Chicago: A City Whose Mayor Cares About Bicycling


November’s Governing Magazine has a great story on how big cities across the U.S. are gearing up to make themselves more bike-friendly. There is no mention of New York City, but check out what Chicago is doing and how they are doing it:

In the next decade, it plans to expand its network of bike trails to 500 miles, and has set a goal of putting a bike path of some sort within half a mile of every city resident. This summer, Chicago released its master bicycling plan, which it calls Bike 2015. The culmination of three years of study, the plan commits the city to a goal, less than a decade from now, of having 5 percent of all trips covering less than 5 miles made by bicycle. It pledges to cut the number of bike injuries in half. Thousands of new short- and long-term bike storage facilities are planned for locations all over the city. Many schools and transit stations would have dedicated bike lanes leading straight to the front door. "It’s definitely a very ambitious plan," acknowledges Ben Gomberg, head of the city’s bicycle program. But he insists it can be done.

One reason it might happen is that it has the powerful support of the city’s longtime mayor, Richard M. Daley, a biker himself. Chicago is a city where the mayor usually gets what he wants, and bicycles, along with health and environmental improvements, have been a near-obsession for Daley over the past several years.

How are they funding these efforts?

Chicago_Biking.jpgMost bike promotion programs don’t seem to have much trouble attracting money. In general, cities have been able to rely on corporate funding and federal transportation subsidies to build their systems. Chicago’s new $3 million downtown bike station was paid for with federal funds and is now privately run. The transportation bill approved by Congress last year included about $4.5 billion for pedestrian and cycling projects – a 35 percent jump from previous spending levels. In many cases, bicycling improvement projects, particularly those that spruce up neighborhoods or provide safe routes to schools, qualify for Community Development Block Grants.

What is the lesson learned from cities that are doing a good job of promoting bicycling?

Then, the biggest lesson for cities, says Clarke, is that a successful bike-commuting policy is a combination of infrastructure, education and promotion. While cities must build the right facilities – bikeways, storage, parking – they also must help cyclists gain the skills and confidence to ride in traffic. Efforts in that direction may include bike route maps, for example, or the bike ambassadors that Chicago has been trying. Combining these elements, Clarke says, is key. "The places that have been successful at this have done much more than just add bike lanes."

Photos: Aaron Naparstek, July 2006

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    What does a bike ambassador do?

  • Aaron writes: “There is no mention of New York City”

    The article states: “Given its image as a tree-hugging coastal town, Portland might be expected to emphasize bicycle travel. …But similar things are happening in less likely places. … New York City, the national capital of subway-and-foot urbanism, recently announced a plan to increase bike lanes by 200 miles over the next three years.”

  • Thanks for the copy edit/fact check. The article has been amended and improved thanks to your contribution.

    Man, I wish New York City government had the same kind of open, collaborative, community-driven production processes that we have here online to create and refine the work product. I bet the city’s biking community could be put to really good use, for example, in helping DOT design, build out and refine those 200 miles of new lanes.

  • Sigh. Lucky Chicago. In San Francisco we get a lot of lip service from our mayor, despite the effective advocacy of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. What this illustrates is that visionary leadership is key to finding the resources needed to transform urban space. Absent visionary leadership, we get lip service to urban livability with vehicles continuing to monopolize public space.

  • Mitch

    It would be really nice if New York had a Mayor who was an avid bicyclist and bicycling advocate, but I don’t know how to make that happen. In Chicago, where Mayoral succession is by primogeniture, Daley’s fondness for bicycling is mainly a matter of dumb luck. Chicago has a vibrant bicycling culture, as does New York, but in neither city are the bikers strong enough to swing an election.

    But Chicago’s bike scene does have much to admire. I am particularly impressed by their embrace of winter (see, which includes an annual Critical Mass Polka Ride. And I was pleasantly shocked, on my last visit, to see bike racks *inside* mass transit stations. New York could easily do something similar for the bikes that now clutter the sidewalks outside some stations.

  • Hell, it would be nice if New York City had a mayor who simply mentioned bicycling.

  • JK

    It would be great if Bloomberg was a cyclist. But Dep Mayor Dan Doctoroff is purported to be a semi-regular bike commuter from the UPW to City Hall via the Hudson Greenway.

    Doctoroff’s portfolio includes the DOT, and he is the Dep Mayor most directly responsible for the physical city. He is also the force behind the announced expansion of the NYC bike network.

  • You’ll recall that Bloomberg brought up cycling during a transit strike scare several years ago. He gave some kid a pricey bike which gave the general populace the impression that the billionaire mayor was out of touch.

    (Or is my memory failing me?)

  • It wasn’t even a very pricey bike. It was like a $500 mountain bike. But the tabloid media decided it was the symbol of an out-of-touch billionaire mayor. I think this was all going down during the Gloomsberg post-9/11 “doomsday budget” smoking ban days. The city was in the middle of a giant PTSD nic fit. Anyway… someone stole the bike from the kid a few months later. No wonder Bloomberg hasn’t gone near a bike since.

  • Exactly.

  • The article said:
    >Chicago’s new $3 million downtown bike station was paid for with federal funds and is now privately run.

  • The Bike Ambassadors are hired by the city and paid by The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. In fact most of the staffing for bike initiatives are partnered in this way.

    The BAs visit schools promoting safe biking, teach bike maintenance basics, as well as help local communities and neighborhoods advocate on all kinds of bike issues.

    And don’t forget that with BikeWinter Chicago we have the Santa Cycle Rampage %)

    Happy New Year!



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