Chicago Riding on Fixed Gear: Bike Equity on the South Side

By Gerardo Salgado Flores

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a Bike Ride”
– John F. Kennedy

Andrew Bermudez collects bicycles throughout the Chicagoland area, sorting damaged and undamaged bikes as a volunteer coordinator at Working Bikes. Along with Bermudez, volunteers Nick Kapaun and Christopher Miller follow the Working Bikes mission of bringing back to life bicycles that are abandoned or no longer being used.

Working Bikes also hosts volunteer sessions and teaches people how to repair and work on bicycles, so they can be donated to different charities, shelters, and programs for ex-offender reentry, refugee resettlement and youth empowerment.

I talked with Bermudez, Kapaun and Miller about bicycling in Chicago, issues cyclists face everyday and what could better the lives of Chicago cyclists. I asked about whether all neighborhoods have equal access to biking, whether there needs to be more awareness of biking and if Divvy Bikes — the city bike rental and bike-share program — gives Working Bikes some competition.

I was curious to know their thoughts on Divvy Bikes: Are they good for Chicago? Are they accessible to everyone? And how do they compare to Working Bikes?

“Anyone can apply to receive a bike, lock and helmet from Working Bikes,” Bermudez said. “It is just required to bring a letter of recommendation from an employer, social worker, or case manager, also a $20 co-pay if possible.”

“Working Bikes provides affordable and healthy transportation to members of the surrounding communities and throughout Chicago,” he continued. “Divvy Bikes does not give competition to Working Bikes, we are actually friends with them as we receive saddles, wires and pedals [from Divvy]. Divvy Bikes is great for Chicago, it’s cool to see that Chicago has a bike-sharing program. It is good that Working Bikes and Divvy exist.”

Andrew Bermudez at work in Working Bikes. Working Bikes provides low-cost bikes. Photo: Gerardo Salgado Flores

Some Chicagoans wonder how Divvy decided to choose where to locate its stations. Does Divvy serve all neighborhoods equally?

According to Divvy’s website: “Many factors are taken into consideration when deciding where to place Divvy stations…ranging from population density and business permits to solar power access consideration and other stations in the surrounding network.”

Seventy-five percent of Divvy riders use this public bike-sharing program to get to or from public transportation. In early 2013, Divvy started creating a core of stations from downtown Chicago out to its surrounding neighborhoods. Then, once the initial network was built, they decided where to place stations based on demand. That means some low-income neighborhoods haven’t been tackled due to lack of awareness about cycling as a transportation alternative, or lack of information on available bike trails and bike paths.

Many people from low-income neighborhoods may have access to a Divvy Bike station, but at a cost of distance. “Low-income neighborhoods should be the priority,” said Bermudez. “It is so expensive to buy a car, but a bike is a more accessible form of transportation.”

People can request a Divvy station in their neighborhood by going to the Divvy website.

Then, there’s also the question of whether neighborhoods have adequate bike lanes

“I would like to see roads and bike lanes as a resource not distributed based on property taxes or wealth of the neighborhood,” Miller said.

Adopt and Adapt New Paths

Bike access isn’t the only factor that people should be aware of. Potential bikers need to know about bike maintenance, investments in equipment, infrastructure, rules of the road and bicycling activities around Chicago.

Many bicyclists face issues while commuting to work, school, or when exercising, but it all depends on what part of the city you decide to bike in.

Certain neighborhoods may have adapted to high bicycling activity. Most drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists are well aware of their surroundings in those neighborhoods. When neighborhood residents are not aware of biking, that can create dangerous situations. Miller recalls experiencing anger from motorists and potentially being cut-off by drivers. Kapaun has been doored or nearly doored frequently while commuting to work in Lincoln Square.

Kapaun also often encounters issues biking from the Northwest Side of Chicago to the suburbs.

“There are not many bike lanes and drivers pass by faster because of the more open and wider streets,” he said. “And they tend to have more near misses. It makes it almost impossible to get out of the city.”

At the end of the conversation, we discussed improvements that could aid Chicagoans who use a bicycle to commute or for recreation, and make a better future for the bicycling community.

Bermudez would like to see more protected bike lanes, as lack of them is the most common reason why a Chicagoan might not use a bicycle.

Meanwhile, Miller would like to see trails and bike paths on repurposed train tracks like the elevated 606 walking and biking trail in Logan Square, but more like a highway and exclusively for cyclists to get around Chicago.

He also would like to see Chicagoans adopt the “Dutch Reach,” a well-known, ingenious technique in the Netherlands where drivers reach and open their door with their right hand rather than with their left. This method makes it easy for drivers to look behind for oncoming traffic, potentially avoiding an accident with a cyclist.

It would be great to have this habit catch on in Chicago, possibly preventing many cyclists from being doored.

Chicago could also learn about bike trails from Amsterdam. When Kapaun traveled there, he noticed while cycling in three major metropolitan areas for a total of 30 miles that he did not have to leave a single bike lane or trail. He did not have to worry about traffic while cycling 50 feet next to a highway.

Cyclists v. the Road

There are various non-profits around Chicago that try to help support a more economic and eco-friendly way to commute for working class people. For example, the Active Transportation Alliance has been helping the fight for better bicycling in Chicago.

Active Transportation Alliance (ATA) started the campaign “Bikeways for All” to propose 180 miles of new low-stress biking routes that prioritize three categories: Protected Bike Lanes, Neighborhood Greenways and Urban Trails.

I sat down with Advocacy Director Jim Merrell to talk about ATA’s work.

Riders at a Critical Mass event in Little Village. Photo: Gerardo Salgado Flores

“Bikeways for All is a campaign that Active Transportation launched in the Fall of 2015 and the goal is really to talk about our vision for the future of biking in the city of Chicago with the real focus on bike infrastructure and bike routes,” he said. “Active Transportation Alliance works so everybody in the city no matter where they live can safely use a bicycle to get to any destination, and that means providing focus with the best and highest quality bike routes possible.”

The different types of low-stress routes that ATA proposes — protected lanes, neighborhood greenways and urban trails — all have a different purpose and work in different parts of the city. Protected lanes are on main commercial streets, neighborhood greenways are in residential areas and urban trails are like highways for cyclists.

“What Bikeways for All is attempting to do is to put forward a vision for how ATA can create a connected network of these high quality lanes that serve all ages and every community equally,” Merrell said.

A Matter of Safety

South Side cyclist Monica Pizano used to be an avid bike commuter, but now she commutes to work by car since a bike accident in the fall of 2016. Her parents fear that her next accident could be her last bike ride.

Pizano started cycling at the age of 7, initially as an outlet for her adrenaline. It was also a smart economic and logistical choice.

“I started venturing on a bike due to financial status,” she said. “Although I had a U-Pass [for public transit], I was also on a time budget, and a bike was the perfect way for transportation.”

Pizano attended Columbia College downtown, where parking is difficult and expensive. “So it was all a matter of efficiency and economic status,” she said.

Pizano’s accident happened on 47th and Halsted streets, at around 3 a.m. She had taken the L train halfway home from downtown, to the 47th Street red line stop. Rather than taking a bus, she would typically bike the rest of the way.

But that night, cycling west on 47th, at the intersection with Halsted while her light turned green and the opposite turned red, a guy tried to beat the red light. He picked up velocity and hit Pizano in the middle of the intersection.

“There were no witnesses, no cameras, so it was a hit-and-run,” Pizano said. She does not remember what happened right after the accident. Later, regaining consciousness at the hospital, the policemen told her that she was sitting on the curb, and she found blood on her pants.

Pizano was riding a road bike. All she can remember about the vehicle was it was a small sports car.

“I went to retrieve my bike from the police station and this is when I realized that ‘Damn, this could have been bad,” said Pizano.

After the accident, she tried to salvage what was left of her bike, but only retrieved her handlebar and her chain. Her physical injuries were only a broken nose and a missing tooth. Pizano was lucky to survive without more serious injuries, but accidents like this may still occur until more bike lanes that offer better protection are installed.

“There is a bike lane on Halsted going north to south, but there isn’t a bike lane on 47th,” noted Pizano. “There’s actually not a lot of bike lanes on the South Side of Chicago going east-west. From Back of the Yards to McKinley Park, there is no median way to pass by. You either have to go on Western or Ashland which are messed up streets for bicycling.”

A Question of Equity

Little Village resident Isidro de la Paz is also a cyclist.

He is retired and he loves cycling, using his bike three times a week for 30 minutes at least. He rides his bicycle to exercise and to stay active, but he says it is risky to ride in his neighborhood.

“It is very dangerous to ride a bicycle when there are no bike lanes, especially in horrible weather conditions,” he said.

De la Paz used to ride on the sidewalk to be farther from cars, but now officers can give tickets to people 12 and older cycling on sidewalks. De la Paz has been stopped by police for riding on the sidewalk during harsh weather.

De la Paz complains about the lack of bike infrastructure in his neighborhood, and says it is unfair that cyclists do not get the same treatment as motorists and drivers.

“It is in unfair that cyclists have to ride on streets where they are risking their life, as well as being stopped by police, if cyclists have no other way than to take a sidewalk for their own safety,” De la Paz said.

Many cyclists believe that the South Side is being discriminated against as they have little to no bike infrastructure compared to North Side residents.

Pizano also speaks about bike equity and how Chicago has a lot of industrial areas which cut off many bike lanes in working class neighborhoods like Little Village and Back of the Yards.

Riders at a Critical Mass event in Little Village. Photo: Gerardo Salgado Flores

According to the Active Transportation Alliance’s campaign Bikeways for All, 29 percent of South Side Chicagoans have access to a bikeway between a half mile and a mile away. West Side Chicagoans have a 26 percent chance of this, while Northsiders have a low 18 percent. This might make it sound like South and West Side residents have more bike lane access.

But the data is deceptive, because of low population densities and land use patterns including heavy industry on the South and West Sides

There might be a bike lane through an industrial area on the South Side, but because of the industry there might be no direct route to the bike lanes from nearby residences. Bike lanes in industrial areas aren’t safe if the road is traversed by heavy trucks, while some of the fastest routes have too much car traffic for bikes to use. And bike lanes through industrial areas likely don’t lead toward downtown or other places locals are headed.

“There are a lot of sections [on the South and West Side] that are chopped off and inaccessible for traffic, and while bicycling it is more noticeable because you have to find alternatives, and a lot of times end up biking next to a semi,” said Pizano.

Back on the Pedal

While biking infrastructure still needs a lot of improvement, Chicagoans are working on raising awareness about bicycling, educating people and fighting for better conditions. In addition to Active Transportation Alliance’s work, Walk Bike Co. is a non-profit planning group that manages a city-funded education and encouragement program, the City of Chicago’s Bicycling and Safe route ambassadors. These ambassadors work with school children, motorists and bicyclists, promoting safe use of active modes of transportation and potentially reducing and eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

Teams of ambassadors do demonstrations and have conversations in public areas like community events, schools and summer camps. And this summer, they have planned to target Little Village residents and other South Side neighborhoods!

Since the year 2000, rates of biking have tripled in Chicago, according to the ATA. A few years ago the ATA produced a report showing an average of 125 bike trips every day, taking into consideration that the numbers are a little higher during the summer months versus the winter when only about 40 percent of summer cyclists are still riding. Furthermore, the ATA has definitely noticed that the people of Chicago are more likely to use bike lanes when a Low-Stress bike lane is installed.

Ultimately, Merrell and Pizano concur that if all Chicagoans feel safe while traveling on their bikes, have the proper information about their rights and responsibilities as a cyclist and trust the roads and bike lanes, then they will most likely use a bicycle as a mode of transportation.

And I personally think that: Cycling should be a synonym for freedom, but there is no freedom when you are risking your life.