Yesterday I had the privilege to spend some time with Steve Vance – of course on the backs of bicycles, riding through some neighbourhoods in Chicago.
Steve is the mastermind behind the Chicago Bike Guide and a dedicated OSM mapper . It was a great experience to connect with a local who is deeply rooted in Chicago’s bicycle community, to learn from him and his work and to exchange current challenges and ideas for further bicycle promotion.
Typical for almost all US cities, Chicago’s transportation network is mainly built for cars. Standing on the tallest building – the Willis Tower – you see how the city is shaped by the car culture. Everything is drive in and thru …
But it would be unfair to brand Chicago a car city without mentioning some really cool bicycle features. First of all to mention is the extensive bike sharing scheme Divvy . Thanks to a dense network of docking stations the light blue bicycle are omnipresent in Chicago downtown. Steve told me that the trip per bicycle ratio of Divvy bike is lower than in New York City or Washington DC; but this might change soon due to a further expansion of the network.
Tightly connected to the bike sharing scheme is Steve’s app for iOS and Android , which is a route planner and Divvy bike station finder. It are such tools, that help bicyclists to navigate through the city. Interestingly hardly any bicycle routes or signs can be found in the streets. Thus the bicyclists rely on routing recommendation systems or local knowledge much more than for example in Salzburg.
I had the privilege to enjoy the latter and learned among others, that Chicago’s boulevards are ideal for bicycling. This might surprise at the first glance, as these roads were the precursors of modern highways. But thanks to an enormously space consuming design the side roads leave plenty of space for bicyclists. These roads would be predestined shared spaces or bicycle roads! Let’s see how long it takes the authorities to switch from mere recommendations (Steve explained the meaning of these signs to me) to legally binding regulations.
Apart from the side roads of the boulevards, there are two other types of roads which are more or less suitable for bicycling: arterial roads with painted bicycle lanes (some of them buffered, what is great!) and minor roads with little traffic. Comparing these types of roads led to an interesting discussion about the representation of such roads in OpenStreetMap and their consideration in routing recommendation systems which are built on this data basis. On the one hand bicycle routing applications should generally favor roads with a distinct infrastructure, but on the other hand they might be not the safest (or most optimal) connection, for example due to the danger of parked cars (dooring ). Steve’s suggestion for highlighting minor roads which are suitable for bicyclists in OSM is to use the tag
bicycle = yes, although this information is inherent in e.g.
highway = tertiary. Another alternative, which we were actually following for Salzburg’s Radlkarte , is to consider various and factors for the wayfinding. For this, we have developed the indicator-based assessment tool , which allows a certain independency from single attributes in the routing optimization.
Coming from Salzburg – which can be hardly compared to Chicago in any terms – I found the following concluding comparison remarkable:
Chicago has a very poor physical bicycle infrastructure: the road surface is of low quality, there are hardly any separated cycleways and only few bicycle routes exist. But Chicago has an extensive bike sharing scheme and innovative information tools. Additionally key data about cycling and transportation in general are available. Be this the accident data set or the departure times of the CTA trains.
Salzburg is the exact opposite: having an excellent network of cycleways, the city is still waiting for a reasonable bike sharing system. And there are only very few information offers for bicyclists, mainly because of the pertinacious data conservatism (it’s politically a hot topic, but fortunately things are changing currently in the wake of OGD initiatives) – for the Radlkarte we had to go several extra miles!
Nevertheless, I still have some hope, that one day cities start searching for and adopting best-practice examples from all over the world. Since yesterday I can say, that several interesting aspects and above all, some very smart bicycle enthusiasts can be found in Chicago!