Updated: May 3
CDOT’s Shared Streets program was a real eye opener for me. The placement of inexpensive, construction barrels and signage instantly transformed sections of residential streets into low-stress bike and pedestrian facilities. People of all ages and abilities could ride, walk, run, skate, and scoot side by side without fear (mostly) of angry entitled drivers. It didn’t take millions of dollars, contentious community meetings, or hard infrastructure- and it changed driver behavior.
People, I’m all for concrete protected bike lanes and off-street trails, but they are expensive, take years or decades to build, and don’t often connect to the places people need to go. Right now, we have all the ingredients we need to implement a city-wide grid of bike-prioritized streets. Let’s do that now and keep working on building out infrastructure to improve bike safety on bridges, underpasses, and busy commercial streets.
Chicago has approximately 4,500 miles of streets; it is totally reasonable and equitable that at least 10% of the residential streets should be prioritized for bikes. One out of every 8 or 9 non-commercial, non-arterial, non-bus route streets could get special designation, signage, and speed camera enforcement for the 5mph speed limit. That’s approximately 450 glorious miles of freedom for riders of all abilities to get basically anywhere in the city. And it’s within our reach, right now.
This shouldn’t take a whole lot of political capital either. Here’s a few reasons why it’s a win-win:
On-street parking won’t be lost.
Reduced car congestion. When all the people who can’t drive don’t have to depend on other drivers to get around, there will be way fewer car trips. Think about all the 8-18 year olds that get driven to or from school, appointments, activities…
Snow clearing can happen more quickly because it doesn’t require any special equipment or additional plow truck drivers.
It will be good for businesses, public health, tourism, and our overall quality of life.
Some might say that barrels and signs won’t actually slow all drivers down and that hard infrastructure is the best way to change driver behavior. Well maybe that’s true, but let’s not have the perfect be the enemy of the very good. Barrels and signs seemed to work for Shared Streets. And for good measure, how about we get serious about speed cameras? Not as a revenue scheme but as an honest-to-goodness safety tool. Imposing meaningful fines and zero tolerance for public safety is completely legit. Make the speed limit 5mph so that bikes, that are only going say 8mph, aren’t the ones causing drivers to slow down. And of course, make the signs highly visible.
But, as Mayor Lightfoot recently said when proposing the ultra bad idea of a gas tax holiday,“Chicago is a car-city.” It’s true that most of our elected leaders are afraid of upsetting the vocal hordes of angry drivers. Some electeds are willing to spend political capital for bike infrastructure, but there just aren’t enough drivers yelling “Give us more bike infrastructure!” That’s why we, the people who want a more just and joyful transportation system, need to organize and start jamming the streets with “ride-ins” can simply do what a lone cyclist did to thwart the anti-vac truckers' protest in DC. Picture a handful of riders, with signs (and cameras) on their backs, backing up traffic on Damen or Kedzie or California. Then riders going the other direction with friendly and helpful signs and flyers can inform that captive audience about calling the Mayor or their alderperson.
Yes, I’m talking about organizing direct action which I realize can be controversial and intimidating. But let’s break it down:
Is it scary? Well, it’s likely that there will be honking and yelling, some of it angry, but maybe even some in celebration.
Is it safe? Well, if we ride peacefully in groups, with signage, and maybe even some cameras, that should be a significant deterrent to violence.
Is it legal? According to Chicago Municipal Code Regarding Bikes, not riding single file and not yielding right of way are both subject to $25 fines. Here’s a link and relevant excerpts below.
Is it worth it? Well, that depends on how much you care about living in a city where everyone has access to safe and sustainable transportation.
Let’s put our heads together, make some good trouble, and make this a reality!