The transition back to mobility: biking and walking will be critical - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The transition back to mobility: biking and walking will be critical

Upgrading bike infrastructure won’t negate the need to keep working hard to ensure transit is running as safely as possible for those that need to travel longer distances. But we must build more redundancy and resilience into our transportation system.   

Audrey Wennink

Dedicated bikeways enable sustainable mobility

How can Chicago-area residents return to safe and sustainable commutes as we emerge from the stay-at-home order? Evidence suggests that many people are going to feel that riding a bike in the open air is their best transportation option after COVID-19.  Maybe they will even be riding on city streets for the first time.  US bike manufacturers and retailers are reporting a major boom in sales. We will need to make sure that sufficient space is available for an increase in cycling for transportation.  After the stay-at-home order is lifted, this will mean eventual reopening of the Lakefront Path and the 606 trail. But we are going to need even more space for cyclists throughout the region since the capacity of transit will be reduced to prevent crowding and enable social distancing for those that must ride.  While crisis may have forced the issue, one positive outcome for transportation will be encouragement of people to incorporate more biking and walking into their routines.  Let’s make it an easy choice.

There has never been a more important time to provide extra safe space on neighborhood streets as more people gradually return to work and access essential destinations like the grocery store.  The options on the menu for communities to consider should include:

  • Create new dedicated bike lanes. Lanes may start out as temporary pop-up infrastructure and then evolve as we see how they are used by residents. Chicago’s Streets for Cycling Plan identifies Neighborhood Bike Routes that can be a starting point for identifying locations.  The Streets for Cycling Plan sought to have 645 miles of bike lanes by 2020 but we’re far short of that, with 280 miles of on-street protected, buffered and shared bike lanes. Now is a time to make progress!
  • Designate “slow streets.” These are neighborhood streets temporarily closed to through-traffic with speeds of 5mph for local residents, where walking and biking will be the priority. Ideally they will connect to the rest of the bike network.
  • Expand sidewalks in congested areas. This may include taking a parking or driving lane and marking with barriers to designate it for pedestrians, particularly on commercial corridors where sidewalks are very narrow.
  • Consider dedicated bike highways, closed to autos. If volumes of people moved by bikes on certain roadways far exceed people moving by car, should select roads be converted to bike-only to move large numbers of cyclists safely? We need to be open minded and creative in our response to this crisis, and bike highways offer one option. This approach is part of long-term transportation plans in places like London and Germany.

This is an incredibly challenging era during which many have lost jobs and money is extremely tight.  One of the best features of biking is that it is a low-cost transportation option. Once you have a bike –  or an annual membership to Divvy bikeshare (which is only $49.50 right now or $5 for low income riders) – cycling is free transportation.  There is no gas tank constantly demanding that it be filled, no insurance bill, no fear of what expensive car part might need to get fixed next.  The estimated cost to own and operate a car is more than $9,282 per year or $773 per month according to AAA.  A bike is also cheaper than transit – you don’t have to think about if you have enough money on your Ventra transit card.   Even for those that do not ride now or see themselves as cyclists, it’s worth giving biking some consideration.  Newer cyclists might be surprised at the long-term benefits to the household balance sheet.

Other cities have shown that it is very possible to put in place a safe bike network quickly to support people taking sustainable transportation as they transition out of the stay-at-home order.  Additional bike lanes can be created by converting a parking or driving lane to a dedicated bike lane and marking it with temporary traffic barrels.  Some cities like Milan and Paris are taking it a step further and doubling down on more permanent infrastructure from the get-go.  The cities that are proactively implementing temporary bike lanes feel compelled to ensure they don’t lose ground on climate change goals.  What we do not want is for people to feel that the only safe option to get around in the post-COVID transition is driving.  Our region’s long-term transportation goals are to reduce the use of single occupant vehicles – and this crisis doesn’t change that.    

Biking and walking are critical to our long-term transportation future for many reasons, which are covered in my recent webinar to the Illinois Environmental Council. A few highlights:  transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, comprising 28% and growing.  There is no way to get to zero carbon without making biking and walking part of our comprehensive transportation solution.   More than 50% of trips in Chicago are less than 3 miles and 22% are less than one mile – perfect for biking or walking.  The benefits are well known, including improved public health, no pollution, zero carbon, inexpensive, and quiet.   Indeed, people with underlying conditions (some of which are caused or exacerbated by pollution) are more susceptible to COVID-19.   And those living in more polluted areas are more likely to die from COVID.   Investment in clean transportation is investment in the future public health of our residents.

It will be critical to develop these future strategies with community input.  Collaboratively, we can determine the best routes to upgrade in each neighborhood, with the goal of collectively building an improved bicycle and pedestrian transportation network that is comfortable for all to use.  The point is to provide people with more safe, low-cost, environmentally friendly, healthy options.  While there are varying levels safe biking infrastructure and “bike culture” in communities, we also want to avoid developing a patchwork of bike lanes.  Transportation has to connect people to key destinations.   Just like our roads do, a safe, comfortable bike network needs to connect everywhere to everywhere.

And we need to support people who are new to biking through information, education and bike donations.  Some wonderful enterprises like Working Bikes take donations, repair the bikes and turn around to make community donations of up to 1,000 bikes per year.   How can we expand programs like that to make bikes accessible to larger numbers of people?    

It is also critical to acknowledge that for many people in Chicago, biking safety does not only mean avoiding getting hit by a car.  It means concerns about personal safety on the street from violence and from police brutality.  Recent news coverage has highlighted the inequities of enforcement among black and brown cyclists.  Let’s face it, riding a bike on the sidewalk is the least of our problems right now.   If someone’s riding on the sidewalk, it’s because they are not being provided a safe on-street route.   Let’s suspend bike citations and take an approach of encouragement and education right now.  People just need a way to get around with the least amount of difficulty.

Upgrading bike infrastructure won’t negate the need to keep working hard to ensure transit is running as safely as possible for those that need to travel longer distances.  But we must build more redundancy and resilience into our transportation system.   Having biking as an option that people can choose to use based on their needs – whether that is occasionally or every day – will help people feel more control over their mobility, their wallet and their health in the age of COVID-19. 

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