Bike lanes

Bike lanes (José M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune / August 21, 2012)

After a crash totaled Erica Johnson’s car, she decided owning a car in Chicago was no longer worth the hassle.

Johnson, 26, of Norwood Park, used to drive to her job, but now she bikes 4 miles to work in Mayfair or takes a CTA bus when the weather is bad, she said. She’s saving at least $250 a month on car expenses, she estimates.

“Instead of continuing to go through the hassle of paying for insurance and finding parking, I decided I would just go without it,” she said. “I’ve loved it ever since.”

Chicago is making it easier for commuters like Johnson to make that choice.

Last year, the Chicago Department of Transportation announced it would prioritize pedestrians, public transit and cyclists above motorists when designing its infrastructure. Since then, the city has added miles of new protected bike lanes, has pushed to dedicate entire road lanes for bus rapid transit and is now hosting a slew of events during Chicago Bike Week, which began Friday, to encourage more people to bike commute.

Earlier this year the Active Transportation Alliance, one of the city’s most influential transportation advocacy organizations, asked the city to consider even more projects that would eat into road space for cars. Although the city still hasn’t formally responded, Amanda Woodall, director of planning at the ATA, said the changes align with CDOT’s values.

“The concept behind car-free streets is really getting into the idea that we don’t need our communities to be dominated by automobiles in order to be successful,” she said. “This is a way to engage public space for economic activity, social activity and enjoyment by the community in general.”

Woodall cited a plaza in Lincoln Square, on Lincoln Avenue between Western Avenue and Leland Street, that has been blocked off to cars, as a prime example.

“It’s one of the most vibrant places that you will ever visit, always filled with families, people walking around, some of them out shopping, and some of them are there as a way to be social and participate in their community.”

But critics of infrastructure proposals that could eat into road space for cars worry the streets will become less safe and more congested, not better.

Lauren Neal, 29, of Lincoln Park, rides the CTA to her job in the Loop, but uses her car to visit her family in Winnetka and tote her golden retriever around town—a convenience she has no plans of giving up, she said. But she often worries about cyclists behaving aggressively when she crosses their paths.

“I’ve had people slam their hand on my car,” Neal said. “Even as a pedestrian, I’ve almost bumped into a biker because they haven’t stopped at a stop.”

Last month, a cyclist punched her side mirror as he passed her car, which was momentarily waiting in a bicycle lane on Clybourn Avenue, she said. “I don’t know why that is anything he thought was appropriate.”

The city’s project to transform its streets will hinge on residents with all kinds of transportation habits sharing the road, particularly as more people decide to leave their cars at home.

Duncan Lawson, 24, of Lakeview, ditched his car last July when he got a job downtown and no longer needed to commute to Deerfield. The unexpected costs of owning a car in Chicago, like city stickers and parking tickets, couldn’t justify the ease of getting around town, he said.

“You kind of have to look at the whole picture,” he said. “The tradeoff is you don’t have to worry about parking your car illegally and getting a ticket, or fighting for a parking spot, or the stress of having to drive in traffic every day.”

The real test of his first year living car-free in Chicago, he said, came during last winter’s harsh temperatures, when he had to wait on the Red Line platform at Belmont for a delayed train.

“Those few days were not very fun, but that comes with the territory when you’re relying on public transportation to get around,” he said.

Public transit advocates say that while Chicago is no Copenhagen, a city known for its pedestrian friendly layout and low traffic fatality rates, it is poised to reduce car use even further with the expansion of Divvy, the city’s year-old bikeshare program, and the advent of rideshare companies like Uber X and Lyft.

Although Norwood Park’s Johnson appreciates the alternative transportation options available to her, she believes the city still has a long way to connect its neighborhoods for people without cars, particularly when it comes to cyclists, she said.

“There aren’t a lot of Divvy stations up by where I live, so that’s super inconvenient,” she said. “I think we are moving toward being more bike friendly, but we’re still not there. People still don’t know the laws and how to share the road.”