Pandemic presents opportunity for communities to embrace biking and walking

COVID-19 has affected northeastern Illinois’ entire transportation system since March, with residents showing increased interest in biking and walking as one example. These travel modes provide an opportunity for outdoor activity when many other options are no longer feasible because of the pandemic. In the region, the Divvy bike-share system set monthly ridership records in AugustSeptember, and October, while many bike shops are experiencing unprecedented demand. 

A person riding a bicycle on a crosswalk

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Accommodating new demand with pop-up solutions

As the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning previously shared, important work is being done to increase facilities for bicyclists through pop-up bike lanes and other temporary changes. Chicago recently installed protected bike lanes using a lower-cost barrier to separate bicyclists from car travelers. Metra also has made it easier for cyclists to bring their bikes on board with a new dedicated bike car and by easing rush hour restrictions. 

Cities across the globe, from Boston to Milan to Bogota, have used construction barrels and other materials to invest in new dedicated bike lanes to make biking safer and more accessible. Other places, like Spain and the Netherlands, have lowered urban speed limits to reduce fatalities and injuries from collisions. Communities across our region can follow these models to roll out new policies and create temporary infrastructure quickly and inexpensively to capitalize on expanded interest in biking and walking.

Local officials also need to be mindful of bike parking options. While bike parking typically is available on sidewalks, officials, instead, can install bike racks on streets and allow pedestrians more room to maintain physical distancing. Bike racks already have gone up in Highland Park and Chicago, creating street parking for bicyclists and freeing up sidewalk space for pedestrians and amenities like outdoor seating. For a total cost of $3,300, Chicago installs racks that accommodate 10 bikes or other devices like scooters. Local officials can look toward examples outside of our region too: Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis have rolled out dedicated storage spaces for bikes and scooters at intersections and key transfer points.

Preparing for winter

Northeastern Illinois already is home to an extensive network of bike lanes, sidewalks, and multi-use trails. Even though many communities face budget constraints this year, local officials need to ensure they maintain these safe outdoor spaces during the winter, especially as many residents continue to seek outdoor recreation. 

ON TO 2050, the region’s long-range plan, highlights concerted efforts communities must make to keep these spaces clear of snow and ice. Glencoe, for example, is planning to concentrate its snow-clearing efforts this season on priority sidewalks. Even before COVID-19, Eau Claire, WI, kept key multi-use paths clear for travel, as well as physical and mental well-being. While some paths require specialized equipment to clear, municipalities may still find opportunities to collaborate and share costs, particularly on key regional routes and other corridors that cross municipal boundaries.

Planning for the spring (and beyond)

Consistent with ON TO 2050’s recommendation to invest in safe bike and pedestrian pathways, communities should explore ways to make permanent infrastructure changes. As with recent curb uses like outdoor dining, communities that have enabled safer biking and walking this year may see sustained public interest. 

If there is interest, local officials should begin planning now to turn temporary accommodations into fixtures of their streetscapes once spring begins. Sidewalks can be widened (or added where they don’t already exist). And temporary bike lanes can be made permanent. Individually, these projects might seem small. But together, they can make the region safer, healthier, and easier to move around for everyone, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and long afterward. 

Key considerations for public officials

When planning for long-term infrastructure changes, officials should consider four key areas and ask themselves the following questions. 

Changing demand

Has your community seen an increase in biking, scootering, or walking? Can your roads, sidewalks, and pathways safely handle the demand? What changes could you make to serve these travelers?

Preparing for the months ahead

Is your community ready to keep key sidewalks and bicycle paths clear throughout the winter? Can you partner with nearby communities to share costs and decrease response times Are there opportunities now to begin planning for future bike and pedestrian investments?

Funding these investments

Although bicycle and pedestrian projects often are more affordable than auto-oriented ones, they are not free. Could these investments fit into an existing program in your budget? Have you considered applying for outside funding, either through CMAP-administered programs like the Transportation Alternatives Program or others like Cook County’s Invest in Cook? Can you approach philanthropic groups for help, as has been the case for pop-up bus lanes in Cambridge, MA, and bike lanes in Northern Kentucky

Supporting different users

Changes to accommodate shifts in demand during the pandemic have generally been well received, even when they involve reallocating space originally geared toward car travel or parking. Are there good examples from your neighbors or others that can demonstrate the benefit of these changes? How will you balance different user needs? What steps will you take to ensure broad, representative community feedback on changes?

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