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It’s hard to pinpoint when bicyclists first started enjoying rides along Chicago’s lakefront. But as Chicagoans’ love and appreciation for the bicycle grew, so did the city’s biking infrastructure, including the beloved Lakefront Path.

By Jaimielee Velasquez, Senior Manager of Digital Initiatives

Mayors pave the way

The city’s history of cycling mayors dates back to the late 19th century. During his campaign for mayor, Carter H. Harrison took a 100-mile round-trip ride from Chicago to Waukegan to share his slogan—“Not the Champion Cyclist, But the Cyclists’ Champion”—with voters. He won the first of five terms in 1897, at the peak of a bicycle frenzy. According to the Chicago Tribune, about one in every five Chicagoans was riding a bike by then, a huge increase from a decade prior due to the introduction of “safety bicycles,” the first models with two wheels of equal size. While in office, Harrison had a bike path built from Edgewater to Evanston. His work was the start of something new.

In the 20th century, Richard J. Daley championed for the development of a bikeway system in the city. He designated the Lakefront Trail as a bicycle path in 1963, creating a beloved piece of the city’s well-preserved lakefront that many have fought to keep “forever open, clear and free of buildings.” By the early 1970s, Chicago’s bicycle population had grown to an estimated 1.2 million, despite the only official bike path being located on the Lakefront Trail. Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, continued building on this bike infrastructure during his time as mayor, installing more than 100 miles of on-street bike lanes, 50 miles of bike trails and 10,000 bike racks throughout the city.

More recently, Chicago became one of the first U.S. cities to introduce a bike sharing system. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, Divvy was introduced in 2013, providing tourists and commuters especially with a new biking resource. Divvy launched with 750 bikes at 75 stations and has since grown to 580 stations and 5,800 bikes across the Chicago area.

A busy trail

Now considered a major transportation hub and recreation source, the Lakefront Trail spans 18.5 miles from Lane Beach on the city’s North Side to the South Shore Nature Sanctuary and Cultural Center on the South Side. Users of the trail gain access to some of the most picturesque views of the city while passing through 13 neighborhoods, several beaches and some of the city’s biggest parks. They also pass by numerous landmarks like Navy Pier, the Museum Campus and Soldier Field.

The trail has evolved to a point that it nearly fulfills the vision architect Daniel Burnham laid out in his 1909 Plan of Chicago for a linear park along the lakefront that would stretch to the city’s limits and provide recreation space to residents. In a study completed in 2011, the Chicago Park District and Active Transportation Alliance estimated nearly 30,000 people—residents and tourists, bicyclists and pedestrians—use the trail daily at some of the busiest points along the trail.

Future improvements

Despite its many advantages, there are still more improvements to be made to the Lakefront Trail. A project to separate the trail into two distinct paths—one for pedestrians and one for cyclists—started in early 2017, thanks to a $12 million donation from hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin. This separation project is the city’s biggest effort in recent years to boost safety and address one of the most common concerns of the trail’s users. It is slated for completion in 2018.

Another problem spot for many years has been near Navy Pier, where sidewalks and stoplights interrupt the trail. In 2014, work began to construct the new Navy Pier Flyover: a 2,700-foot-long, 16-foot-wide bridge spanning from Ontario Street to just south of the Chicago River. Officials say the $60 million project is also expected to be complete in 2018. Additionally, the park district and Active Transportation Alliance study from 2011 suggested the trail could benefit from increased safety measures at intersections near the trail and upgrades to underpasses and overpasses, drainage, lighting and on-street accessibility. Despite the room for improvement, the Lakefront Trail remains a unique part of the built environment that sets Chicago apart from other cities.