This article was originally posted on May 24, 2018. The event is now called the Fifth Third Bike the Drive.
Every Memorial Day weekend, 15 miles of Lakeshore Drive are closed down for five hours to allow residents of Chicago and surrounding areas to experience the carless road from their bikes during MB Bike the Drive.
After Lake Shore Drive is back open and all the bikers have headed home, many might assume the benefits of MB Bike the Drive are done; however, this event is the largest annual fundraiser for the Active Transportation Alliance.
So what, you ask? Many might not even understand the magnitude of the work the Active Transportation Alliance does for the city of Chicago. Dubbed as “Chicagoland’s voice for better biking, walking and transit,” a lot of the improvements regarding transportation throughout the city and its suburbs can be attributed to Active Trans.
“We’re really about giving people transportation options beyond their own personal vehicle,” says Kyle Whitehead, Active Trans Alliance Advocacy Director. “It’s healthier, more sustainable and more equitable.”
Specifically, Active Trans works to educate the different communities about the benefits of using alternate forms of transportation, including reducing carbon and boosting the local economies.
“Bike the Dive is a great way to get people on their bikes at the start of the warm weather season in a car-free environment, and we hope they’ll be more likely to ride their bike throughout the summer,” Whitehead adds.
One of Active Trans’ main focuses is of course, the Lake Front Trail. In fact, when Active Trans was founded 30 years ago, the employees recognized that the trail was not well-maintained, well-lit or safe; since then, they have been leaders in the developments, including its most recent project of the Lakefront Trail Separation.
After years of working with the Chicago Park District and improving the conditions of the trail, the number of people using it spiked. Eventually, congestion became an issue, again putting user’s safety at risk.
In 2014, one woman was out on the trial training for her first full marathon in the fall, got hit by a biker, and ended up in the hospital with brain injuries. When Meghan Williams was told she would probably not have a full recovery, she realized there was a greater issue that needed to be addressed. After months of disability and talking with others who had similar experiences, Williams synched up with Active Trans and shared her story. They agreed that something had to be done.
“I thought maybe they’d put some arrows and signage, but I didn’t expect the snowball effect of things actually changing,” Williams says. “But my face became the face of the campaign, and all good things came out of it.”
Once Ken Griffin came into the picture and offered his $12 million donation to build separate 18-mile paths for bikers and pedestrians along the lakefront, the city and Active Trans started work almost immediately.
“The public often liked to frame it as a runner vs. cyclist issue … but its neither’s fault it’s the design of the trail,” Whitehead explains. “People were avoiding it during the busy times of the year, which is disappointing, because the lakefront trial is one of Chicago’s most valuable assets. This investment will ensure those numbers will continue to grow.”
Once this news broke, runners and cyclists throughout the Chicagoland area rejoiced; other groups, including the Chicago Area Runner’s Association, jumped on board of the project too, proving its significance to the all communities within the city.
“When people aren’t comfortable using the path, then they won’t, and there isn’t a lot of other options like that,” Greg Hipp, CARA Executive Director, says. “Without this trail separation, we wouldn’t be able to see running and biking how it is. I think this is going to contribute to the growth to an already popular activity in Chicago, and it’s going to make it easier for newcomers to get involved.”
Work on the trail began in Spring 2017, and is expected to be completed around August 2018. Construction is moving fast, though, and users will be able to experience the first portions during Bike the Drive; as Lakeshore Drive is reopened, participants will be shuttled off onto the Lakefront Trail to get them home safely.
“We also encourage trail users (walkers, runners, cyclists) to share news about conditions, events, and other things happening on the trail with #chiLFT on Twitter and Facebook,” Whitehead says.
Another project Active Trans is working hard towards is the Chicago River Trail; right now, there’s several miles of trail on the north branch of the river, and then by the Riverwalk downtown, but it’s patchy. Whitehead says his team is working with the Metropolitan Planning Council to build a continuous trail for mixed use.
“The river is more embedded in all of our communities than the Lakefront Trail is, and we think it is an undervalued asset,” Whitehead adds. “The city is already pursuing projects along the river, so we want to unite those projects.”
When a runner or cyclist sets out for their daily excursion, they may not realize that Active Trans was likely involved in some part of their trip. Without the group, endurance athletes would not have the constant support and advocacy we do today.
In order to keep these projects rolling and improving the overall transportation in the city of Chicago, support Active Trans at the 17th annual MB Bike the Drive on May 27 from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
Save $5 on MB Bike the Drive registration with code ChiAth5 through 5/27!