub, trying to see what kind of improvements can be made for pedestrians and cyclists.
SL: Right. I’ve also been involved with Walk Bike Transit [a local political action committee] which got me more aware of things going on like ward meetings and talking about cycling issues with local politicians. Last winter at the opening party for art show we had a design charette where we had a city map on the wall where people could post comments about cycling conditions. It was a lot like what we’re doing here today. At the party you could talk to John Lankford who was [executive director of] Walk Bike Transit at the time and is now helping to organize this public input effort for Active Trans.
Map showing the nine community input regions
JG: What’s your role with the Streets for Cycling plan?
SL: We’re co-leaders working to connect with cyclists in the West Side region and gather public input on the plan.
JT: Our goal in each of the regions is to get as much feedback from the people in the area as possible. They bike that region, so they’re going to know it better than the city or the engineering firm that’s been hired to create the plan. The engineering firm and the city planners know that, so they’re relying on the community to say, “This is a really great place to bike or this is a really bad place to bike, can you fix it please?”
JG: What have you guys done so far – have you had any meetings yet?
JT: The first round of community outreach took place right before the holidays. It was hard to make a public meeting happen so we created a Google Map and an online survey and we sent it out to everyone in our region that we could possibly think of, and made sure that Active Trans sent it out too. That has really attracted a growing group of interested people in the West Side region.
I also took the maps to various neighborhoods when I could, so we hit up some folks in Belmont-Craigin and we definitely hit Logan Square. We queried people in West Town, Noble Square, Ukrainian Village and Humboldt Park. One member of our group is also going to as many community outreach events as he can in the Hispanic community. He’s our designated person to do outreach in Spanish so we can reach that community. We’re seriously lacking input from the Austin neighborhood though. We need some people from there.
SL: The West Side region goes all the way from the west edge of the Loop out to Oak Park, so there are a whole lot of different communities that are part of it. We’ve gotten a lot of input about all the areas on the east side of the region that already have pretty high bike traffic. Our area includes Milwaukee Avenue, often referred to as the “Hipster Highway” [also a common nickname for Oakley Avenue]. But so far we haven’t got a lot of input on what’s happening out there on the Far West Side.
JG: Do you have strategies to get more feedback from neighborhoods you haven’t heard from yet?
JT: We’ve got some contacts. We’ve been reaching out to some people I know that live in Austin. We recently just sent out a message to our e-mail list saying, “Hey, who knows people in Austin?” Because I think we’ll need to have a public meeting out there, even if it’s just at somebody’s house.
SL: I thought a library on a Saturday might be a good way to go. We’re going to still plug away online too, trying to create as much awareness as possible for some of the online surveys. These allow people to take their time and take a look at their neighborhood on a map. That’s kind of how I preferred filling out the form myself.
Phase I of the community input process was really broad-based. It dealt with a variety of issues including what you consider barriers and conditions that are unsafe for cycling that would prohibit you from using a street. Also the first round dealt with assets, routes cyclists consider to be great and maybe under-recognized, streets that could just use a little bit of improvement.
JG: So what are some of the major issues and assets on the West Side? Do you guys already have some things in mind that you’d like to accomplish in this region?
JT: We noticed that it can be difficult for people to ride west across our region. There are railroads that can block people’s routes, like if you really wanted to ride to Oak Park.
SL: There’s a good stretch of industry along the south and western edge of the region, so if you’re biking from Ukrainian Village to Oak Park you’ll encounter stretches where a rail yard just creates this big gap in the road that you’re on, and you’re going to have to think about what side streets you can use to circumvent these gaps.
I think that another area that’s an issue, and the planners are aware of this too, is the eastern edge. The boundary of the region is formed by I-90, the Kennedy Expressway, as well as the river. So what you have is underpasses going under highways, going under rail lines, and bridges going over rivers, which are all kind of a mixed bag of what’s usually the worst of the worst for biking. A lot of times on a street that has a bikeway, the minute that you go under an expressway the bike lane is gone and you now have entrance and exit ramps, like from Division Street onto I-90. That’s just a really gnarly stretch.
And under train tracks you generally find that the passage gets a little narrower, your bike lane is gone and you’re squeezed a little closer to the cars. These are called pinch points and we have a ton of them. When we look at the feedback we’re getting, all along this eastern border, where roads like Fullerton and Diversey may be your only way to get from the West Side east, to Lakeview or something, you find that all these red flags are being pointed out. I thinks that’s probably an issue with other regions as well, since the city is cut up by rivers, train lines and expressways. To me those are areas where some immediate attention could be placed, to just create a nice link between one region and the next.
Railroad viaduct on 76th, a recommended bike route – photo by Eric Aliix Rogers
JT: This has been a really interesting process because we definitely tried to have all the areas of the West Region represented, but we also had to have both the veteran cyclists and the new cyclists. Let’s say there’s a young family with children that would like to bike but is scared to. For people like that Milwaukee Avenue is not an asset, Milwaukee is like a frightening highway they would never take their kids on. So what do we do for those folks as well as the people who aren’t afraid to bike anywhere? That’s part of the goal here.
SL: With Phase II of the planning process, the neighborhood greenways [bicycle-prioritized side streets, more commonly known as bike boulevards] it’s much more about smaller trips that you’re making, say between a park and a school. So there are lots of residential streets that would make good bikeways between parks, something that would be better for a family with kids. We’re here today collecting input on which streets might make good neighborhood greenways. We’re also trying to educate people that [a larger street like] Division Street is not a neighborhood greenway. You have to look at streets like Palmer Street, that could become a nice east-west bike street that would allow you to stay off Fullerton or Diversey, which are not so great for going east-west.
Bike boulevard in Berkeley, CA – photo by Carrie Cizauskus
Closer by me in Ukrainian Village I use Paulina a lot because I don’t like to bike on Ashland. So streets like Paulina and Wood are being considered for neighborhood greenways, where you put some traffic calming in and you make it a safer residential street, which also becomes a safer cycling street.
JT: And I believe with a neighborhood greenway they can turn a one-way street into two-way bike routes, and still have it be a one-way street for cars. Belden, for example, is great for riding eastbound on my way to work but coming back it doesn’t work for me. I end up having to come all the way down Milwaukee to the circle here and fighting the cars. It would be much safer to go west on Belden if I could.
SL: Phase III of the process will be the protected bike lane recommendations, so that will be a different set of streets, more like Armitage, Division and Grand, to be considered to have dedicated protected bike lanes, separated from vehicle traffic.
JG: Anything else you’d like to tell me?
SL: We hope to do something again at this year’s Bike Winter Art Show opening party on Friday, February 24. I’d like to have a little informational area that will raise awareness for people who come to the show, that there is this public input process going on which will affect the next ten years of your cycling experience here in Chicago as new roads are converted to protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways start to pop up throughout the city.