Chicago toasts a shift in the real estate that shapes cities most: streets

October 12, 2015

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

A buffered bike lane in Chicago, Illinois.

Compared to 100 miles of almost anything else a city can build, 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes costs practically nothing to install.

But when you look beyond the budget line items and start to consider what it means to transfer access to part of a city’s most valuable asset — physical space — a few stripes painted onto previously car-dominated streets can represent a massive investment.

When it’s wide and comfortable, a buffered bike lane is a big improvement over a conventional bike lane that also opens the door to further change in the future: adding the physical protection, such as curbs or posts or parked cars, that is required to make biking relevant to a much larger share of the population.

If you were to think about the 103 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes Chicago has installed since 2011 as real estate with an average price of $80 per square foot, it’d come out to something like a $300 million investment in an efficient, healthy, equitable transportation system based on the land alone.

Of course, that’s an “investment” that has cost taxpayers almost nothing while significantly improving transportation options on Chicago’s streets.

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel celebrated installing those 100 miles of better bike lanes.

“Investing in bike lanes is essential to growing Chicago’s economy and improving our quality of life,” Emanuel said Friday, Streetsblog Chicago reported. “We have made tremendous progress toward expanding our bicycle network for all Chicagoans, and we will continue to work towards making Chicago the most bike-friendly city in America.”

Advocacy group’s new report helps prioritize which streets need work

Photos: Streetsblog Chicago, Google Street View. Animation by Streetsblog Chicago.

The Active Transportation Alliance, the Chicago transportation advocacy group that first pitched candidate Emanuel on a plege to build 100 miles of protected bike lanes by 2015, accompanied the mayor’s announcement Friday with an updated vision of its own.

Called “Bikeways for All” — a name that echoes a similar and quite successful campaign in Minneapolis — Active Trans’ project is a big-picture look not just at Chicago’s current network of low-stress bikeways…

…but also its carefully selected set of…

…and finally a full connected network that’d be required for Chicago to achieve its huge potential as a biking city.

The second of the three maps above is essentially a prioritization of the most important routes in Chicago’s official Streets for Cycling 2020 plan. To better hone that list, Active Trans convened “a diverse cross section of neighborhood leaders, community based organizations, bicycle advocates and transportation professionals” to weigh the costs and benefits of different bikeways. Then the group circulated an online poll that got 700 participants to “rank the relative importance of various factors” such as network connectivity, safety and access to major destinations like parks.

“Based on these results, we were able to take some of the factors, and using geo-spatial software, develop a ‘score’ for the routes in Streets for Cycling 2020 plan that have not yet been built,” Active Trans writes in its report on the Bikeways for All plan. “This analysis yielded an initial map, which was then fine-tuned and revised by Active Trans staff and our working group of community members, before being published.”

A recent analysis of the city’s Streets for Cycling 2020 plan found that if built, the plan will help correct the disproportionate number of largely Latino and black neighborhoods that are underserved by bikeways. As the Bikeways for All report shows, lack of access to comfortable biking is a citywide problem:

But Chicago’s rapid improvements in its bikeway network over the last few years has delivered encouraging results:

Truly protected bike lanes will be needed before biking can move fully into Chicago’s mainstream. But the financial investment required to add high-quality physical protection is ultimately less important than the political investment that’ll be required to allocate space to biking on the street. Let’s hope Mayor Emanuel and his successors will continue seeing how rewarding those political investments can be.

The Green Lane Project helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write [email protected]

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