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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