BIKE BLVDS: Chicago's Economic, Environmental Savior

The City of Chicago is going to be a reported $635 million in deficit for 2012. Clearly, the decades of fiscal leadership has left something to be desired in this city. Mayor Daley can brag about all the beautification projects he installed throughout the city - turning Meigs Field into a concert venue, installing more lights and planter boxes - but did it make Chicago any more attractive to taxpayers and businesses to live in? Aesthetic improvements do not help anyone's bottom line - not a homeowner trying to keep her home or a business owner looking to stay out of bankruptcy.

When he was sworn into office in May 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said: “New times demand new answers; old problems cry out for better results. ... The decisions we make in the next two or three years will determine what Chicago will look like in the next twenty or thirty.” Emanuel went even further to say that his administration will focus on clean energies and their innovation as a cornerstone to economic growth in Chicago.

While it may sound strange to hear this, bicycles can be a major area for economic stimulus in Chicago if approached with a 21st century mentality to try and improve a city infrastructure built with a 19th-century approach. In fact, embracing bicycles can have a far greater positive on impact on Chicago than I think anyone has realized including the following:
1) raising millions of dollars in funds for Chicago,
2) establishing Chicago as one of the most business-friendly environments internationally,
3) cementing Chicago's aim of being one of the most progressive "green" cities on the globe,
4) reducing the daily congestion and road rage in the most heavily-trafficked areas in Cook County,
5) making the city safer for citizens of every walk of life

My stance last week about City Hall stopping the monthly Critical Mass and the effort by cyclists to "take back the streets" is part of a larger plan to help Chicago dig its way out of a $635M hole.

Like cyclists in the Critical Mass, I, too, would love to see more bicycles on city streets than cars. I am out there everyday on my bike and every year there is more and more bike traffic. The increase in bicyclists is noticeable and is getting unsafe. Consistently I see cyclists with no regard for drivers (and drivers with no regard for cyclists). Road rage is a very real, everyday problem. Dr. Leon James, an international expert on road rage, helped explain road rage to me better over the  course of several conversations and email while I was researching The Urban Cyclist's Survival Guide.

James explained that sharing the same space is a recipe for disaster given the increase in outside stimuli that commuters (cyclists and drivers) experience while steering their vehicles coupled with the increase in everyday stress - financial concerns, family issues and more traffic contained to the same small space.

So I spoke to city planners in California who are put in charge of the next generation of cities. How are these city planners being taught to look at traffic? Simple - they're embracing bicycle boulevards and other new methods that alter the infrastructure of a city (how the streets are built and/or used) to find ways to reduce conflict and improve commute times.

I have worked in professional sports for 17 years and I suggest that City Hall takes a page from pro sports and turn to the corporate world to solve its financial problems. In short, I propose that Chicago establish several bicycle-only roadways ("bike blvds" from this point forward) that are paid for by corporate dollars and can then be used as exclusive advertising for those companies for a 5- or 10-year period. (No long-term contracts, like the short-sighted 75-year parking-meter contract City Hall approved with disastrous results forcing other cities to rethink their long-term contracts.)

My plan is simple and while it may anger some Critical Mass participants in the short term, I think in a couple years they will be ecstatic because unlike their undefined goal of "taking back the streets" by forcing themselves on motorists, my plan truly does "take back the streets" for cyclists by working with motorists to give them their streets and we, as cyclists, will have our streets to cycle on safely too.

My plan is simple and is already in place with success in San Francisco and Portland, though they have yet to monetize the project the way Chicago would.

First, Chicago must stop supporting Critical Mass in its current form by giving the group a taxpayer-paid police escort through the city. Instead, City Hall gets involved directly, mapping out 12 routes (one per month) that will take the cyclists to different wards - wards that want and encourage the cyclists' to experience their ward. If a ward does not want the Critical Mass going through its neighborhood, then that neighborhood will be avoided.

Chicago charges all cyclists a fee, say $10 per person, to participate in this new Neighborhood Ride-A-Long. The annual Bike-The-Drive is a fun experience for cyclists and allows the city to make money by embracing the green energy community. Why not do it monthly instead of annually? Why not offset the cost of police escorts instead of their work being a monetary loss?

The next step is to establishing "bike blvds" throughout the city: 2 north-south corridors and 5 east-west corridors. Each corridor would have a corporate sponsor that will be given the rights to be a "Corporate Partner of Chicago" for the length of the contract (decade or less) and that company can advertise solely on that bike blvd (given certain restrictions). The entire cost of installing the bike blvds would be paid by the sponsor so that City Hall will do all the work (nobody will be fired), but corporations will be paying the bills.

How much could bike blvds bring into the city? Let's look at other major "vehicles" (ok, sorry for the pun) of corporate-sponsored naming rights for sports facilities. The White Sox earn $3.4M annually until 2025 from U.S. Cellular for naming rights. The Houston Texans in the NFL get $10M per year from Reliant. The Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL are so bad that the team just moved from Atlanta to Canada and yet the stadium in Atlanta they shared with the Atlanta Hawks (one of the NBA's worst franchises for most of 20 years) earns the arena owner $9.8M per year until 2019 - and that is for a stadium shared by two of the worst sports franchises in North America for the past 20 years.

At the other end of the spectrum are Olympic sponsors who average $78M per year in sponsorship. McDonald's, Visa, Coca-Cola, Dow, GE, Panasonic, Proctor & Gamble and Samsung are part of the 11 corporate sponsors that support the Olympics. The 2012 London Olympics have raised more than 700M pounds (that is roughly $1.1 billion dollars) all through corporate sponsors.

Why not entice those international companies to be part of Chicago's future, embrace them as partners and allow them to share their advertising message in exchange for bailing out Chicago from a half-billion dollar shortage? The cash-strapped city of San Diego already has a corporate sponsorship with Pepsi to help ease its financial burden so this idea isn't revolutionary, it's actually in use by other cities.

Embracing the corporate world and advertising is the easiest and most direct way for Chicago to bail itself out of its financial quagmire.

While bike blvds hardly provide the excitement for advertisers that the Olympics do, don't sell bike blvds short too quickly. If the City of Chicago embraced these bike blvds with the same fervent manner in which they decided to beautify the city - like reducing Congress from four lanes of traffic to three just to add flower boxes - then bike blvds would not only come into existence here, but they would be a major source for income by courting corporate sponsors. If Chicago decides we don't like the idea - we can stop it at the end of the short-term contract (not 75 years later like with the parking meter fiasco).

Chicago City Clerk Susan Mendoza is proposing a similar idea for city stickers, allowing for corporate advertising where currently there are only city logos.

Installing bike blvds is very similar, but with greater results bicyclists and bike blvds can:
1) raise millions of dollars in funds for Chicago,
2) establish Chicago as one of the most business-friendly environments internationally,
3) cement Chicago's aim of being one of the most progressive "green" cities on the globe,
4) reduce the daily congestion and road rage in the most heavily-trafficked areas in Cook County,
5) make the city safer for citizens of every walk of life

"Today, more than any other time in our history, more than any other place in our country, the city of Chicago is ready for change," said Mayor Emanuel in his inauguration speech.

Bike blvds represent not just change, but economic relief and a reduction of the daily aggression for millions of commuters.

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  • Not everyone wants to sell out everything they depend on to soulless multinational corporations. Next thing you'll be telling the schools to court pepsi to close their budget holes. Or ask Bank of America to fill our potholes - just every time we do, they get a logo stamped on top of it? Chicago learned what privatization means with the disastrous parking meter deal. Cyclists shouldn't have to pay a toll to some money hungry company, or be burdened with miles of unceasing logos when cars have had a century worth of roads built for them on the people's dime.

  • Can you make up your mind what your proposed $10 fee to participate in critical mass is supposed to underwrite? I thought we were supposed to raise the money to pay for the police, who participate in the ride (unbidden). I also suspect there'd be a deleterious effect on ridership numbers, to put such a high toll on participation. But still - I guess it's worth a shot! Bring your money belt to Daley Plaza tonight and start collecting the admission fee. I'll help.

    One other thought - I was disappointed by your appearance on the Chicago Tonight show. Literally. You do not look like a guy who lives on his bike, unless your bike has a big pantry stocked with twinkies.

  • The reason the Sox get that naming revenue is because announcers say the name over and over while the game is broadcast. Outside the broadcast millieu, there is absolutely no reason for a sponsor to kick in that kind of dough. There is no reason why any television or radio outlet will have opportunity to say "The Kentucky Fried Chicken West Side Bike Boulevard", or "The Poulan Weed-Eater Bloomingdale Trail". No one actually says "US Cellular Field" in conversation, everybody calls it New Comiskey.

    If businesses are going to pay to sponsor this type of project, it'll be more along the lines of sponsoring a local rec-league softball team. A local bar or bakery kicks in a couple hundred bucks to underwrite uniforms and equipment. They get a nice little plaque to hang on the wall, and a little advertising. They get some good will from the parents or team members, and everybody gets a warm fuzzy feeling.

  • My host, Mike McConnell is interested in having you on the show on Monday. Email me at for more details.

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    "So I spoke to city planners in California ... "

    Scott, California is not a city.

  • I reviewed your book, you can read it here:

    If I hadn't bought it used I would be asking for my money back; you should be ashamed to have cheated people be claiming to be experts and bilking people with this book. I challenge you, especially Scott Rowan, to come out and answer my questions about what qualifies him as an urban cycling expert fit to publish a book. Your book and your comments in the media show that you are not only not very knowledgeable about bicycles but that you are not very well informed when it comes to the workings of your own city's bike programs or advocacy groups, please come prove other wise. I would also like to publicly ask that if you are such a avid cyclist how come I never see you at social or advocacy events or even on Chicago's largest online community for cyclists?

    Will you delete this, or will you answer it?

    I will wait and see...

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