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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel making big push for bike paths

Sep 24, 2011, 10:40 a.m.
Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel answers a question during his first news conference after winning the election in Chicago February 23, 2011. Emanuel takes office May 16. REUTERS/Frank Polich

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - New Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to make Chicago the most bike-friendly place in the United States, building on a long pedigree of bike advocacy in the city that dates to the 19th century.

In 1897, mayoral candidate Carter H. Harrison II successfully campaigned as "the cyclists' champion." Bike-riding mayor Richard M. Daley expanded on-street marked bike lanes to 115 miles in his 22 years in office.

Emanuel plans to outdo both Daley and other bike-friendly U.S. cities.

In four years, he wants to create 100 miles of protected bike paths -- not just painted lines on the street but paths separated from car traffic by posts or other dividers. By next summer, he wants the city's first large-scale bike-sharing program, starting with 3,000 bikes.

"We're making everyone safer at a very low cost and getting people out of their cars on top of it -- that's what you call a no-brainer," said transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, who rides his bike to work.

Klein hopes the percentage of trips taken by bike will rise from under 2 percent to 5 percent -- it's already 22 percent at rush hour on Milwaukee Avenue, which runs through the hipster neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Logan Square.

But both Klein and bike advocates said the city will have to proceed with care and lots of outreach to avoid the kind of pedestrian and driver backlash seen in New York, where some residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood sued to stop a bike path expansion.

Protected paths, as well as Emanuel's plans for a new vertical park for cyclists and pedestrians on an old railroad bed, may be a tougher sell in a down economy.

"Bike lanes are a wonderful idea and people certainly enjoy them, but right now what people need are jobs and ways to make their lives easier," said New York attorney Jim Walden, who represents plaintiffs in a suit against the Park Slope bike path, which was dismissed by a state judge. "For most big cities, bikes are not a practical way for people to move,"

Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Oregon and a former head of the Chicago bike advocacy group, said that most of the backlash he sees comes in struggling neighborhoods.

"It's a symbol of gentrification," Sadowsky said. "It's not why are you putting a bike lane in, but why are you spending money on bike lanes when I don't have a job?"

Klein said the costs were low considering the returns for public health and safety. The full 100 miles of bike paths could come in at around $28 million, with a half mile already done and getting heavy use. The city has applied for federal clean air funding, and is combining bike path construction with other projects, like resurfacing.

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Klein said the work was needed to keep Chicago competitive with cities like Portland, which has a nearly 8 percent bike rate, and New York, which has grown bike paths exponentially under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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