28 April 2011

Better Bike Routes

In discussions with Chicago friends who would like to bike in the city but do not, one thing I invariably hear is that they "don't want to ride in traffic". A lot of this has to do with non-cyclists' conceptions of safety, but still, I can't say that I blame them. In spite of what the vehicular cycling lobby would have you believe, most normal people would rather not cruise along next to several tons of careening steel. I've been on two wheels for primary transport for a few years now and often still get a little antsy when thrown into the mix against some of the most aggressive, least-forgiving drivers I've ever encountered (and I've driven in Tijuana). The city's official bike routes recognize this fact, which is why certain busy streets like Western or North Avenues are advised against. And yet a street like Milwaukee Avenue, which in it's current alignment only is wide enough for a shared lane, is a recommended route, with the highest concentration of cyclists. It is also where I have had most of my closest calls with being doored. Most of the time, Milwaukee's really not so bad. While I do subscribe to the "safety in numbers" argument, get out there during rush hour with idling cars backed up for a couple blocks in that narrow little gap between the parked ones, with a dozen or so other cyclists hot on your tail, and there's not much room for error.

I've lived in Chicago for going on eight years now, and I've resided that entire time west of Western Avenue, in various parts of the Humboldt Park, Avondale and Logan Square neighborhoods. This area easily has one of the highest rates of cycling per capita in the city, but only a fraction of the infrastructure that you would find further east. One part of the problem is the damage inflicted on the built environment by the Kennedy Expressway. Many side streets which used to have throughput now dead-end at a 300-foot-wide wall of concrete and congestion. As experience has shown, this has a deleterious effect on local traffic flows, forcing more cars onto fewer surface streets. As the traffic on those streets has gotten heavier, the conditions for cycling on them have deteriorated in hand.

So as a person who simply wishes to reach his destination without being flattened, and while breathing as little exhaust as possible, I often take to the side streets. It's easier than it sounds, what with Chicago being on a neat, tidy little grid and all. But finding quiet streets that intersect busy ones at places where it is possible to cross them is rather trickier. Illinois motorists are required by law to stop if you're in a crosswalk, but I've yet to see many people actually do so. But breathe easier, timid near-northwest side denizens! I've done the work so you don't have to. Behold, a new map to get you where you're going in one piece:

As you can see, I focused primarily on the Logan Square, Avondale and West Town community areas, as that is the section of the city I have the most familiarity with. You may also see that Lincoln Park already has a much more extensive network than the lower-income neighborhoods west of the river. 

It is certainly not perfect, this is still very much a work-in-progress and subject to many future revisions. I apologize that I was unable to include labels on this version, due to it's small size. I am open to any suggestions that any of you may have. The red lines indicate current, CDOT-approved routes, the yellow ones are mine, and the orange are where they overlap. Many of the streets are one-ways, which could make a case for the city building more contraflow bike lanes (we have a grand total of ONE so far) or bike boulevards. Many of these side streets have speed humps or pretty awful potholes in some places, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to make for the sake of having the entire street to myself for blocks at a time. I have steel rims, anyhow.

Another issue is access over the Chicago River (link to Steve Vance's map of "untreated" bridges). Diversey is an official route, but personally I hate using that bridge on a bike. Webster and Kinzie are much quieter in terms of traffic, and make for good bike routes, but they are open-grate bridges which always feel like they are going to shred my steel-belted tires. Cortland is the only bridge across the North Branch with the combination of relatively low speeds and a surface safe for bikes, but that doesn't do you much good if you have to go a mile out of your way to get to it.

Much work needs to be done to provide citywide routes safe enough for people to overcome their fears and get onto bikes. Ultimately, I'd love to see separated infrastructure all over the place, but realistically it could be decades. But with this guy coming in to head Mayor Emanuel's version of CDOT, we might just get lucky.

UPDATE: 4/28 6:32pm

I've fixed the kml layer that was at the base of the map, no small feat as Google Maps constantly crashes on me. My own fault for not labeling it as I was going along. So now, a version with labels. You're welcome. Full size available here.

19 April 2011

Beginning to See the Light

Back in November, I wrote (among other things) about the need for new streetlights in Chicago. I didn't realize it at the time, but the city was actually already in the progress of testing new models. Hopefully, I can be excused for the gaffe, as even now I'm finding it incredibly difficult to locate any information online about them. I was slightly taken aback to actually see some of the new residential street lamps yesterday, on the 2600 block on North Hamlin in Logan Square. I ride my bike down that street all the time and only just noticed them, so they couldn't have been there more than a few days. I snapped a photo with my phone:

They were switched on in the middle of the afternoon, and I've yet to see how these look at night, but I think I like the design. The light overhanging the street is significantly lower than the old models, suggesting that the amount of light pollution given off should be at least partially mitigated. The addition of the pedestrian-scale light on the sidewalk side is a huge plus in my estimation. From what little information available out there, I believe these use metal halide bulbs rather than LEDs, but I could be mistaken. I would love to hear from anybody with additional info.

03 April 2011

Chicago Cycle Chic, 1915 Streetcar Strike Edition

Two posts in one night, it's a record.

Finally, thanks to a streetcar strike 96 years ago, and countless hours digging through the Library of Congress American Memory site, I can contribute a Chicago entry to the global Cycle Chic craze. I can't not do it, as the math states that bikes+Chicago+labor history+natty dressers=irresistable.

A rainy day in the Windy City. The building on the right looks familiar, but I can't place it. Anybody?

This dapper young gent has the right idea.

Both photos come from the Chicago Daily News archives.

The Stuff They Didn't Build & Crowdsourcing History

While doing some digging around in various online archives, I came across a digitized journal brief that appeared in the November 1892 edition of The Manufacturer & Builder, heralding the development of "An Asphalt Bicycle Road from New York to Chicago":
It is seriously proposed, by the great bicycle manufacturers of the country, to build an asphalt road, from 20 to 35 feet wide, and extending from New York to Chicago. At all events, the proposition is announced to have been made in good faith, and has already been discussed in the daily papers. 
Peter Gendron, of the Gendron Iron Wheel Co., of Toledo, Ohio, is reported to be the prime mover in this remarkable scheme, which is said to be under consideration by the bicycle makers of the country. A highway of this character would be, indeed, an object lesson is propagating the gospel of good roads. We will watch the future development of this enterprise with interest.
I'm a sucker for old-timey language, and I seriously would like to own stock in the "Gendron Iron Wheel Company of Toledo". Obviously, a thousand-mile "bicycle road" never came to fruition, but paved highways were a reality in most of the country within a quarter-century. This is yet another reminder of the role the cyclists' lobby played in developing the federal roads-building projects of the early twentieth century.

Some cycling amenities were built, however, like the pictured California Cycleway. It looks suspiciously like this recently-erected cycle bridge in the Netherlands. A private consortium built the link between Pasadena and Los Angeles, but eventually went bankrupt. The right-of-way was later used for a streetcar line, and finally became the Arroyo Seco Parkway, one of the world's first freeways. Quite the encapsulation of Southern California history.

Of course, bicycles were all the rage at the turn of the last century. Races draw huge crowds to velodromes around the country. Check out this view showing the start of a bicycle race outside Chicago's historic Water Tower on Michigan Avenue overlaid on the modern streetscene.

Be prepared to lose the rest of your day after clicking the link, as it directs you to WhatWasThere.com, a site that allows users to upload historic photos and layer them over modern Google Streetview images. This is a website that I've been wanting to exist for quite some time, and was quite glad to find it. So glad in fact, that much of my free time over the past few weeks has been spent filling in the map of Chicago's Near Northwest Side, among other places. I can envision this being an indispensable tool for urban planners, historians, educators and all manner of folk with an interest in changes to the built enviornment. See these views of Logan Square in the '30s or of the 1966 Division Street Riots for some other great contrasts.