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Chicago has a thriving bicycle culture and many bike-friendly sights and sounds just waiting for you to discover.
By John Greenfield
Powder blue, cobalt and emerald are the colors of the sky, water and land on a sunny day along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. This 18.5-mile (30-kilometer) paved greenway hugs the Lake Michigan coast and links up to the bustling downtown “Loop,” as well as many parks, beaches and neighborhoods.
The Lakefront Trail is perfect for a car-free commute or dreamy cruise, especially on the quieter section of the trail on the blue-collar South Side of town where the only distractions you’re likely to encounter are the sound of R & B and the scent of Polish sausages drifting from barbecues. The path is just one of the reasons why the largest city in Illinois – and third-largest city in America – is a great bike town.
“Biking is the easiest and quickest way to get around Chicago,” said Dottie Brackett, who blogs about stylish cycling at Let’s Go Ride a Bike. “The streets are flat and laid out in a grid, and many have bike lanes or ‘sharrows.’ Bicycling puts the best of Chicago at your fingertips, while you avoid traffic jams and crowded ‘el’ trains.”
Newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised that the city’s bikeability is about to get even better. His transition plan calls for expanding the city’s bike share network to thousands of bicycles and building the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.65-mile (4.26-kilometer) elevated rails-to-trails, within four years. He has also committed to creating 100 miles (160 kilometers) of cycle tracks in his first term. The city completed the first half-mile, on Kinzie Street next to the fragrant Blommer Chocolate factory, just after he took office.
With ever-improving infrastructure, it’s no surprise bike-to-work trips doubled in Chicago over the past decade. Traffic counts show a 22 percent rush hour bicycle mode share on Milwaukee Avenue, nicknamed the “Hipster Highway” because it leads northwest from the Loop to the trendy, bike-crazy neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Logan Square. The buzzing six-way intersection of Milwaukee, North and Damen avenues in Wicker Park is slated for the city’s first on-street bike parking corral.
A few blocks west, the Handlebar restaurant is a hub for the city’s blossoming bicycle culture. Decorated with vintage bike posters and bar stools made from old rims and inner tubes, it features craft beers on tap and veggie entrees, such as peanut stew and blackened tofu fajitas. The lovely back patio, where there is ample Toronto-style post-and-ring bike parking, is named the Tooker Gomberg Memorial Garden in honor of the late Canadian environmental activist, who was also the brother of Chicago bike coordinator Ben Gomberg.
On the South Side, in the Little Village community, Working Bikes Cooperative is another key hangout. One of the four community bike shops spread across the city, this warehouse space offers dozens of refurbished rides for sale and a well-organized offering of spare parts to pick through, plus repairs. Proceeds are used to ship containers of bikes to sister organizations in developing nations. There are also lots of great for-profit, commuter-focused shops in town, including three specializing in European-style city bikes.
Besides the lakefront, Rubani Shaw, a board member with the Active Transportation Alliance, recommended that adventurous cyclists take a spin on the tree-lined Chicago Boulevard System. “The boulevards connect some of the best parks and attractions, like the Osaka Japanese Garden in Jackson Park and the Garfield Park Conservatory,” he said.
For group rides, check out Chicago’s huge, friendly Critical Mass, plus family-oriented Kidical Mass parades and ladies-only Critical Lass pub cruises. Thechainlink.org, a local networking site with over 5,000 members, lists many more public events, from Slow Bicycle Society picnic outings to rowdy Midnight Marauders rides.
Whatever kind of city riding you like, you’ll find it in this Midwestern metropolis. And while Chicago’s bike scene may be a bit less fashionable than on the coasts, you’ll find it down-to-earth, enthusiastic and welcoming.
City of Chicago by the Numbers
2.7 million people
237 square miles (381 square kilometers)
0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) of separated bike lanes
123 miles (198 kilometers) of on-street bike lanes
33 miles (53 kilometers) of marked shared lanes, aka ‘sharrows’
50 miles (80 kilometers) of paved, off-street bike paths
12,265 on-street bike parking racks, more than any other US city
60,000 people educated about safety by the city’s Bicycling Ambassadors in 2010
100 B-cycle bike share vehicles at six kiosks