Chicago's mayor sold on bikes

Major bike infrastructure improvements slated for the Windy City

Chicago is known as America's "Second City," the home to Al Capone, and of course as the "Windy City". The city's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, however, plans to blow away past perceptions and make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the United States.

If Emanuel makes good on his promise he will complete a circle of sorts, as Chicago was once among the best places to ride in the US.

Mayor Emanuel has vowed to build on the city's long pedigree of bicycle advocacy that actually dates back to mayoral candidate Carter H. Harrison II, who campaigned as "the cyclists' champion" at the turn of the 19th century. Ironically, this man of the bicycle served as mayor as the city grew to its present borders and became a modern metropolis – not exactly the most ideal location for cycling.

The recent outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley was known for his passion for riding a bike, and during his 22 years in office actually helped to expand on-street marked bike lanes to 115 miles. Now Mayor Emanuel hopes to create 100 miles of protected bike paths over the next four years, and next summer the city plans to start a bike-sharing program with 3,000 bikes. "I think he has done a great job of mentioning the things that need to be done," Julie Hochstadter, who serves as vice president of the Chicago Cycle Club, tells BikeRadar.

Hochstadter, who states that she wears many hats, also works full-time as a realtor, says that bike sharing could be a huge benefit to many neighborhoods. "It would really get a lot of people on bikes for short trips."

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein, who reportedly rides his bike to work, has been quoted as stating the full 100 miles of bike paths could cost around $28 million, but that the city has applied for federal clean air funding and has combined the bike path project with resurfacing of streets and other road maintenance programs.

These programs says Hochstadter, along with better bike infrastructure, could actually keep Chicago residents from moving to the suburbs, while creating protected bike boulevards could offer an alternative means of daily commuting. She cites a recent study from the Transportation Commissioner's office that found that 22-percent of the traffic at rush hour on the busy Milwaukee Avenue is already done on bicycles.

Creating actual boulevards is crucial to getting people on bikes says Hochstadter. "It is a great way to make cyclists feel safer while riding, and it makes us more visible in the process. It says that we are using the roads that were built for us too."

Even local bike industry companies agree that cycling in Chicago is in an upswing, as the city becomes more bicycle friendly. "Chicago currently has an incredibly strong and developed cycling infrastructure and Mayor Emmanuel's commitment to furthering those efforts and investing in an expanded bike route system is incredible for those if us who live here, work here, and work in the cycling industry," Michael Zellmann of SRAM tells BikeRadar. "We will proudly support his efforts any way we possibly can."

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