Chicago’s fast-growing bike network showcased at transportation summit

Chris McCahill's picture

Chicago is quickly becoming one of the nation’s top bicycling cities. Bike commuting in the city has more than tripled since 2000, making it second only to New York in sheer numbers. Cycling grew faster in only one other city during the past two decades: Detroit (see the Bike League’s recent Where We Bike report for more stats). During the past two years, with around 20,000 bike commuters hitting its streets each day, the city has stepped up efforts to build an extensive network of on-street bike facilities and bike sharing stations.

One week before Thanksgiving, a group of urban designers and transportation professionals – visiting for CNU’s Transportation Summit – toured this system, getting a unique perspective on its rapid growth and future prospects. The tour group, led by Chicago DOT project manager Mike Amsden, along with staff from the Active Transportation Alliance and the local Alta Planning + Design office, covered several miles of bike facilities and visited the Divvy bike share operations center.

Bike tour at CNU Transportation Summit

Bicycle planning in Chicago took on ambitious new meaning in 2011 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to build 100 miles of protected bike lanes in four years and chose Gabe Klein to oversee it as Transportation Commissioner. Amsden described one of the earliest projects that Klein charged his agency with: building the city’s first protected bike lane along Kinzie Street in just under a month. While that project tested the agency’s ability to work with the public, it also proved they could get the job done. During its one-month construction, the Kinzie Street project evolved constantly to meet the needs of residents and business owners. For example, it was reconfigured once striping had begun so as not to block necessary truck access for a major factory along the route. The street now carries more bikes than cars each day, with little impact on traffic movement.

Bike lanes configured to allow truck access

In the two years since, the city has wrapped up a handful of other milestone projects. In late 2012, the city opened two-way protected bike lanes (recently named the nation’s best) on Dearborn Street in the Loop, complete with bicycle traffic signals. In mid-2013, the city’s busiest bike route on Milwaukee Ave received first-rate treatment, including nine-foot wide buffered lanes in some places and green bike boxes at intersections. That project required removing a considerable amount of on-street parking, which many business owners were open to, recognizing that many of their customers already arrived by bike. In some cases, the city negotiated new parking arrangements and offered provisions such as improved lighting for people walking to nearby parking.

Another key and visible new component is the Divvy bike share program, launched in June. The program’s 300 stations scattered densely around central Chicago make it a convenient option for both residents and visitors. In the rarely seen Divvy warehouse packed full of Chicago-blue bikes, the CNU tour group witnessed firsthand the remarkable scale of the program and the effort needed to keep it running smoothly. With another 175 stations already planned, it will soon be the nation's largest bike share program and potentially one of its most financially viable public transportation systems, according to staff.

Divvy operations center

Now, as Commissioner Klein and his second-in-command step down, the city’s transportation department is committed to keeping pace with the growing bike culture and creating a safe environment for all road users. The bike share program will grow by more than 50% in the next year and the city has roughly 50 more miles of protected or buffered bike lanes left to build. By 2015, when these projects should be complete, the city hopes to see 5% of all short trips made by bike, while cutting the number of injuries in half.


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