The newsletter of the Active Transportation Alliance

Modeshift container page volume 3 issue 9


Mayor Daley’s cycling legacy

By Randy Neufeld

When Richard M. Daley took office in 1989, bicycling was not very visible in Chicago. There were a few riders, very few. There were no bike lanes, no racks on the sidewalks and no city promotion of cycling. As his mayoral tenure draws to a close, we have a very different story.

“My goal is to make Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the United States,” declares Mayor Daley on every copy of the city bike map. The competition from New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon is fierce, but the mayor has much to be proud of.

Two years before Daley became mayor, I started working for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (CBF, which eventually became the Active Transportation Alliance). Many people have had a leadership role in Chicago’s cycling progress, especially at our organization and within city government. But it was Mayor Daley’s interest that got our phone calls returned. His involvement made everyone else’s contributions pay off.

The city began paying attention to cycling in 1990, Daley’s second year as mayor. He gave the green light to staff in his office and at the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) who had begun talking bikes with our organization. A monthly task force began tackling safety messages, route signs and a city bike plan. In the fall of 1991, the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council was formed.

Randy Neufeld (left) standing with Mayor Daley. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Department of Transportation.

The Bike 2000 Plan
The Bike 2000 Plan—a master plan for improving biking in Chicago—was launched the following spring at the first Bike to Work rally on Daley Plaza. It was the beginning of a great annual tradition. Every year the mayor wanted something significant to announce at the rally. So CDOT kept quite busy making sure something would happen each spring.

The timing of the Bike 2000 Plan was perfect. While the plan was being written, the U.S. Congress passed groundbreaking transportation legislation that gave the first real opportunities for federal funding for cycling projects. Chicago was the first city in the U.S. to go after the new Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funds for bikes. By 1993, the Wells Street bike lane went in and parking racks began to sprout up around the city.

The Bike 2000 Plan called for a 300-mile network of lanes, routes and trails. It didn’t happen quickly. The city never forced a bike lane on an alderman who wasn’t interested. Take for instance the 44th ward, covering Lakeview, one of the city’s more active cycling areas. Alderman Bernie Hanson didn’t approve of bike lanes. It wasn’t until Tom Tunney became alderman in 2003 that the bike lane could continue up Halsted Street.

In the early 90’s, the mayor started to ride a bike. The city’s office of special events called us for advice on picking a bike as a birthday present for the mayor. The comfy bike we recommended was soon replaced by a proper road bike. He needed the right equipment to keep up with his riding buddies. In 1998, the mayor fell on a bad roadway edge on a long solo ride in Michigan and scraped his knee pretty bad. The mayor often talked about his experiences dealing with drivers on Chicago streets or farm dogs on Michigan back roads. He never rode in public. He rode for personal pleasure, not for political show.

An eye on trails
Everyone who rides the lakefront regularly has ideas for improvements. But if you happen to be the mayor, it’s easier to get the park district to pay attention. Some of the big fixes that Mayor Daley has personally championed have been the new bridge at Diversey Harbor and the Solidarity Drive underpass on the Museum Campus. He’s been working on solutions to the narrow and congested crossings of Grand, Illinois and the river for decades. With most of the funding in place, the Navy Pier Fly Over may still become a reality.

On many occasions, the mayor has talked about his vision for a fifty-mile trail in Chicago. He would love to see it extend all the way to the Michigan beaches. But he will take it wherever there is opportunity. Mostly he wants it be at least 50 miles in one direction so anyone can do a century, off-road, starting and ending in Chicago. No car trip necessary. No need to export Chicago dollars to Wisconsin and Michigan.

The city’s trail developments have methodically moved forward, much slower than anyone wanted, but with the mayor’s support, progress has been made. New trails in Sauganash, Beverly-Morgan Park, the Southeast Side and along the North Shore Channel will be available to Chicagoans forever.

The stage is set
The mayor’s vision for cycling in Chicago will not be complete when he leaves office next year. There are many things left to do. And he continues to come up with new ideas. When the mayor was in Copenhagen pushing for a Chicago Olympics, he took time to check out the vibrant cycling network. Now, thanks to CDOT and funding from a recently-announced federal grant, Chicago’s first European-style cycle-track is being planned along Stoney Island Avenue between 67th and 79th streets.

Keep in mind that cycling progress had to happen in context, within a city trying to make progress on crime, education, infrastructure, jobs, transit, congestion and health. It’s a long, expensive list with perennially overstretched budgets. Daley’s attention to cycling is firmly rooted in his passion for solving the city’s many challenges. His push for streets that accommodate all users brings many of these issues together. Not only is cycling better in 2010 than it was 20 years ago, but the city as a whole is more beautiful, more competitive and more livable.

In 1897, during the early glory days of cycling, Carter Harrison Jr. successfully ran for mayor in Chicago. I would like to borrow a slogan he used in his campaign and offer it to honor Mayor Daley: “Not the champion cyclist, but the cyclist’s champion.” He has taken us from a city where bikes were fringe to a place where cycling is a planned-for and cared-for part of Chicago. For that we’re grateful. We still need to get to where bikes are mainstream, but we’re well on our way because of Mayor Daley’s leadership.

Randy Neufeld was the executive director of the Chicago Bicycle Federation (now the Active Transportation Alliance) from 1987 to 2005. He now serves on the organization’s board of directors and works as the cycling fund director for SRAM. He also serves as strategy manager for the National Complete Streets Coalition.



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