Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a promise of creating a new system of bike lanes in Chicago, saying he wanted to build 100 miles of lanes by the end of his first term.
By one measure, it sounds like his plan is succeeding. Chicago recently gained top honors for “Best Protected Bike Lane for 2013” by PeopleForBikes, a group dedicated to improving bicycling in the U.S.
In fact, Chicago has two of the top 10 lanes in the country—the 1.2 mile stretch on Dearborn Street in the Loop, and a mile or so on Milwaukee Avenue, otherwise known as “Hipster Highway” for the multitudes of young people commuting by bike along its route.
The organization specifically cited the inclusion of on-street marking, plastic barriers and traffic signals just for bicyclists on the Dearborn route as part of the reasons for its success. Routes in Indianapolis, Austin and New York, among other cities, also made the list.
The recent awards are part of a long list of accolades Chicago has received over the years as one of the nation’s most friendly cities for bikes and bicyclists. In 2012, Bicycling Magazine named Chicago the 5th most bike friendly city in the country.
Earlier this year, PeopleForBikes asked if Chicago was ready to take its place among the top three bike cities in the country, alongside Portland and New York City.
The city has also seen an explosion of interest in Divvy Bikes, its new bike sharing program.
Not everyone, of course, is as enamored with Chicago’s bike culture, or the amount the city spends on biking in general. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, for one, has long railed against what he sees as unfair treatment of bicyclists in the city who enjoy dedicated infrastructure and a sense of entitlement that goes unpunished.
As well, some observers question whether city bike programs such as Divvy are actually paying for themselves or costing taxpayers millions.
By some accounts, the city is spending upward of $150 million to make Chicago the bike friendly city it can be.
However, advocates say that the value in building a robust bike culture in a city like Chicago can’t be measured in bottom line results, and that cost savings happen outside of direct return-on-investment metrics.
For some, the economic and aesthetic benefits from biking, particularly in downtown business districts, are many. Everything from bicyclists having more discretionary income to less traffic congestion, less wear and tear on public infrastructure, increased tourist activity and better overall quality of life can be attributed to more and friendlier biking cities.
As well, studies indicate more people would be interested in biking if they felt safer on city streets, a reality Chicago is actively seeking to create.
In the end, there seems little doubt Chicago’s decision to embrace bicycling is part of a global movement, as cities from Copenhagen to Beijing to Bogata are all working to change their transportation infrastructure and policies to become more bike friendly.
If the Dearborn Street bike lane is any indication, it appears Chicago is keeping stride with that movement, pedal for pedal.