Bike friendly neighborhoods, in Chicago and beyond

Local professional bike commuter and amateur racer Brian Morrissey has written a series of guides to Chicago neighborhoods with a particular bicycle friendliness.

Think of these great neighborhoods to visit on your bicycle (they have bike facilities, bike shops, and they’re especially easy to get to) and spend some time there eating good food. I consulted Brian on one of the neighborhoods, where I lived for two years. I’ve written about Pilsen on my blog several times (and here). Even without all the wonderful burritos and the friendliest bike shop, I’d still call it my favorite Chicago neighborhood.

Here’s the list of Brian’s guides to Chicago’s bike friendly neighborhoods:

What neighborhood should he write about next?

What makes a neighborhood bike friendly? Let’s find out!

First, we’ll ask the League of American Bicyclists. The LAB uses a rating system akin to LEED certification of green buildings. And cities want to achieve bike friendly status just as much as developers want to achieve “green” status. Bicycle friendly communities must be able to demonstrate achievement in the five “E” categories.

  • Engineering – Infrastructure, facilities, bikeways, bikeway network, and accommodation of cyclists on roads.
  • Education – Programs to teach bicyclists, motorists; availability of information and guides.
  • Encouragement – How the community promotes bicyclist; BMX track, velodrome, Bike to Work Week, wayfinding signs.
  • Enforcement – Connecting law enforcement, safety, and bicycling.
  • Evaluation & Planning – Data collection, program evaluation, bike plan, and how to improve.

Next we visit Bicycling magazine to learn how they consider the Best Cities for Cycling (full list). The editors’ criteria is not as transparent as LAB, but I’ll take a crack at decoding their articles.

  • Visibility – Bicycling wrote this about Portland, Oregon: Just hang out in a coffee shop and look out the window: Bikes and riders of all stripes are everywhere.
  • Facilities – Chicago made the list, “Still The Best:” Richard Daley…has ushered in a bicycle renaissance, with a growing network of bike lanes, a bike station with valet bike parking, showers and indoor bike racks.
  • Ambition – Bicycling commended Seattle for having the goal to “unseat Portland as the best U.S. city for cycling.” Their bike plan calls for expanding the bikeway network to 450 miles.
  • Culture – In San Francisco, a lawsuit brought bikeway construction to a halt, but Bicycling says “[t]he local bike culture has stood strong, and the number of cyclists increased by 15 percent last year alone.”
  • Education – Because of Boulder’s Safe Routes to School Program, at least “one school reports that 75 percent of its students now bike or walk to school.”

Finally, on our journey to find out what makes a community or neighborhood “bike friendly,” we come to me. I’ll tell you it’s a combination of the built environment (infrastructure) and its wider connections (bikeway network), as well as the residents who bike and don’t bike (like motorists).

  • Infrastructure – A city must build on-street and off-street bikeways that increase the perception of safety. (I was unable to find any conclusive studies that attribute the presence of bikeways to lower fatality and injury rates, but I didn’t find anything that reported the contrary is true, so that’s good.) Secondly, when you arrive to your destination, you should find secure bike parking.
  • Network – When you built on-street and off-street bikeways, you must ensure they connect to each other. It’s discouraging to come to the end of a bike lane when it doesn’t reach your destination or another segment of the bikeway network. A good network leads to important and popular destinations, like major work centers and schools. Bicycling is more prevalent in areas with colleges and universities, see Baltes report (PDF). Almost as important as creating a network is publishing information about your network – where does it go and what should I expect to see or find on my route? A paper bike map showing the locations of local bike shops, parks, and schools goes a long way to assuage nervous bicyclists.
  • People – Lick your finger and put it up to the air to test the attitudes of those around you and how they feel about bicyclists sharing the streets with pedestrians and motorists. Residents supporting or hampering positive change to make bicycling a common activity or transportation and improve the safety of bicyclists is the most important way to determine how “friendly” a community is to bicycles and their riders.

If you’re familiar with those neighborhoods in Brian’s guides, try to apply the criteria sets from League of American Bicyclists, Bicycling magazine, and myself and do your own analysis of the bike friendliness in those neighborhoods.

What do you think makes a community bicycle friendly?

Pollution fighting bike lane, coming soon to Pilsen

Rendering of the project by CDOT. See all photos about this project.

A planner from the Streetscape and Sustainable Design Program in the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) came to speak to my Sustainable Development Techniques class at UIC about adding “green” to urban design.

Among other topics, he talked about CDOT’s streetscape project for Cermak and Blue Island in Pilsen, a near southwest side neighborhood a couple miles outside of downtown Chicago. The project, like all streetscapes, is one of economic development. But this project is unique in that the goal was to look at every element and make each as green and sustainable as possible.

You can read about the project through the Program’s presentation here (Flash slideshow). Please note there are many versions of the same presentation on the web and each my be different depending on their intended audience.

I will be discussing a single showcase element from the project: A bike lane on Blue Island between Ashland and Western where currently one does not exist. The bike lane and the adjacent parking lane (on the bike lane’s right side, as normal in Chicago) will be constructed with permeable pavers mixed with smog eating concrete. Wait? Smog eating concrete? Keep reading!

The bike lane will begin at Ashland/Cermak/Blue Island, a well-traveled intersection for heavy trucks, three bus routes, and many passenger cars. The bike lane will connect Pilsen to Little Village and extend the existing bike lane on Blue Island in Pilsen’s central shopping area. This segment is also a designated truck route and to safely accommodate the parking lane, bike lane, and travel lane, the road will be widened by reducing the width of the sidewalks. The sidewalks here are 20 feet wide, double the standard width, and four times wider than sidewalks in many parts of Chicago. There’s very low pedestrian volume here and very little residential use so the plan is to have 8 foot wide sidewalks, and a 5.5 foot planter, breaking occasionally for bus stop shelters.

The bike lane will be 5 feet wide (including striping) and the parking lane will be 8 feet wide. The novel part of the two lanes is that they will be made with permeable pavers.

This will be the first paver bike lane in the City of Chicago. The blocks will be oriented so that bicyclists feel the least amount of bumps and won’t get their tire stuck in a groove that could harm.

The smog eating concrete’s trade name is TX Active, invented by Italcementi Group, a large, multinational corporation founded and based in Italy. Since the original installation of TX Active cement on the Dives in Misericordia Church in Rome (designed by Richard Meier), Italcementi has developed two lines of photocatalytic cement, only one of which reduces pollutants in the area (TX Arca). The other cement is for architectural uses helps keep the concrete surface clean from dirt and particulate matter.

CDOT will use the second line, TX Aria, in the top half inch of the pavers. The company has tested the product to demonstrate its effectiveness at reducing the presence of Nitrogen Oxides (commonly written as NOx, a family of toxic substances emitted by internal combustion engines) and published its laboratory results in an easy to follow report on its website (PDF). The technical report goes into more details and explains how the process works (through photocatalysis) and what substances their product can be designed to diminish. The technical report is unclear on whether or not all forms of the TX Active product abate all substances. It may be that the maker only tested its effects on Nitrogen Oxides levels.

I look forward to watching the construction progress and to breathing the cleaner air while bicycling to a new destination in Pilsen.

Pilsen pollution

Pilsen is a neighborhood in Chicago’s Lower West Side that is made mostly of Mexican immigrants and descendants. It’s sister neighborhood is Little Village, which is close by to the southwest. I lived here for two years from 2006-2008.

When I moved in, the smoke from a nearby, but yet unseen, exhaust stack was quite apparent. An uninformed or malicious local offered that it was a heat generation plant for the nearby public housing homes. This seemed unlikely, and only slightly plausible, but I didn’t question it.

Both neighborhoods have coal-fired power plants. There is Fisk Generating Station at 1111 W. Cermak in Pilsen (which I mentioned above and pictured above), and Crawford Generating Station at 3501 S. Pulaski in Little Village. Both are owned by Midwest Generation

It was not long until I read several news reports in the major Chicago newspapers about the actions of local social advocacy organizations trying to bring awareness about the danger the Fisk plant was causing for the minority residents in Pilsen. The problems became well-known in 2001 after a group of five researchers from Harvard and two private consulting agencies (one for wind, and one for environment) studied coal-fired power plants in the Midwest exempt from the provisions of the Clean Air Act. See “More information” below for a local group’s opinion on these plants’ impacts on health using information derived from the study.

The most recent call for action was from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who, in August 2008, demanded that Mayor Daley close the Fisk plant on Cermak.

Now, the Sierra Club magazine is reporting on a new and younger organization ready and willing to fight alongside LVEJO the battle to fix the pollution problems in Chicago’s west side Latino neighborhoods. I recently read this article at work in our “office lending library” – this along with the fact that I pass by the station quite often prompted me to write this blog entry.

More information:

Suburbia wayfinding

An unfortunate part of living in the suburbs and only ever traveling to major points of interests in the region by auto is that you never actually learn how to navigate the region, or the areas surrounding those points of interests. What you do you learn is the location’s position to the nearest highway. The result is that you don’t know where anything is, just how to get there from one origin.

The same holds true for large cities, like Chicago, when it comes to traveling to new places – you learn how to travel to your destination, but you don’t know your destination. You won’t know what’s in between here and there, and you won’t see the changes and history that brought social groups from here to there, spatially and chronologically. 

A method to encourage visitors – this doesn’t mean tourists – to know their destination, and spread out “their feelers” to get a real understanding of a neighborhood’s substance is by pointing out significant spaces and places. This technique is popularly known as wayfinding. It can be quite simple, like adding signs that show the direction and distance to a well-defined community or major park, or it can be complex by involving residents and asking what are the important points of interest that they would like to promote.

Wayfinding signage is only one way to correct the original statement in this article: that the motor vehicle hides local values and decreases our knowledge of the space in between and around our origin and destination. We travel too fast, and we take bypassing highways. 

There are other approaches cities can take to help people slow down and experience more interesting places.

  1. Make it accessible. This doesn’t mean complying with Americans with Disabilities Act. It means increasing the options on how people can get there, or informing them of their options. This could mean identifying nearby roads suitable for bicycling, or promoting existing transit service nearby, but also making sure that locals and visitors don’t compete for auto parking space.
  2. Market the place. Use traditional marketing and advertising to tell people why they should spend a little more time exploring and getting to know the place. Perhaps your community has a bistro bustling during lunch, and a few blocks away is a farmer’s market where business has plateaued because only the locals are buying. Some low-cost graphics and a good relationship with the restaurant now has 5% of its customers venturing out to the market. 

I wrote a paper on the residential and economic dynamics between two adjacent neighborhoods in Chicago’s Lower West Side, University Village and Pilsen. University Village is a neighborhood created from scratch – designed to be “perfect” you could say. It houses a few thousand university students who come and go on different daily and weekly schedules, as well as permanent homeowners population. Sprinkle in some restaurants, local and national retail firms, and essential services like dry cleaning and hair salons along two major and intersecting bus routes and you have a “perfect” neighborhood.

University Village, because of its newness and designed quality, lacks character, history, and can seem a bit sterile. That’s where Pilsen can support the new neighborhood; Pilsen is over 100 years old, has seen major demographic, spatial, and physical changes, and heavily influenced by its majority Mexican population that it more than makes up for what University Village lacks. The problem is that neither neighborhood knows about the other aside from a bus, bike, or car ride through. There’s also a railroad viaduct separating the two. These barriers can be overcome, and each neighborhood can require the services of the other. Students usually need cheap food – you can get that in Pilsen. And long-time residents want new retail choices – University Village can provide that.

Read the entire paper, titled Economic and residential dynamics between University Village and Pilsen.

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