The trustees of Winnetka probably did not realize it, but with little fanfare or celebration they unleashed a revolution last October.
Of course, that was not their intention. Instead, the seven-member village board was merely approving what looked like a rather mundane proposition to outlaw bicycle traffic on the "Ravine"--a winding stretch of Sheridan Road less than one mile long.
"We'd been getting a lot of complaints from motorists and residents about all the cyclists," says Winnetka Police Chief Herbert Timm. "So, we felt, out of public safety, a need to act."
To cyclists, however, it was not so simple. They could imagine the ban triggering a domino effect along Sheridan Road. OK, so today it's just the Ravine. And tomorrow--the rest of Winnetka? And how about next week? Will the ban spread south through Kenilworth and into Wilmette, and then perhaps back north all the way to Lake Forest? Will Sheridan Road--long, wide, smooth, and close to the lake--be lost to cyclists forever?
"There's precedent for this," says Randy Neufeld, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, a not-for-profit advocacy group. "Evanston closed Sheridan Road to cyclists in '58. We're opposed to all bike bans, but, in their defense, Evanston at least takes cycling seriously. They've created well-maintained alternative routes. It's not a situation like this, where they simply ban bikes and hope they go away."
Neufeld and his allies have responded to the Winnetka challenge with letters, phone calls, and petitions. And they have hope. When the village board approved the ban, the trustees asked Chief Timm to return in six months with a report on its impact. The board hears Timm's report on April 19, and then it will decide whether to perpetuate the ban or repeal it, either permanently or temporarily. The cyclists promise to attend that meeting in large numbers, making it perhaps as spirited an affair as ever was waged by the good burghers of old Winnetka.
For the moment, the cyclists remain confident and bold. Even if the trustees uphold the ban, that may not matter. As in all revolutions, one can lose the first battle yet win the war.
"So far the response has been great," says Neufeld. "It's the biggest issue in the biking community. The League of American Wheelmen and the Bikecentennial have done mailings about it. We've got a rally coming up featuring Lon Haldeman, one of the fastest cross-country cyclists in the world. I think he rode across the country in less than nine days.
"Cycling isn't just a child's sport. For the first time since the 1800s, there are more adult cyclists than child cyclists--the industry keeps the figures. We have a great opportunity to get public officials to come to terms with the facts about cycling."
Neufeld, an easygoing bearded fellow of 28 who lives in Lakeview, has a background in political activism. For the last two years, he has worked in several north-side campaigns, including Ron Sable's close but unsuccessful run for alderman last year in Chicago's 44th Ward.
"I've always loved biking," says Neufeld. "And I have always been interested in things that have socially redeemable value. But I didn't really put the two together until I saw this article in a magazine about the 90-10 bill that had passed in Congress. For every $10 that a local transit authority spends on improving bike accessibility, the federal government promised to give them $90 for the same purpose.
"I couldn't believe it. I saw this as a remarkable opportunity. Bicycles are efficient, clean vehicles that represent the earth. In Asia, they are the primary form of transportation. In Europe, they are an integral part of transportation. In America--where the car is king, where automobiles are the sacred cow--we should at least try to make bikes a more accepted part of transportation. We don't want to get rid of cars. We want to share the road."
So Neufeld did a little investigating, and discovered the existence of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. Founded in 1985, the Federation had a newsletter (edited by Sue Ulrey, and funded by the Chicago Area Bicycle Dealers Association), and even something of a guardian angel in the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, which had assigned one of its planners, Suzan Pinsof, to establish it. But the Federation was in dire need of funds, members, and organization.
"When I met them, they were a talented group of people, but they were having troubles organizing," says Neufeld. "We've got all sorts of interesting people on our board: planners, civil engineers, teachers, electricians, retired chemical engineers, a University of Chicago law professor, and a rent-a-nerd. That's Mike MacDonald. He lives in Berwyn, and if you want a nerd to come to your party and act, well, like a nerd, you hire him. I guess he makes a living doing it, although it must be a struggle.
"Our biggest problem is fund-raising. Our budget is about $20,000 and we make most of our money from dues. It's $12 for an individual and $18 for a family. Right now we have 300 individual members; we hope to have 1,000 by the end of the year. We also have 14 businesses, and 10 public agencies--for instance, the Chicago Botanic Garden--and 12 bicycle clubs who are group members. Some of the clubs have a lot of members, though that doesn't mean all of these individuals are dues-paying members of the Federation. But that's what we're aiming for."
Neufeld's appointment as the Federation's first executive director was proclaimed in the club's newsletter as a momentous occasion--"history was made in the cause of bicycle advocacy in Chicagoland December 1, 1987." Even so, the story ran on page two. The big news, splashed on page one, was the Sheridan Road bike ban.
"You have to understand that the Ravine offers one of the few places in northern Illinois where there is a hill," says Neufeld. "We've never done an exact count, but I would guess that on nice days in the summer and spring, you'd have as many as 500 cyclists riding there."
For cyclists, that means the pain of the uphill struggle is followed by the sweet satisfaction of descent.
"I ride Sheridan Road a lot because I live in Highland Park," says Ted Sanders, a Federation board member and retired school administrator who at age 65 often bikes as much as 100 miles in a day. "I enjoy riding the Ravine. It's a challenge. And it's safe."
Police Chief Timm sees it differently.
"We've had bicycle safety problems there for years," says Timm. "Most of the cyclists are professionals who ride in rather large numbers. There are concerns because they violate stop signs and stoplights and ride several abreast, which impedes traffic. And they are often rude when motorists make mention of the fact that they are blocking the roadway.
"I have no quarrel with people who are interested in training and physical fitness. I'm into that myself. I don't bike, I'm a runner. But we've had serious accidents. Not where a car hits a cyclist, but where cyclists fall. Often, these falls don't get reported. But they happen.
"We've clocked cyclists coming out of the Ravine at 47 miles per hour. The posted speed limit is 20 miles an hour. A car going that fast down a winding hill can't control itself; a bike cyclist will have even more difficulties. The way I see it, you have to respect other motorists and obey the rules of the road. In addressing this issue, I talked to my staff. And I decided shutting down the Ravine was the way to go."
The cyclists were outraged. The Ravine is not, they insist, a hotbed of accidents. There has been only one bike-car accident along there in the last four years. In contrast, there were 36 automobile accidents along the Ravine in 1984 alone.
Most bike accidents would be eliminated, cyclists insist, if the police enforced the law.
"The ordinance is on the books to ride single file, but it's not posted on the road and never enforced," says Sanders. "If you don't enforce a law it won't be followed. That's a fact. How many people would observe a stop sign if they didn't get a ticket? It's the same way with cyclists. Bicycles are vehicles, all the rules of the road apply to them, just like cars. I don't go through stop signs. I know some cyclists do, but I don't. That's because I obey the law. We should teach the rules of the road to kids when they're in junior high, just like we teach them the rules of driving when they're in high school. If you ride sensibly there are no problems.
"I've heard some talk that the town is worried about liability if cyclists are hurt. But Sheridan Road is much safer than the alternative routes. Sheridan's about 29 feet wide. That gives me 14 1/2 feet to share with an automobile. If I go to Old Green Bay Road, it's 18 feet wide and it's got all sorts of potholes. And there's more intersections there. That's where most accidents occur, at intersections. We told this to Timm and town officials, and they just don't listen."
The larger problem, says Neufeld, is that society does not know how to accommodate cyclists.
"The village contacted the Illinois Department of Transportation--Sheridan is a state road, so they get some say in the matter," says Neufeld. "So they send a guy out, he looks at the roadway and says, basically 'Well, it's hilly, it's winding, it looks unsafe to me.' Does that make sense?
"IDOT says it's not their policy to encourage bicycling on public roads. But there are other states which are bending over backwards to encourage bicycling. Other cities are way ahead of us. San Francisco has bike lockers in its [commuter rail] stations. You've got mass transit links all over Europe. You can wheel your bike onto a train in Europe, take the train out to the boonies, and ride around. The point is you have to think of ways to fit bicycling into normal transportation patterns."
So far, all of the cyclists' arguments seem to have had little influence on Timm or the town.
"I've talked to the cyclists, I've had them in my office," says Timm. "They are courteous and dedicated. But I haven't changed my mind. As it stands, you could be issued a ticket for riding a bike on the Ravine. But most cyclists don't carry identification, so they'd have to be taken into the station to be identified. It's a cumbersome approach for a $25 ticket. And, frankly, most police officers would rather not go through with it. So, I would hope that cyclists would respect the law, and I am going to recommend that the ban be upheld. It's up to the council to determine whether they agree with me. I don't make predictions on how they [the trustees] will act. But they're reasonable people."
As for the cyclists, they insist that the fight will be a springboard to other matters.
"We've got all sorts of things going," says Neufeld. "We want to deal with the bike situation in the Loop. There are a lot of problems, especially with bike messengers. A lot of them don't obey the law. I saw one guy who was riding a bike that had no brakes.
"But there's also curbs that need repaving, potholes that have to be fixed. On May 14th, we're going to have a workshop on bike access in the Loop. Anyone who's interested can call me at 454-0400. And then on May 23rd we're going to sponsor Chicago Bicycle Commuter Day. We're saying for that one day 'Come on out, and bike to work. Just give it a try.' You never know, you just might like it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.