Chicago is in a total cycling sweet spot right now: a perfect moderate-humidity 72 degrees, not so hot that you can’t bike in pants without showing up to the office caked in sweat. It looks to stay pretty warm and dry for the next few days, so if you’ve ever thought about bike commuting, now’s the perfect time to start. (Previously, I’ve written about how the Divvy bikeshare program—which set a usage record over Memorial Day weekend, with over 16,000 rides that Sunday—is probably more affordable than owning a bike. Bike owners will typically spend $100-$300 a year, a bit to a lot more than a Divvy membership.)
But there are obviously barriers, and it takes some getting used to. The city’s been trying to take the edge off that with bikeshare, buffered and protected bike lanes, and bike boxes (if you’ve seen those and been confused, here’s how they work). And a new Portland State study suggests, with small sample-size caveats, that it’s working—for cyclists, at least. Drivers and pedestrians have mixed to negative impressions of bike lanes, and they’re more negative in Chicago than in the other cities examined.
First, the authors surveyed residents, not just cyclists, slotting respondents into their interest in cycling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plurality in every city studied was interested in biking but hesitant:
So not that many stereotypical lycra-clad lane-bombers. In all cases, people on the fence outnumber everyone else, which is why cities are starting to make their streets friendlier for those folks.
As for the cyclists themselves, they’re also not necessarily devout bike-only commuters.
Another cliche is that cyclists don’t own cars and freeload off the hardworking, fee-paying car owners of the city. Across all the cities studied, a decent-sized sample of 1,022, 73 percent are paying towards infrastructure as car owners. (Of course, the ones that aren’t are paying a share, too.) Cyclists in the survey tend to be younger, highly educated, and relatively affluent, but in Chicago at least, the survey was done in relatively affluent areas.
And cyclists have taken to the newly improved bike lanes.
The increase on Milwaukee doesn’t look like much, but it’s long been a major cycling route—the city counted 3,121 on one September day at 640 N. Milwaukee in 2009, well before the route was improved.
The increase on Dearborn is more substantial, likely because, prior to its installation, there wasn’t a route through downtown that was much better than any other. Given a much better option, cyclists seem to be using it. Which is good for drivers, too: they know where to expect cyclists, and the rules are more clear for each mode of transportation.
The numbers reflect this: 86 percent of cyclists take Dearborn more frequently. Only 31 percent take Milwaukee more frequently, while 67 percent take it with about the same frequency.
Broadly speaking, the authors found that the increase in bike-lane use mostly comes from existing cyclists. In my experience, this has been true—I used to take Grand Avenue to work, which is nice and wide, but also one drivers go very fast on in a disconcertingly variable number of lanes. With the installation of the Kinzie bike lane, I often take low-traffic Hubbard to Kinzie, even though it’s a less direct route. And if I’m downtown, I always head to Dearborn, minimizing the inevitably unpredictable patterns on other streets.
It feels safer, which is also reflected in the survey, in interesting ways:
As intended, the moderate categories of cyclists find the streets safer by an overwhelming majority. A plurality find driving and walking safer, too.
The only perception that danger has increased? A plurality of people who would never, ever bike think driving has gotten more dangerous among those streets. It’s the one downside to the study, since the lanes are supposed to make things safer for drivers, too.
Another concern is pedestrian perception:
Again, small sample-size caveats apply, but Chicago is an outlier—the only one of the cities studied where pedestrian perception of the bike lanes is negative, and substantially so.
Chicago’s also an outlier in terms of motorist perception, far more likely than in other cities to have a negative reaction in almost every category, from cyclist behavior to traffic congestion. Over thirty percent of drivers said they were less likely to take Milwaukee or Dearborn because of the bike lanes, more than twice the result for any other street in any other city. It was the only city where a majority of drivers perceived an increase in traffic congestion, and the only city to perceive an increase in travel time.
Nationwide, improved bike lanes have been a success across the board. In Chicago, they’re popular with cyclists, but not as much with pedestrians and drivers. It’s impossible to say whether that’s implementation or culture, but it’s a finding worth keeping in mind as the city’s bike lanes keep rolling out, getting more elaborate as they go.