Cycling in Chicago: When Bicycle Culture Collides With Urban City
Author: Huazhi Qin
Program of Study: Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS)
Having learned that Bicycle Magazine once ranked Chicago as the best cycling city in the U.S. is not a surprise to me. (Biking in Chicago, 2018) The first time I walked along the Lakefront Trail near Navy Pier, I was amazed by how many people were riding bicycles, something I hadn’t seen in a long time in such a large city as Chicago. Then I unlocked my first Divvy bike, a shared bicycle, and rode along the trail to North Avenue Beach within Lincoln Park. A scenic 18-mile paved trail running along the Lake Michigan shore provided me with an exceptional experience in Chicago life.
However, at the beginning of the project, I noticed a negative discourse surrounding cycling in Chicago. The columnist of Chicago Reader John Greenfield used the term “cyclophobia” to describe a fear of reckless cyclists who may cause injury by, for instance, illegal riding or riding at excessive speeds. (Greenfield, 2019a) In addition to the tension between pedestrians and cyclists, many debates also focus on the conflicts between motorists and cyclists, the building of bicycle infrastructure, and the distribution of cycling resources.
The love-hate relationship Chicagoans have with cycling raises questions in my mind about bicycle culture and urban planning: how did the city embrace bicycle culture, and what are the challenges or debates that bicycle culture poses in Chicago?
The rise of the cycling culture in the U.S. and in Chicago
Initially from the middle-class, the United States experienced a bicycle boom in the 1890s. In the late nineteenth century, the bicycle was considered as a potential solution to the problems of urban life, especially pollution and congestion. It has been advertised as a device for everyone and for everything, and has become a fundamental part of urban life in the United States. (Friss, 2015)
This rise of cycling culture was made possible by the development of technology. In the 1890s, the “safety” bicycles, a light model with two equal-sized wheels and pneumatic tires, much like a bicycle you might buy today, dominated the market. (Friss, 2015) This model overcame the limitations of previous models and provided unprecedented manageability for most people. As a result, people who were incapable of riding bicycles previously, like women, started to do so.
Additionally, the increasing demands from expanding potential riders led to mass production, which brought prices down. The high cost of high-wheelers limited bicycle ownership to the upper class. While in the era of safety bikes, mass production allowed prices to drop to $40–$120, then to $20 by 1898. (Hobbs, 2005) Lower bicycle prices further contributed to the popularity of bicycles.
Chicago caught on to the bicycling boom as it swept the nation. Approximately 400 bicycle dealers sold or repaired bicycles in Chicago in 1898, which means that there was one shop for every 4,235 residents. (Friss, 2015) In addition, the 1898 Chicago Bicycle Directory states that about two-thirds of the nation’s bicycles and accessories were produced within 150 miles of the city. (Hobbs, 2005) Schwinn Bicycles, a Chicago-based bicycle manufacturer, was selling nearly one-quarter of all bicycles in the United States by the 1950s, reaching $20 million in sales in 1961. Most of its products were distributed by Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Montgomery Ward & Co., two giant Chicago-based retailers. (“Arnold, Schwinn & Co.”, n.d.)
Moreover, the popularity of bicycles further impacted what Chicago looked like when its cycling mayors laid the foundation for bicycle-friendly infrastructure. Richard J. Daley championed the development of a bikeway system in Chicago in 1963, leading to an estimated 1.2 million bicycles by the early 1970s. Keeping this tradition, his son Mayor Richard M. Daley continued to expand Chicago’s bike infrastructure during the 1990s, paving more than 100 miles of on-street bike lanes and constructing more than 50 miles of bike trails. (Hobbs, 2005) At present, Chicago currently has more than 200 miles of protected, buffered, and shared bike lanes, as well as many miles of off-street paths. (Department of Transportation, 2021)
The unstoppable popularity of bicycles in Chicago forced the city’s governors to draw up comprehensive plans on how bicycles could move in the city. However, even though urban infrastructure in relation to bicycles is framed as a universal public good, its benefits have been in fact primarily and directly gained by privileged interests during this process. (Lubitow, Zinschlag and Rochester, 2016)
Communities of color were supposed to benefit the most from the growing bicycle culture. As the CDOT Strategic Plan 2021 stated, communities of color in Chicago often have “the fewest transportation choices, the longest commutes, the highest concentration of industrial centers and truck traffic in their neighborhoods, and the worst pollution from cars and trucks on their streets”. (Lightfoot and Biagi, 2021) In this case, the bicycle would be an ideal option since it’s one of the least expensive, eco-friendly, and efficient means of transportation.
However, in fact, these communities have been left beh
ind. Oboi Reed, a black bike advocate, observes a vicious cycle preventing communities of color from benefiting from cycling’s health, safety, economic, and social benefits. Chicago’s downtown and relatively wealthy neighborhoods on the North Side, with a high biking rate, are home to more bike lanes, racks, and Divvy stations than Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods, with a low biking rate. It shows the city’s tendency to place bike resources in areas that already have high levels of biking. (Greenfield, 2014)
Moreover, the less-developed bicycle infrastructure further discourages residents in areas with low cycling rates from advocating for new bikeways and better maintenance of existing ones. (Greenfield, 2014) According to the Tribune analysis, African-American and Latino neighborhoods lack protected bike lanes that are clearly marked by barriers or have further space to increase safety. (Wisniewski, 2017) In this case, many residents in minority communities believe that building bike lanes would only limit parking, cause traffic jams and be of no use to cyclists. It could also symbolically pave the way for gentrification because of the dominance of white, middle-class, and low-income white ‘hipsters’ in Chicago bicycling. (Lubitow, Zinschlag and Rochester, 2016)
Likewise, enforcement shows a difference. Chicago police have been writing more citations to bicyclists in black neighborhoods than in white or Latino communities, according to a Tribune review of police statistics. From 2008 to September 22, 2016, the top 10 communities for bicycle tickets included seven African-American areas and three Latino areas. There was no majority-white area ranked in the top 10, despite the popularity of biking in white neighborhoods such as West Town and Lincoln Park. (Wisniewski, 2017) Despite the drop in the number of tickets issued in African American communities by 2018, five of the top ten neighborhoods still have African American majority populations and three have Latino majority populations. (Wisniewski, 2019) This problem may arise from a lack of infrastructure and education in these communities, but also from the structural racism that has distorted mobility justice in Chicago.
The bicycle was embraced into Chicago’s life as it inspired a vision of a better city. Its popularity left an enduring physical and social mark on the city and also signals the systemic problems embedded in urban life.
Biking in Chicago: the coolest rides (2018) Choose Chicago. Available at: https://www.choosechicago.com/blog/sports-recreation/bicycling-in-chicago/.
Friss, Evan (2015) The Cycling City : Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Available at: http://proxy.uchicago.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1048699&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Greenfield, J. (2014) ‘Why Don’t the South and West Sides Have a Fair Share of Bike Facilities?’, Streetsblog Chicago, 23 December. Available at: https://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/12/23/why-dont-the-south-and-west-sides-have-a-fair-share-of-bike-infrastructure/.
Greenfield, J. (2017) Chicago cyclists vent about their cycling pet peeves, Chicago Reader. Available at: http://chicagoreader.com/columns-opinion/chicago-cyclists-vent-about-their-cycling-pet-peeves/.
Greenfield, J. (2019a) Cyclephobia, Chicago Reader. Available at: http://chicagoreader.com/columns-opinion/cyclephobia/.
Greenfield, J. (2019b) ‘Dickens Greenway NIMBYs Are More Worried About Being Hit by Cyclists Than Drivers’, Streetsblog Chicago, 31 May. Available at: https://chi.streetsblog.org/2019/05/31/dickens-greenway-nimbys-are-more-worried-about-being-hit-by-cyclists-than-drivers/.
Hobbs, A. (2005) ‘Bicycling’, Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: Chicago History Museum and the Newberry Library. Available at: http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/136.html.
Lightfoot, L. E. and Biagi, G. (2021) ‘Strategic Plan for Transportation’. The Chicago Department of Transportation.
Lubitow, A., Zinschlag, B. and Rochester, N. (2016) ‘Plans for pavement or for people? The politics of bike lanes on the “Paseo Boricua” in Chicago, Illinois’, Urban Studies, 53(12), pp. 2637–2653.
Wisniewski, M. (2017) ‘Biking while black’: Chicago minority areas see the most bike tickets, chicagotribune.com. Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-chicago-bike-tickets-minorities-0319-20170317-story.html.
Wisniewski, M. (2019) Bike tickets drop citywide — but most are still issued in majority black areas – Chicago Tribune. Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/transportation/ct-biz-bike-tickets-drop-minority-neighborhoods-20190923-tpqe6wwyyzcyncn24ko4cgtm2q-story.html.