Chicago's bold new bike boss

Readers of Over the Bars know I like big ideas and big thinkers.  Anyone who knows me well can testify that I am fond of making personal pronouncements. Richard M. Daley, the previous mayor of Chicago, was a big thinker who was not afraid to speak out in favor of his convictions. Relative to bicycling, his oft-repeated goal was to “make Chicago the most

Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley using the Vélib' bike-share in Paris

bicycle-friendly city in the United State.”2 Under his leadership, Chicago had an ambitious run of installing more bike racks than any other City in the US, over 100 miles of bike lanes and the midwest’s first bike station. Things seemed to slow down towards the end of his reign and some have argued Daley ignored segments of the City.  But it would be impossible to argue that Chicago did not take a giant leap forward under his administration.

Rahm Emanuel just won the run-off election in Chicago and given that he celebrated by meeting citizens at an L-stop, early signs and campaign promises suggest he will be a bike/tranist-friendly mayor and possibly eclipse the accomplishments of the recent Daley era.  This may make many

Wisconsin readers’ heads spin, but Emanuel ran and got elected with a transportation platform that emphasized improving transit, bicycles and high-speed rail. Follow the link to his campaign website if you want more details about his thoughts on transit and rail, but I have pasted his bicycle issues below.  All this was widely reported by the Chicago media during the campaign.  Here are the details of his bike platform:

I prefer Daley's ride and clothing choice to Rahm's, but hey, he is on a bike so its all good, right?

Expand Chicago’s Bicycle Network

More than 60% of trips in Chicago are three miles or less, and bicycles are an increasingly popular mode of transportation, particularly on short commutes to work and between neighborhoods. Over the past decade, the City has added about eight miles of bike lanes each year, but continues to lag far behind many large cities that are expanding their protected bike lane network and offering basic accommodations for bikes in business districts. Rahm supports full implementation of Chicago’s Bike Plan and will initiate a review of its goals and timelines to identify opportunities to expand the plan and accelerate the pace of implementation. He will continue to push the City to be a leader in expanding opportunities for biking, with a goal of also improving walkability and linking these two modes to public transit options.

Chicago’s 125 miles of bike lanes cover a small portion of the city’s 5000 miles of roads. Rahm wants to dramatically increase the number of miles added each year – from 8 to 25 – and prioritize the creation of protected bike lanes. His plan is based on a simple premise: create a bike lane network that allows every Chicagoan – from kids on their first ride to senior citizens on their way to the grocery store – to feel safe on our streets.

Under the plan, Chicago would be a pioneer in the creation and expansion of protected bike lanes, which are separated from traveling cars and sit between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars that shield cyclists from street traffic. He will prioritize the lanes on major thoroughfares that link communities to downtown and each other.

Complete the Bloomingdale Trail

The Bloomingdale Trail will be a 2.65-mile multi-use recreational trail built along an elevated rail line along Bloomingdale Avenue on Chicago’s northwest side. The tracks, which are currently unused, will be converted into a safe greenway that accommodates both pedestrian and bike travel, and connects the west side to existing bike lanes that feed into the Loop. There will be multiple access points that double as neighborhood parks and link the trail to existing bike and transit routes. The Damen and Western stops on the Blue Line, the Clybourn Metra station, and the North Avenue, Fullerton, Western Kedzie, Kimball, California, Milwaukee and Ashland busses all pass under, over or nearby the Trail. Thousands of Chicagoans will be able to use the trail to commute to work each morning, and it will serve as a safe route to school for thousands of children who attend one of the 12 public and parochial schools within easy walking distance.

The Trail will be the world’s longest elevated trail and a major tourist draw, but more importantly it will significantly increase transportation options for residents on Chicago’s north west side. The cost – $75 million – will be shared by local, federal, corporate and non-profit partners.

Rahm is committed to having the trail built and functional during his first term. He will ensure the City is expediting review of all related permits, and will co-chair the committee to raise private capital that portion of the fundraising effort. Because the Trail offers safe routes to schools and fits under the Obama administration’s sustainable communities initiative, Rahm will work to leverage federal dollars that are intended for these types of innovative pilot projects.

A spot for every bicycle

Safe bike lanes will help Chicagoans travel through the neighborhoods, but businesses and offices need places to safely store bicycles. Rahm will push an ordinance to change building codes for all office buildings with more than 200 tenants, requiring that they offer protected bike storage facilities at the rate of one spot for every 20 employees in the building. Under the plan, buildings will be able to work together to expand bike parking in the most cost-effective way possible. For new developments, Rahm will work with city departments and local developers to draft a change in the building code that would require secure bike parking based on the square-footage of the development, and offer incentives for increased bike parking, including a reduction in required car parking slots in exchange for enhanced bike parking facilities. He will also task his budget office with devising a plan to offer tax incentives for any company that offers shower and locker facilities on-site for bicycle commuters.

Rahm will also work to replace the bike parking that was lost in neighborhoods when 40,000 parking meters were removed and replaced with the current pay boxes. The meters served the dual purpose of providing a secure base to lock a bike. There are currently 12,000 bike racks, providing 24,000 spaces. Rahm will work to double that number by adding racks and sheltered bike parking in the neighborhoods and downtown to increase convenience and security for bikers who do not have parking at their buildings. Bike parking will be expanded at transit facilities, and co-planned with new car-sharing sites and walkability improvements to make it as easy as possible to get around without a car.

Meanwhile, north of the cheddar curtain…

Readers of Over the Bars know I like Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom Barrett.  He lives in my neighborhood, and although I see him running more than biking,  he does support making Milwaukee more bicycle friendly, is the driving force behind our streetcar project and supported high-speed rail.  The streetcar is certainly a big idea and Barrett gets the credit for prying the money free from our anti-transit then county executive/now governor.  He campaigned on those positions when he ran for governor.  He lost to Scott Walker,  who you can read about in any paper these days. 

Mayror Barrett (on the Electra Amsterdam) and Alderman Kovac (vintage lugged road bike) lead a rainy ride during bike to work week last year. Mayro Barrett leads a ride form his home to work for BTWW. Alderman Kovac is a three season bike commuter.

Given that the lightening rod issues in our last gubernatorial election were high speed rail, transit and taxes, Rahm Emanuel or anyone else with his transportation platform would not have won the election here in Wisconsin.  That said, I can’t imagine or remember Mayor Barrett or any Milwaukee elected official ever making such bold statements as Emanuel or Daley on any issue. I would like Milwaukee to try to be the best at something, even if we don’t finish first in the end. It’s better to shoot for the moon and miss than aim for mediocrity and hit the target.

I’m sure Mayor Barrett and our alders know the electorate here. Perhaps they and feel our Milwaukee mentality would reject grandiose statements.  Still, I wish our officials could make strong statements about something other than cutting taxes and still have some hope of getting elected. 

John Norquist, President of the Congress of New Urbanism

Our last Mayor, John Norquist was a big idea guy.  He pushed to get one of our urban freeway spurs torn down and now leads the Congress for New Urbanism in Chicago. Those are pretty big ideas, and I voted for Norquist too. Even with the chutzpah to tear down freeways,  Norquist never stood on a soap box and proclaimed Milwaukee would be the best at anything. 

The demolition of the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee.

Chicago is facing a difficult budget just like most every other city in the country, but Emanuel seems to realize that investment in bicycling, transit and rail are the most efficient way to stretch limited transportation dollars. Proclaiming Chicago will have the best bikeway network in the country will instill a sense of pride in the program. There are other cities where bicycling and transit are touted as the way to a healthy and prosperous future. 

Mayors have made bold statements in support of bicycling and rail-based transit in cities as diverse and widespread as Austin, TX; Charlotte, NC; Columbia, MO; Louisville, KY; NYC, NY; Minneapolis, MN; Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA.  It is worth noting that all of those cities are viewed as “youth magnates cities” and have experienced economic growth since they started making bicycle and transit improvements.  In those political environments, “tax payers” seem to understand that tax dollars spent on bicycles and transit promote economic growth, improve health and save money in the long run.

I’m no longer young, but I still drawn to move to some of these youth magnate cities. That magnate analogy holds true in many ways.  For instance I feel myself drawn to Madison these days too, not to more there though, just to protest.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

7 thoughts on “Chicago's bold new bike boss

  1. Although I hate to see Chicago be better then us at anything, I admire the strong Mayors they elect. This plan is really not that bold, it just looks at the transportation options as a whole and works to alleviate congestion by reducing vehicle use. Simple logic – reduce usage, reduce congestion.

  2. Wonderful read Dave. Couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. I’ve long advocated for more MKE pride… that is, why aren’t more Milwaukeeans standing up to say “let’s be the best at X?” People should be demanding it, not settling for whatever comes our way.

    If Milwaukee, or any other Rustbelt City, wants to be relevant 10 or 20 years from now, it better invest heavily in quality of life infrastructure. That’s where our society as a whole is heading. And that doesn’t mean pitting car people against transit people. It simply means accommodating all kinds of people. There’s room for multi-modal transit, and everybody wins in that equation.

    I too am tempted to say forget it, and just move to Portland, Seattle, (insert cool, dynamic city here), etc… But Milwaukee can’t grow without passionate advocates. It seems there’s a new Milwaukeean out there that’s ready to embrace change. I hope that’s true.

    • Honestly, I don’t think that moving to Portland, San Francisco (insert cool, progressive city here) is the answer. Milwaukee is not Portland, San Francisco or whatever, nor should we really try to be. Unlike those places that are usually billed as “youth magnet” cities, Milwaukee carries a legacy of deindustrialization that impacts daily life here, politically, socially and economically, in ways that a place like Portland will never experience. Rather than run from that legacy we should embrace it, and work within it, because it’s just as much a part of the American story as anything going on in Portland or Boulder.

      Moreover, despite how different Milwaukee is from Seattle or San Francisco, there are more commonalities than differences, certainly we have more in common with them they we do with a place like Copenhagen. True, five times many people bike in Portland than in Milwaukee, but 95% of people in Portland don’t bike.

      Recently I had a meeting on the East Side of Madison near the mall, and attempted to get there without driving. It was not easy. As I stood on a bus stop not accessible by sidewalk, I watched as a group of high school kids risked their lives trying to cross East Washington, with no crosswalk, no walk signal. My point is that even those places that are more “progressive” than Milwaukee are still in the US, and the US is owned by the automobile.

      Rather than play the comparison game we should do what we can to make things better here.

  3. I believe that we bicyclists got more done in one year of Tom Barrett as mayor than we did in 16 years of John Norquist. Mayor Norquist sometimes rankled those very same people who were to carry out his vision. He had a great vision, but his own personality got in the way of its execution. At least, under Mayor Barrett, Milwaukee cyclists have accomplished a lot and we hope to accomplish even more. Let’s shoot for Platinum.

  4. This is something I’ve thought a lot about since moving to Copenhagen. Whenever I point this out to people from back home, I get the same old “Milwaukee will never be a place like that”. The thing is, that Mke and Copenhagen aren’t that different. They’re the same size, and while yeah, Cph is a European capitol, Denmark isn’t any bigger than WI, and is marginally more important on a world stage. Cph has experienced a worse population loss and suburbanization than Mke and went through a bad de-industrialization, has major financial issues, and issues with poverty and crime (not on the same scale, but they’re quite bad compared to the rest of Scandinavia).

    The thing is, here we’ve got a city government, and to a certain extent a populus that believe in making the city the best, most livable, egalitarian place on earth, and consistently works towards that goal in every city department. It makes a huge difference. When streets get rebuilt, they get done right. When libraries get built, there’s some grand design competition. Addressing gang warfare means getting all of the experts in Northern Europe together to figure out the best plan. Solving segregation issues means the city deciding to actually spend money to integrate neighborhoods and encourage a better public debate, etc etc…

    I cant help but think how great Mke could be if there were civic leaders that really decided to go after the city’s full potential instead of just seeing the problems that are there right now…

    • I have been to Copenhagen and I still have friends there. I think there are a couple key differences. Some of my Danish friends are very liberal and others are conservative, but they all agree on some basic principles like universal healthcare, education, conservartion, etc. While there are socioeconomic differences in Denmark, the country is much more homogeneous. The views of citizens of the US are much more diverse. I can’t understand it, but I have a friend (well, more of an aquaintence now) in Milwaukee who honestly opposes public fire departments, police, education, etc. He has argued with me that no public servant (teacher, engineer, police captain, etc.) should be paid more than $50,000 a year including benefits. We live in a wacky place.

      Still, Milwaukee does seem to be in a special catagory. You certainly can’t compare us to Chicago in too many ways, but you can compare us to Louisville, KY or Minneapolis, MN and we just don’t have that ‘Je ne sais quoi. Outside of the Calatrava additon to our art museum, we seem to have some sort of inferiority complex.

  5. I agree with what you’re saying. My point was more just that a lot of Milwaukeeans (at least from my experience living and doing organizing work back home) seem to want a lot of the same things as people here, but just have this idea that it can’t ever work so why bother trying. I see that as being in the way for real big scale change above political issues. You only hear the conservative wackos so much cause so many other people can’t see the point in making a fuss.

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