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Naperville needs to be more bike friendly

Children from the High Meadow neighborhood participate in a community bike ride during National Night Out on Tuesday, August 7, 2012 in Naperville IL.     | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media
Children from the High Meadow neighborhood participate in a community bike ride during National Night Out on Tuesday, August 7, 2012 in Naperville IL. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media

Although I’ve been doing it successfully for many years, I don’t consider myself an expert on walking. I don’t know what makes a town “walkable,” nor do I have a clue what sustainability means when applied to downtown architecture.

Therefore, I’m certainly not going to contradict the real expert on such things who recently gave Naperville high marks for being pedestrian friendly. I’m sure it is, especially if you’re nimble enough to avoid those huge SUVs whose aggressive drivers are incessantly chatting on their cell phones.

But once again Naperville was also termed bicycle friendly, and I feel compelled to point out that, as the term is typically used, downtown Napervile is not only unfriendly to bicycles, it is downright hostile to them. Portland, Ore., with its “complete streets” program, is bicycle friendly. Naperville is not even close.

And if we keep calling ourselves bicycle friendly, we never actually will be, and that would be too bad because we really ought to be someday. One of our greatest failings is that our downtown is totally dependent on automobiles, even though it has limited road access, intersections that are perpetually rated D or F, and a parking crisis.

Yes, we have some wonderful bike trails along the river, and I’m sure we must rank high in recreational biking. But in Naperville you can’t use a bike to do everyday things like go to the store. You can’t use a bike in place of a car, which is exactly the thing you can do in a real bicycle friendly city.

It’s not that we haven’t planned to be bike friendly. In fact, I was on a bike plan committee in the early 1970s that was composed of members of the Park District and two Naperville commissions. We spent over two years on a bike plan, interviewing representatives of the state police, bike safety experts, bikeway and bike path engineers, and other experts.

We laid out the entire plan before the City Council that approved it, budgeted money for signs and bike lanes, and made a solemn promise that whenever any road was improved engineering provisions would be made for safe biking, whether that would be marked bike lanes or separate bikeways.

What was critical was that we conducted a massive survey to determine where people wanted to go on their bikes. It turned out to be exactly the same places they wanted to go in their cars. Most bike plans fail because central planning doesn’t work. Committees can’t determine things like where people want to buy food from carts or where people want to go on their bikes. Those are decisions citizens must make themselves if the program is going to be successful. Then it’s up to the engineers and staff to figure out how to make it happen.

Of course, nothing came of that plan or any of the others in the last 40 years. The city had other priorities, so it did essentially nothing to make the town a safe and convenient place to bike. That’s why it’s not only unfriendly to bikes but such a dangerous a place to ride that I have approximately 20 letters from longtime bike enthusiasts who say that they refuse to ride downtown and won’t let their children ride there.

But all the things that the city once said it would do are things that it still could do if it wanted. We could someday reap the traffic and commerce benefits of increased bicycle use that cities like Portland enjoy. It will take some bold leadership and a willingness to shake things up a little. But it’s well within our grasp, and I just thought that May 1, the first day of National Bike Month, would be a good day to point that out.

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