Our Chicago studio’s valiant bike riders give mixed reviews of cycling in the Windy City: “treacherous,” “scary,” “tranquil,” and “beautiful” are some words used to describe commutes. For the city at large, our bikeway network grew 135% over the last decade or so, and there was a 5.8% increase in bike commuting based on the most recent census data. Great! Despite this–and being the third most populous city in the nation–we still languish at #13 in terms of urbanites who bike to work. There is not much data to explain why the percentage of bike commuters isn’t higher in such a dense city–especially where the majority of the workforce is in the central downtown district.
Proximity + The Elements
Speculatively we can assume that proximity is a major factor: for employees who hail from the suburbs or far reaches of the city, the infrastructure to bike downtown just isn’t there. Within city limits, however, we have over 200 miles of on-street protected, buffered, and shared bike lanes, not including many more miles of off-street cycling paths. The Chicago Streets and Cycling Plan 2020 plans to increase our current offerings to a 645-mile network of biking facilities. It will also provide bicycle accommodation within half a mile of every Chicagoan. We can hope that this plan would make cycling, and cycling to work in particular, more accessible to those with longer commutes.
Also, the weather here can be pretty inhospitable. We see, on average, 120 days of precipitation per year, stifling humidity in the summer, and unpredictable wind and snow in the colder months. The number of Chicagoans who bike to work plummets as the long, wet winter approaches.
2016 is the third consecutive year in which Chicago has lost significant population, making us the only city in the US to see a decline last year (we lost 8,638 residents last year, nearly double the 4,934 that left the year before). Could that be keeping the number of bike commuters lower than in other cities? Or, conversely, does the mass exodus mean fewer cars on the roads, making routes safer for bikers thus encouraging 2-wheeled transportation to dominate? Until more research can be done, it’s hard to tell.
The majority of the population decline is occurring among communities of color, and there are a variety of factors at play here. As stated, more research is needed as these trends continue in order to properly assess the effect that this exodus is having on cycling vs. automobile traffic as it relates to commuting. Until then, we can hope that the Chicago Streets and Cycling Plan 2020 delivers on its promise to make active transportation more accessible to all who want to make biking a part of their day.
Bike Commuters: They’re Just Like Us!
A societal shift is in order if we, not only as Chicagoans but as global citizens, want to make active, environmentally-friendly commuting a more acceptable way of life. We endure more chronic health problems, higher rates of adult mortality due to inactivity, less family time, and more hours spent sitting in traffic than do those in other developed countries. To change, this we need to normalize biking as a regular mode of transportation by investing in infrastructure and social narrative that re-brands bicycle users as normal, everyday citizens “as opposed to ‘cyclists’, who are seen as a sub-culture.” Until we embrace bike ridership as a mode of transit equally as important as automobile use, cycling will only exist on the fringe–even to the point of being kept a counter-culture.
The 2017 Bike Commuter Challenge
In collectively clocking in 2,213 miles over the course of two weeks, the 31 riders in our Chicago office finished a respectable 14th place overall out of 306 teams in the 2017 Bike Commuter Challenge. Yet, while we slipped four spots from our tenth place finish last year, we did move up a spot in our division (in the For Profits with 100-499 Employees category), finishing a close second in our organizational tier. A special recognition goes out to this year’s Perkins+Will Road Warrior, James Giebelhausen, who put in 270 miles during the two week challenge!
The annual Bike Commuter Challenge, an initiative of the Active Transportation Alliance, is a natural fit for Perkins+Will. As a sustainability-focused organization whose many goals include improving cities and the lives of people who live there, many employees cycle to the office to ease traffic congestion, stay healthy, and enjoy the outdoors before heading in to work.
Our cyclists express great joy in being able to stay fit and mobile every day. Along with the continually improving bike infrastructure in Chicago, our centrally located office makes it easy to arrive via the north-south Lakefront Trail, the east-west 606, and many other bike-friendly thoroughfares throughout the city. Next year we hope more of our colleagues will cycle all or part of the way to work. The more participants we get to join the Commuter Challenge, the greater our chances at seizing first place! That, and we hope to continually promote active, eco-friendly lifestyles for a greener and healthier planet.