Bike to work along the river? Not so fast. - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Bike to work along the river? Not so fast.

Bikes on a break by the river.

One of the best parts of my job is when I have opportunities to go out into the world to experience the topics we research and policies we advocate for – and sometimes it’s really fun, interesting and revealing all at the same time. Because we are spending this year grappling with all of the complexities that are Chicago’s rivers, and because Mayor Emanuel and a number of his predecessors proclaimed that the river should be Chicago’s second lakefront, I set out with a  few colleagues one recent morning to see how commuting by bike on the trails along the river compared to my regular morning commute on the Lakefront Trail, starting at Devon Avenue and continuing into the Loop, sticking to the riverfront trails as much as possible. 

Meeting point: Devon Avenue and McCormick Boulevard. A quick stint on the bike led us down to a dead end.

Starting point at the intersection of Devon and McCormick.

Great parks and bikeways, although little visibility of the river.

Stretches of the path are fantastic, although you'd never know you were near the river.

Arriving at major cross streets was highly confusing. No signage or clear places to cross and resume the path.

"What do we do now?"

This was a welcome and lovely surprise! Riverbank neighbors have partnered with NeighborSpace and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to manage a beautiful walking path and native gardens. Local volunteers handle all maintenance. It’s truly a hidden gem.

Riverbank neighbors have made a fantastic path along their side of the river. We could replicate this elsewhere!

The path along Lathrop Homes is quite pleasant, but connects to a path that faces the backs of buildings, parking lots and an expanse of—not much. 

Seriously?

This is where it ended.

At this point we gave up. My regular bike commute is approximately 10 miles and generally takes me an hour. The river commute adventure, while a few miles longer, took double that. I arrived at the office tired, hungry and ready for a nap—certainly a contrast to my experience most days on my commute along the bike path. Surely if we are striving to make Chicago’s rivers our second lakefront, we have much room for improvement. Below are a few suggestions that could be implemented in the near term to make the experience much more inviting:

Improve wayfinding. Clearly showing pedestrians and cyclists where they can access the path at all major intersections will make the path feel more connected.

Connect the path. Stretches of good quality, well-maintained trails are bookended by busted sidewalks, heavy cross-street traffic and no sense of where to return to a riverfront path.  Looking for opportunities to connect the existing path where feasible (on publicly owned land) would be a good starting place. 

Add activities. While stretches of the North Branch have great parks, playgrounds and amenities, others feel isolated and desolate. Adding low-cost amenities, like the permanent ping-pong tables in Tompkins Square Park, would attract positive, all-ages activity that doesn't cost a lot.

Encourage adjacent development that faces the river. New developments should go beyond the 30-foot setback requirement and acknowledge the river as an asset, not the place for additional (and vastly unused) parking, loading docks and Dumpsters.

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