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.”
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.”
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):