LINCOLN SQUARE — Chicago's been a leader in developing a network of on-street bike lanes and routes but, short of the Lakefront Bike Path, off-road trail options have lagged.
Recent announcements of extensions to popular trails along the Chicago River have made small gains toward shifting that imbalance.
In late January, Grid Chicago (which has since morphed into Streetsblog Chicago) reported that construction is slated to begin in 2013 on an extension of the 20-mile North Branch Trail that will snake from Edgebrook to Mayfair, ending at Foster Avenue.
"I think it's going to make [the trail] a lot more accessible," said John Greenfield of Streetsblog, who gleaned the news from Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th).
Coupled with news in the fall of 2012 of a proposed underbridge at Addison Street, cyclists are now looking at a riverfront trail that, with a couple of notable gaps, could stretch from Belmont Avenue to the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Further south, a bridge at Halsted, near Goose Island, was designed to accommodate a bike path along the river in the future, according to Lee Crandell, director of advocacy and policy campaigns for the Active Transportation Alliance.
"A lot of developers are interested in connecting into the trail," he said.
Another trail improvement was revealed last week: Tucked into Gov. Pat Quinn's announcement of $50 million in federal transportation funding for Illinois was $979,600 set aside for construction of a pedestrian bridge near the Lincoln Village shopping center as part of the North Shore Channel Trail.
The channel trail, which begins at Lawrence and Francisco avenues and continues north to Evanston, currently comes to an awkward split after running under Peterson Avenue, a deficiency the bridge aims to rectify. Residents of the area may recall that the bridge has been on the books for years, but was kiboshed by former 50th Ward Ald. Bernard Stone.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities to build new trails in the city because it's so developed, so it's good to see this," said Crandell.
While acknowledging that Chicago's street grid holds greater potential for cycling than trails, particularly for commuting, Crandell noted "trails provide a low-stress, worry-free environment" that's more appealing to casual cyclists.
He cited a study conducted by Portland, Ore. — largely considered the gold standard city for urban cycling in the U.S. — which discovered different categories of cyclists.
The first, "strong and fearless," are exemplified by bike messengers and those riders willing to make left-hand turns at major intersections.
"They're about 1 percent of the population," said Crandell. "We're only seeing a small population [of riders] now, and they're the kind who takes risks."
The next group, "enthused and confident," represents roughly 7 percent of riders.
"They'll get out and ride bike lanes," he said.
But the vast majority, 60 percent of the population, falls into the "interested but concerned" category, according to Crandell.
"They want more opportunities to bike, but they're not going to do it. They're concerned for their safety."
Making the experience more comfortable for this last group, who aren't keen on riding in proximity to autos, could dramatically increase the number of individuals pedaling to dinner or shopping from one neighborhood to another, he said.
The city's Streets for Cycling plan acknowledges and makes accommodations for these riders, Crandell pointed out, incorporating protected bike lanes or "traffic calming" measures like neighborhood greenways where trails leave off.
A lengthened North Branch Trail with, say, protected bike lanes connecting gaps along Foster Avenue or between Montrose and Lawrence avenues, might be enough to encourage a resident of Edison Park to bike to dinner in Lincoln Square.
Said Crandell, "Bottom line, we're excited to see the trail extended."