Chicago Mayor: I want Seattle’s bikers and the jobs that come with them

Photo courtesy of Grid Chicago, used with permission. Caption is ours (a quote from Rahm Emanuel)

The great cities of the Pacific Northwest no longer have a free ride as the top bicycling cities in the United States.

While Portland and Seattle have spent the past couple years making calculated, political moves to incrementally improve the conditions for residents who choose to get around town on bikes, the nation’s giant cities have finally started to take cycling seriously. And they want the attractive urban jobs that demand a bike-friendly city, jobs Seattle and Portland have grown to take for granted.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s former chief of staff) is not known for subtlety. At the opening of that city’s new protected bike lane through the extremely dense and busy downtown Loop, Emanuel—quoting Seattle Bike Blog—said, “I expect not only to take all of their [Seattle and Portland's] bikers but I also want all the jobs that come with this, all the economic growth that comes with this, all the opportunities of the future that come with this.”

From Grid Chicago:

When the mayor took the mic he touted the economic benefits of protected bike lanes, which he argues will attract technology companies to the city. “Two facts in the last year,” he said. “Coincidence? I think not. One, the city of Chicago moved from tenth to fifth of most bike-friendly cities in the country [according to Bicycling magazine] in one year… In the same year the city of Chicago moved from fifteenth to tenth worldwide in startup economy… You cannot be for a startup, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”

“Now I think it’s self-evident that I am a competitive, let alone an impatient person,” Emanuel quipped. “So when my staff gave me this headline from Portland, it did bring a smile. The editorial from a magazine in Portland [the blog BikePortland.org] read, ‘Talk in Portland, Action in Chicago,’ as it reflected on Dearborn Street. The Seattle Bike Blog wrote, ‘Seattle can’t wait longer. We’re suddenly in a place where we’re envious of Chicago bike lanes.’ So I want them to be envious because I expect not only to take all of their bikers but I also want all the jobs that come with this.”

On Chicago’s Dearborn cycle track. Photo by John Greenfield/Grid Chicago. Used with permission.

The Dearborn bike lane is just the 30th mile of such lanes in the city, but the remarkable aspect is that all 30 of those miles have been installed in just 18 months after Emanuel took office. As we noted previously, while Seattle makes the sort of improvements that used to make headlines (skinny bike lanes, sharrows and an update to the Bike Master Plan), Chicago is creating a network of protected bike lanes in a style that Seattle is experimenting with in outer neighborhoods and just beginning to study for the center city.

It’s not exactly the new bike lanes that make me jealous of Chicago—it’s the speed at which Chicago accelerated from announcing plans to celebrating the lanes opening. Emanuel has only been in office for 18 months. Sure, the Chicago political system is far from perfect (again, Google Meigs Field), and I’m not saying we need to enable Seattle’s mayor with the same sweeping powers that Chicago or New York mayors have.

But there absolutely must be a way to make respond to the challenges and promises of making our city bikeable and walkable faster than we are. The Bicycle Master Plan update will be finished in the coming months, but it’s not yet clear how we are going to fund the ambitious ideas it contains. While Chicago has no plans to slow down on its bike lanes, Seattle will see its first cycle track on Linden near Bitter Lake and might see a second on Broadway by the end of the year. That’s about two miles, and each project took years to plan.

But it’s clear now that Seattle’s strategy of incremental improvements won’t work against a city like Chicago. The people who resist bike improvements in Seattle don’t fully grasp the importance that bikes play in our city’s forward-thinking, hip image. Even people who don’t bike everywhere they go want to live in a city where they could bike. Bicycling is hopeful, exciting, and a clear part of every global city’s future.

Seattle has a huge cultural and infrastructural head start on Chicago when it comes to biking, but we need to invest if we want to keep ahead. The past several years have seen immense neighborhood organizing in just about every corner of our city. These neighborhood greenway groups have spent countless hours organizing community walks, rides and meetings to discuss safety on the roads near their homes and schools. They have created maps of the routes that have the most promise, and have applied for countless grants (mostly, again, on volunteer time) to build any little piece of road safety infrastructure they can. This is the kind of latent public energy that any reasonably smart politician should be capitalizing on.

The other big US cities are starting to do what they can to catch up with us. The question is: What will the mayor and council do to make sure the city doesn’t waste this community-driven energy—quite possibly the biggest edge Seattle has on other cities—and instead, build on it to make Seattle the most bikeable city in the country?

UPDATE: Here’s video of the Dearborn bike lane opening (Emanuel starts at 2:50 mark):

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30 Responses to Chicago Mayor: I want Seattle’s bikers and the jobs that come with them

  1. Pingback: Chicago Mayor: I want Seattle's <b>bikers</b> and the <b>…</b> – Seattle <b>Bike</b> Blog | Bicycle News Gator

  2. Cathy says:

    Thanks for the plug for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Tom. We have had remarkable success in accelerating the safe streets agenda as a group of organized volunteers in the past year.

    We can do even more with a sustainable base of support. Please donate to our year end fundraising campaign! http://seattlebikeblog.com/2012/11/30/matching-fund-will-boost-donations-seattle-neighborhood-greenways/

  3. Gary says:

    And Chicago is a nasty cold, windy city to ride a bike in the winter in, and look at them! You’d think that places where you can ride year round even if it’s wet would do a better job at helping bicyclists ride even more. For a given dollar of infrastructure bicycling routes are so cheap in comparison to everything else to move a person around.

    • drs says:

      Chicago has (or had) crap winters and has crap summers (hot and humid) but is also flat. Very very flat. I grew up there; my idea of “hill” started at freeway embankments, or the pile of dirt that supports an overpass.

    • Scott Sanderson says:

      I have been riding for years in Chicago, and I find the winters to be just fine. The summers, on the other hand, are far too hot.

      I went to visit Seattle to explore a job opportunity, and I was really disappointed at the bike infrastructure there. It is really dismal. I was expecting Amsterdam, and what I saw was more like Istanbul. As crazy as it sounds, I felt like I could not leave Chicago because I can ride my bike to work here, and that is very important to me.

      • Eli says:

        I’m certainly looking forward to a city I can live in the U.S. where it’s easy and efficient and safe to get around.

        Transit and walking are critical, but I need a way to make point-to-point trips without wasting 30-60 minutes each time I want to go somewhere.

        I’m rooting for Seattle, but I can’t wait forever. It’s great to know that there are other options out there committed to being the kind of place I’d like to live in – in our immediate future – if our city can’t deliver meaningful improvement in the next few years.

    • Al Dimond says:

      @Scott: I had the opposite problem in Chicago. If I didn’t want to break a sweat I just went slower. But biking in the winter at any speed I’d lose blood circulation to my hands, even with good gloves, below about 20 degrees (I had the same problem running, but at much lower temperatures).

  4. Ints says:

    Don’t forget the cycle track currently under construction on NE 65th Street. It’s only one block long (between the BG trail and Sand Point Way/Magnuson Park) but if they keep to their schedule it will be done by the end of 2012.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Ah, yes, I did forget that one. Thanks.

    • Bruce Nourish says:

      There’s nothing wrong with the 65th St track, but that really illustrates how low the bar is for official “action” in Seattle. 65th is a very minor arterial off in the northeast corner of the city, leading to a park and a small residential neighborhood. Building a cycletrack there should be a non-event, a footnote in an article about how much better bicycling got in 2012.

      Talk to me about a protected 2nd Ave cycletrack from Denny to Yesler, with good connections to the waterfront in Queen Anne and Pioneer Square, and to Capitol Hill via Pine Street. I could get excited about that.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Agreed. It’s good to see the city using it as an opportunity to experiment with such a design (and will be a good example for people to see in person what cycle tracks look like). But I wish we weren’t content to wait until 2014 (or later?) to see the first significant cycle tracks in dense parts of town.

      • Ints says:

        Sure, the NE 65th St track is an experiment and not significant when it comes to getting some major cycling infrastructure built. It does however, complete an important link to Magnuson Park that has long been missing and gets an actual segment of cycletrack built. With the BG Trail, the 39th AV greenway, and this cycletrack, it is starting to feel like there is an actual network of sorts taking shape.
        It may be a small residential neighborhood but Magnuson is flanked on the south and east sides by multi-family apartments and condos with a fair amount of elderly residents, student housing for UW, and low-income/single parent family housing within the park. The lack of support for these groups who would really benefit from an alternative to car ownership (be it transit, cycles, or multi-use paths and sidewalks) is a real missed opportunity.
        Most of the recreation and event programming at the park has been distinctly car-oriented resulting in an almost constant flow of traffic in and out of (and more importantly around) the park.
        Any improvements that support alternatives to car-oriented mobility for this corner of NE Seattle get all of my support and encouragement.
        This cycletrack is a small first step that helps start the momentum that will get us to some major tracks like 2nd AV sooner rather than later.

  5. Al Dimond says:

    “We win again! This is good! But what is best in life?”

    Daley: “The White Sox! Northerly Island Park! Elections in your hand, the city council out of your hair!”

    “WRONG! Rahm! What is best in life?”

    Rahm: “To crush Seattle and Portland, to see their jobs driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their cyclists.”

    “That is good!”

    • Al Dimond says:

      (FWIW, Northerly Island Park is way better than some silly airport that served the very few and would have eventually been shut down by the Feds anyway. What went down was a pretty brazen power play but the results were nice. If you could bulldoze giant Xes in water I’d be glad if the mayor of Seattle pulled the same stunt on the seaplane landing areas on Lake Union…)

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Ha! Yeah, I’m not saying Meig’s Field should be a private airport instead of a park. But it’s a good example of how different a Chicago mayor’s power is from a Seattle mayor’s. McGinn can’t even turn a single parking spot into a mini park or hire a transportation advisor without a massive public debate.

      • Jeremy says:

        And the studies! Won’t someone please think of the studies!

        (I know! We could complete the B.G. missing link by building a bicycle overpass out of the paperwork generated by all the studies and lawsuits. Hmm, except I suppose that would require more permits, studies, and lawsuits…)

  6. Joel S says:

    Wow. So all it takes is some paint and curbs and you can start attracting a lot of jobs? You could do the whole city for less than the cost of 1 mile of new highway (just a guess)?

    Well it looks like some people get it if that’s true, or even close to true.

    Will Mayor McGinn respond? Will it turn WWF?

    • Jake says:

      You could implement the entire bike master plan for just the cost of the adjusted tolling projections for the AWV tunnel. Somehow when $200 million goes missing from a highway project, the funds magically materialize overnight. But a $200 million bike plan? We’re told we can only afford that if we spread it over the course of 30 years or so, and spend countless neighborhood volunteer hours writing BTG proposals to compete for the funding.

  7. Michael says:

    It is not about “enabling our mayors with the same sweeping powers”of cities like Chicago and New York, it is more about leadership. This city and region has had a lack of strong leadership for a long time. Nickels was the closest thing we had to a strong leader and Seattllites resented him for it. Our politicians and any visions we have of being the truly livable and “green” city so common in all of our rhetoric are constantly being held hostage by a vocal minority. Another thing is messaging…there are so many smart and effective ways to message the benefits of major policy shifts like taking away parking for protected bikeways or allowing taller buildings in neighborhoods, and our “leaders” and planners just fall flat on their faces when met with the least amount of resistance.

  8. Pingback: Dearborn Street’s celebrity status skyrockets | Grid Chicago

  9. another mother on a bike says:

    I think people who move from other places (like I did) felt Seattle’s hip, cool image as a draw before moving here, and bicycling was part of that. I’m impatient with Eli. I’ve been here 10 years now. I want this to get done already. Isn’t McGinn from Chicago? Doesn’t he ride a bike? I thought it was a slam dunk to have him as our mayor and that I’d finally see some serious changes for bicycling. Maybe he needs to shadow Rahm for a week to learn how to HTFU.

    Greenways are nice concepts (though I’ve yet to see one that comes close to Portland’s experience), but I want to bike downtown in a cycle track. That 65th Street project is also nice, but like Bruce notes, why the heck are they building a cycle track out in the ‘burbs? I wouldn’t turn it down, but aren’t there locations that would have bigger impacts? I hope Ints is right that the project is paving the way for bigger ones, but at the rate we’re going, my kids will be grown up and complaining here about the pace of change.

    Oh wait, no they won’t. They’ll be living in Chicago.

  10. Eva says:

    Um… what jobs? My partner (who is in tech) and I lived in Portland for the better part of 10 years and finally had to leave for my hometown (San Francisco) because the job market there is so dismal. Portland made me into a cycle commuter, and I miss my commute there every. single. day. But my job search? Not so much.

    I was really impressed by the bike infrastructure in Montreal, speaking of model cities. The few days I spent there in late October were bitterly cold, but I was still part of a heavy stream of cyclists. I found the lanes, paths, and tracks to be intuitive and well-maintained. Really great, even compared with PDX.

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  12. Chris says:

    Haha excellent picture. I was glad to see the bike lanes when I was in Chicago a couple days ago. Hopefully more cities will start doing the same thing soon.

    “I expect not only to take all of their bikers but I also want all the jobs that come with this.”
    Not sure bike lanes actually provide enough incentive for people to move…

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