The chicken and the bicycle

We all know why the chicken crossed the road, but why did the chicken ride its bicycle on the sidewalk?

I’ll take a stab at that one: Because the street wasn’t safe.

By now, many 19th Ward residents have seen or heard about the new dockless bike share systems that have launched in our Divvy-starved neighborhood. These bikes — many bright green or white — dot the areas of our community that tend to see the most activity: Metra stations, busy shopping corridors, major intersections.

Personally, I’ve already seen a good number of people riding them. I’ve seen young teens riding them for after-school transportation; I’ve seen older adults riding them for what appeared to be errands (or just out of curiosity).

What I suspect (and this is just based on anecdotal evidence) is that we are noticing what a number of people in the neighborhood have already expressed — that there is a latent demand for bike sharing in many parts of the South Side, including Beverly, Morgan Park, and Mount Greenwood.

But after seeing these bikes in action around the neighborhood, one thing has stood out to me: Everyone I have seen on one of these bikes has been riding it on the sidewalk. And I can tell you why.

If you’ve never ridden a bicycle on one of our main thorough like Western Avenue, 111th Street, or 95th Street, you probably don’t know what it’s like to take your life into your own hands just to run to the store, or come home from the Metra station, or have a leisurely ride on a Saturday morning.

Or, maybe you do know what that’s like because you know how unsafe many or our streets can be for people who aren’t in cars. Maybe you’ve seen some close calls and decided for yourself, “I will never ride a bike on one of these streets.”

To go back to the joke about the chicken, it’s completely logical that a person would come to that conclusion. Heck, I advocate for bicycling and even I can come to that conclusion.

But the demand for something different than the status quo, for something other than a neighborhood where a car trip for every outing feels like the only option, is so strong that people want to hop on these new bikes anyway, even if it means riding on the sidewalk where, theoretically, they could receive a citation from police.

It makes me think of another chicken-related adage: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

What came first, bicycles or safe streets?

Do we need the bikes to spur changes that make our neighborhood streets safer? Or, would we see more people using the bikes — or riding them on the sidewalks — if we implemented some traffic calming measures?

As we have seen with Divvy, the greatest successes occur in the neighborhoods with the infrastructure and design needed to support a robust bicycling culture. On the other hand, Divvy struggles in areas where barriers — both physical and cultural — hinder its use.

I worry about what happens when the novelty of our neighborhood’s dockless bike share network wears off and we come face to face with its practicality.

Don’t get me wrong — I fully support this initiative and think it has the potential to be a positive for the 19th Ward. But I think that as we marvel at the people using it (or use it ourselves) we need to pay close attention to the behaviors we see on the streets and try to understand what they are telling us about the design of our community.

My hope is that the bike share system does lead to positive changes in the neighborhood, not because I want to make sure the system benefits but rather because I want to make sure our neighborhood as a whole benefits.

Since the system launched, it’s gotten a good amount of positive press. The rest of the city is watching. Let’s make sure they continue to see something good taking shape.

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