Chicago is a cyclist's dream. With 150 miles of bike lanes and more bike racks than any other U.S. city, my adoptive hometown is rightly proud to be the national leader in urban biking. We are helped by the uniformly flat Midwestern terrain. But the real credit goes to Mayor Richard Daley Jr. who has been a champion for bicycles. In addition to the network of commuting bike lanes, his administration has overseen the development of extensive recreational bike trails through parks across the city. The most famous of these is the 18 miles of trail along Lake Michigan. The city's biking culture is amplified through forest preserves across suburban Chicago.
I started bicycle commuting three years ago. Gas prices had peaked and commuter trains were packed as people minimized their cars usage. In addition, the expressway that connects the city to the suburbs was under construction. At one point along the 21 mile route, the bike path runs through a tunnel under the six-lane expressway. The trail continues alongside the roadway before veering off, back into the forest preserve. In my first year of biking, it was always a thrill for me to pedal along, overtaking the stalled traffic along the interstate. The driving commute took so long that the time it took for me to go to the gym and then drive was longer than my bike ride. So, I saved my gym membership fee, some time and had a great riding experience through the forest preserve in the bargain. During the work week, there are so few people out in the forest preserve that the ride is safe and calm. In early morning, or around dusk, the deer were out. I came to know where the various deer families lived. The trees keep track of the seasons. There was one patch of forest floor along the Chicago River that is the first to sprout new seedlings every Spring. A cluster of tree seedlings springs up in a large circular patch. They grow to about a foot tall and then the canopies of the established trees overshadow the patch. Fall is golden. The winter is a constantly changing scenery of ice and snow.
Riding through the winter has transformed my relationship with Chicago's winters. It's not just the constant cold (averaging in the mid- to high 20s) or the occasional bouts of intense cold (O degrees or colder + the wind chill factor) or, even the gloomy, overcast days. The hardest part is how long the winter is. Come March, when we see on television how the rest of the world is heading outdoors, we Chicagoans still have up to two months of the Chicago winter ahead of us.
Cycling has been my way of combating the Chicago winter blues. Many Chicago winter days are stunningly beautiful. By taking the battle to the outdoors, I don't feel closed in by the weather. With appropriate clothing and my winterized bicycle, I get to enjoy the outdoors, year-round.
The affluent North Shore suburbs along the shoreline of Lake Michigan keep the bike path clear, year-round. They plow the snow throughout the winter. I must be of one of the handful of folks who take advantage of this tremendous resource. This will be my fourth winter in which I regularly commute by bicycle throughout the winter.
Mayor Daley's administration is coming to an end. He steps down this winter. Looking ahead to February 2011, the city's mayoral race is being closely watched by Chicago's cyclists. Which of the candidates will build on Mayor Daley's legacy?
Bon voyage, Mayor Daley, and many thanks!