On September 14, Mayor Brandon Johnson posted a video of himself riding a bicycle from his West Side home to City Hall with the caption “Good morning, Chicago! It’s a great day for a ride from Austin to the Hall. See you in City Council!”
Later that day he posted a photo of his ride, saying, “I took a slightly different commute today 🚴🏿♂️. The opportunity to ride from the West Side to the Loop is a special one. Bike safety is public safety, and I’m committed to improving biking and transit infrastructure, equitably, so that all Chicagoans can move around our city safely.”
While the mayor’s posts indicate the possibility of a greater focus on infrastructure from his administration, the reality for bikers on the South Side is more immediate. A week after Johnson’s post, seventy-five-year-old Ron Rodriguez was hit and badly injured by a vehicle in the unprotected intersection of 111th and Halsted while he was biking to his volunteer position at Pullman National Monument.
Rodriguez, a Little Village native currently residing in Oak Lawn who has been biking in a serious capacity for nearly thirty years, sustained full-body injuries resulting in two spinal fractures, eleven stitches on his upper thigh, and bruising all over his body, including his head.
Rodriguez was wearing a multicolor jersey, bright yellow helmet, and military backpack the day of the accident, but like for many cyclists, even with protective gear, he said the possibility of a crash always lurked around each corner.
“You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but you know you’re going to have an incident, he said. “You know you’re going to have motorists at a four-way intersection not giving you time to go through. You become a car crossing an intersection,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s experience is not uncommon. Unfortunately, for cyclists all over the city—but especially on Chicago’s far South Side, where bike lane infrastructure is still sorely lacking—the decision to bike can be treacherous.
A recent analysis by nonprofit PeopleForBikes found Chicago to be one of the least bikeable cities in the world, ranking 1,616 out of 1,733. The report rated the quality of a city’s bike network, with factors including safe speeds for bikes and cars to mix, protected bike lanes, and intersection treatments such as traffic signals and crossing islands. A snapshot of Chicago’s interactive map is overwhelmingly red, indicating high-stress bike conditions in almost all parts of the city. A 2020 report by the Active Transportation Alliance noted that a pedestrian or bicyclist was killed every third day in the Chicago region, defined as Cook, DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Kane, Kendall, and Will Counties.
Bike groups on Chicago’s South Side have long been working to get people out and cycling together, while simultaneously pushing the city to install better infrastructure. Bike safety advocate Deloris Lucas has been organizing group rides in her neighborhood of Riverdale since 2015, when she founded We Keep You Rollin’ Bike and Wellness Group. In addition to promoting biking and a more sustainable community, the group educates residents on the importance of wearing safety gear.
Lucas has spent the past four years advocating for the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to install a bike path on 130th St.. The proposed trail would provide unbroken sidewalk and bike lanes for residents and could also connect street lanes to more established trails, like the Cal-Sag and Major Taylor trails.
A former CPS teacher who served as the far South Side representative to former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Bicycle Advisory Council, Lucas expressed frustration at the slow rate of infrastructure improvement she’s seen. Lightfoot’s administration released a “vision” for a citywide network of trails and corridors that included Riverdale in March 2022. Now, Lucas said she’ss concerned about the time it will take to reintroduce these plans to the new administration.
“We need someone to champion our project to the mayor. There is very little biking infrastructure installed in my community. We deserve a trail out here just like any other part of the city. We’ve been overlooked, we’re isolated, and we’ve been underserved,” she said. “There’s a lot of goodness out here; we want to be uplifted, and hopefully this bike path will be the thing to uplift us.”
Johnson has expressed his commitment to prioritizing bike safety, even taking part in Active Transportation Alliance’s annual Bike the Drive event. In his 2023 Mayoral Transition Report, where environmental justice was highlighted as one of eleven key policy areas, the mayor’s transition team recommended the city “provide dedicated and sustainable funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure through the establishment of a Chicago Bike and Walk Fund.”
Some of the transition report’s long-term recommendations are to improve walkable and bikeable connections between neighborhoods, implement a connected citywide network of protected bike lanes, and improve safety and access to the lakefront trails and parks.
This spring, CDOT released the “Chicago Cycling Strategy,” which outlines the department’s plan to expand Chicago’s bike network and increase low-stress biking options (such as neighborhood greenways, protected bike lanes, and off-trail streets).
The department has a list of completed and upcoming 2023 bikeway installations that would add or improve 63.25 miles of bike lanes in the city, and as part of the Bike Chicago plan, CDOT has committed to distributing 5,000 bikes to Chicago residents by 2026. Johnson has not yet appointed a CDOT commissioner to replace Gia Biagi, who stepped down in August.
We Keep You Rollin’ is ready to keep the pressure up; on October 21, it will host a group ride and take part in the Lake Calumet Bike Network Study. The route will go through the proposed 130th Street Sidepath to the Major Taylor Trail, with the ultimate goal of advocating for CDOT’s installation of protected bike lanes on the 130th Street Sidepath.
The creation of improved bike lane infrastructure and safety on the South Side is about more than just health and wellness; it’s an issue of equity and justice. A 2021 study in Transportation Research found that on average, Chicago’s predominantly white neighborhoods had fifty percent more bike lanes than predominantly Black neighborhoods.
The study, which investigated the connection between deficiencies in transportation and disproportionate policing in Chicago neighborhoods, also found that from 2017 to 2019, cyclists in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods were eight times as likely to be ticketed by police as those riding in white neighborhoods. Many of those tickets would not have been issued if protected bike lanes—which are “disproportionately absent” from Black and Latino neighborhoods—had been available, the researchers found.
Black residents on the South Side who participated in the study’s focus groups expressed frustration with getting ticketed when there was no safe alternative to the sidewalk.
When bike infrastructure is lacking, residents face another barrier in their ability to access resources such as grocery stores. The lack of bike infrastructure on the South Side can exacerbate existing problems, such as food deserts, as a result.
At Blackstone Bicycle Works in Woodlawn, these issues go hand in hand. The shop, located at the Experimental Station (where the Weekly’s office is also located), offers fall and summer programming to youth that includes instruction on how to build and fix bikes, along with instruction on bike safety protocol. The program exposes youth to bicycling as a career pathway, providing valuable skills that can be applied to work in the biking industry. Because the Experimental Station also functions as a hub for sustainable food systems and fresh food accessibility, Blackstone’s programs include modules related to urban agriculture, along with academic counseling.
Aren Chynoweth and Cody Ciminillo, both program managers at Blackstone Bicycle Works who lead the youth bicycle programs, say that they see a direct connection between food justice and infrastructure issues, and the way in which getting access to a bike is a means of freedom and independence for the youth they work with.
“When I was biking [as a kid], it was just about doing tricks or going faster. But all of these kids just want baskets [installed],” Chynoweth said. “The young ones, the old ones, they just want to put baskets on their bike because it is a means of travel that is very serious to them.”
Ciminillo jumped in to explain the concept of the “grocery getter,” or a “beater” bike with baskets that can be used to run errands. However, the lack of bike lanes on the South Side makes that a challenge.
The shop places a huge emphasis on educating youth on bike safety, in part due to the hazardous nature of street riding in Hyde Park, which currently only has three bike lanes. Woodlawn also has three.
Chynoweth and Ciminillo work to develop safe riding routes for youth, along with driving home the critical importance of wearing a bike helmet, which can be a challenging concept to convince teenagers of. They take the task of safety education extremely seriously in their program, and they draw upon their own experiences of collisions to stress the seriousness to their students.
“I have been hit four or five times,” Chynoweth said. “You’re almost used to it at that point. And that’s the worst part. You should never get used to a steel vehicle running into you.”
“It’s a super serious issue because of where we are,” Ciminillo said. “If there were protected bike lanes everywhere, we wouldn’t have to stress how we’ve been hurt or hit by cars. But because of the reality [of riding] in the city, and especially the South Side, it’s a dire situation.”
Chynoweth and Ciminillo said they hope to increase advocacy efforts at Blackstone in order to push for better infrastructure. They both take part in bike rides through Critical Mass, a large group-bicycling event that takes place the last Friday of every month, and Bike Grid Now, a grassroots campaign advocating for ten percent of Chicago streets to be prioritized for pedestrians and cyclists.
They also hope to see permanent representation for bikers in the mayor’s office.
Groups like We Keep You Rollin’, Critical Mass, and Bike Grid Now all serve to empower individuals to get out and bike with the protection of a group ride. However, without the city taking enough action to create safe, protected bike lanes in abundance throughout the city, Chicago likely won’t see increased numbers of people outside biking.
“It’s a known fact that if it’s safe for people to ride bikes, they are going to because it’s usually a better option,” Ciminillo said. “So we need to get out there and push the city to make decisions that give us the safety we need to get around, to get things as simple as groceries.”
For individuals currently interested in increasing their safety while riding, Active Transportation Alliance provides educational resources online, including updates on trail conditions via social media and crash support resources for people who have been hit while riding.
As for Rodriguez, his injuries have forced him to take a break from cycling until the spring. While the accident has made him more cautious, he is undeterred. “You have to realize you’re not invincible, but if you put fear into your mind, you’re never going to get onto your bike,” he said. “You have two choices: you can give up or continue on.”
Wear a helmet, he emphasized.
Lucia Whalen is a writer and comedian focused on issues related to health and the environment. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University and is a cohost of the What a Waste podcast. She last wrote about farmers markets during COVID for the Weekly. You can find her at @luciawhalen on Instagram.