Rebecca Resman’s biking education group had long focused on teaching kids to safely ride bikes, hosting parent forums, family group rides and bike-to-school days.
But then three children were killed in car crashes last June, including 2-year-old Raphael “Rafi” Cardenas atop a mini-scooter in Lincoln Square and 11-year-old Ja’Lon James biking to the store to get milk in Lawndale. The family of 3-year-old Lily Grace Shambrook, who was riding on the back of her mother’s bike in Uptown when she was killed in a semi-truck crash, plans to file a lawsuit Tuesday against the companies and drivers involved with her death, Clifford Law Offices said.
Chicago Family Biking had to more aggressively advocate for safe biking, founder Resman decided.
“If you’re not doing everything you can to prevent that, you got to reevaluate,” she said.
The group intensified its focus on Chicago’s bike policies and infrastructure. Resman helped organize a coalition of bike and mobility advocacy groups, “Safe Streets for All. Transit that Works,” that launched in December with plans to make biking and transit center stage in the city’s upcoming elections.
It’s a shift happening across the city: pro-bike activists becoming more involved in Chicago politics. They range from gritty demonstrators in newly formed groups to professionals in established nonprofits, but they share a vision of radically re-imagined streets they hope will make biking safer and easier.
New bike infrastructure projects are set to roll out faster than ever across Chicago and political wins for cyclist groups are mounting, including City Council’s unanimous approval in December of 40th Ward Ald. Andre Vasquez’s ordinance to more regularly and severely penalize drivers for parking in bike lanes with two added city departments now able to issue tickets with fines raised to $250.
“We have actual wins coming down the pipe, but just knowing that more politicians and representatives are thinking about this work and understanding the importance of it, that is the biggest win,” Resman said.
The Safe Streets for All coalition plans to host a mayoral candidate forum and publicize politicians’ bike policy stances. Other organizations inside and outside the coalition focus on building political momentum online or getting people to ride together en masse. Some groups try more combative tactics, airing their frustration with car-dominated streets in driver-stalling protests.
“These groups have really done a tremendous job of organizing and forcing elected officials and people in positions of power to listen to them,” mayoral candidate and state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner said.
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Buckner, who often commutes by bike and has ridden with activists, said he supports a “bike grid,” a core demand for many activists that would remold Chicago roads to create a broad network of bike-prioritized streets with lowered speed limits and bike protection.
Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st, has also seen an uptick in bike-focused activism in his cyclist-filled Logan Square ward.
“I think it is reaching a fever pitch now because Chicago’s cyclists, scooter riders are really beyond tired of seeing people they love get injured, get killed just going about their daily transportation,” he said.
La Spata helped the Chicago Department of Transportation add protected bike lanes to roads in his ward and made new bike infrastructure projects an option residents can vote for through participatory budgeting.
Other politicians, including Ald. Matt Martin, 47th, and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who is running for mayor, have joined the call by activists for major bike infrastructure projects to be made across the city.
On one cold December night, the CTA bus didn’t have a chance of passing the nearly 20 bikers stretched across the entire southbound lane of California Avenue. Neither did the cars, which filed into a line and drove, for a frustrating change, well below the speed limit.
And despite the drivers’ honks, the bikers intentionally taking up the road in the “bike bus” organized by activist group Chicago, Bike Grid Now! did not budge: The road was theirs, and they savored it.
Mike Perrino, 27, even played Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” aloud as he pedaled his black Schwinn. The protest clogging the road wasn’t just meant to keep bikers safer: It also aimed to get the drivers’ attention, he said.
“They don’t care about our lives. But they do care when traffic is disrupted,” he said as he rode. “We have to give them a new problem to fix.”
His frustration stems in part from the troubling frequency with which automobile drivers hit bike riders. CDOT data shows that cyclists reported more than 1,700 crashes in 2022, many caused by cars and leading to hospitalization. Ten bike riders were killed in crashes last year, CDOT said.
The Bike Grid Now group formed in June and hosts regular group rides, outreach campaigns and slow moving, traffic building “bike jams,” organizer Rony Islam said. The group wants the city to build a new bike lane network, which would add bike infrastructure to 450 miles, or around 10%, of Chicago’s roads on mostly residential streets spaced throughout the city, he said. The grid would work into the already grid-style streets and benefit drivers by creating smoother, safer traffic, Islam added.
“It makes the streets safer for everybody. And that means people who are pedestrians, who are walking, in wheelchairs, no matter how you get around” he said.
Since 2020, the city has annually added nearly 40 miles of bikeway investments, including protected and unprotected bike lanes, trails and greenways. Funding for the investments ramped up for 2022 and 2023, and the city also pledged in June to upgrade bike lanes currently protected by plastic delineators with new concrete barriers, CDOT said.
But the development isn’t enough, Islam said. The construction is scattered and not well connected because some aldermen block bike infrastructure development in their wards, he added
“Chicago is like a drop in the bucket. We’re getting some bike lanes, but it’s really not adequate,” Islam said.
Bike Grid Now is just one of the new bike advocacy organizations emerging as Chicago’s biking population grows. The number of bike riders in the city has jumped 34% in the last decade before a nationwide pandemic biking boom, CDOT said. Divvy bike and scooter ridership also exploded in recent years, with more than 7 million rides taken in 2022, the department added.
In 2020, activist Courtney Cobbs co-founded Better Streets Chicago, a nonprofit that works mostly online to advocate for better walking, biking and transit infrastructure.
The Rogers Park resident, who commutes with an electronic bike and talks of near misses with aggressive drivers, views bike activism as “self preservation.”
“I feel like every day you’re essentially taking your life in your hands,” said Cobbs, who also writes for Streetsblog Chicago, a news site focused on bikes and transit.
More residential bike lanes would make Chicago healthier, quieter, less congested and more accessible, Cobb said. But because building it would require the city to remove some parking and repurpose certain streets away from car use, many City Council members don’t commit.
“It’s a pet project,” Cobbs said. “Improvements will be made only when it’s convenient.”
Pro-bike changes to Chicago streets strongly progressed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel before becoming a bigger priority under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, said Jim Merrell, advocacy director for Active Transportation Alliance, a transit, walking and biking advocacy group founded in 1985. Many of the city’s grassroots bike advocacy organizations didn’t exist five years ago, he added.
“It’s a sign of a healthy, robust movement, and exactly the kind of thing we need to build political will,” Merrell said.
For decades, hundreds have regularly turned out to the Critical Mass group rides that start at 6 p.m. in Daley Plaza on the last Friday of each month. Chicago Family Biking offers similar “Kidical Masses,” where families with younger children can ride in groups around their neighborhoods. The organization hosted 75 family rides last year that often had over 50 riders, Resman said.
While many take part in the popular, calm group rides, other activists opt for more direct protests, like the demonstrators who stalled traffic in August at a busy DuSable Lake Shore Drive intersection along Grant Park.
After a driver killed 41-year-old Gerardo Marciales while riding a Divvy bike crossing the crosswalk near Balbo Drive in February, many drivers continued to run red lights at the intersection, said Perrino, who organized the demonstration where activists with neon vests and red stop signs stood in the crosswalk during red lights to block cars from running the light.
Activists and family also placed a white-painted “ghost bike” at the site, a type of memorial that often arises to mark fatal crashes. The fatal crashes are common enough that activists buy ghost bike materials in bulk, said Christina Whitehouse, founder of the bike advocacy group Bike Lane Uprising added.
In a win for the protesters, CDOT installed a pedestrian island and a concrete barrier at the intersection in October to prevent drivers from using a left turn lane to pass straight through red lights. But in December, the ghost bike honoring Marciales at the site was destroyed by a car.
Whitehouse founded Bike Lane Uprising in 2017 after she was almost run over by a commercial truck driver. The site she built allows local bikers to quickly document bike lane obstructions with photos. It has been used to log 50,000 such obstructions.
In November, the group tweeted a photo of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s car caravan parked in a bike lane in front of a doughnut shop.
“Parking in bike lanes so you can get doughnuts means you value doughnuts over the lives of bicyclists,” the account tweeted. The mayor, who had irked bike advocates in May by calling Chicago a “car city,” criticized her security detail for parking in the bike lane shortly after the post sparked outrage.
Bikers tend to be civically engaged, Whitehouse said. She thinks they’ve become an essential faction in city politics.
“You have to get cyclists’ votes. We will swing an election,” Whitehouse said.
The city’s current construction of bike lanes hasn’t always taken the needs of Black and brown communities into consideration, said Oboi Reed, founder of Equiticity, a nonprofit focused on racial equity and mobility. He worries some of the groups calling for quickly installed, citywide bike infrastructure might also shut out those communities’ unique concerns.
His Equiticity group wants to instead first build out the “social infrastructure” for biking. The group helps get people bikes and organizes regular group rides to convince people biking is good for their communities, Reed said. He supports a bike grid because he believes better bike infrastructure can reduce traffic and interpersonal violence, but wants it to first be supported by the communities it will affect.
“There should be a partnership that is resourced for community-based organizations to share power and have ownership in that planning process, and whatever comes out of it should reflect our identity, our needs and our history,” he said.
CDOT officials leading the city’s bike infrastructure efforts hold a similar view. They have heard the frustrations of some activists over the pace of bike lane construction, but believe development needs to be bottom-up, Deputy Commissioner Vig Krishnamurthy said.
“It isn’t one-size-fits-all because the city isn’t created out of one mold,” he said. “You have to bring people along, or otherwise the change isn’t lasting.”
The city plans to create “neighborhood networks” of connected bike infrastructure in certain neighborhoods where the city and residents believe it is needed while also connecting the different networks. The plan amounts to a bike grid, said CDOT Complete Streets director Dave Smith.
“I think we’re seeing it happen,” he said. “That’s absolutely where we’re headed.”
Still, the demand for bike infrastructure is “just not there yet” in some areas, so the city has focused on sparking interest, Krishnamurthy said. The push includes giving away 5,000 free bikes and shutting down major boulevards such as Drexel, Douglas and Logan to cars for a day.
The rise in bike ridership, infrastructure and advocacy is creating a positive feedback loop that will continue to lead to more development, they said. But the gradual development underway is still not fast enough for some.
As two transit officials at a December CDOT community meeting led a small group discussion and highlighted plans to make streets safer that leaned heavily on public messaging, frustration spread among the activists, mostly from Bike Grid Now.
Why not close DuSable Lake Shore Drive by downtown, one suggested. The changes need to be top-down and broad, activist Scott Rubin said.
After the meeting, Rubin said he was disappointed. Piecemeal infrastructure tweaks and outreach campaigns telling drivers to go slower won’t cut it, he said.
“Chicago prioritizes car travel and kind of ignores everyone else,” Rubin said. “It’s life or death for a lot of people.”