By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - New Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to make Chicago the most bike-friendly place in the United States, building on a long pedigree of bike advocacy in the city that dates to the 19th century.
In 1897, mayoral candidate Carter H. Harrison II successfully campaigned as "the cyclists' champion." Bike-riding mayor Richard M. Daley expanded on-street marked bike lanes to 115 miles in his 22 years in office.
Emanuel plans to outdo both Daley and other bike-friendly U.S. cities.
In four years, he wants to create 100 miles of protected bike paths -- not just painted lines on the street but paths separated from car traffic by posts or other dividers. By next summer, he wants the city's first large-scale bike-sharing program, starting with 3,000 bikes.
"We're making everyone safer at a very low cost and getting people out of their cars on top of it -- that's what you call a no-brainer," said transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, who rides his bike to work.
Klein hopes the percentage of trips taken by bike will rise from under 2 percent to 5 percent -- it's already 22 percent at rush hour on Milwaukee Avenue, which runs through the hipster neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Logan Square.
But both Klein and bike advocates said the city will have to proceed with care and lots of outreach to avoid the kind of pedestrian and driver backlash seen in New York, where some residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood sued to stop a bike path expansion.
Protected paths, as well as Emanuel's plans for a new vertical park for cyclists and pedestrians on an old railroad bed, may be a tougher sell in a down economy.
"Bike lanes are a wonderful idea and people certainly enjoy them, but right now what people need are jobs and ways to make their lives easier," said New York attorney Jim Walden, who represents plaintiffs in a suit against the Park Slope bike path, which was dismissed by a state judge. "For most big cities, bikes are not a practical way for people to move,"
Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Oregon and a former head of the Chicago bike advocacy group, said that most of the backlash he sees comes in struggling neighborhoods.
"It's a symbol of gentrification," Sadowsky said. "It's not why are you putting a bike lane in, but why are you spending money on bike lanes when I don't have a job?"
Klein said the costs were low considering the returns for public health and safety. The full 100 miles of bike paths could come in at around $28 million, with a half mile already done and getting heavy use. The city has applied for federal clean air funding, and is combining bike path construction with other projects, like resurfacing.
Klein said the work was needed to keep Chicago competitive with cities like Portland, which has a nearly 8 percent bike rate, and New York, which has grown bike paths exponentially under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Klein sees a shift in the way people live and commute. After World War Two, workers left cities for the suburbs and shifted from streetcars and walking to cars.
But in the last 15 years, young people and empty nesters have moved back into cities and are less invested in car ownership, especially considering today's higher gas prices, Klein said.
But he said bikes, cars and pedestrians needed to learn to safely co-exist, traffic laws had to be enforced, and roads could be engineered to be safer for all users.
"You're going to see a shift in the way the city feels and the way it feels to walk and bike and drive," Klein said.
Jim Freeman, a bike-riding attorney in Chicago who represents pedestrians and cyclists in personal injury cases, sees enforcement as the biggest factor that will make biking safe, to keep cyclists from ignoring traffic laws while keeping cars out of bike lanes.
To alleviate the tension between bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers in Chicago, the Chicago Police Department needs to get aggressive with traffic enforcement, Freeman said. He'd like to see in Chicago what he has seen in Milwaukee -- cyclists getting pulled over for running a red light.
Adolfo Hernandez, director of outreach and advocacy for Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance, said he believed experience with protected bike paths and other bike-friendly street designs would win people over as the streets become safer and for everyone.
Hernandez visited Seville, Spain, which added 120 kilometers of protected bike lanes and saw a jump in bike commuting from 1 percent to 7 percent. He saw a different kind of rider -- not just young adults, but children and seniors dressed in street clothes instead of bike gear, and slower riding. He thinks this will happen in Chicago, too.
"If you build it, that's what people will use," Hernandez said. "If you build more bicycle infrastructure and a safer walking environment, you'll get more people walking and biking."
(Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski, Editing by Cynthia Johnston)