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How come I have to pay $40 for Bike the Drive?
May 28, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I was looking at a Chicago calendar of events and got interested in Bike the Drive, but upon going to their website, I discovered it's at least $40 to register. I want to get the straight dope on if I actually have to pay to get into events that are happening on public thoroughfares that I as a home owner and city dweller already pay taxes on. Now I know many street fairs support good charitable causes, but $40 to bike on LSD! Talk about a sharp stick in the eye.   

— Wookie, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

Yeah, it's pretty outrageous, all right. You know what you should do?  Take your bike out on Lake Shore Drive right now. Sure, there'll be about ten thousand cars out there, so you'll probably get run over, screamed at, or arrested. But you'll save the 40 bucks.

Actually, you've probably already saved the 40 bucks, since, not being overly concerned about deadlines, I turned this column in a week late, and left to your own devices you undoubtedly discovered Bike the Drive's dirty little secret: if you sneak into the peloton without an official registration number, nobody chases you off. Fine by me, because while you're basking in the glory of this scam, you freeloader, we can discuss what the 40 bucks was for:

  • It paid the cost of running the event, Nutellabrain. You think all those cops, bananas, and port-a-potties showed up for free?

  • Bike the Drive is the major annual fundraiser for what was formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation and is now the Active Transportation Alliance, a well-intended but in my opinion unfortunate change in nomenclature that conveys all the excitement of the American Pinochle Guild. Be that as it may, in 2008 ATA cleared $425,000 on BTD.

  • You, or rather anybody who isn't a pathetic loser, want these guys to have some money, because they're helping to make the world a materially better place. 

Allow me to expand on that last point. Chicago has all sorts of civic organizations of varying degrees of effectiveness. The ATA is in a class by itself in that respect. You or I might aspire to influence city programs; the ATA more or less is the city's bike program, since much of the work is done by ATA staff hired on a contract basis by the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is responsible for all the bike trail signs, lane striping, and bike racks that have shown up over the years. We thus can't usefully distinguish what the ATA is doing to promote biking from what the city is doing.  Let's just say the bike people, broadly understood, have been busy. Some recent or forthcoming developments:

Better bike racks at CTA stations. Many el stations have bike racks out front; now the city is starting to install high-capacity bike racks where traffic warrants and space permits. So far four stations have been so equipped — Damen and Jefferson Park on the Blue Line, Sox-35th on the Red Line, and Midway on the Orange Line (shown above). At the Damen and Sox-35th stations, the racks are inside the station past the turnstiles — you can either lift your bike over the barrier after you pay or go through the swing gate. 

Events. Generally speaking, the idea here is to convince you that (1) biking is fun; (2) biking is practical; and (3) biking is more enjoyable if done in such a way that you don't get hit by a car, which in the city is no sure thing. Under heading #1 we have Bike the Drive, which requires no further explication. On the biking-is-practical front, we have the Bike Commuter Challenge, where companies compete to see which can have the highest percentage of its employees pedal in during Bike to Work Week, June 13-19. I'm told the teams to beat are from the lakefront museums — no surprise, since they have the primo bike path in town running past their front doors. More impressive would be a strong showing from, say, Finkl Steel, or for that matter any company in the Loop due to the aforementioned risk of getting flattened by a bus. Pending adjustments for degree of difficulty, however, we must repose our hopes in the bike safety initiatives in category #3, such as CDOT's Share the Road campaign, in which the Chicago police bike patrol and the city's Bike Ambassadors stake out high-traffic locations to persuade people not to open car doors in the path of oncoming cyclists and the like.

More off-street bike trails. The best way to avoid abrupt encounters with cars (which isn't to say you won't encounter other moving objects) is off-street bike trails — not easy to manage in the city, and not likely to happen soon, but cool if and when they do. The long-term goal is a network of connected trails, to which end the city has been developing a bike trails plan. A few things likely to be on it:

  • The Bloomingdale Trail, subject of a Reader feature a while back, would extend for three miles on an abandoned railroad viaduct parallel to North Avenue. Property for several parks and trail access points along the route has already been acquired.

  • The North Branch Trail would follow the Chicago River through as much of the north side as can be finagled, connecting to the existing North Shore Channel trail near Lawrence Avenue. Assembling the right-of-way won't be easy. While much of the property along the river north of Lawrence is owned by the park district or the forest preserve district, most riverside property south of Lawrence consists of small privately-owned parcels. Nonetheless, sizable chunks between Lawrence and the Loop are in various stages of redevelopment, and if people can continue to have hopes for the Cubs despite all contrary evidence, I don't see what's so farfetched about this.

  • Already complete are the Valley Line Trail, which runs along an old rail right-of-way between Devon and Bryn Mawr in Sauganash, and the 6.5-mile Major Taylor Trail, another rails-to-trails conversion on the south side (see bike trail map).

Better on-street trails. One small but useful improvement is a five-foot-wide lane of solid metal plating on some bridges (Cortland and Wells so far, with more planned), so your bike's wheels don't get caught in the open grid surface. On the drawing boards are "bike boulevards," in which designated routes would be equipped with cul-de-sacs and other traffic-calming devices intended to slow down cars but not bikes. That and a lot of other ideas are described in the city's Bike 2015 Plan, an ambitious document — if half the stuff in it gets accomplished I'll be impressed. Much of the thinking behind all this came from ATA. So let's lose the sense of entitlement, Wookie. You're getting good value for the forty bucks.

— Cecil Adams
Top photo by Pat O'Neil

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