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Chicago's Plans To Become The Next Great American Biking City

It’s just one protected bike lane now, but the Chicago Department of Transportation has a grand vision of miles of bike lanes and a bike-sharing system to rival even the bike-friendliest cities.

Chicago's Plans To Become The Next Great American Biking City

Life just got a little easier for cyclists in Chicago. The city recently unveiled its first stretch of protected bike lane. And that’s just the start. With a revolutionary head of transportation (and, one supposes Rahm Emanuel’s iron will), Chicago is working on putting in place a biking program that should launch it into the upper echelons of bike-friendly cities.

Protected bike lanes—or separated bike lanes, as they’re sometimes called—are lanes that provide cyclists with some buffer from car traffic, usually in the form of planters or pylons or parking spaces. Because they provide a more substantial barrier than a strip of paint, protected bike lanes feel much safer. A handful of North American cities, including Vancouver, New York, and Long Beach, have been retrofitting their streets with these lanes to encourage cycling.

Chicago’s first separated bike lane, completed last month, is a half-mile-long stretch of Kinzie Street, from Milwaukee Avenue to Wells Street, connecting the city’s central "Loop" to existing bike lanes to the west. A second protected bike lane along Jackson Boulevard is under construction.

This is all part of Emanuel’s plan to make the city more bike-friendly. Emanuel is aiming for 100 miles of protected bike lanes in total. The city is also looking for a company to set up and operate a 3,000-bike bike-sharing system by 2012. Leading these efforts is Gabe Klein, the head of the Chicago Department of Transportation, former head of the Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation, and Zipcar alumnus.

Initial data from Chicago’s Kinzie Street protected bike lane suggest it’s doing its job. A Department of Transportation field study found that bike ridership was up 55% along the route, 86% of riders felt "safe" or "very safe" in the new lanes, and 49% of riders felt motorist behavior had improved post-construction.

There’s some evidence that these protected bike lanes can also improve urban cycling’s gender imbalance. An increase in women bikers is usually a good indication that a city is doing a good job making biking feel safe and easy. And protected bike lanes are, obviously, one of the best ways to do that. A (admittedly limited) study in New York found that women made up 32% of cyclists on streets with protected lanes, a higher percentage than on streets with painted bike lanes or no lanes at all.

With a large-scale bike-share system and 100 miles of protected lanes, the Windy City would have to surpass other famously bike-friendly cities like Portland and Minneapolis, at least as far as infrastructure is concerned. Is Chicago America’s next cycling Mecca?