Imagine every suburb around Chicagoland connected to a handful of others by a “bike road.” In the Netherlands, it’s a strip of pavement about 1.5 American-car lanes wide but the bicyclist always has priority and any drivers must drive at the speed of the bicyclist. For cars, the road serves mostly rural towns, but for bicycling, it serves as part of a cross-country and intercity bikeway. On some parts of your trip to another town you might ride on bike roads, and others on bike-only paths.

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This bike road helps connect Houten and Utrecht. I’m traveling north alongside a Nederlandse Spoorwegen Sprinter train. See more photos from my day trip to Utrecht and Houten.

The Cal-Sag Trail is a typical multi-use path in the works and will do something similar, connecting south suburban Cook County communities (like Calumet Park, Blue Island, and Alsip) along the Calumet River and the Calumet-Sag Channel. It will be car-free. While multi-use paths in Illinois are often used for recreational or touring use (many don’t lead to destinations, or are out of the way for convenient routes), the Cal-Sag Trail will be useful for social, shopping, and school trips as well as fitness. Additionally, it will connect to at least three existing trails.

When any path or road opens it needs sufficient wayfinding. The “United States Numbered Bicycle Routes” system began in 1982 to do for bicycling what numbered highways did for driving: make it easy to create and follow a route. Planning for the system was revitalized in 2010.

Several European countries (including Netherlands and Germany) have had such a system for years but instead of numbering routes, they number junctions. Starting at any origin shown on the junction map, find the junctions that connect the route segments to your destination and remember their numbers. Then watch for signs that point you in the direction of the next number. You only need to remember 2-3 numbered junctions at a time because there will eventually be a new map to remind you which junction is next. See photo and route example below.

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This junction is number 34. To go to Houten from here, follow the directional signs, first to 33, then to 36, then to 01. The “bike road” photo above was taken near junction 36.

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Welcome to the grand entrance of the Illinois Prairie Path to Elmhurst, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Aurora, and Batavia!

Another Chicago trail example

There’s a great example near Chicago of a trail that’s “80% there.” The Illinois Prairie Path begins in Maywood, Illinois, a couple miles from the western edge of Chicago, and a mile from the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Getting there from Chicago is a problem: it’s not connected to anything but 4-lane, fast-moving 1st Avenue. And bicycling to Maywood from anywhere in Chicago there is a lack of safe routes, regarding infrastructure and personal safety (a lot of Chicagoans would consider the center west side quite dangerous). I grew up the far western suburb of Batavia and have occasionally ridden the trail, but only once did I ride it while living in Chicago.

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Another view of the trailhead. Photo by Carlton Holls.

I wanted to visit Fry’s Electronics in Downers Grove, just 4 miles from the trail. It took me over an hour to get to the entrance and then I missed the sign (or wasn’t there one?) for Finley Road and went too far. It was getting dark, so I decided to call the trip a small loss and boarded a Metra train at Glen Ellyn for downtown.