By Ted Kleine
The wavy black bicycle racks outside the Pulaski Park field house filled up early on Sunday, so the cyclists who came late for Break the Gridlock, a damn-all-cars conference, had to lock their bikes to a fence. By 11 o'clock, when the event started, the fence looked like what bike messengers call a "cluster fuck"--an orgy of jammed-together two-wheelers. There were bikes hauling tiny chariots, bikes with panniers sagging from racks, bikes with stickers that said "Question Internal Combustion," bikes flying smug orange flags declaring "One Less Car."
Break the Gridlock's Web site didn't even offer directions for car drivers. "If you plan on driving," it said, "you are coming to the wrong conference."
Several months ago there was an auto show at McCormick Place. This was the antiauto show. The car was the Satan figure of the afternoon, and every speaker attested to its evil. Katie Alvord--who somehow lives without a car in Michigan's Upper Peninsula--told the 100 or so people in the audience that a quarter of all U.S. car trips are less than a mile. She suggested that all those lazy-ass drivers buy a map, figure out what's easy walking distance, draw a circle that big around their houses, and walk to every place that falls inside. Jane Holtz Kay, architecture and planning critic for the Nation, noted that cars kill 42,000 people a year, and declared Henry Ford's baby "the chief cause of the diminution of species" because it makes urban sprawl possible. And Charles Komanoff, a cycling activist from Manhattan, declared that "the automobile is ushering in global warming almost by itself."
None of the speakers demonized drivers. Indeed, the poor shlumps trapped in traffic on the Dan Ryan were seen as victims--of suburban planners who create neighborhoods that have no store within walking distance; of ad men and beat novelists who portray driving as fun, liberating, sexy; of mechanics, gasoline companies, and insurers who make a car a $6,500-a-year expense. Alvord is the author of a book called Divorce Your Car, but she realizes that for a lot of people going carless is impractical. So she suggests that instead of divorce they try the equivalent of seeing other people. "There are a lot of places in North America where it's extremely challenging to be car free," she acknowledged. "If you're 'car lite,' you use public transportation as much as possible."
When Alvord asked all the car divorcees to raise their hands, about half the arms in the room shot up. It's not difficult on the north side of Chicago. And in neighborhoods where it takes half an hour to park at night, it can be an enviable lifestyle.
Over a vegetarian lunch of hummus, couscous, and watermelon, a pair of Chicago cyclists described how they get along on only two wheels. Gin Kilgore, who was wearing cycling shoes, was raised in a home without a car. "My mom to this day has never had a driver's license," she said. "For her, having a bicycle was a form of independence. She didn't like having to depend on people for rides."
After college Kilgore settled in Logan Square and took a job that required her to visit adult literacy centers all over town--in Pilsen, Austin, New City. She was a veteran el rider, but she confessed that the commutes wore her down. "For a while I really debated, 'Do I need a car?' Then the light dawned on me. I became a bike commuter. All the places I had to go were within five miles."
Eric Anderson said he's made his bike do the job of a truck. Using bike trailers, he and his friends moved his entire household a mile to his new apartment. He showed off a photo album with pictures of himself hauling the sofa. "I'm a musician and a bike collector," he said, "so I have more shit than anyone I know."
Anderson works for the city, deciding where to place bike racks. He's also a member of Chicago Critical Mass, the gang of bike activists who gather in Daley Plaza during rush hour on the last Friday of every month, then ride together on busy downtown streets. "The action is not only a form of civil disobedience and protest because we're blocking traffic," he said, then caught himself. "But we're really not blocking traffic, because we are traffic."
The conference's organizers admitted that their goal was simply to reduce car trips in Chicagoland to 49 percent of all trips. So they asked the attendees to split into small groups and come up with ideas to encourage cycling. The results were visionary and idealistic. Some were even practical. One person proposed tax breaks for people who don't own cars. Miles Messina suggested marketing bicycles to commuters rather than just athletes, noting, "The average person doesn't like to wear spandex."
Some people had come up with ideas before the conference. On a table at the back of the auditorium was a petition from the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront, which wants to tear up and sod over Lake Shore Drive. "The campaign is sort of a dramatic thing," said Michael Burton, who works on it. "Some of us would not like to see a superhighway on the lakefront. It sounds ridiculous at first, but once you start thinking about the history, how did an eight-lane superhighway get on our lakeshore? What would it be like without one? We've got a petition and stand at Buckingham Fountain while [pedestrians] are waiting for the lights--and everyone signs it."