Updated: November 3, 2011 10:42AM
When the Mayor Rahm Emanuel Bike Path — formerly known as Kinzie Street — was billed as a “pilot” program, I figured that meant a trial run.
Certainly there would be traffic counts, on-the-street interviews and maybe even a survey of neighbors, workers and guys who drive BWMs to the mayor’s workout spot, the East Bank Club.
Once that data were collected, the city would decide whether to configure other streets with wide bike lanes, a barrier of flexible plastic posts, parking spots and, finally, a narrow lane for automobiles, all over town.
So, I asked City Hall for their bike path data. Turned out, there wasn’t much.
Crews did two traffic counts of bicycle and vehicular traffic between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. One count was taken on an overcast Tuesday in May with temperatures in the 60s before the path was installed. The other count was taken on a partly cloudy Wednesday in July when temperatures hit 82 by 8 a.m.
The results: Bicycle traffic increased 60 percent from May to July. And total traffic heading east on Kinzie from Milwaukee was 49 percent bikes and 51 percent drivers, according to the data.
City Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein was giddy to talk about the paths. “Those numbers are the highest I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And the feedback has been pretty unbelievable . . . Now, we’re at an even mode split.”
He’s right, if we forget that several times a day you will not see a bicycle on the Mayor Emanuel Bike Path when the half-mile stretch is inexplicably crowded with cars on a skinny street that no longer has room for the Gaztro-Wagon, much to my foodie co-workers’ dismay.
While we’re at it, let’s also forget that all the city data really say is that for two hours on a warm summer morning there were 60 percent more bicyclists on the road than on an overcast spring day. Let’s also forget that the correct response to that is, “Well, duh.”
The half-mile Kinzie path cost about $140,000. If that’s the model for the next 99.5 miles of protected bike lanes, it could cost us — Chicago taxpayers — about $28 million. It’s not that much cash when you consider the enormous size of the city budget. But how many street cops do you think a city struggling to stop shootings in certain parts of town could hire for $28 million? I’m no budget expert, but probably at least a couple.
So why the big push for ugly, congestion-causing bike lanes?
During a telephone chat, it was my goal to play devil’s advocate with Klein, who is what transportation reporters call a “policy wonk.”
It is a policy wonk’s job to advocate for spending taxpayer cash on projects whether we want them or not. This is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, we need policy wonks. Chicago probably wouldn’t have L trains if it had not been for someone’s great, great grandfather — a City Hall policy wonk by trade.
Here are some highlights of our chat:
† The debate over the need for protected bike lanes is so two years ago. “Everyone” agrees we need them now. (No one asked me.)
† There are more college students in town during May than July and bicycle ridership on Kinzie still went up. (Don’t know what that means? Me neither.)
† Bike paths will be plowed in the winter. (But will side streets get plowed?)
† “We have a safety problem in the city. An 8-year-old child should be able to walk around the city safely and that is not the case,” Klein said, referring to the death of a boy struck by a car on 63rd Street. (Klein, who moved here from Washington, D.C., said he is not sure he has been on 63rd Street or if bike lanes would make it safer.)
Finally, though, Klein told me the real truth. Mayor Emanuel made a campaign pledge to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes.
“He’s putting them in,” Klein said. “The mayor says we’re doing it.”
So there you have it — an answer Chicagoans can understand.
One we’ve become very familiar with over the years.