As someone who rides my bike everyday, I get a lot of questions and comments about bicycling in the city.  When people tell me (so many people do, especially women!) that they wish they could bike BUT they do not feel safe and are afraid of being hit by a car, I do not launch into a stump speech about the benefits of bicycling.  I may say something like, “It’s not so scary once you learn the rules of the road and get used to riding in traffic,” but I always say something like, “Yeah, it can be scary, I know.”

Although I’m a passionate advocate for transportation bicycling, I have to be understanding and realistic during those conversations.  I don’t think it’s right to pressure or judge people when it comes to bicycling because the transportation system is not set up for us.  While bicycling may be safer than driving a car statistically, statistics won’t help people feel less afraid as speeding SUVs whiz by them.

All of this is to say – I am optimistic that the day will come when I can respond to people with something like, “Oh, you should try out the network of protected bike lanes.  Just take X street to Y street straight into the Loop and you’ll be physically separated from cars the entire time.”  Or, even better, I’m optimistic that the day will come when I won’t have to respond at all because the first reaction to the idea of bicycling in Chicago won’t be FEAR.

From whence does my optimism spring?  From the direction the city is going in with bicycle infrastructure.

Today was the ribbon cutting ceremony for Chicago’s first protected bike lane and the announcement of the next location to get a protected bike lane: Jackson Boulevard from Damen to Halsted.  This is all part of new Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan for 100 miles of protected bike lanes during his first term.  The Mayor is working with new Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein to get this done.  (Read an interesting interview with Commissioner Klein at Grid Chicago.)

I know I should not get too excited about this plan because it’s only the beginning and there will surely be opponents.  But I’m choosing optimism.

What do you think?  Do you feel optimistic for the future of bicycling where you live?  How do you react when people tell you they’re too afraid to bike?


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52 thoughts on “Optimism

  1. Anne says:

    Hi Dottie! I just came across your blog the last few days as I am thinking about buying a WorkCycles Secret Service bike – found your review and video on the Oma quite helpful.

    I currently live in the Washington DC area and we’re hoping to move to Charlottesville, VA this summer. I was thrilled to find their plans for cycling in that town. I am not sure how developed they are (we’ll be visiting Cville for the first time this weekend), but I am hopeful. We’d really like to become a one-car family if we can once we relocate.

    I moved back to the States from Germany a little over a year ago and one of the things I miss the most from my time there was my daily bike commute. I always got to work feeling refreshed and happy, even in bad weather. Compare that to the days I had to deal with the stress of driving and finding parking on occasion, I find my overall safety level is better when I am able to ride. Letting go of the stress of a car more than balances it out for me.

    • Dottie says:


      I hear Charlottesville is beautiful and quite a progressive place to live. I think it’s hilly, though? So consider that before buying a Dutch bike. The Secret Service is supposed to be lighter than my Oma, which is a plus. :)

      • Anne says:

        I am concerned about the hills there so I will definitely be checking that out on our visit this weekend.

        Clever Cycles in Portland is the only place that I’ve found that has the (apparently super secret) Secret Service and I am hoping to go out there for a test ride very soon. From what they’ve told me, the latest bikes might be able to handle the hills quite well – but I want to know I can handle it all (meaning a kid, groceries, and hills) without a problem since I am trying to give up that nasty automobile habit in the process.

    • Brian says:

      Anne — I lived in Charlottesville for ten years, used my bike as my primary transportation, and loved it. It’s a great town, and when I moved away three years ago, the bike culture was really starting to take off. Most of the older neighborhoods are quite bike-friendly. You should definitely contact the folks at C’ville Community Bikes ( http://www.cvillecommunitybikes.org/aboutus.php ) and the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation ( http://www.transportationchoice.org/ ). Good luck!

      • Anne says:

        Thanks Brian! I have looked at the Community Bikes web site and I didn’t know if I should get in touch because most of what I see is about maintenance classes. I am excited to go there though because it looks like a great cycling community. My husband wants to get chickens when we move, so seeing that they had a “Tour de Coop” earlier this year gave us both heart palpitations.

        Would you get something like the Secret Service around there? Besides the hills, my main concern would be theft, knowing college towns.

        The mayor there seems to make a bike-friendly community a priority, but I only read the papers so I don’t know how serious a commitment that is.

  2. When people tell me they are too afraid to ride a bike in Boston, I tell them that I was the same way until I tried it. Then I realised it was not so bad. There were quiet side streets to start on. There were streets with bicycle paths. There was the river trail. And once I felt confident on those, I ventured into busier streets. I basically just describe the process I went through honestly, including how exciting and liberating it was, but also acknowledging that it was a step by step process. I think the best way to alienate a potential but hesitant cyclist is to make them feel as if we are invalidating their concerns. Honesty and realistic optimism make for a more authentic engagement.

  3. Tia says:

    I’m so hopeful for the same reasons you are. 100 miles of protected bike lane just blows my mind. I hope, sincerely, that the protected bike lanes eventually intersect with my commute.

    I have a few friends who have been thinking about bikes for forever and finally got them, and I just feel so much elation over it.

  4. Duna says:

    I can’t muster the same optimism about cycling in Toronto, unfortunately. Or rather, I have plenty of optimism about cycling – there are tons of people on bikes, and more and more all the time – but I can’t right now be very optimistic about the future of our cycling infrastructure.

    Our ‘stop the war on the car’ new mayor and city council just voted to remove (!!!) three bike lanes; apparently, they are preventing cars from moving efficiently across the city. They say they are going to put separated lanes on one or two streets that already have painted lanes, but the result will still be a net reduction in the amount of space on city streets for me and my bike.

    The plan for Chicago sounds amazing though! I am very very jealous.

    • Dottie says:

      Bah, war on the car! Like cars are such victims – boo hoo. I hate that kind of rhetoric and I’m very sorry to hear what’s happening in Toronto now.

  5. Aaron says:

    While I dont necessarily agree that protected bike lanes do anything but add to the fear – another discussion altogether – I like your message of not being afraid.

    People behind 2,000 pounds of steel have no more right to the road than me on my 25 pounds and I should fear them not for in most cases I am faster than them. Especially on unprotected roads where rush hour traffic prevails.

    Protected bikes lanes or not, I think bikes belong!

    • k says:

      Aaron– in my case (see below ) the ability to mostly cycle to work on a greenway made me feel like I could stomach learning to ride in traffic for short distances. Over just a few months, I’m now much more confident and skilled riding in traffic. Traffic will probably never be my first choice (although some days the ped and bike crowds and craziness on the greenways give me pause and traffic seems more predictable!), but if there’s no greenway route, I can deal just fine. In that sense, greenways can serve a crucial function to let new riders acclimate, develop basic handling skills, and then make the transition to riding in traffic.

    • Holly says:

      While vehicular cycling is necessary where the infrastructure is poor, you’ll never get many users on the road if they are forced to do it. Not only does it make people feel unsafe, but most folks just don’t want to have to ride that fast all the time. I understand the appeal, but you’ll only ever get a minority of people to do it.

      What we can do is build the *right* kinds of separated paths.. here’s a real-life example of what good separated paths look like and how they work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOR6zm_Yziw With this kind of system people feel safe enough on these to commute every day with their kids on their bike. Wish we could have it here!

  6. jesse.anne.o says:

    I am hopeful for the same thing – both in NYC and your Chicago! Unfortunately most of our streets with bike lanes are the busiest streets and often have double-parked cars in the bike lanes so it’s actually easier to use the no-lane, lower-traffic streets! There is basically NO bike lane blocking enforcement to be seen.

    It is hard work trying to get used to riding my bike with cars. I have been pushing myself to make sure I get on my bike as often as I can, even just riding 10 blocks helps me acclimate and will make it more likely I get on my bike again.

    • Dottie says:

      I agree there needs to be more enforcement of cars parked in bike lanes. With these new protected bike lanes, that won’t be as much of a problem, since bollards will keep cars out for the most part.

      Lower traffic streets are my favorite, too, although by far most of the bike traffic is on direct, main routes.

  7. jesse.anne.o says:

    The only reason I’m on a bike is because of protected bike lanes. It gave me a place to start off and once I felt more comfortable on the protected paths, was able to transition to roads without bike lanes. I think understand your point but I don’t know if I have experienced it the same way you are implying?

    • Dottie says:

      Same with me. I don’t think I ever would have considered riding all the way downtown to work without the car-free Lakefront Trail to take me most of the way.

  8. Amy says:

    I encourage people to just start out small. Find parking lots/parks/trails/quiet neighborhood streets etc and just ride some. Once they get used to that, try stepping out of your comfort zone gradually. The first time on a road with cars can be intimidating and exhilarating all at once!

    As for the future of cycling here. Well, we’re getting a Rails to Trails here, but it will be another 5 years at least (from what I heard in the grapevine anyway) before they even start on it. And the city has plans for more bike lanes, but I’m not going to hold my breath. At the same time, it’s a small enough town that I don’t think that we necessarily need tons of infrastructure. Some bike racks would be nice, just so I don’t have to get creative when I arrive somewhere and it would be nice if the stoplights could be triggered by bike so that I don’t have to hope for a car to get behind, or have to use the pedestrian crosswalk button.

    • Dottie says:

      Intimidating and exhilarating at once is a good way to describe the experience. I remember being totally exhilarated when I discovered that I’m totally entitled to use the streets like a car (although still intimidated).

      Good point about bike racks and stop lights. Little accommodations can make a big difference.

  9. Harriet says:

    Ooo! I saw you biking this morning!

    and I saw someone with the bike I’m considering to purchase this week.

    so all in all a good first day back to the bike commute.

    • Dottie says:

      Oh, really, on the lakefront path? I haven’t taken that route in a long time, but I was craving some fresh Lake Michigan air. Say hi next time. :)

      p.s. ooh, which bike is that?

  10. Maureen says:

    Congratulations to Chicago for caring about their citizens, and the environment. I was in Chicago last week and LOVED it. Maybe it is because of all its optimism shining through! I am delighted for you.
    About two weeks ago the NYT had an article about women being more hesitant than men to ride in the city. I think people like you, gently and optimistically sharing your experiences can change the statistics. ENJOY your new lanes!

    • Dottie says:

      You were in Chicago? You should contact me next time!

      • Maureen says:

        Yes, we were there Weds thru Sat. Went to the Third Coast Story Festival (tickets through This American Life). I absolutely LOVED it. Did think about renting a bike from Bike and Roll, but with the weather and my neck/face issues (Bell’s Palsy) we took an architecture/history boat tour. I really thought I would see you riding past! Thanks, I do want to go back!

  11. Julie Hardee says:

    I find myself explaining how they can do it and emphasizing “If I can do it, you can TOTALLY do it.”

    And I avoid recommending it to friends who I don’t think can handle it. In some cases, I would be scared for that person. NYC is wild.

    I also try to be honest about the areas that stress me out- Like a certain stretch of Times Square, or a certain dicey intersection. I think they appreciate my honesty about still having stressful times.

    • Dottie says:

      I’m happy to hear you say that there are some people to whom you don’t necessarily recommend biking in the city. There are definitely some people I would be scared for and I wouldn’t want to let them loose without a lot of guidance.

  12. k says:

    Overall, I’m optimistic (despite two consecutive days of having lug my bike up a dozen flights of stairs due to unplanned greenway closures and broken MTA elevators or train schedule changes). More and more people are riding in NYC and despite the real tensions that exist, and are being fanned by some establishment politicians in Brooklyn (Hi, Marty Markowitz!), the more cyclists who keep at it, the more people will hop on their bikes and the more drivers will have to adjust.

    I would love to see a clever, compelling Share the Road campaign here. Drivers have the greatest capacity to harm, so I’d feel more optimistic if enforcement was targeted toward cars, but I still see too much thoughtless and even dangerous behavior on the part of pedestrians and cyclists. More people exercising smart choices to be safe and share public infrastructure on foot, bike, and in cars would make me more optimistic.

    As for bike-encouraging conversations, I always say that I never thought I would feel confident riding in traffic because it really can be scary. Then I try to mention that what helped me feel more confident is taking a safe cycling /traffic skills course and being able to get experience with a commute that is 20% traffic and 80% greenway.

    • Dottie says:

      I’m happy to hear that there’s optimism in NYC, despite the highly publicized (ridiculous) tensions.

      I’ve heard a few others in the past mention how helpful taking a safe cycling skills course was for them. Makes me want to take one myself, if there’s ever a convenient opportunity. Never too late to keep learning!

  13. […] Visit this link: “Optimism” on Let’s Go Ride a Bike […]

  14. Stephen says:

    As a city planner who works on bike/ped issues, I think these are the best of times and the worst of times. Many American cities are starting to realize the links between the ability to bicycle and walk relatively safely in urban areas, and the “creative class” who want to live in such urban areas. Many local politicians are also starting to understand the expense and unsustainability of a car-only transportation system. Many people, young and old, are wanting to walk and bicycle more, and a few of those are working the political system to help make it happen.

    Yet, we’re still mostly in denial. Many drivers don’t understand anyone who doesn’t want to drive, and a few are openly hostile towards bicyclists and pedestrians. The laws on texting and other uses of cell phones are still patchy and primitive. The oil culture won’t go down without a fight, and many developers and property owners still think things will eventually go back to “normal” (e.g., sprawl will continue and people will drive and eat like there’s no tomorrow). And (my personal favorite) some bicyclists still rage against the installation of protected bike lanes and other bicycle facilities.

    But who would have thought we’d have an African-American president? Legal gay weddings? Vegan restaurants? A space station? Things do change, but it takes constant work, money, and votes. Don’t be complacent and wish things would change–contact your elected officials and tell them what you want.

    OK, rant over…;-)

    • Dottie says:

      Those are really good points! Not too ranty at all. :)

      Somehow, thinking about how it’s both the best and worst of times makes me feel better. At least in that context I can see how the future is much brighter, once these growing pains are over.

  15. Alexis says:

    That IS super exciting! I went to college in Schaumburg and the inability to get anywhere without a car drove me insane. I graduated and swore never to go back. The more I look at living in the actual city though, the more enticing it seems (especially if I can get a position with the right company).

    All your LGRAB Chicago posts are slowly luring this country chicken back to the city!

    • Dottie says:

      I would not be able to handle city living if it were not for the ability to ride my bike, walk and take public transit. Being able to get around so freely really helps with the sometimes claustrophobic and stressful city life.

  16. Eli says:

    No one has ever told me they don’t bike because of fear. Maybe it’s because the Twin Cities has enough bike lanes and paths that fear doesn’t have to be as much of an issue.

    While I ought to find that encouraging, what I’ve discovered is that people will (and do) find other excuses not to ride. With fear out of the way, they can bring up the cost of a bicycle, the extra time, the sweat…

    We can build all the infrastructure in the world, but it can’t overcome human inertia. Guess we’ll just have to come up with other ways to convince people that riding is worthwhile.

    • Dottie says:

      That is true – people will always have excuses. BUT at least in that case I would be able to guilt and judge people for not riding. :) j/k (kinda)

    • Dottie says:

      Thanks for the link. I read the press release on the site about the Kinzie protected lane and there were a couple of very interesting tidbits, like the fact that 48% of rush hour traffic at that location is bicyclists. So it makes total sense that bicyclists should get their own lane!

  17. Elaine says:

    I am thrilled to hear about cities across North America putting in separated bike lanes and actually implementing their plans for cycling infrastructure. It gives me hope. At the same time unfortunately, with our new mayor in Toronto (Canada), I’m ashamed to say that we appear to be taking a few steps backwards. It feels like such a struggle for something so simple, logical and reasonable.

    • Dottie says:

      That’s the worst part, isn’t it? That something like safe bicycling should be so simple, logical and reasonable.

      I’ve heard a little about what’s going on with Toronto. Very disheartening, since in the past few years I’ve heard a lot of positive news about the city’s bicycling system.

  18. Annie A says:

    I live and bike commute in Texas, where the idea of voluntarily getting out of your car is like speaking a foreign language at an English teacher’s convention. I did so in Dallas and back in October moved to Austin, primarily for the bicycle infrastructure. When other women ask me how I managed to learn to ride my bike in traffic, I always laugh and say “Very carefully!” I also always offer to go for a ride to help them learn. I think I’m currently on my 4th or 5th friend I’ve spent serious time with helping them learn the ropes. Start small, and work up to it. It just takes practice.

    • Dottie says:

      “Very carefully” – that’s perfect! Succinctly addresses both the safety issue and the fact that it’s manageable with care.

  19. Karen says:

    I started commuting to work by bike in 2008 in Oakland, CA. I moved to Chicago in May of 2010, and I like Chicago for biking much better. I remember being really nervous about biking in the city (both cities) at first. The way I got through it was taking it a little at a time. First I just wanted to commute, so I tried the route to work on a non work day to time it. Then I outfitted my bike to hold my bag, and made sure I had all the other safety/comfort features (lights, bright yellow jacket, etc.) I feel like going to a friendly bike shop and just talking to a sales person about getting essentials for city biking and talking about it with an expert. I think the biggest hurdle is getting comfortable with the bike AND the city. Maybe most people know how to ride a bike, but it’s been awhile, so the idea of getting a newer bike AND starting to ride through traffic is too much to deal with at once. Taking everything in a little at a time, and putting on city miles are the best way to get comfortable. That being said, I’ve been hit by a car, a woman driving a Yukon and texting at the same time, at a quiet neighborhood intersection (Sedgwick and Eugenie). Luckily I wasn’t badly injured, but the incident left me more worried about city biking, even though I’m experienced, some things are out of our control. I would hope that Chicago gets more designated bikes lanes and is safer for bikers, but I think beyond that, enforcing more cell phone while driving laws will also keep more people safe.

    • Dottie says:

      Getting a new bike and a new bike commute at the same time can be very overwhelming. That’s how I started, too – all at once. Your advice to prepare yourself and then take a little step at a time is spot on.

      I’m so sorry to hear that a car hit you. That’s awful! I ride Sedwick a lot and it is a nice, quiet street, but it’s too bad that no street is totally safe if drivers fail to pay attention. :(

    • Stephanie says:

      I just biked to work today for the first time! I also just got a new bike, but like many others, I was frightened by both my lack of coordination on the bike (it had been a while….15 years or so) and the thought of mingling with cars.
      I took plenty of time to get familiar with the bike in a local park first. I practiced starting and stopping (thanks to LGRAB’s tutorials on YouTube!), since I knew I would be doing this on the road with impatient drivers yelling at me to move faster.
      For my first venture into traffic, I mapped out a nice quiet route thanks to Google maps’ bike feature. It was so much fun! Even now I can’t wait until my ride home.

      Thanks for all your advice on this blog. It’s so accessible for young women who want to bike, be healthy, be safe, and look good doing it!

  20. Sam says:

    I’m very excited to see what Rahm Emanuel is going to do for Chicago. I first saw him on CSPAN (yes, I’m a nerd) teaching a class on the importance of public spaces where he raved about Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic. I then immediately got the book and was introduced to the world of traffic geekery and haven’t looked back since. Emanuel seems to be one of few elected officials who gets it, so I can’t wait to see what he does.

  21. Carol B. says:

    I biked from my home in Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan for the first time during the 2005 transit strike. I stuck to the West Side greenway for as much of the trip as possible and gritted my teeth when I had to go crosstown with cars and taxis whizzing by. I did it out of necessity and it was always in my mind that I would try it again when the weather was nicer. I felt confident riding around in my Brooklyn neighborhood but the idea of biking to work in Manhattan seemed all too daunting. It took me 6 years to get up the courage to try it again and it was finding this blog and the discovery of a better route over the Manhattan Bridge plus protected bike lanes on 1st and 2nd Avenue that pushed me to give it a shot. I am 56 years old and not in the best of shape so I had to resign myself to being constantly passed as I huffed and puffed my way on the approach to the bridge. I had to get accustomed to cars, garbage trucks, and wayward pedestrians blocking the bike lanes and I had to steel myself for the 15 block portion of the ride in traffic where the bike lane ends at 34th Street but with each passing day, I felt more and more confident about my biking skills. Being above ground after years and years on the subway is such a delight. I love grabbing a latte in the East Village en route to work or shopping for dinner in Chinatown on the way home.

    I still have moments of fear and anxiety as I navigate the city but I am optimistic that with the ever expanding system of bike lanes and pro biking groups, that bike commuting is here to stay for me and many others.

  22. neighbourtease says:

    I am optimistic. Despite consistently heinous press coverage, bike lanes keep increasing in popularity among New Yorkers (who don’t live in Staten Island). Latest Q poll, out today:


  23. Great to see optimism, thanks.
    Alas across the pond, in the Midlands UK, protected bike lanes? Ha, lol.
    But thanks for your optimism.
    How r things now, 4 years on?

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