I have an embarrassing secret. Since I’ve been forced to divulge it to so many friends over the past week, I am no longer ashamed to let you in on it: I can’t bike. Never learned. Two-wheeled transportation has never been a part of my life.
Growing up in New York City, this never felt like much of a problem. My entire life, it seemed, was a five-minute walk from the subway. Besides, I love walking, and I was rarely in a hurry, so why bother?
Hyde Park is a bit of a different story. Getting from point to point is often a 15- or 20-minute walk, long enough to be too long when you’re late for class or need to grab some dinner. The buses help, but they’re often indirect and, of course, you often wind up waiting too long for them. Biking, an on-demand and oh-so-quick option, and this neighborhood were made for each other.
We all know about the myriad other benefits of biking. It’s zero-carbon transportation and obviously creates no air pollution. Therefore, more people biking will, in the aggregate, be good for the environment. Instead, all the energy comes from you burning calories, so it can also have a positive impact on your health. But what convinced me to try biking was my roommates ooh-ing and ah-ing over how, after they bought bikes, the quad was suddenly next door instead of three-quarters of a mile away.
So during O-Week I trekked up to Pilsen with some friends to the incredible Working Bikes Cooperative, Chicago’s only major used bike shop. The super friendly employees there were happy to give me some pointers and feed my newborn enthusiasm, but they tempered their words with caution. America’s third largest city, obviously, is not the safest place in the world to ride a bike. There are high-volume intersections, fast-moving vehicles, and lines of parked cars that could easily door you if you’re not careful. The dozens of ghost bike memorials, painted white and chained permanently, that dot Chicago’s roadsides are stark reminders that cyclist deaths can and do occur.
It sounded like the perceived safety issues around bicycling were a barrier to more people doing it. When I got home later that day, newly acquired bike in tow, I decided to read up on the state of biking in Chicago. The situation, for the most part, is improving. Along with screaming, yelling, and cursing, our triathlete Mayor Rahm Emanuel counts cycling as one of his passions, and this is reflected in his administration’s policies. To encourage higher ridership, the city is trying to make cycling an easier, more attractive option for commuters. Emanuel has pledged to open 100 miles of protected lanes during his first term; the first half-mile stretch, along Kinzie Street in River North, opened in July. In addition, under a plan announced last week, the city will launch a bike-sharing program that will aim to offer 5,000 bikes at 500 stations by 2014.
It’s encouraging to see public officials who want to see cycling, as the Chicago DOT commissioner put it, as a “new transit system.” Greater safety, in the form of more and better bike lanes, along with the reduced financial costs for occasional riders that the bike-share system will provide, should, hopefully, expand the role two-wheeled transit plays in Chicagoland. The benefits, from safer streets to cleaner air and less traffic, are goods everyone can appreciate.
We, as city residents, and the University, which counts so many cyclists among its community members, need to push for continuing improvements to the streetscape both here in Hyde Park and across the city. Major arteries in our neighborhood, such as 55th Street and Cottage Grove, are wide enough to accommodate protected lanes and should have them installed. Such efforts, duplicated across the city, could help put Chicago on the cutting edge of intelligent, environmentally-friendly urban policy and development in the United States. I’m still wobbly on my wheels, but it’s encouraging to see that “The City that Works” may be on its way to becoming “The City that Rides.”
David Kaner is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters and Society.