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Bicycling Fri Jun 17 2011

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein Meets Chicago's Bicycle Community

by John Greenfield

Today's Bike to Work Week rally in Daley Plaza was inspiring, a far cry from last year's lackluster event, thanks to big plans for bicycling from new mayor Rahm Emanuel and forward-thinking transportation commissioner Gabe Klein.

In 2010 Chicago's efforts to become a world-class bike town had stagnated. The city had installed over 100 miles of bike lanes and over 10,000 parking racks, achieved bike access on transit and educated multitudes about safe cycling, but we seemed to be resting on our laurels. Meanwhile other U.S. cities were pioneering car-separated bike lanes, automated bike sharing systems, on-street parking corrals, traffic-calmed "bike boulevard" streets, car-free "ciclovia" events and more.


Part of the problem was a lack of bike-friendly leadership at the Chicago Department of Tranportation, which had five different commissioners in six years. At the 2010 rally new commissioner Bobby Ware, a former lawyer, seemed fairly clueless about CDOT's bicycle projects.

I didn't vote for Emanuel, but it's clear that with new leadership at City Hall, the dog days are over. The new mayor's Chicago 2011 Transition Plan calls for a public bicycle share system with thousands of bikes. The document mandates building the long-awaited Bloomingdale Trail 2.65-mile elevated greenway within Emanuel's first term. After the sitting in limbo for two years, the trail's design contract was finally approved by the city's procurement department a few days ago and surveying work has already started.

The transition plan promises the construction of 100 miles of car-separated bike lanes, called "cycle tracks," over the next four years. Thirty-five days after the mayor took office Chicago's first cycle track, on Kinzie between Milwaukee and Wells, is nearly done, with flexible posts installed to the left of the lane, even on the Chicago River bridge, which will soon get bike-friendly fiberglass decking over its metal grate surface. You can now ride to the right of the parked cars, separated from them by the posts -- a surprisingly liberating feeling.

The energy at today's rally seemed to be a reflection of these exciting, fast-moving developments. Hundreds of commuters show up under the Picasso to grab free breakfast and bike schwag and to hear the annual state of the cycling union address. Rahm, away at a meeting of the U.S. Council of Mayors, was a no-show but the event served as a meet-and-greet for Commissioner Klein and the local cycling community.

klein_reilly.jpgKlein, 40, is a breath of fresh air at CDOT, a department that has traditionally focused its efforts on facilitating motorized traffic. A former employee at a bicycle manufacturer and executive director of Zipcar, a car-sharing service, he comes to Chicago following a successful run as Washington D.C.'s transportation commissioner. There he created Capital Bikeshare, the largest bike-sharing system in the country, and worked to improve the transit system and boost pedestrian safety.

A few years ago Andrew Velasquez, head of Chicago's Traffic Management Authority, announced the City would be adjusting traffic signals to make it easier for cars to turn right on red and cracking down on jaywalkers, arguing that the scales were tipped too far in favor of downtown pedestrians. But in a recent Tribune interview, Klein said just the opposite. He's promising to push walking, transit and biking over driving, arguing that urban life is better without private car ownership.

Accordingly, Klein bikes, walks and takes the CTA to work from his South Loop home. He showed up at today's rally by bike and he took the podium wearing a bicycle-wheel t-shirt and lycra shorts under his baggies. "I was really excited to take this job because Chicago is ripe to become the bike-friendliest city in the U.S.," he told the crowd. "The mayor is not just giving this lip service but he believes it to his core."

There was loud applause when he asked the cyclists if they've tried the new lanes on Kinzie. "We wanted to show it could be done quickly and inexpensively," he says. "But [cycle tracks] can really make a big difference in people's daily quality of life and get everybody back on a bike. We want people who are 16 to ride their bikes as well as people in their 70s and 80s."

He argued that cycling needs to be a primary mode of transportation in Chicago instead of a secondary or tertiary one. "It meets the President's goals of better air quality, better quality of life, better health and, most of all, more fun. People forget sometimes that we're on this earth to have some fun as well."

Afterwards Active Transportation Alliance's executive director Ron Burke took the podium and asked the crowd, "How cool is it to have a commissioner who really gets it?"

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SunTastic / June 17, 2011 7:27 PM

This is excellent news. I am from Minnesota and have looked into coming to Chicago for a short vacation / extended weekend, but was disappointed that the city... world class in so many ways... is not bicycle-friendly.

Granted... maybe my Google-skills are the problem, but for the time I had to look, I just didn't see a lot of compelling bicycle-friendly reasons to spend my recreation/vacation time and money in Chicago.

So... hoping this changes!

I need maps that make an out-of-towner comfortable in a new environment... knowing I can safely get from Point A to Point wherever. No... I do not plan on or expect to pay for maps (Thank you Google.) If there was a compelling specialty map, that's a different case, but not for standard maps to be printed on letter-sized paper.

I need safe and secure parking when I get to a destination. That does not mean a light pole or even a standard bike rack. I mean a place I can put my decent quality travel bike and feel comfortable there isn't a person next door with an industrial bolt cutter or tool to shed my ride for parts.

Having that core-backbone of bike lanes is essential. They provide the core for getting around. Just get me close enough where I can use local streets to get around.

Let me know when Chicago allows me to ride to a Cubs or White Sox game, park my bike in a bike corral during the game, then take public transit back late at night.

I'll be there with my vacation $dollars$

Landing Queen / June 17, 2011 10:47 PM

Any indication that the city is likely to restore the Queen's Landing pedestrian crossing any time soon? That would be an indication that the dark period is over.

Landing Queen / June 17, 2011 10:50 PM

Hey Suntastic-- you can do all those things now.
Try posting to for advice/resources.

Greg Borzo / June 18, 2011 3:50 PM

I'm a regular reader of Vote with Your Feet and think John G. has hit the mark with this article. My comment is more general. I would like everyone to call these new (for Chicago) lanes "protected lanes". That will help cyclists, the elderly, those who are afraid to bike on city streets...understand right away what we're talking about. And those are the people, not hardcore cyclists, who we need to convince to give cycling a try.

"Cycle tracks" may be a more "correct" or "technical" term for bike advocates and those in the know, but to the uninitiated, this term sounds like a race track. Therefore, it will not help bring out the hundreds and hundreds of new riders or those on the fence who want to bike but are afraid of biking on Chicago's streets. Believe me, there are tons of people like that, and they are the ones we need to win over. Cheers, Greg

Julie Hochstadter / June 19, 2011 8:50 AM

Indeed these are exciting times for Chicago. I met commissioner Klein at another Bike To Work Week event and agree wholeheartly with Ron Burke, he really gets it. There is a discussion about him on The Chainlink here -

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