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Grate Expectations

Can Kathy Schubert really get the city to get rid of its potentially lethal bike traps?


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On New Year's Day, shortly before noon, Kathy Schubert's bicycle slid across the metal grating on the LaSalle Street bridge and she crashed to the ground. Ever since, she's been trying to force the city to pave over or fill in the gratings on its major bridges.

Schubert has gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions and persuaded other cyclists to send City Hall dozens of postcards, E-mails, and letters. "I think it's dangerous to have these surfaces," she says. "It's dangerous to bicyclists--and to motorcycles also."

OK, she admits, it's not a life-and-death issue to the rest of the city, but there's a larger issue at stake. She says that if Mayor Daley really wants to make Chicago a world-class bicycling city, as he often says, then someone has to make sure he's keeping bicycles in mind: "If they're going to spend the money on something like bridges--and they are doing that--then spend it right."

Schubert is an active cyclist. "I ride not just for recreation and exercise," she says, "but because that's how I get around town." She lives on the north side and can regularly be seen biking about with Joey, her miniature schnauzer, seated in a basket behind her. "Oh yes, I take Joey with me all the time," she says. "I make her wear a helmet too. She obeys the helmet law--I'm passionate about that."

She's passionate about a lot of things related to biking. She helped form the Chicago Cycling Club, and she offers biking advice on two Web sites, one of which is devoted to carrying a dog on a bike. "I love so much about biking," she says. "I like the freedom. It's good for keeping your weight under control. I like to save the environment. I like it all."

So it wasn't surprising that she was tooling along the southbound lane of LaSalle Street as part of an organized around-the-Loop ride on New Year's Day. The bridge, like many others in the city, has metal grates that run lengthwise, creating one-inch ruts. "There was a car in front of me," she says, "and I didn't want to stop suddenly to avoid it because I'd have to put my foot down on the metal grates. I was wearing bicycle shoes with cleats, and they could have got stuck in the grating."

She turned right to avoid hitting the car and, like many cyclists before her, discovered that it's almost impossible to turn out of the rut. She might have been better off crashing into the car. Instead her tire caromed off the side of the rut, and she was thrown. "I fell, and both palms hit the ground," she says. "I had a big gash on my knee and a smaller one on my elbow."

A couple of fellow cyclists came to her aid, as did a cabdriver who happened to be passing by. "The cabdriver's name was Barry Feinberg, and he was very helpful," says Schubert. "We put my bike in his car, and he took me home. And then he took me to the nearest hospital."

The gash in her knee required 18 stitches. "I'd been afraid of these bridges for a long time," she says. "I always knew the surfaces posed a problem. But there was nothing to light a fire under me. To me the issue is this. The city says they want people to ride bikes. They say they want to encourage it because it saves on pollution. And yet they are not doing everything they can to make bike riding safe. I decided the time had come to do something about it."

On January 6 she wrote a letter to Miguel d'Escoto, commissioner of the Department of Transportation. "The mayor's vision for this city is to make it the best city in which to ride a bicycle, but unless these bridges are modified to make cycling across them safer, that will never be the case," she wrote. "Please direct your Deputy Commissioner of Bridges and Transit to make modifications on these bridges to make a smooth ride for bicycles."

A few weeks passed, and she didn't receive a response. So she began posting messages on Web sites, asking cyclists to contact the city about paving over the bridges. "I also ran off a whole bunch of postcards, which I addressed to City Hall," she says. "I passed them out wherever I went. If I saw a cyclist I handed him a postcard. Why not? This is an important issue to us. The bicycle messengers have been very helpful. They're behind us."

By mid-February the city had been inundated with E-mail messages and postcards. "I think she's hit on an important issue that a lot of riders can relate to," says Michael Burton, one of the leaders of the bicycling organization Critical Mass. "This is grassroots organizing at its best. You expand from the personal. She fell on the bridge, got her stitches, said, 'This is a problem that broadly impacts people's willingness to cycle,' and she acted."

Burton supports her campaign, though he says he's experienced enough to handle metal-grated bridges without a problem. "I bike across them all the time," he says. "Once you get the hang of them, they're not so bad. But the first few times it's scary. If we're going to make the city as bike friendly as we can, it's key."

On February 8 d'Escoto posted a letter to everyone on Critical Mass's E-mail list. "Over the past month, the Chicago Department of Transportation has received petitions and postcards from members of Chicago's bicycling community regarding the decks of the city's movable bridges," he wrote. "The correspondence addresses an issue that's of great importance to CDOT: safety. Through all of the myriad bike-related improvements that the City has put into place over the past decade, safety has been a paramount concern."

Unfortunately, he continued, the city can't replace or fill in all the metal gratings without offsetting the delicate balance that enables the bridges to be raised and lowered. "The issue is one of simple physics: Chicago's bascule bridges work as the French word 'bascule' implies, like a teeter-totter," he wrote. "In order for the bridges to raise and lower properly, the weight of the decks and steel over the water must be offset, or 'counterbalanced,' by a proportional weight within the counterweights located below the roadway. In many cases, the existing bridges are at their limits for adding more counterweight to balance the increased loads of the deck."

Still, he wrote, the city was investigating the matter, "gathering information on solutions and strategies adopted by cities around the world. We will evaluate the feasibility of those options to see which could work best in Chicago, and will follow up with more information as our research proceeds."

Schubert thought d'Escoto's letter was just a nice way of telling her to get lost. For one thing, she didn't understand why the city was able to replace or fill in the metal grating on some bridges but not others. Faced with grating, she says, "I suppose you could just get off your bike and walk it across. But that would slow you down and get in the way of pedestrians. And besides, a lot of the bridges don't have curb cuts."

Convinced that the city would simply drop the matter if she let it, she decided to keep passing out postcards and encouraging bike riders to call or write d'Escoto or Ben Gomberg, the CDOT aide in charge of bicycle policy. "I guess they must have received enough postcards, because Ben told me, 'Don't send out any more letters-- it's counterproductive,'" she says. "I don't understand how they can be counterproductive. Is the city going to ignore this issue just because we persist?"

Gomberg directed my questions to Brian Steele, CDOT's public information officer. "This is something we are definitely looking into," says Steele. "We're trying to figure out what solution can be put into place at which location. The biggest challenge, as commissioner d'Escoto's letter says, is the question of physics."

Steele says the city agrees it's an important issue. "I don't know if you're aware of it, but the city's been embarked in the last ten years on a citywide bridge-rehab program," he says. "And bicycle safety is part of what we're looking into. There have been 20 or so bridges we've done in the last decade, and half of those we have been able to fill in the bridge deck. So yes, this is important to us. You're probably not aware that Chicago's got this recognition from Bicycle magazine--it was named as the best big city in the U.S. for bicycling. And we're number two in North America, behind Toronto. So obviously the biking community is a big concern to us."

Schubert's continuing her campaign anyway. She recently led an expedition to the two bridges closest to her Lincoln Park home. "Look at this," she said, pointing to the grating on the Webster bridge. "You could get killed riding across this. I don't know why they can't fix this right now." Then she walked over to the Ashland Avenue bridge and pointed to its concrete surface.

As she headed back she saw a cyclist flying west in the eastbound lane of the Webster bridge, apparently oblivious to the grating.

"Look at that," she said, shaking her head. "He's going the wrong way over the grating, and he's not wearing a helmet. Not much I can do for him."

She stopped another cyclist on Webster, a young man with a bag slung across his back, and asked, "What do you think about the surface on the bridge?"

He shrugged. "You know, I haven't given it a lot of thought. But now that you mention it, I think it would be great if the city would resurface it. I'll tell you which bridge is really bad--the one on Wells."

"Are you aware of what we're doing?"

"No, but I'll take a postcard and send it in. Anything that improves cycling I'm for." He took a card and got back on his bike. As he headed toward the bridge he called back, "Don't forget to check out the Wells."

The next day Schubert did just that. "Sure enough, it's horrible--just like he said," she reported. "Van Buren's bad too. I was talking to some cyclists, and they told me they hate the Kinzie bridge too. I don't know. I have to check it out. If it's as bad as they say I'll spread the word about that bridge too."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dianne M. Brogan.

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