Wagons and Wheelmen
For me, biking in Chicago has always been an experience of mixed pleasures. There’s the lakefront trail, the fairly extensive network of bike lanes, and the flat terrain that almost justifies the pretension of riding a fixed gear. The drivers are, for the most part, decent, mixing Midwestern calm with keen big-city awareness.
But then there’s the dreadful winter, the open-grate bridges, the fatal potholes that yawn wider every spring, and the tiny but terrifying minority of asshole drivers.
I picked up the bike commuting bug in Beijing, where I lived for about nine months while working for a local magazine. The pollution was noxious, and the crush of minimally regulated traffic resulted in periodic pools of blood dotting the pavement along my commute. On the street where I lived, the traffic would tip every evening into an unsanctioned and unstoppable contraflow, with both lanes coursing north as if the city center were in the midst of an unprecedented evacuation.
So as a cyclist, moving to Chicago was like returning from the Battle of the Somme to a rousing game of freeze tag. I downplayed the rants of my fellow cyclists as the whiny indulgences of the privileged. If only they knew, I’d think and shake my head.
But I had to admit that even Chicago offered some harrowing experiences for cyclists. My commute into River North took me down a stretch of road that, in a half-mile, packed in ambiguous stretches of unmarked double lanes, single-lane choke points, an open-grate bridge, and a blind turn-in from Merchandise Mart. Drivers liked to use the wider stretches to barrel around other cars, merging at crazy angles under the Metra tracks and on the bridge over the North Branch. That open-grate bridge, made infamous by Dave Matthews in 2004 when one of his tour buses dumped 800 pounds of sewage through it onto the decks of a tour boat below, was also exceptionally slippery for bike tires. This was Kinzie Street, and from a biker’s perspective, it was Chicago’s little slice of Beijing.
So this past June, it was exciting to bike past city workers marking out a new separated bike lane down this deadly stretch of Kinzie. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had taken office less than a month earlier, was wasting no time on a campaign promise to build 100 miles of separated lanes in four years. Compared to the recent bike-lane furor in cities like New York, the plan has attracted notably little controversy. In the past several years, bike/car relations in Chicago have, if not quite warmed, at least descended from the fiery heights of mutual hatred, to the point where opposition to the separated lane plan seems quaint and goes mostly ignored. Bikes are finally being considered a legitimate piece of the infrastructure-planning puzzle in Chicago, which, as it turns out, is not such a new idea.
In 1897, Carter H. Harrison, Jr., won a fractious five-way mayoral campaign on a pro-bike platform. The son of another five-term Chicago mayor (dynastic politics run deep in the city), Harrison distributed campaign pins that depict the avid competitive cyclist biking boldly onward, with the slogan NOT THE CHAMPION CYCLIST, BUT THE CYCLIST’S CHAMPION. The public terrors of the day weren’t reckless drivers but unregulated private streetcar companies, which ran street-grade rails willy nilly across the city’s core. An early film of Thomas Edison’s, shot in the Loop a few months after Harrison’s election, shows one of these streetcars slicing through a sea of people and horses, with the crowd closing instantly over the tracks behind it. Widespread revilement of these public menaces garnered Harrison four more terms. “The streets of Chicago belong to the people,” ran his campaign rallying cry.
A lot of the people that Harrison was referring to were bikers, or “wheelmen.” By the 1890s, the unwieldy, aristocratic highwheel bicycle had given way to cheaper, lighter frames that were accessible to the middle class. Over 10,000 Chicago wheelmen belonged to 54 clubs. In an undated picture from the time, the members of the Lake View Cycling Club strike a strangely familiar pose—serious guys with funny facial hair and bike caps, posing on porch steps with wry-looking women and a bullmastiff, their single-speeds with dropped handlebars piled against the front railing.
These proto-fixie wheelmen had clout. They were organized and middle-to-upper class, and they had just gotten one of their own elected to the mayor’s office. Ironically, they immediately set about using that clout to literally pave the way for the mass-produced automobiles that were about a decade over the horizon. The wheelmen lobbied for better street surfaces, clearer rights-of-way, and what ultimately became the state highway system. They converted a transportation system designed for horses, which fare better on softer dirt roads, into a hardtop network ideally suited for the cars that would soon be running them off the roads.
An 1898 bike map of Chicago shows this robust network of “good cycling roads” criss-crossing the Loop and stretching far out into the suburbs. The crown jewel of this cycling network was the city’s boulevard system, which banned the heavy horse-drawn wagons and streetcars that were ever at odds with cyclists. It was a logical, separated system: paved boulevards for cyclists, dirt roads for heavy wagons, and, eventually, elevated tracks for the streetcars.
The wheelmen’s heyday was short-lived. In 1903, a Chicago dentist became the first purchaser of the Model A, and five years later, the Model T came roaring off Ford’s production line. The good cycling roads, it turned out, were excellent car roads too. But far from displaying a sense of gratitude and camaraderie towards the cyclists who had been early boosters for the paved road system, drivers began to develop the notion that bikes were sissy toys that didn’t belong in the rights-of-way of their big, burly motor vehicles.
I’ve seen this arrogant anti-bike attitude diminish even in the few years since I moved here—there are simply more bikes on the road, and drivers have had to get used to them. But pockets of resistance persist.
A few months ago, a bike advocate friend of mine was stopped at a light in the marked bike lane on Halsted when he heard someone honking behind him. When the light turned green, he says, a driver shot out around traffic and attempted to hit him. “What are you doing in the road on those fucking bikes?” the driver supposedly screamed after hopping out of his van. Recently, my friend finally got a call from the detective on the case—the suspected driver, whose plates had been taken down by witnesses, had been told that he had 48 hours to turn himself in. If he didn’t show, the detective said, he’d get a visit from the “fugitive apprehension unit.”
But incidents like these are the rare, if scary, exception. I won’t borrow the favored tactic of the anti-bike crowd and claim that all drivers are murderous psychopaths because one tried to kill my friend—though note that the corollary argument would be that all cyclists are . . . rude? inconvenient?
Mark Konkol, whose solid local reporting for the Sun-Times won him a Pulitzer earlier this year, made just such an argument in an op-ed attacking the Kinzie separated lane and everything it represents. After a biker of somehow “swerved” in front of him through the line of parked cars separating bikes from traffic, Konkol writes that he resisted the urge to “give in to road rage and run him down with my station wagon,” wisely sparing himself a visit from the CPD’s fugitive apprehension unit.
Though it’s masked as plain old bike hatred, which feels increasingly old-fashioned and quaint in a city with a mayor who has committed to building 99.5 more miles of protected bike lanes in the next four years, Konkol’s op-ed was really the lament of a motorist who sees the easy days of his road domination drawing to a close. Like the heavy horse-drawn wagons and streetcars of the 19th century, cars need to be managed within an infrastructure plan that offers safe, viable options for bikes too. And, if history is any guide, that’s going to take changes to the infrastructure itself, and the political will to make them.
In 1897, the first year of Carter H. Harrison’s term, two aldermen who were cozy with the streetcar moguls proposed running tracks down the center of Jackson Street. The cycling clubs organized a massive protest campaign, flooding the streets with yellow ribbons that read “Jackson Street Must Be Boulevarded.” As a boulevard, Jackson would be off-limits to streetcars, heavy trucks, and wagons—an entire road separated for the use of bicycles and light carriages. The cyclists carried the day, and Jackson Street became Jackson Boulevard.
Today, construction is under way to install Chicago’s next separated bike lane on Jackson Boulevard. Most drivers will adapt to it quickly, and even be grateful that they don’t have to worry as much about accidentally hitting a biker. A few might fume behind their windshields as they gaze at the strip of pavement now tantalizingly beyond the reach of their car, but they forget: the bikes were the first to share the road.
And, long after it becomes a ridiculous anachronism to combust fossil fuel for short trips in the city, bikes will still be around. Maybe a right of way separated by more than a strip of paint and a prayer isn’t such a radical idea after all.