Chicago’s evolving bicycle culture

In December of 2016, I visited Chicago on a short holiday.

Chicago was one of my secondary study sites for my recently completed PhD into changes into the symbolic status of everyday cycling. I took a historical view examining changes over time. Given this perspective I was curious to observe street level changes since my last study visit in April 2015.

I was pleasantly surprised that even in subzero weather, there were people bicycling.

There has also been a noticeable evolution in the kinds of bicycles on the streets. I observed more bicycles better suited to everyday cycling such as the one below which allows comfortable upright posture, easy on and off maneuver given step through frame, and hassle light long term maintenance given integrated brakes and gears. Of course notice the pannier racks in the back for luggage.

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Bicycles and bicycling also appears to be more integrated and thus normalised into social life including as a commodity item to sell other goods. I saw bicycles in mainstream restaurants, bars, retail stores, advertisements in trains, and other places.

This of course is not to suggest that utility cycling in Chicago is now fantastic. As the image below of a white bike shows, which records a bicycling fatality in public memory, bicycling can be dangerous in Chicago.

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The infrastructure continues to evolve with city council embracing protected bicycle lanes. This should improve safety and attract more users.

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The bicycle share programme which is a personal favourite – Divvy – is also doing well. I used their bicycles on a few occasions with great pleasure. Their advertisements are fantastic I think. “Muscle mass transit” – how apt.

The mode share of bicycling in Chicago does seem set to continue growing. It offers an optimistic story of shifting towards sustainable transportation from a very low base.

Bicycle mode share trends in Chicago. Assembled from (Berkow & Falbo 2014, p.3; Vance 2015)

bicyclemodesharetrendssmoothchicago

References

Berkow, M. & Falbo, N., 2014. Chicago Bike Monitoring 2014: Technical Report, Available at: http://www.activetrans.org/.

Vance, S., 2015. New Census Data Says Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Is at an All-Time High | Streetsblog Chicago. StreetsBlog Chicago. Available at: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/09/25/new-census-data-shows-chicago-bike-commuting-might-be-up/ [Accessed August 29, 2016].

 

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Learning from the bicycle past

The bicycle is in vogue. Rathbone (2013) argues that “the rise of the bicycle is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon.” In many cities across the world there are now advocates for utilitarian bicycling. City governments are re-shaping streets in order to accommodate the bicycle. In some cities in North America, Europe, Latin America and Australia, there has been marked quantitative increase in everyday bicycle use (Pucher et al. 1999; Hidalgo & Huizenga 2013; Bonham & Johnson 2015; Transport for London 2015). In other cities in Africa what is more evident is the policy interest into bicycling above and beyond user uptake (Morgan Forthcoming; Jennings 2015).

Yet in the late 19th century, the bicycle was as popular as it is now. In the late 19th century Johannesburg, the city was described by observers as being in the grip of a cycling “craze” and “mania” (Gutsche n.d., pp.6, 10).  Carstensen and Ebert (2012) write about the ‘golden age’ of bicycles in Northern Europe in the same period. At the time, bicycle users even became a political force. In Chicago, a mayoral candidate, Carter H. Harrison II, “launched his campaign by riding his first ‘century’ – one hundred miles – from his West Side home to Waukegan, Wheeling, and Libertyville, and back – in just nine and one-half hours” (Bushnell 1975, p.175).

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Bicycle parade in Cape Town, South Africa –  late 19th century

 

The similarity between the late 19th century and the contemporary moment, is recently well captured by Friss (2016) who asks “there’s a buzz about bicycles! The number of cyclists is increasing, the streets themselves are changing in order to cater to them, and politicians can’t stop talking about them: Is it 1897 or 2016?”

Is there something to learn from the past that can support this renewed interest in everyday bicycling? Why was the bicycle as popular as it was in the late 19th century in many urban contexts? Why was the bicycle dethroned as an everyday form of transport almost everywhere in the world? But curiously, why in some spaces such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Denmark did the bicycle remain as a respectable mode of transport – albeit with reduced levels of use. These are some of the sub-questions that animate my PhD research.

Bibliography

Bonham, J. & Johnson, M., 2015. Cycling Futures, University of Adelaide Press.

Bushnell, G.D., 1975. When Chicago Was Wheel Crazy. Chicago History, 4(3), pp.167–175.

Carstensen, T.A. & Ebert, A.-K., 2012. Chapter 2 Cycling Cultures in Northern Europe: From “Golden Age” to “Renaissance.” In Cycling and Sustainability. Transport and Sustainability. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 23–58. Available at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/S2044-9941%282012%290000001004 [Accessed January 14, 2015].

Friss, E., 2016. The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s. History & Policy. Available at: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/index.php/historians-books/books/the-cycling-city [Accessed April 5, 2016].

Gutsche, T., Roaring Nineties and Darkling Days; 1891—1895. In Old Gold: The history of the Wanderers Club 1888 to 1968. The Wanderers Club. Available at: http://www.thewanderersclub.co.za/the-club/history/.

Hidalgo, D. & Huizenga, C., 2013. Implementation of sustainable urban transport in Latin America. Research in Transportation Economics, 40(1), pp.66–77.

Jennings, G., 2015. A Bicycling Renaissance in South Africa? Policies, Programmes & Trends in Cape Town. In Proceedings of the 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). The 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). Pretoria, South Africa.

Morgan, N., Forthcoming. Space, culture and transport mode choice in socio-technical transitions. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.

Pucher, J., Komanoff, C. & Schimek, P., 1999. Bicycling renaissance in North America?: Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 33(7–8), pp.625–654.

Rathbone, J.P., 2013. Car? Taxi? Helicopter? Latin Americans take to the bike. Financial Times. Available at: http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/09/24/car-taxi-helicopter-latin-americans-take-to-the-bike/ [Accessed March 21, 2016].

Transport for London, 2015. Travel in London, Available at: http://content.tfl.gov.uk/travel-in-london-report-8.pdf [Accessed April 6, 2016].

 

 

What might have been: protected bicycle lanes in the 1930s in Johannesburg

In recent years, the City of Johannesburg has begun to install variations of protected bicycle lanes on some of the city streets. This has been welcomed by many bicycle users and advocates since they help to increase bicycling safety. Importantly it is a novel initiative within recent public memory. However if we take a longer view, one might argue that Johannesburg is continuing an abandoned conversation from the 1930s. At the time, the questions asked as now, were about how to improve road safety and who the were the legitimate road users.

One solution installed with great fanfare in 1935 were cycle lanes along an important corridor heading due north of the city centre – Louis Botha Avenue. A newspaper announcing the scheme in its headline proclaimed: “Safer Streets for Cyclists” (Rand Daily Mail 1935). The lanes were  demarcated off from the road using white paint. They were described as follows:

Yesterday there appeared on Louis Botha Avenue, from King Edward School to nearly the bottom of Orange Hill, the city’s first experimental cycle track, a white line a few feet from, and parallel to, the left hand kerb, cutting off a strip of the road for the use of pedal cyclists (Rand Daily Mail 1935).

At the time Louis Botha Avenue was one of the main corridors connecting Johannesburg to the northern reaches including the nearby capitol – Pretoria.  It also carried very high volumes of people on bicycles. One media report described it as thus;

The stream of native (sic) cyclists from Alexandra Township into Johannesburg begins to take volume every morning about 5.30…they are on their way to work….for over two hours the density of this traffic hardly abates” (Rand Daily Mail 1939).

In 1937 exciting proposals were floated regarding another important transport corridor.  Local authorities, planners and provincial government considered upgrading a heavily used road travelling east-west along the Witwatersrand Ridge – Main Reef Road (The Star 1937d). Initial proposals by a regional planning organisation – the Witwatersrand Joint Town Planning Committee – included completely separate cycle tracks and pedestrian paths. These were supported by a number of organisations.  The Safety First Association –  a road safety organisation –  agreed that as part of the upgrading proposals, cycle tracks should be built on both directions of the road. Here the progressive rationale was the number of bicycle users were increasing along that road so it was important to cater to them. The association proposed that if this were to be done then “cyclists should be prohibited from riding more than two abreast” (The Star 1937a).  Importantly it was “considered essential”(Rand Daily Mail 1937a) that the cycle tracks be “separated from the carriageway by kerbing” (Rand Daily Mail 1937a), for the “protection of cyclists” (The Star 1937b) .

During the same discussions, the Transvaal Automobile Association – went further beyond the scope of proposals pertaining to that particular road arguing that “all roads linking the towns of the Witwatersrand should be be widened to carry two lanes of vehicular traffic in each direction [..but also…]there should be cycle and pedestrian tracks on each side of the roads…[with]…these tracks…[being] 5ft wide”(Rand Daily Mail 1937b). These lanes were to “to be separated by a barrier”(Rand Daily Mail 1937b).

Imagine that? In 1937 a proposal for completely separate bicycle tracks, pedestrian lanes and motor lanes. Here was an instance of a proposal for a ‘complete streets’ future – to use the phrase nowadays that refers to street redesign that accommodates all users. Indeed a member of the Automobile Association, a Lieutenant Commander L.E.S. Napier,  argued that the “memorandum drawn up by his association aimed at suggesting the ideal road, a road on which it was almost impossible to have an accident except by wilful negligence”(Rand Daily Mail 1937b).

The  Lieutenant Commander may have been resorting to hyperbole to make a point but there is good grounds they were onto something; other proposals included constructing pedestrian bridges and subways, wide roundabouts at intersections, removing blind spots on roads, diverting faster moving cars away from densely populated areas through dedicated roads, and other innovative road engineering solutions (The Star 1937a; Rand Daily Mail 1937b).

After many hearings during the course of the year in November of 1937, a commission appointed to consider all of the options regarding Main Reef Road watered down the ambitions. While still calling for separate cycle tracks and side-walks for pedestrians along Main Reef Road, it provided a caveat:  “where conditions are necessary” (The Star 1937c).  This necessity was contingent on the availability of land alongside the road (Ibid).  It did however step beyond Main Reef Road to consider other roads in the greater Johannesburg area. It recommended that “a cycle track should be included in any new main thoroughfare to be constructed along the Reef”(The Star 1938). Wow.

It is not clear what happened in greater Johannesburg – that is how each of the different municipalities interpreted or implemented the recommendations of the commission. One municipality near Johannesburg (Springs) did go ahead and erect protected bicycle lanes on its streets. The Chief Traffic Officer of the City of Johannesburg at the time  – a Colonel Hayton – was reported in early 1938 to think positively of protected bicycle tracks. However mirroring the sentiments echoed by the commission looking into the modifications of Main Reef Road, he thought such an undertaking would be difficult to do given the road engineering requirements, disruptions to motor traffic and moreover if they were to be done, would only be suitable for roads carrying large volumes of bicycle traffic such as Louis Botha Avenue (The Star 1938). He said “the question [of providing fully separated cycle lanes] is worth investigation”(The Star 1938).

While there may have been ‘investigations,’  in 1941 the bicycle lanes on Louis Botha Avenue had still not been upgraded to protected bicycle lanes. A council committee investigating traffic patterns on this road found that “although the Council had carefully marked one traffic lane for cycles and two for other vehicles, about 60 per cent of motorists using the avenue disregarded the lines and straddled the lanes” (The Star 1941a).

Moreover bicycle users increasingly came to be seen as interlopers on the streets.  In a letter to the editor of a newspaper, one person wished that the “Municipal Traffic Department [could] make[…] effort to control the great volume of bicycle traffic which streams northwards along Louis Botha Avenue from about 5:30pm every day” (H.A. 1940). Later in late 1941,  a chairman of the Transvaal division of the Automobile Association complained that “…it was impossible to keep cyclists in single file…this narrowed down the room for ordinary traffic”(The Star 1941b). Here bicycle users were seen as not part of ‘ordinary’ traffic.

The evidence I have followed shows that henceforth the pattern of marginalising bicycle users in Johannesburg through decisions on infrastructure allocation, in public discourse, in legal decisions and so on continued from 1941….until the the post apartheid moment. What would have happened if 80 years ago the recommendations of the Main Reef Road Commission had been implemented in Johannesburg? For sure bicycle users, pedestrians, wheel chair users and others might have been safer in the streets. And it would not be hard to imagine that the city street design might have looked a little like many cities in the Netherlands – the everyday bicycling nation of the world (Fishman 2016).

References

  • Fishman, E., 2016. Cycling as transport. Transport Reviews, 36(1), pp.1–8.
  • H.A., 1940. Native cyclists; Dangers of Louis Botha Avenue. The Star.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1937a. Islands on Main Road Critised: Traffic Jam Talk by Members of Commission. Rand Daily Mail.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1939. Native cyclists are controlled by Men of their own colour; Experiment promises good results. The Rand Daily Mail.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1935. Safer streets for cyclists. Rand Daily Mail.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1937b. Women Motorists Safer Than Men: Statement to Main Reef Road Commission. Rand Daily Mail.
  • The Star, 1937a. Main Reef Road Should be 70 Feet Wide. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937b. Proposals for Widening the Main Reef Road: Report of the Joint Town Planning Committee. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937c. Proposals of Reef Road Commission. The Star.
  • The Star, 1941a. Road Traffic Statement: Louis Botha Avenue, Improvements Suggested. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937d. The Main Reef Road : Terms of Reference of Commission. The Star.
  • The Star, 1941b. Traffic Islands in Louis Botha Avenue Should be Reduced. Rand Daily Mail.
  • The Star, 1938. Traffic problem of the cyclist. The Star.

Cycling with children in Johannesburg

Is it possible to cycle with children in Johannesburg? That is, can a parent or other caregiver use bicycles for transport as part of their day to day activities?

As I often ride with our children – as does my partner – to their schools, nearby park and shopping area, I wonder about the possibility of seeing more like us on the streets. Some of the deterrents to everyday bicycling in Johannesburg are well known. To name two;

  • Concerns over road safety given the automobile friendly road design
  • Urban sprawl which creates long travel distances

There are many studies conducted in many different contexts that suggest these are important impediments – albeit with many qualifications. See the reviews e.g. (Heinen et al. 2010; Oosterhuis 2013). Indeed my route to drop off our youngest daughter at her nursery school is a meander. This means I add 1 kilometre increasing the journey to a total of 5.3 kilometres. I have chosen the route because it allows us to avoid interacting with heavy car traffic. At some sections I use side walks when there are no low-traffic alternatives available. The result is a generally pleasant ride back and forth. As you will see in the video below, we are also able to stop en-route to pick up some street side berries.

Ultimately in selecting the route, I am prioritising the travel experience over efficiency. As a result my route is best captured in the image at the bottom right hand side of this image from the Copenhagenize Design Company.

meanderingcope

Of course it is possible to have a pleasant cycling experience (i.e. low stress over traffic safety) and a direct journey. Again the team from Copenhagenize Design Company has a useful graphic modelling bicycle friendly traffic planning in Johannesburg.

directroutecopenhegan

It is this combination (of convenience and safety) that I think is likely to lure more parents onto the streets with their bicycles in Johannesburg.

However the long history of automobility in the city and other emerging cycling cities is not to be underestimated. It has coerced and normalised car use to such an extent that even when short occasional bicycle journeys can be undertaken away from main arterial routes this does not register as a possibility. This is partly why the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association developed a bicycle commuter map.  In as much as physical infrastructure (bike lanes) might accommodate bicycle use, new social-cognitive infrastructures also will need to displace those associated with car use. In doing so new social norms, habits, and connotations about bicycles and inversely about cars will emerge.

References

Heinen, E., van Wee, B. & Maat, K., 2010. Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature. Transport Reviews, 30(1), pp.59–96.

Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at: http://t2m.org/publications/yearbook/t2m-yearbook-2014/.

Satanic Bicycles

In the late 1800s, the bicycle faced enormous social, infrastructure and technological obstacles. It was not a given that bicycling would necessary become an acceptable practice as it did with enormous popularity in the 1890s in Western Europe and America. This heyday of bicycling – mostly recreational and sporting in nature – was called the golden age of bicycling. Terms such as “craze” “mania” “fever” were used in the popular press to refer to what seemed to many social observers as some kind of social madness.

So against this background, I found it extremely funny to read what some religious people thought of bicycling. Robert A Smith in what is turning our to be a rather entertaining book, A Social History of the Bicycle: Its Early Life and Times in America, quotes a preacher one Sunday morning in 1896 in Baltimore, United States, saying the following :

“These bladder-wheeled bicycles are diabolical devices of the demon of darkness. They are contrivances to trap the feet of the unwary and skin the nose of the innocent. They are full of guile and deceit. When you think you have broken one to ride and subdued its wild and Satanic nature, behold it bucketh you off in the road and teareth a great hole in your pants. Look not on the bike when it bloweth upon its wheels, for at last it bucketh like a bronco and hurteth like thunder. Who has skinned legs? Who has a bloody nose? Who has ripped breeches? They that dally along with the bicycle” (1-2).

This was the monster at stake:

High Wheeler
High Wheeler

Nowadays one at least does not hear such negative descriptions from the religious community about the bicycle. At least I have not yet.

Chicago is increasingly a bicycle friendly City

The new lanes help a lot:

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Protected bi-directional lane in Chicago

So do the emerging innovative beautiful bike parking forms such as this one:

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Corrals in Andersonville

And this one:

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And of course the brand new bike share scheme called Divvy:

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Divvy bikes in the loop

And when you need to take a break from all the peddling you might find a parklet such as this one:

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Parklet in Andersonville

Or if you need a coffee and fix your bike – at the same time, then head over to Heritage Bicycles.

I will be watching Chicago’ evolution.