To the burbs! Touring Barrington for the upcoming Chicagoland Bike Map

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Nice place to start a family
Having grown up in the burbs of southwestern Ohio, I maintain a bizarre affinity for strip malls, craft smoothie shops, and Monte Carlo nights at neighborhood churches. One thing I don't miss? The necessity of owning a car. Not having regular access to a motorized mode of transportation as a suburban 18-year-old was a kind of social maiming. Way too much waiting around for much cooler friends or, even worse, your much cooler mom to pick you up, and rarely getting a chance to explore a backseat with Jenny Cheerleader or Johnny Quarterback—unless, of course, you were able to borrow the minivan for the night.

So heading out to Barrington and Lake Zurich a couple of weekends ago to canvas the area via bicycle for the upcoming 2013 Chicagoland Bike Map was a different kind of scene. As an uneducated teen who had little grasp of how society (cycling culture, in particular) operated outside of his well-landscaped pod, I had directed my car horn at outfits of suburban cyclists more than once in attempts to push them off the road and onto the sidewalk where I thought they belonged. As we all should know by now, cyclists have just as much right to stretches of open road as motorists—and should really never ride on the sidewalk—a fact I quickly learned once I took to urban cycling. Still, I had myself convinced that returning to the burbs on a bike would result in a sort of karmic beatdown, with angry SUVs honking at me and other motorists fixing me with both evil and stink eyes.

Things looked bleak when I hopped off the Metra in Barrington and noticed my bike had a flat. Not only did I have little idea about what direction was what—God praise you, iPhone maps—I now had a lame tire. And unlike in the city, a bike shop on every corner there ain't. (I know I should have anticipated the flat happening and brought a spare tube and CO2 cartridge, but it wouldn't have been an adventure had I actually planned ahead.) After asking a couple of helpful pedestrians, I discovered there was a shop not half a mile away on Northwest Hwy. I trudged there, fixed the flat, and was on my way.

The end goal of the Chicagoland Bike Map project—conducted by the Active Transportation Alliance—is to update the current map's routes, points of interest, and trails. For example, if a route has become more treacherous since its inclusion, it may need to be recategorized from a route with "medium" conditions to one with only "suitable" conditions. Or maybe a new trail has been installed in a forest preserve. Or maybe a route dead ends and needs to be removed altogether. The ATA relies on volunteers to stake a claim to a certain area of suburbia, ride the mapped-out routes, and record any changes that are necessary.

And let me tell you, it's an intimidating task to ride the suburbs, man. Not only are there hills (hills, I say!), but in the far outreaches of suburbia, like Barrington, there are rarely any marked bike lanes. I actually only came across three during my ride. For the most part you're relegated to the shoulder of a road with speed limits of up to 45 miles per hour. Keep your head down and ride straight. As I wove my way through the rudimentary grid of Barrington out into the longer, less-congested stretches of Lake Zurich and Hawthorn Woods I settled into a groove, occasionally pulling off into a well-paved subdivision to scribble down notes and make appropriate marks on my map.

The speed of the cars was the most disconcerting aspect of the day. Forget a car cruising past you on Milwaukee Avenue at 25 miles per hour as you navigate a shared bike lane with other cyclists. Try riding on a three-foot wide shoulder out in the great open space as cars zip by you at about ten miles per hour over the speed limit. U.S. Route 12 cuts diagonally through the area I canvassed, creating a regular barrier that, unless you're suicidal, is pretty much impassable. And unfortunately, one of of the more scenic portions of my ride was up near the Lakewood Forest Preserve on a stretch of Old McHenry Road that eventually ran into Route 12. It was too dangerous to ride and I wasn't willing to make a long backtrack, so I was forced to heave my bike over my shoulder and slog through the high grass of the route's sloped shoulder until I reached a street that would get me back on course. Not recommended.

All in all I had a pleasant, albeit exhausting, six-hour ride through Chicago's northwest suburbs—and I wasn't honked at a single time. I reevaluated some routes, added a couple of trails, and lobbied to remove most recommended routes that ended at Route 12. And I was lucky enough to give a few subtle head nods to the road warriors who ride the burbs on the regular. I have a new-found respect for those dudes and would very much like to smack the 18-year-old me upside the head for ever doubting their right to the road.

Below you can check out the original map and the modest changes and additions I made to a black-and-white map I had with me during the ride. After receiving the submissions, the ATA reviews them and evaluates whether they should be implemented.

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