Changes in traffic culture

When I ride a bicycle or walk in a motor-oriented context, I sometimes feel very frustrated by the unequal power relations demonstrated in street level traffic culture. In such contexts, pedestrians or people cycling are rarely ‘seen’ by those behind private cars.

I then remember what a respondent said to me about changes in Chicago. He had been commuting by bicycle and was also involved in grassroots mobilisation. In 2015 he said:

When we started out, people often talked about fearing for their safety. People were not used to us being around. You would be yelled at. There would be people like, what the hell are you doing? So in 12 years I have seen amazing turning around in public opinion. In terms of being yelled, feeling terribly scared on the streets. And now I am in a pack of cyclists. And I see motorists acknowledging you have that right of way. As I see it we are all taking turns. I am finding it a little easier to get your place in line and be acknowledged at an intersection on a bike than it used to be.

That gives me hope then about the possibilities for change – even though such changes appear to take long to realize:

trends in bicycle mode share Chicago

Data Sources

Active Trans. 2018. “Regional Mode Share Report.” Chicago, Ill., United States: Active Transportation Alliance. www. activetrans.org.

Berkow, Matt, and Nick Falbo. 2014. “Chicago Bike Monitoring 2014: Technical Report.” http://www.activetrans.org/.

League of American Bicyclists. 2014. “Where We Ride: Analysis of Bicycle Commuting in American Citie.” http://www.bikeleague.org/sites/default/files/ACS_report_2014_forweb_edit.pdf.

Vance, Steven. 2015. “New Census Data Says Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Is at an All-Time High | Streetsblog Chicago.” StreetsBlog Chicago (blog). September 25, 2015. http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/09/25/new-census-data-shows-chicago-bike-commuting-might-be-up/.

Chicago’s evolving bicycle culture

In December of 2016, I visited Chicago on a short holiday.

Chicago was one of my secondary study sites for my recently completed PhD into changes into the symbolic status of everyday cycling. I took a historical view examining changes over time. Given this perspective I was curious to observe street level changes since my last study visit in April 2015.

I was pleasantly surprised that even in subzero weather, there were people bicycling.

There has also been a noticeable evolution in the kinds of bicycles on the streets. I observed more bicycles better suited to everyday cycling such as the one below which allows comfortable upright posture, easy on and off maneuver given step through frame, and hassle light long term maintenance given integrated brakes and gears. Of course notice the pannier racks in the back for luggage.

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Bicycles and bicycling also appears to be more integrated and thus normalised into social life including as a commodity item to sell other goods. I saw bicycles in mainstream restaurants, bars, retail stores, advertisements in trains, and other places.

This of course is not to suggest that utility cycling in Chicago is now fantastic. As the image below of a white bike shows, which records a bicycling fatality in public memory, bicycling can be dangerous in Chicago.

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The infrastructure continues to evolve with city council embracing protected bicycle lanes. This should improve safety and attract more users.

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The bicycle share programme which is a personal favourite – Divvy – is also doing well. I used their bicycles on a few occasions with great pleasure. Their advertisements are fantastic I think. “Muscle mass transit” – how apt.

The mode share of bicycling in Chicago does seem set to continue growing. It offers an optimistic story of shifting towards sustainable transportation from a very low base.

Bicycle mode share trends in Chicago. Assembled from (Berkow & Falbo 2014, p.3; Vance 2015)

bicyclemodesharetrendssmoothchicago

References

Berkow, M. & Falbo, N., 2014. Chicago Bike Monitoring 2014: Technical Report, Available at: http://www.activetrans.org/.

Vance, S., 2015. New Census Data Says Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Is at an All-Time High | Streetsblog Chicago. StreetsBlog Chicago. Available at: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/09/25/new-census-data-shows-chicago-bike-commuting-might-be-up/ [Accessed August 29, 2016].