Turning Chicago into the City of Big Spokes

Mayor Daley, who regularly rides 150 miles a week, tries to create one of nation's most bike friendly cities.

IT has become a familiar ritual in Chicago, but perhaps one only witnessed by milkmen and a few garbage collectors: Mayor Richard Daley biking through the streets at dawn, accompanied only by a friend who owns a local cycling shop.

The mayor may be the most peripatetic pedaler in American politics: He regularly logs more than 150 miles on his Sunday and Monday outings – the equivalent of a full stage of the Tour de France. Increasingly, Mr. Daley has also been turning his personal passion into public policy. He's trying to make Chicago one of the most "bike friendly" cities in America.

Call it the City of Big Spokes.

Chicago now has 70 miles of bike lanes and plans to establish another 30 by 2003. In August, it will install its 8,000th bike rack, more than any US city. In fact, the city has so many projects that it maintains a full-time "bicycle program coordinator." "Biking is a great way to stay fit and see the city from a unique and wonderful perspective," said the mayor at a recent unveiling of another bike initiative.

For all his zeal, Chicago may never become the nation's bike capital. Among cities, that title will probably always belong to Portland, Ore., which has more bikeways (142 miles) and greenspace than a Dutch landscape. Even police there are as likely to be seen on knobby-tired mountain bikes as in squad cars. It is "decades ahead of most other cities," as "Bicycling Magazine" recently put it.

Other mid-sized cities cited by the magazine as well-equipped for the Cannondale crowd include Seattle, Denver, and Tucson, Ariz. But Chicago may now be the most bicycle friendly big city in the country, according to the magazine.

The city's transformation has, in part, coincided with the fitness craze in America. Yet the interest in biking here goes beyond developing thigh and calf muscles. For urban planners and many local residents, the bike is also an inexpensive solution to traffic congestion and lack of parking. Here in the nation's third-largest city, whose streets are knotted with cars, taxis, and buses, Daley has pushed a number of initiatives to encourage the bike as an alternative form of transportation:

• His "bicycling ambassadors," a small group of young cyclists, fan across the city promoting bicycling and safety. They politely tell motorists, for example, to yield to those in bike lanes.

• The city's "bike month" runs from mid-May to mid-June. It started 12 years ago as "bike to work day," grew to a "bike week," and now includes architecture tours by bike and a raucous rally led by the mayor.

• This year, Lake Shore Drive was closed to cars for four hours on a recent Sunday, allowing 12,000 cyclists to ride along Lake Michigan. A similar "bike the drive" event is planned for 2003.

Last month, Daley stood on the city's lakefront path, a Lake Michigan breeze flapping at his tie, to announce that the Windy City's 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail would be improved with a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over Diversey Harbor's inlet. The city will also extend the trail on the north edge of Chicago's shoreline, providing public access to several more miles of lakefront – welcome news for cyclists currently forced to navigate a maze of streets in the area.

"We're not telling people to get out of the car, but we're trying to provide incentives and encouragement to make the city more bicycle-friendly," says Ben Gomberg, the city's bicycle program coordinator. "That makes a difference if you want to go to the store on Saturday – chances are there's a bike lane in front of your home and a bike rack in front of the store."

Mr. Gomberg works closely with the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (CBF), a private group of bicycle enthusiasts. Currently the CBF is producing a Bike 2010 plan, which will identify agencies and policies "that need to be changed and what new programs need to be in place to make cycling safe in Chicago," says Nick Jackson, CBF's director of planning. The city is even collecting statistics about bike commuters.

To be sure, Chicago, like every city, has its tensions between motorists and cyclists over who should have access and control of the roads. Yet it's hard to find vocal critics here of the mayor's cycling policies.

"The more congested a neighborhood is in Chicago, the more you see cycling," says Randy Neufeld, executive director of the CBF. Still, even though Chicago is carving out a national reputation as a biking hub, Mr. Neufeld says "there's a long way for the city to go – until everyone feels comfortable riding. The more cyclists who ride on Chicago's streets, the safer we all are. We have to continue to do whatever we can out there."

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