How Chicago’s Humboldt Park Neighborhood Embraced Bike Lanes

When African American residents in Portland initially opposed the extension of bike lanes on North Williams Avenue last year, it seemed to signify a wider perception that bike infrastructure mainly serves white professionals. While cycling for transportation is most common among low-income Americans, bike lanes were only on the table for North Williams once more affluent people were biking on the streets.

The West Town Girls' Bike Club in Chicago's Humboldt Park. The neighborhood, once resistant to bike infrastructure, now embraces it. Photo: Grid Chicago

The perception of bike infrastructure as a sign of gentrification used to hold sway in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood too. But John Greenfield at Grid Chicago reports that attitudes toward bike lanes in this Latino and African-American neighborhood have shifted from resistance to enthusiasm:

People in Humboldt Park, a largely low-income Latino and African-American community on Chicago’s West Side, once opposed bike facilities as well. So it was a good feeling yesterday when I took my first spin on new buffered bike lanes under the giant Puerto Rican flag arches of the neighborhood’s Division Street business strip. I viewed them as a sign of how much attitudes about cycling have changed in Humboldt Park over the last decade. And as the city moves forward with the Streets for Cycling plan to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes within Mayor Emanuel’s first term, the story of the Division Street bike lanes offers a lesson on the need to engage local people in the process.

In 2003, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) installed bike lanes in gentrified, bike-crazy Wicker Park, located just east of Humboldt Park, on Division from Ashland Avenue to Western Avenue, the border between the two neighborhoods. The stretch of Division in Humboldt Park between Western to California Avenue, known as the Paseo Boricua (“Puerto Rican Way”) and defined by the flag arches, is the same road width. But Chicago aldermen have final say on whether bike facilities get built in their wards and Billy Ocasio, Humboldt Park’s alderman at the time, opposed extending the lanes into his ward, according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales.

The Paseo, lined with Puerto Rican cafes, restaurants, bodegas and salsa clubs, has retained its character over the past decade, but times have changed since Ocasio vetoed the lanes. Wilson, who’s white, says he worked hard to get the blessing of local community leaders before opening West Town on the Paseo in 2009. Since then his organization has taught safe cycling and mechanics skills to hundreds of at-risk kids in Humboldt Park. The store also offers affordable repair services in a neighborhood that already had a vibrant cruiser bike culture as the home of the Chicago Cruisers, a mostly Puerto Rican club that organizes rides with dozens of members parading on classic Schwinns.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Transportation for America outlines its “Transportation Vote 2012″ campaign to bolster smart transportation policies in the upcoming election. Mobilizing the Region reports on how the Connecticut Legislature blew it this session when it came to transportation safety measures. And Walkable Dallas Fort Worth explains why the city’s grand plans for a central park are unlikely to succeed.