A secret history of the Riverwalk bike ban | On Transportation | Chicago Reader

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A secret history of the Riverwalk bike ban

E-mails reveal how the threat of a cyclist revolt convinced the city to end the de facto prohibition.

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BARRY KAFKA
  • Barry Kafka

If I’d known city officials were going to try to ban biking on the new Chicago Riverwalk, I never would have advocated for building it. From the start, the Riverwalk extension was promoted as a commuting corridor for cyclists and pedestrians, not just a place to lounge with a glass of cabernet.

The city’s pitch to the federal government for a $99 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act loan to build the esplanade promised, “The project will enhance safety . . . with bicycle paths and pedestrian trails along the continuous promenade.”

And at a 2013 public hearing on the initiative, city planner Michelle Woods said she expected cyclists would use the promenade as a connection between the Lakefront Trail and the Loop, “which frankly I am fine with them doing.” Assurances like this were a big reason why I wrote half a dozen Streetsblog posts cheerleading the project.

By summer 2018, the promenade had become a victim of its own success. At peak times during the warmer months, the cafe zone between State and Clark Streets was lively but chaotic: families strolling with small children, seniors walking dogs, boaters pulling up to the docks, and lots of young professionals sipping IPAs.

Obviously, you’d have to be nuts to bike at full speed through that mass of humanity. Dismounting, or at least riding at walking speed, are the only safe and nonsociopathic options.

But by early September the city had posted signs indicating that cycling isn’t permitted on the path at all: “Share the Riverwalk: Walk Your Bike.” I responded with a blog post noting that the signs were bogus because the promenade was funded as a bike-ped facility.

In late September, clout-heavy downtown alderman Brendan Reilly introduced an ordinance to prohibit cycling on the Riverwalk. After I posted on Twitter about the ban plan, Reilly tweeted a taunting response. “Full credit goes to Streetsblog for pointing out there was no ordinance to support the ‘Walk your bike’ signs. As such, we introduced an ordinance to do just that.”

Soon afterward, new signs were posted at all the Riverwalk entrances stating “Bicycles Must Be Walked” and threatening “Violators Will Be Prosecuted,” even though the ordinance hadn’t passed yet.

Earlier this year the city did a makeover of the old Riverwalk east of Michigan Avenue. When I first biked on it in mid-May, I was infuriated to see that the straight asphalt path had been replaced with a zigzagging concrete path with multiple bottlenecks, all seemingly designed to discourage cycling.

The City Clerk’s office confirmed that Reilly’s ordinance still hadn’t passed. But on that ride four different security guards, following orders from supervisors, stopped me to erroneously say biking was illegal on the Riverwalk.

I wrote about that experience, quoting Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke, who agreed, “guards currently have no authority to block cycling on the Riverwalk.” He blasted the Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management (F2M), which oversees the promenade, for “the disregard they demonstrated towards cycling with their redesign.”

E-mails I obtained from the department via a Freedom of Information Act request show that my Riverwalk piece made some waves. “Did you see this blog post?” asked Holly Agra, the CEO of Chicago’s First Lady Cruises in a May 16 e-mail to Michelle Woods, now working at F2M. “Should I ask Alderman Reilly to revisit his plan?”

Woods forwarded the link to my article to Reilly’s assistant Robert Kearney. “Let me know if your office gets feedback on this,” she said.

The same day Burke wrote Woods and F2M commissioner David Reynolds, asking if the city was still moving forward with the bike ban. “The new bike-unfriendly [east Riverwalk] design seems to reflect anti-bike intentions as well. All of this threatens Chicago’s ability to grow cycling and connect the Lakefront Trail to a future Chicago River Trail.” He offered to work with them on a solution.

On May 20, Burke followed up with Woods and Reynolds requesting that the total bike ban be replaced with time-of-day restrictions and/or “Walk Your Bike When Congested” signs. “Emotions are high in the cycling community over this,” he wrote. “Some sort of protest on the Riverwalk and/or Upper Wacker is a possibility, and I think we can head this off with a reasonable compromise.”

Commissioner Reynolds then wrote his deputy, Ivan Hansen, “[Active Trans] is getting ready to protest the riverwalk . . . I would like to work with them.” He asked Hansen to have the guards stop confronting cyclists before 9 AM.

That explains why, the next time I cycled on the Riverwalk on a sunny afternoon, a guard told me biking was only permitted during the morning rush. At the time I was cheekily wearing a T-shirt I’d sharpied with the text “Hi there! Despite what the signs say, Alderman Reilly’s ordinance to ban biking on the riverwalk (O2018-7034) never passed, so it’s still legal. Thank you!”

F2M continued to negotiate with Active Trans, offering to involve them in a CDOT study of cyclist and pedestrian interactions on the promenade. Meanwhile the advocacy group announced that it was in talks with Reilly, CDOT, Riverwalk designer Ross Barney Architects, and various downtown groups about converting one or more lanes of Upper Wacker to protected bike lanes.
JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield

After I tweeted out a photo of my Reilly-trolling shirt, the alderman responded “Thanks for the reminder—I’ll be sure to pass the ordinance this summer.” True to his word, he reintroduced the bike ban legislation to the City Council on May 29.

However, in early June, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey told Chicago magazine that city policy currently allows cycling on the path “when the Riverwalk is not congested.” Since then, I’ve heard multiple reports that the guards are no longer scolding cyclists, although, as of last week, the threatening signs were still posted at the Riverwalk entrances.

Of course, this detente will end if Reilly gets his way. That seems like a long shot, however. Cyclists have promised to show up in force to testify against the ordinance if the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety ever holds a hearing on it, and an alderman told me they plan to fight the legislation.

But in the unlikely event the ordinance passes, I’ve already announced on Twitter that I’ll respond with civil disobedience. As I’ve previously discussed in the Reader, I was the first person to be jailed for riding in Chicago’s monthly Critical Mass ride. So I might as well take one for the team by getting arrested for biking on a bikeway.  v

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