Motorized vehicles are old news in Chicago. If you want to see where the rubber is really meeting the road these days, look to the city’s proliferation of bikeways and trails.
Bike commuting, whether it be to work or for excursions such as shopping, is among Chicago’s hottest trends. According to CDOT bicycle safety and education program manager Charlie Short, the number of bike commuters has quadrupled since 2000. In other words, anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people ride to the office each day. And it’s not just young people doing the pedaling. Though a large chunk of bike commuters are between 20 and 30 years old, the craze has touched all age groups.
“We’re excited to see more people cycling,” says Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes alternative forms of transportation in Chicago. “It’s both a form of transportation and a great recreational activity. It also adds to the human scale of the city. Our public spaces aren’t just for fast-moving cars. They’re complete streets where you see all sorts of activity. That makes for a more livable city. Whether or not you personally cycle, it brings a lot of advantages to the city. There’s less [motorized] traffic, and it moves more calmly and quietly. We think the trend will continue.”
The shift toward bike commuting first became evident in 2008 when the recession took hold. To save money, people started looking for other ways to get around town.
“When there are gas-price bumps, we see more bikes in the racks,” Short says. “In 2007 gas prices went crazy, and the next year they just kept going up. We’ve seen an explosion in cycling since then, especially for commuting. But it wouldn’t have stuck if Chicago weren’t such a great city to bike in.”
To ensure it stays that way, the city is constantly working to improve its biking infrastructure. Ninety-four miles of bikeways have been added since 2008, and there are approximately 12,000 public bike racks. Among the cycling hot spots are the Milwaukee Avenue corridor from Logan Square to the Loop; Lakeview and Rogers Park on the North Side; Pilsen and Hyde Park on the South Side; and the North Shore Channel Trail and Chicago Lakefront Trail.
“If you give people a safe place to ride, they’ll ride a lot,” Burke says. “Most people would like to bike more than they do, but they’re worried about their safety on particular roads or don’t know how to maintain a bike. But those obstacles are becoming less pronounced. The more we can create better bike routes, the more likely they are to get out and try it. A whole network of routes are being designed to give people a safer environment.”
Nevertheless, cycling in the city has obvious risks. According to Short, there were 1,400 auto-related bike accidents in Chicago in 2012 and another 250 “doorings” (in which someone opens a car door and a cyclist rides into it). Short says the key to safety is for bike commuters to pick routes with which they’re comfortable, adding that the number of accidents has decreased in recent years as people have become more knowledgeable about the cycling network.
In June, CDOT launched a bike-sharing program called Divvy to make cycling even more accessible to the masses. Docking stations, or racks, where people can rent bikes are located throughout the city. These bikes may be returned to any Divvy station. By summer’s end, CDOT expects to have 300 docking stations and 3,000 bikes in its system. Burke calls it “Redbox for bikes.”
“It’s very convenient for short trips,” he says. “Other cities that do this have found that people get started on the bike-sharing program and then become regular cyclists. It’s really been a catalyst.”
Active Trans has also done its share to embed bike commuting into Chicago’s culture with events such as the weeklong Bike Commuter Challenge, which takes place each June. The object is for “team leaders” from various companies to get as many of their colleagues as possible to cycle to work. Brian Morrissey, who coordinates the event for Active Trans, says there were about 7,000 participants this year. “It’s a behavior-change program,” he says. “We want people to bike to work more.”
Indeed, these efforts aren’t aimed at “serious” cyclists, who mostly shun bike commuting.
“Bike commuters are more casual cyclists,” Short says. “I’ve always been surprised when I’ve encountered competitive cyclists who talk about bike commuting as junk miles [because of the stop and go].”
At its essence, bike commuting is a lifestyle choice.
“It helps you live your values,” Morrissey says. “A lot of bike commuters are environmentally and socially conscious. They value safer streets and clean air, as well as efficiency, less wasted fuel and less congestion. The more bike commuters you have, the more enjoyable the city is to live in.”
SIDEBAR: Heritage Bicycles Provides Locally Built Bikes with a Side of Caffeine
Heritage Bicycles just might be the flagship store of Chicago’s bike-commuting scene, but Michael Salvatore didn’t plan it that way. When he opened the shop in February 2012, he was simply following his heart.
“I enjoy being on a bike more than being in a car, so everything we’re doing is based on that lifestyle,” he says of Heritage Bicycles, which is located on 2959 North Lincoln Avenue. “It’s really organic. Biking appeals to me, so what I carry in our space is what I happen to enjoy.”
Other people have enjoyed his offerings, too. Salvatore’s custom-made commuter bikes were a hit from the get-go, as evidenced by his robust sales numbers.
“My expectations my first year were to sell 15 bikes, and we sold 100,” he says. “This year we expect to go to 300-plus.”
The demand has been so great that there’s a four- to six-week waiting period for the bikes, which range from $799 to more than $2,000. Part of their appeal is their unique blend of utility and style.
“You really want commuter bikes to be comfortable—more upright, the hands in a casual position,” Salvatore says. “It shouldn’t be painful on your body. But the fashion part is definitely not an afterthought. When I go riding, I like to think of the bike as an extension of who I am. We’re heavily into the lifestyle/fashion brand.”
For some, that might mean a pink bike with cream-colored fenders; for others, it might be a generator hub, where the front wheel generates electricity. Whatever a customer wants out of a bike, Heritage will build it.
“Part of the process with each customer is determining how they’re going to use the bike,” Salvatore says. “If someone tells us they go to the grocery store a couple times a week, we’ll build them a rack. These are definitely everyday lifestyle bicycles.”
In addition, Heritage does custom paint jobs on existing bikes and sells a variety of accessories, including helmets, backpacks and riding clothes. But there is more to Heritage than bicycles: A portion of the 1,400-square-foot space houses a coffee bar. This might seem incongruous, but it makes perfect sense to Delaney Nichols, who manages the café.
“It’s been extremely successful on a number of levels,” she says. “The first thing is that coffee isn’t seasonal like biking is, which helps us keep the doors open in the winter and stay busy. It’s also allowed us to become a neighborhood spot.”
For Salvatore, it’s all part of building his lifestyle brand.
“A lot of the café has to do with the crossover between the biking and coffee cultures,” he says. “They overlap. It’s helped us create a culture and a community based around our brand.”