Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Streets for (Family) Cycling Take Two

You can guess we both write this blog, my better half and I.
Readers can usually tell which of us has written what, though our writing is blended in many posts. To follow the post yesterday about what he doesn’t see in the Streets for Cycling Plan, and noting the excellent comments from our anonymous commenter, I get to throw in my two cents today. This post is all my work, yesterday’s was his.

From the Inside Out
I worked as part of the team of local riders who worked through this winter into spring to get input from around the city to shape the Streets for Cycling Network. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I am more than grateful for having had the opportunity.

My volunteer work for CDOT and Active Transportation Alliance was eye-opening in many ways. Changing our streets is a complicated process but the team steering the project has a strong desire to make sure that the plan is devised by Chicagoans themselves. This is a new idea in street planning in Chicago: simplify the process by using as much public input as possible, in order to zero in on what will be used. Our team was given the power to organize as many meetings as possible to reach out into the city for public input from every kind of rider and non-rider.  

Now that the draft plan is out I have heard plenty of flak on the Chainlink, at home and around my neighborhood. I have also heard just as much about how community members from our meetings are excited by clearly seeing their input in the draft network. The network is under public review right now and anything you might want to share about it is on the table. 

Our city engineers are at these meetings and able to field technical questions you might have or note ideas not included. “Blah blah,” you’re thinking, “I can read this on the web page”... and you should, because my writing is not any kind of official take on the plan and you need to go see and comment for yourself.

What does it really take to influence the planning and get your voice heard? Why haven’t family cyclists been heard if they haven’t?
These are important questions if you agree with my husband’s post. 
My answer — whether I agree or not — from my own experience would be that the threshold for hearing from family riders in Chicago is pretty high.  Though we held three to four meetings a month in our region from December to March, very few to absolutely none of the riders who came to our meetings were used to riding with kids in mind, much less carrying their family along for the ride.

Advocates for children or families who are not currently comfortable riding were a more active part of our region’s input.  And others of our city regions were organized by teams that included a family rider, so family riders were represented, but our job in the CAGs was not to give only our own insight. Luring other people to the meetings to get their information was the point. There are not that many of us to lure who already actively ride comfortably in Chicago with our kids, and we tend to clump in a few neighborhoods in the city. 

For many reasons, no one in your family might have been able to get to meetings for Streets for Cycling or give input. It’s just hard for parents to get to meetings — especially on winter school nights.  It’s key to making the plan for an 8-80 network to hear from families, but if the input from families is extremely low the planners are not going to know what we need and we will realize less change from this plan.

In my experience, the engineers and planners working on this project are deeply interested in all of the information they can get about how to create good lanes for the city. In a process built on input, the perspectives that are not shared with the planners can’t necessarily become a huge part of the planning. 

The bottom line is that family riders— or anyone else— feeling left out of the draft plan need to share their thoughts about their own regions and other parts of the city at the public meetings, by email or by webinar. 

I heartily suggest participating in one of the two public meetings, that are left, as they are good forums for getting interesting questions answered in a give and take atmosphere. It’s not too late yet! And it’s just the beginning.

On to making good family riding infrastructure into reality...
The chance to influence how this plan is actually realized means giving input now and then many more meetings and much more input, and direct work with your Alderman and other city and state representatives over time as the plan is made a reality.  That means all of us need to keep coming to meetings, probably for the next few years.

The Bikeways Campaign Coordinator at Active Transportation Alliance is laying the difficult ground work for each Ward to grow a pedestrian/bike/transit committee which will get movement going on the Streets for Cycling plans once they are done. This means that you need to reach out to Active Trans and your own Alderman, and find out how far along your own Ward organization is. 

Equitably establishing these committees throughout the entire city is a difficult but  important task for Active Trans to undertake. 

Helping your community take this step is essential. The funding to create the bulk of real safe lanes for the youngest to oldest riders in Chicago eventually rests in your Alderman’s budget. Check out the web sites for Bike Uptown and Walk Bike Lincoln Park, two committees that are up and running now.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chicago’s “Streets for Cycling” Bicycle Plan Is Not Streets For Families (Yet)

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has been working hard for months on a new bicycle network system for the city named Streets for Cycling. There were public meetings we listed here. One of us has been working on the project, but the other of us — me —  hasn’t. After months of wondering what was being cooked up, I finally saw the public unveiling of the draft network plan last week. The short summary: despite a lot of good talk and useful extension of existing commuter lanes into the South and West, this draft version is unfortunately not a network that families can use much. It must be improved. With YOUR family's input. 

The CDOT Streets for Cycling Meeting
Many more photos of specific network maps and a general review at OneLessMinivan
An “8 to 80 network” was the main stated goal— a grid of cycling lanes so obviously safe that everyone from 8 to 80 years old feels comfortable on them — while increasing bicycling share to 5% of trips under 5 miles. Both these goals call for a safe network because only about 8% of the population now feels safe enough to use the current system according to CDOT's data. Unfortunately, the draft CDOT unveiled last week won’t achieve these goals. Here’s why:

If The Network Doesn’t Feel Safe New Cyclists Won't Come.
When evaluating a new bike lane, put yourself in the position of a parent about to take 3 kids down it, or an aging or less-than-fit person about to go shopping on it. A strong 25 year old with a fast bike and nothing to carry can happily ride anywhere. This is how I'm looking at the draft network plan. As designed so far, it won’t feel safe for everyone, because the kinds of lanes they chose aren't designed to be safe for everyone:

Protected Lanes:  The Safest Solution But Only 1/6 Of The Network
Protected Lanes elsewhere fully separate car and bike traffic, so cars can’t hit you even if they try. These lanes feel safe because they are safe. They use concrete barriers, overpasses, signals for different types of vehicle, and bike paths through spaces such as parks (like Chicago’s Lakefront Path). They keep children, parents and grandparents safe on their rides to school, playdates, work or shopping, and keep late night cyclists from weaving into car traffic. Because these main bikeways in places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam are safe, people there ride bikes often. They feel safe. In cities with less protection, there are fewer riders.

New York has put in some good lanes though it's not like Amsterdam:

Broadway NYC protected lane. Parked cars, lots of space
3rd Ave NYC protected lane. Concrete, cars.

Here in Chicago, CDOT will build some Protected Lanes with parked cars or tree planters between car lanes and bikes (or might they consider steel, concrete, or stone bollards, or Jersey barriers?). I’m looking forward to riding on these. But CDOT also calls lanes “protected” that are just divided from traffic by plastic posts, which (as on Kinzie or 18th St) are easily destroyed or removed by CDOT. Unfortunately, Streets for Cycling includes a lot more of these lanes. And they don't plan to fully protect the main routes, even with plastic. New riders won’t feel safe and they’ll stay away. The new Protected Lanes need to offer real permanent protection, with separation by concrete, steel, parked cars, or trees.  

They took out most of the plastic sticks in May.
Will concrete barriers be coming?
The Kinzie lane had lots of posts when it went in.
Protected by parked cars, this is OK.

Buffered Lanes: they sound better than they are
These are on-street bike paths like the existing ones in Chicago, but with a wider painted “buffer:” a double white line, a foot or two wide, with stripes inside. What’s keeping the driving, texting teenager away from the woman biking her grandson to the park? Only paint. Paint wears off and you can’t see it under snow. It’s not enough.  
If CDOT can put the same painted lines between parked cars and the curb, though, the lane can become truly protected. I don't buy CDOT's argument that there isn't room. If there's no room they should use a different street.

from the CDOT site. Would your friends who are afraid to ride take their 8 year old on this? 

Painted Bike Lanes: They Don't Keep Families Safe
There are many of these already in Chicago, the ones with a single white line. This class of lanes also apparently includes “sharrows”, regular car streets with occasional bike symbols painted on them. CDOT is planning hundreds of miles of these because it makes the network look big cheaply and achieves their goal to get a lane within 1/2 mile of everywhere. 
But seriously, would you like to take your 8 year old on a “Bike Lane” like this? It’s a lot like taking her out on a regular street without a “Bike Lane.” How will that increase ridership? Save the paint, CDOT, and build me another mile of real protected lane with a solid barrier. 

In Summary, The Plan Lacks The Needed Safety
The planned bike lanes, except for solidly protected ones, are not safe enough to convince new riders to start taking bikes. It is clear that the stated goals, accessibility for every rider from 8 to 80, and increasing to 5% of trips under 5 miles, are not even offhandedly addressed with the current draft of the Streets for Cycling plan. 

Other Quibbles
Though the network does extend commuting routes into new areas, which is great, again it favors young healthy fearless riders by using simple unprotected lanes like the current ones. CDOT spent a great deal of time at the meeting discussing branding to make this more appealing. “Bicycle Superhighways”?  “Four Star Routes”?  “Spoke Routes”? — they will have banners and decorated posts, but not much protection.  This branding isn’t a good use of resources. If the lanes are safe, well-designed travel spaces, they won’t need catchy names; they’ll just get used by everyone all the time. The ones that feel safe to a grandparent going shopping or a mom with three kids headed to the park will be a success; the others will be a waste of funds and public goodwill, with or without banners.

A lot of people have put a lot into this plan...
It’s inspiring that public input has identified the streets that people want in the network. Many people have put time, energy and money into bringing the draft network as far as they have. There is a lot of input there, but maybe not enough from families yet to make something that will bring parents and kids out to use bikes as transportation for those trips 5 miles and under that CDOT is aiming for. 

It’s disappointing that the most important riders for building bicycle usage — women who are afraid to ride now — have to be heard more. The design looks like it was made by people who haven't regularly transported kids, or ridden with aging parents, or run errands on a properly designed bike network — though the engineers are doing good work translating people's input into infrastructure, they still haven't heard about these things enough to build us a network we can all use. 

As a result, the draft doesn’t meet its own goals. The Streets for Cycling plan was intended to get everyone — not just enthusiasts — out on bikes, but it simply won’t unless we change it fast.

So what can I do about it?
Bring your friends to the upcoming meetings, write to CDOT on their website, talk to your alderman and talk to other people you know, bicyclists or not. The non-bicyclists might be more important to the success of this project than the cyclists. The network must be made safe enough for everyone to want to use it. Make CDOT fix this now.

Upcoming CDOT meetings to review Streets for Cycling 2020 Draft Network plans:
(maps from the CDOT site at this link: http://www.chicagobikes.org/public/SFC.php )

Gary Comer Youth Center - Exhibition Hall, 3rd floor
7200 S. Ingleside Ave.
Thursday, May 31st, 2012
4 – 8 p.m., presentation with Q&A at 4:30 & 6:30p.m.

Douglas Park Cultural and Community Center - Ballroom
1401 S. Sacramento Dr.
Wednesday, June 6th, 2012
4 – 8 p.m., presentation with Q&A at 4:30 & 6:30p.m.

Open House
77 S. Dearborn – Building Lobby
Saturday, June 9th, 2012
10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Webinar #1
June 11th
12 – 1 p.m.
Reserve your Webinar seat now at: http://goo.gl/6JRQc

Webinar #2
June 13th
6 – 7 p.m.
Reserve your Webinar seat now at: http://goo.gl/CQSS9

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bike the Drive Family Style Again this Weekend!

Bike the Drive will be this coming Sunday, May 27th, from 5:30 to about 9:30 AM (a little longer this year 'til they throw you off the Drive). That's coming right up!

We have a post from last year with a lot of suggestions that will still hold true. We really think that the earlier you get there the more fun it will be, we have recommendations for how to eat and places to find a bathroom, and what to bring. But this year, we think you should also come to the Big Top tent and look for us and do a little craft project after the ride. We might also have a balance bike to take apart and put together. We'll be at the Kidical Mass table.

Here's the link to the post from last year. It's worth a read.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tandems Might Be Perfect For You

Despite having a cargobike box to plop our kids into, seeing them rolling away on their own two wheels is the most satisfying part of our family riding. Unfortunately, sometimes in the hurry of the day or the tension of city traffic, daily trips can't always be done with all riders on their own bikes. And the bigger kids sometimes feel cramped in the cargo box, especially with the rain cover. A tandem, a bicycle built for two (or three, or more) is our favorite solution because it allows you to ride close to your kids yet still gives them the chance to pedal a bike.  The kids feel more empowered, the parents don't always have to do all the pedaling, and everybody is safer together in traffic. It's no secret that we love tandems.
1972 Schwinn Deluxe Twinn

If you are carrying one bigger kid (with or without a toddler who fits in a rack seat), tandems are a really affordable option.  Older tandems are relatively cheap in Chicago at the bike co-ops and tend to be easy to find. An old American one- to five-speed tandem like a Schwinn Twinn usually goes for about $200 to $350 at these places, lesser brands even less. That can be a tenth of the price of a fancy cargo bike.  You can nearly always find them at A Nearly New Shop and at Working Bikes. Sometimes these shops have tandems in storage and you just have to ask - tandems take a lot of room on the display floor. Classified ads and internet sites are also good places to look.

Many of these were built for two adults, but you can often put a lower, unsprung seat on the back to let your maybe-about-7-or-8-year-old kid's feet reach the pedals. With these, as with most tandems, your kid's feet move the whole time.

In a higher price class, we just saw a fancier lightweight KHS Tandemania Sport at Working Bikes for $675, which is like a 21 speed mountain bike with city tires and two riders.

Tandems can grow well with you and your child as he or she moves through different stages. With something as simple as a foot long piece of wood and a metal clamp you can make a footrest for a toddler who is still too small to reach the pedals but big enough to hold on well. Swept back handlebars in the back are easy to rig as well.

pedal extenders or pedal blocks
For a slightly bigger kid you can either use an extra crankset that clamps to the frame higher up and attaches to the existing chain with its own little additional loop, or you can often use pedal extenders, which are like slices of 1x4 lumber held to both sides of the regular pedals with a rubber cover.
These are simple and cheap but reduce your cornering clearance a little. Keep in mind that no matter what you do the child is unlikely to be very interested in taking on most of the pedaling - the footrest is not much worse in terms of your need to pedal than the fancy child crankset. You may also be able to put on a shorter set of cranks to make it fit. Using these tricks, tandems can be adapted to allow a pretty young child to ride under (partly) their own power in traffic.

lots of trailer "tandems" in the used heap at Working Bikes
Tandems tend to be easier to control in city traffic than a ridealong trailer-like "tandem" on your regular bike. You have control over the whole bike in shorter turns and in tricky situations. On a real tandem the child is part of a real bike and not dangling on a secondary vehicle clipped on behind you. These trailer things go for $25 to $45 or so used at Working Bikes.

Tandems are easy to rig with a good rack to carry things with panniers, or if you are careful perhaps you can install both panniers and a child's bike seat over them (such as Yepp or similar; our Bobike Maxi works but the Bobike Junior doesn't). 

This blue one in particular is our favorite tandem, the Onderwater, which is a lot different. It carries the grown up and 3 kids (one in the back rack seat) and allows the one in front to pedal, and the grown up is the one who steers and brakes and changes gears. The kids don't have to look at your back but you are still the one watching for traffic. The kid has a ratchet on the crank so he or she doesn't need to turn the pedals all the time. 

Tandemtransporters - orange XL and black regular
This one also allows you to take off all the kid-related stuff when they get bigger and substitute a big cargo box. It's heavy but doesn't bend as you ride it, a problem we've discovered in other brands. Ours still looks like new since everything is stainless and the powder coat is very durable. JC Lind can order them in Chicago and Rolling Orange in New York sometimes has them in stock. They carry the two-kids-pedaling XL version too which can carry 4 kids. We tried one for a day and it went really comfortably, though the one we rented only had attachments for 2 kids total.
Kidztandem is a similar brand, made in Asia with lighter tubing and without a chain cover.

Onderwater Tandemtransporter

Bike Friday tandem

Bike Friday makes an assortment of tandems and multi-person tandems that can be disassembled into normal suitcases for air travel -- you can call them to talk about the options since they build them custom. These are pretty neat but you need to have a use for them.

The secret best thing about riding with your kids so close on a tandem: Really wonderful conversations to be had while pedaling along, looking at the sights as you go by together.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

NATO Weekend

Today found me unexpectedly downtown to see my dentist. As many readers of ours probably know, the NATO summit is being held in Chicago for the next three days.

Surprisingly, Chicago is a little like a medieval city. The center sits on the lake bounded on all sides by the river. To reach the Loop or centrum you must often cross a bridge that can be raised or lowered.  Much like an ancient city under siege, most of the bridges from my neighborhood were closed to people crossing, and I had to ride north and pass a guard to cross into the Loop.  The streets were mostly empty -- no cars at all parked along the sides.

Plenty of people were walking along or riding but with so few cars the walkers and bikers took the city just as I rode through. I missed seeing a march of protesters at I sat immobilized on the eighth floor of an early, fortress-like skyscraper in the dentist chair.  But my dentist and I listened in her still office to the protesters passing along beneath us.

Even the huge police presence, like old standard bearers, is largely in groups on foot or on bicycles wearing insignias on their vests. Police have come from many corners of the country to reinforce our city legion. If you ever wondered  how easy it might be to ride your bike in a riot helmet it would seem that hundreds of Chicago and Philadelphian police officers find it pretty easy.

On my way home, the empty streets, police  and feeling of everyone just waiting spooked me a little but my face was still incredibly numbed which made it hard for me to concentrate while I rode.

I stopped at the always filled-to-the-brim Intelligentsia Coffee by my dentist's office to let things wear off a little, only to find it nearly empty with a broken espresso machine. The wary baristas were all looking forward to closing up early and hightailing it home out of the Loop. Unable to handle hot coffee with my frozen cheek, I sat and watched the technician strip the sides of the La Marzocco and tinker while iced coffee they had on hand kept me company. Everyone said they were relieved to be closed for Sunday and we all agreed that we hoped to stay far from the city center for the next days (though the unrest moved through much of the city north of the center today).

When I finally headed off on my bike I couldn't help taking an extra lap down deserted LaSalle St. where the barricaded bank fronts were juxtaposed with an open door on the familiar shadowy face of City Hall.  City Hall seemed surprisingly peaceful as CPD officers waited together congenially out front for a busy evening to come.

The constant sight of helicopters, planes, and buses loaded with homeland security reminds my husband of being in Bogotá during a manifestation for M19.  He hopes the veteran nurses protesting the mayor's recent devastating health care cuts didn't seriously injure any of the heavily armed policemen.

Unbelievably the Art Institute and all of the other museums are closed for these days. All of our  city art and treasures locked away. Here behind the guard and barrier is a beautiful open air mural. A gift to Chicago from Chagall who loved the city and also gifted windows in the Art Institute. Riding on the bike you feel invisible and part of the street all at once. The police were friendly seeing me on my funny bike after looking inside.  

As our small family couldn't all leave the city together this weekend we reluctantly decided to all stay at home. Hopefully tomorrow will be quiet in our little corner of Chicago. I hope wherever you are if you happen to find yourself in Chicago that it's peaceful for you too (or as safe as possible if you choose to protest) as we all spend long hours of quietly waiting for the end of this summit.