Thursday, August 3, 2017

Biking Nations: Chicago, Illinois in the United States of America

                      Finalists for the Mr. & Mrs. Chicago Bike Yoga - spotted on Dearborn  - July 29, 2017

Picture it: Summer, 2016. I'm standing in a room in Manchester, United Kingdom with hundreds of people passionate about pens and ink and I'm waiting to hear where the next Urban Sketching Symposium would be held. There have been eight so far, and I've been to seven. I have never attended as a sketcher, but as a cyclist. My wife Suma is an artist you should follow on Facebook and I went with her to Lisbon, Portugal, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Barcelona, Spain, Paraty, Brazil, Singapore, and, last year, Manchester, UK

It's fun to go to a new city so she can explore her passion and I mine. At the end of the day we meet back up for dinner - often with other artists - and I share stories and pictures of what lies beyond the city they've chosen for their symposium. I've dubbed it #WhileYouWereSketching - and have had enough sketchers tune into my travels for me to be upgraded to an honorary cast member of the Urban Sketching Symposium (or USK).

So I was excited to hear - from the organization that pretty much created my 'Biking Nations' series - where the annual multi-day even would be held and I was a little taken aback when the hosting city would be...Chicago.

Chicago as seen from the 18th St. bike lane.

As some of you know, I went to Chicago four years ago to attend a friend's wedding and was stunned by the dystopian structure of the city - specifically how the traffic moved at rush hour. What happened was I was in the back of a taxi, which  would go a cab-length, stop at a red light that was more than half a block away. While waiting for each light to change, even more cars would spill out of parking garages like M&M's from a torn bag. The light would change green. The cab would inch closer. The light would go red again. I aged about 18 months on the way to dinner that night. 

So not only was I not crazy about going to Chicago I was also thrown off that I'd be riding in a country I had already ridden in. I didn't have to visit the extraordinarily useful web site to figure out how Chicago traffic moves. I didn't have to visit a Travelex to change my American money to Chicago money. I had no language barrier to contend with nor did I need to spend any time apologizing on behalf of my country for Trump and mass shootings like I did in Manchester.

Yeah: traveling to the Windy City was throwing me off my game. But I packed my Bike Friday in the case and after a napless flight we landed in Chicago. 

    Dearborn St., Chicago

Something welled up inside me soon after we began walking from the L station dragging the rolling Bike Friday case. I think it was...encouragement.

While walking to the lovely Hotel Blake I noticed a lovely two-lane protected bike path along Dearborn Street. I've always had mixed feelings about protected bike paths in city centers, in that I want something that discourages cars from getting in my path but not something that keeps me from leaving the path when I want to make a turn or otherwise merge into traffic. This one seems to do the job right. Not only that but the intersections have their own bike traffic signal - like I've seen in Europe. 

Both of the silver cars in this photo ran the light turning left onto Congress St. I would have taken pictures of every car that did this but my iPhone only has so much memory.

I noticed - and The Portland Sketcher (who I learned later - to my delight - brought her own bike with her to Chicago) backed me up on my observation: it appears cyclists in Chicago don't run red lights nearly as much as they do in other U.S. cities. It may be because they have infrastructure that actually is designed for them so they are more likely to respect it. 

On the other side of this, though: Motorists in Chicago seem to run reds more. Part of it, I'm sure, is a volume and impatience thing - but that of course is no excuse. I get that you've been moving through one city block in the time it took me to pedal ten - but you chose a GMC Yukon, a Ford Escape, a Honda Accord, a Toyota Sienna - and so on. You chose the car. Live with it and let me live.

The other thing I liked about Chicago out of the gate was the complete absence of Beg Buttons (you know - those 'push to cross' buttons you hit multiple times when you're trying to walk home fast to go to the bathroom). The pedestrian walk signals are timed to the red lights and everyone has a chance to go across the street. Of course, about half the time there is a big, stupid car splayed on the crosswalk like the kid who cut in line to sit on Santa's lap - but the thought of a city traffic light engineer who treats walkers and bicyclists as equals to car is what matters.*

After assembling my Bike Friday in the room (first looking lovingly at the note the TSA had left me to let me know they had, as they do 9 times out of ten, opened the case) but before I had a chance to ride it my wife and I headed off to see Hamilton at the PrivateBank Theatre with tickets we had bought six months earlier. Seats Y 121 and Y 122 are as far away from the stage as they sound, but we could still see and hear a show that actually lives up to the hype. It's like the anti-Avatar of musicals. Lin Manual-Miranda: if you're reading this please thank the entire Chicago team for me - and look me up if you're ever in the Bay Area as I'd like to take you on a bike ride. 


As usual, with a first ride in an unfamiliar city, I just rode around aimlessly to give myself the chance to see how the city breathes and how everything fits. I did have a chance to stop at Chicago Union Station where I waited inconspicuously for the bookkeeper. While I was there I noticed a woman struggling to bring a baby buggy up the steps and decided to help.

But I didn't stay long and got back on the road. Rather quickly, I learned that Chicago's bike infrastructure has the same critical flaw that other cities have: the inconsistency. The two-lane protected bike way was great but only lasts just beyond the river before disappearing entirely, and during the entire trip I'd often find myself riding on, say, Michigan Avenue and would merge into the left lane so I could turn left. Every time I did that, I didn't know if I'd hit the Bike Infrastructure Jackpot (the grand prize being a protected, pigmented, bike lane). or come up with a panniers bag full of nothing. 

Day one was short - which was fine by me. What happened was my wife offered to buy me a straight razor shave at Metropolitan Barber Shop - one of those old-school barber shops - so she could sketch it. My appointment to reduce my wind resistance was at four in the afternoon, and a guy named Pierre - who I learned has been a barber for 20 years - did the shave.

  Follow Art by Suma CM on Facebook

My wife captured the details of the shave quite well in her sketch. What she did not capture was the fact that the TV above the mirror was showing the absolutely ridiculous Shark Week special of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps 'racing' a shark (digitally; he wasn't in the water with it). Also the barber and client in the chair next to mine were having the most detailed, profanity-laced, and hysterical conversation of Game of Thrones. It wasn't easy for me to be absolutely still with the hilarious discussion going on three feet from me but every time I was tempted to laugh I remembered there was a very sharp razor to contend with. 

The next morning, with a face that you would have had to touch to believe, I set off along the Lakeshore Bike Path heading north. It was nice to look at Lake Michigan but the wind, even in the morning, was definitely coming in off the water and I hoped it would be with me for the ride back.

That wasn't the case because about ten miles up the trail ended and I had to hit the surface streets. This was fine but I somehow got insanely lost - so much so I ended up going seven miles out of my way (in a great big circle) as I made my way up to my destination in Winnetka, Illinois.

I can feel your envy.

As it turned out, the house that was used in the exterior scenes in the film Home Alone was undergoing renovations - probably to fix the damage done by the Wet Bandits. 

I had gone 26 miles to get there when it should have been 17. Due to this error I opted not to try to find the 'Save Ferris' water tower (I also couldn't get confirmation as to whether it had been repainted).

After lunch in Winnetka I headed to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park. This was about 20 miles to my south and the directions took me along the North Branch Trail for a good chunk of the way.

I didn't take a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio (I'll save it for my next visit when my wife can come with me) so I instead headed to Working Bikes - a bike shop I had looked up before I left that lies a few miles west of downtown Chicago.

I saw this not-for-profit bike shop as a sibling to what Good Karma Bikes in San Jose and the Ohio City Bike Co-Op in Cleveland is: taking used bikes and doing good with them. Working Bikes just made a smile hit my face and stay there. I wandered about, bought an obscure bike part I didn't know I needed, and bought it. If you live in or are visiting Chicago and have a passion for bikes and helping people you're going to want to go there. Check Working Bikes out.

Finally, I headed back to the hotel - having brought my Bike Friday 60 miles with no flats. It was an unusual amount of riding for the second day of a four-day trip...especially considering what I had planned for the next day.

To be continued. 

* Until we get spike strips that pop up along the sides of the crosswalks so they'll be repercussions when cars do that. 


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