Hail to the Trail

If Chicago’s Lakefront Trail did not exist, this blog would not exist. At least not in its current form with me as a co-blogger. That’s because I never would have attempted to ride my bike to work without the trail.

Oma Sunrise

Before I started cycling, I’d only been to the lakefront once or twice during my one year as a Chicago resident. All I knew about the trail was that it went all the way  downtown and had no cars.

No Cars – that was key.

Sun, Bike, City

Chicago's Lakefront Trail at Sunrise

So the day I bought my bike, I sheepishly mentioned to the shop owner that I was maybe, possibly, sort of considering bike commuting via the lakefront. (What, me a bike commuter? Don’t laugh, I know it’s silly!) To my surprise, she enthusiastically grabbed a Chicago Bike Map and showed me the street I could take straight to the trail. Only one mile of side-streets and then I would be free! Even I could handle that. 

Riding on the Lakefront Trail every day, slowly but surely I gained skill and confidence. I started trying my luck with bigger and busier streets, until one day I woke up a “cyclist,” someone who could take whatever the city threw my way.

Oma and Me on the Trail

Lake on Left, Freeway on Right

Despite all of my experience and my love for cycling, I know that I would not bike to work as often if it were not for the Lakefront Trail. Although I can handle the streets at rush hour, the constant pressure can be overwhelming. As long as I can retreat to the calm of the trail whenever I want, I never burn out. That’s what I did today, rejecting my new street route in favor of the trail, even though it added 15 minutes to my commute.

If anyone asks my opinion on separated bicycling infrastructure, there’s my answer.

Hail to the trail, ’cause the trail deserves some hailing.

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35 thoughts on “Hail to the Trail

  1. Brian says:

    All I can say is…WOW. I wish my ride was like that, thanks for sharing.

  2. Charlie says:

    All I can say is lucky you – to ride to work following the riverside path in London would add about ten miles for me!

  3. Dave Reid says:

    I think what is important about this is the role that trails play with new riders. For new riders it gives them a chance to get used to the experience and slowly add in more and more streets. Eventually, become comfortable in most riding environments..

  4. dukiebiddle says:

    A case in support of separated bicycle infrastructure very well presented. You should be a lawyer. ;-)

  5. BikeBike says:

    @ Dave Reid – i totally agree!

    Those of us that have been cycling for years are probably used to dealing with riding in traffic. However, new cyclists are usually terrified of riding on busy roads when they begin riding/commuting and having pathways (separated infrastructure) available to ease people into the routine of cycling is key, IMO.

    There are still problems with multi-use pathways (errant dogs, clueless pedestrians, etc) but by-and-large i believe that they are a necessary infrastructure option if cities want to encourage people to cycle.

    I live in Calgary and we have an incredible network (600 miles) of off-street and on-street bikeways and pathways. It isn’t perfect but is getting better all the time. Here is a link for the curious – http://www.calgary.ca/docgallery/BU/engineering_services/emaps/bicycle_pathways_map.pdf

    If you are in Calgary, bring a bike, give me a call and we’ll ride the Bow River Pathway. So beautiful!

    • nuliajuk says:

      I’m in Calgary too. I agree that trails are the answer to getting more people into bike use for transportation.
      My main complaint about the trail system here is that it’s mainly designed with recreational riding in mind. The planners can’t seem to get it through their heads that people actually ride bikes to work – sometimes all year ’round. So it’s a little harder for those of us who don’t live anywhere near the river or the irrigation canal.
      I’d like to see some of those abandoned railway spurs in the industrial districts east of Blackfoot Trail turned into bike trails. My husband once worked in a machine shop in that area. Most of his co-workers were poor immigrants, exactly the sort of people who can least afford a car – but of course they had to have one because there is/was virtually no public transit in the area.
      At least there is now a marked bike lane down 11th street from 42nd ave. almost to Heritage. It abruptly disappears before getting to the shopping area, but it’s a start.

  6. anna says:

    Yeah, your trail is really beautiful. It’s good to have alternative routes though, and different ones for fast/slow, relaxing cycling etc. Unfortunately I don’t (the detours are not any nicer), but on the other hand I don’t have to go very far either :).

  7. Lucas says:

    I have also found that having alternate routes certainly does help stave off the burnout of daily cycle commuting… I have the fortune of being able to ride along the lovely Charles River bike path on any given day, and though it does add about 1-1.5 miles to my commute, it is much more calm and relaxing than throwing myself to the wolves by cycling through Central Square in Cambridge… what a MESS that is every time I go through it.

    I have to say one thing, though… your bike path looks much wider and smoother than mine! ;) Safe cycling!

  8. E A says:

    It was a great day in our weather — hit 50 — to take the path and add those 15 minutes! Glad you enjoyed it.

  9. miss sarah says:

    My version of your trail is the high level bridge. It connects north to south over the river valley which means you don’t have to climb monumental hills in order to get from downtown to the university area (the two most desirable locations in the city). And the view is the best!


  10. parker says:

    Great pix reminding me of Chicago! Dottie, I’ve been cycling since probably before your parents were born, and I choose to lengthen my commute by 4 miles so I can ride through farms and woods instead of on noisy, smelly highways. It’s not so much that I ride my bike to “get there”: when I ride my bike I AM there. Good for you!

  11. Dottie – Your trail is beautiful and I agree with you completely that well designed trails are more pleasant than cycling in traffic. I love trails and I would love more of them in my area.

    My “beef” is not with the concept of bike trails itself, but with the act of making them mandatory (i.e. not allowing vehicular cycling in areas where trails and bike lanes exist), as is done for example in Vienna. While I love well designed trails and lanes, the fact is that by far not all of them are well-designed. And for that reason, I would like to retain the legal option of cycling with traffic.

    • Mamavee says:

      I stand with LB on this. I personally very much want my own trails that go places ( a la netherlands. ) No cars would be pure heaven. But I admit I want my cake and eat it too. Although quite honestly I break all laws and hop onthe sidewalk whenever I please so I shouldn’t even enter this debate. B/c I want trails streets and sidewalks. Just give me safe smooth wide pavement and I’m good.

  12. Mike says:

    Posts like this make me ache for Chicago. Whenever I’m back, there is one spot that always makes it feel like I never left — when you go around that last curve on Lake Shore Drive and the Hancock and Drake come into view.

    A few years back, I bought a little plaster model of the Drake Hotel on Ebay. It turns out the seller was Irv Kupcinet’s daughter-in-law and the tiny Drake was Kup’s. A Chicago treasure.

    Now please don’t respond by saying you don’t know who Kup was, or I will feel positively ancient. Just nod and smile, which is the polite thing to do when an old person rambles on about this kind of thing!

    Lucky, lucky cyclist! Hope to cycle on my next visit and will be looking for you and Betty Foy.

  13. donna says:

    I started commuting this past spring in almost the same fashion. If it weren’t for the dedicated bike path I don’t think I would have stuck with it. I’m still not sure I would continue if I had to cross the city though. Toronto’s traffic is a nightmare and it would only be a matter of time before I’d get hurt. Its drivers are just getting accustomed to sharing the roads.

  14. Tad Salyards says:

    This is why segregated infrastructure is critical to the popularity of everyday biking. It’s something that the vehicular cyclists just don’t understand. Normal folks just won’t feel comfortable getting onto a bike and riding in traffic.

  15. Sunny says:

    Amen, Dottie, and I love parker’s sentiment too: when I bike, I AM there.

    After several traumatic experiences on our NYC avenues (thankfully, only emotionally traumatic), I also tend to string together our bike trails, bridges, cycle tracks and painted lanes whenever possible (www.ridethecity.com is a godsend) to get where I’m going.

    And where those paths are available, I’ll even ride several times longer than I need to just because it’s fun – the time just isn’t wasted as it would be in a car/taxi/train.

  16. Catherine says:

    I started a sort of similar way. I bought my bike really for just scooting around my town doing errands, going places, getting to the Metro etc. But I was having so much fun doing it that I found myself looking for more errands to do and more places I could go on my bike. Eventually I decided to just pedal up and down the trail that runs through town on its way between DC and Mount Vernon. After a little while doing this, I realized I was 3/4 of the way to work.

    I’d always thought that bike commuters were these super-fit, totally hardcore and vaguely crazy individuals, and considered myself none of these things. But after a little research and reading of blogs (this one included!) I decided to take the plunge!

    It’s really funny, but when I bought my bike (the Amsterdam, the electric bike came later), I distinctly remember kind of arguing with the bike shop guy about which model and how many speeds to get. I wanted the steel frame, 3 speeds. He said I should get the lighter weight one, 7 speeds.

    My main point of argument was, and I explicitly said, “I’m only going to be riding around town with this–MAYBE the trail every now and again on the weekends but it’s not like I’ll be taking this all the way to DC!”. 3 months later, I started regularly bike commuting, to DC, on the Amsterdam (with a broken foot at the time, but that’s another story). The electric bike followed 2 or 3 months after that to make “regularly” “daily” and to completely replace the car.

  17. what an awesome post! i love your un-intimidating approach to biking. and the lakefront trail looks beautiful. it took me several months here to figure out a low-traffic route to school and it really makes a big difference in enjoying the ride and coming back to it day after day.

  18. Patty says:

    I love the Lakefront Trail! I take it from my home in Edgewater just off the north entrance to the path and ride 8 miles to my office downtown, also just off the path. I feel like I’m really getting away with something having such a beautiful and carefree ride to work. You’ve inspired me to wear nicer clothes when biking.

    It’s funny what you said about starting out biking. I was terrified to ride by bike home from the store when I first got it (What do you mean I need to ride on the streets!?!)and now I am totally comfortable riding alongside traffic. Nothing beats the path though. Word of caution, wear your helmet even on the path. That was the only place I’ve crashed so far (knock wood) and I wasn’t wearing one. I’m lucky I didn’t get too badly injured.

    Keep on ridin…

  19. cycler says:

    Isn’t it nice to have the option!
    I’m with you that there are days where I will take the slightly less convenient, slower, more poorly paved route, just because I’m not feeling up to traffic first thing in the morning. A slight injury a month ago, and some bike problems more recently have made me unable to accelerate as I’m used to being able to do, and it really makes me feel more vulnerable as a vehicular cyclist.
    Usually the hours I commute the paths are relatively free of ped-bike conflicts, however, partly because of that, I’m a little more reluctant to bike at night on a deserted path next to the expressway- it just doesn’t feel like there are enough eyes to feel safe.

  20. grambev says:

    That’s such a gorgeous and non nerve wracking – and safer – route. I save all the photos.

  21. I love being able to bike on the road and go exactly where I need to go. And since I live in a rural area outside bike-friendly Portland the streets were not that scary for the novice I was years back.

    But when I first started biking and we visited Toronto, I remember seeing the massive traffic and deciding definitely, “No biking here,” – until a friend showed us the great linear park/ urban bike trail – beautiful! And even better, when the trail ended we discovered it was Canadian Thanksgiving that morning and there were no cars anywhere until later in the afternoon!

    Bike trails would be great if they went everywhere you wanted to go.

  22. maria says:

    Chicago’s lakefront is so beautiful. Love your necklace.

  23. Amy says:

    Oh, I am envious! Not just of the beautiful car free space to ride, but of the long, FLAT expanse! I live in the the Northeast corner of TN, in Appalachia, and I don’t think that there is a flat space to be found! I was recently given a 1969 Hercules 3 speed by a guy who was going to throw it away. I decided then that I wanted to do at least some of my commuting by bicycle. I spent the last two weeks rebuilding it and as of yesterday have taken it out on two rides. It’s been 12 years since the last time I was on a bicycle. Between that and trying to get that chunk of steel up these hills, I am feeling it in every muscle! I enjoy every second of it too. :)

    • dottie says:

      I love to hear about people cycling again after a long break. (Just like me and Trisha a year and a half ago.) Good for you!

      I am very thankful that there are no hills on my route, although yesterday’s ride home felt like one long hill with the strong headwind.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      A 1969 Hercules 3 speed? Oooooooh, I ache with jealousy. That is a top rate old bike. Hit your friend in the head for me.

      • Amy says:

        LOL, yeah, I took some pictures of it after the restoration and showed him. The look on his face was about as good as a hit on the head. :) You’re right, this is a great bike! I love it.

  24. Karen says:

    I relate to your experience. I doubt I would pedal to work as often if not for the urban trail system and the bike lanes. I watched a little film short the other day and the women (all Europeans and Brits) commented about how they prefer biking on segregated area that cars cannot and do not intrude upon.

  25. jason says:

    the trail is no good for my commute, it’d take longer to get to it than to just ride downtown. i’m waiting for the day they turn milwaukee avenue over entirely to bikes…oh, a boy can dream.

    • E A says:

      Milwaukee and Elston and Lincoln…. all those angled streets that provide direct routes. ;-) I agree that getting to/from the trail is sometime for me more trouble than it’s worth, but I just don’t like the pot-holed commute through East Lakeview.

    • Scott says:

      I wish they would just eliminate street parking on Milwaukee during rush hour. That would make a huge difference.

  26. […] photo from Chicago’s Let’s go ride a bike […]

  27. […] photo from Chicago’s Let’s go ride a bike […]

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