Graphic of Me Trail for illustrative purposes

Bike Planning for a Hopeful Future

It was hard to be hopeful in 2020, with one crisis after another fighting for our attention: COVID-19, climate change, the financial crisis, and systemic racism. Additionally, quarantining may be testing our stress and general health from lack of social contact and exercise. But as the former Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” By that reasoning, we see these crises in this era as ripe with immense opportunity.

What does bike transit have to do with any of this? Imagine if we could safely traverse our lakeside communities from the Wisconsin border to Indiana via trails and bike lanes. Workers could get to jobs, students to schools, shoppers to our businesses – without adding to crowded roads and carbon emissions.

Low-cost mobility is a key component of reducing barriers between communities and permitting the flow of commerce, contributions, and equity through our region. Regional active transit is possible now with the exception of our area: Evanston, Rogers Park, and Wilmette. We are a regional road block and this is where the trails in our area end: The Green Bay Trail, The Lakefront Trail, The North Shore Channel Trail, Sheridan Road lanes, and so on. This is why the Evanston Transit Alliance was formed – to bridge the gaps in our area’s trail network.

How did we get here?

It’s no accident that communities have been laid out with barriers to the flow of citizens. Historically, suburbs had been designed as communities separated from the perceived threat of the urban masses. Barriers have been built to resist the easy flow of people rather than encourage it. Consider the southern border of Evanston along the lakefront – a cemetery wall, busy Sheridan Road, a narrow distressed sidewalk, and a row of boulders – as a clear example of a city designed to discourage bike and pedestrian transit.

Daniel Burnham, famous Evanston resident and coauthor of the Chicago Plan, wrote before moving to Evanston in 1886, “I can no longer bear to have my children in the streets of Chicago”. Those were different times and we perhaps have changed our attitudes toward restricting opportunity and mobility today. 

If we are now more enlightened and fighting for equity, embracing fitness and active transit, and a cleaner environment, then we can see the problems that our barriers and dead ends cause. Recently we’ve become aware that we want front-line workers to have easy access to work, and we want everyone to access parks for walking, running, biking, and playing.

The good news is that there are trail connection opportunities in plain sight. In this series of articles, the ETA would like to present a trail connection as it relates to each specific crisis.

Chapter 2: The MeTrail Addresses the Equity Crisis

In a recent Bloomberg article, Marcus C. Mundy, Executive Director of the Portland-based alliance Coalition of Communities of Color, wrote “Policies as mundane as infrastructure and accessibility represent the next frontier in our struggle. The fight for fairness and equity lives in our tax, social, and urban policies, perhaps even more than in our words and rhetoric. While not glamorous, these policies offer communities of color the access to education and economic opportunity to lift themselves up, the benefits of which pave a path to higher economic status and build political power that is desperately lacking.”

Locally, a recent eye-opening story published by Active Transit Alliance disclosed that Metra ridership is down 90% six months into the pandemic and traditional suburbanites commuting downtown may not soon return. Metra acknowledges a need to change to survive and are discussing fare options, scheduling alternatives, and other changes. How to provide transit to the essential workers still traveling downtown for work now, and for others in the future? 

An overlooked opportunity is the vacant third rail line running seven miles south from the Wilmette/Evanston border to Bryn Mawr Avenue in Chicago along the elevated Metra tracks.

We like to call it the MeTrail.

We believe this vacant space could be transformed into a parallel bike and walking trail providing an elevated connection from the Green Bay Trail and ending near the Lakefront Trail. In pleasant weather, bikers could commute safely without confronting auto traffic. In foul weather, these commuters could jump on the Metra.

It’s a combination that rivals peanut butter and chocolate. Clearly, it would draw new riders to Metra as the route passes through diverse and high density neighborhoods in Evanston, Rogers Park, and further south. An off-road trail would also give new bikers incentive to try bike commuting while having a reliable backup plan available. 

This is a transformational opportunity by converting a portion of the unused Metra corridor – currently a wall dividing neighborhoods – into an attractive, healthy resource which bridges regional barriers and brings citizens together. Even better, existing bike corridors at ground level are ready on multiple streets in Chicago (Howard, Touhy, Morse, and Pratt) and in Evanston (Oakton, Main, and Church). The CTA and Divvy stations already exist along the same train line, too. ETA proposes weaving a new connection by using infrastructure already in place to bring accessible transit to people of all colors and walks of life.

Conclusion

Through this series of articles attempt to draw multiple connections between each of our current crises and a corresponding trail link. Clearly, trails are not cure-alls to our ills, but each link explored here could be a local ingredient in capitalizing our existing assets.

As infrastructure investments materialize, we need to make sure it targets inequity, health and environmental concerns. New bike lanes provide a steady stream of customers, allowing existing businesses to thrive. They also provide elegant solutions to connect neighbors with healthy options and new means to travel throughout our region.

We at Evanston Transit Alliance see these connections as a means to build a better life for everyoneJoin us!

Participate in the Movement:             

· Let your Aldermen, Representatives, and Mayor know what you value.

·  Ask candidates for upcoming local elections about their plans to improve our trail network. If they don’t know, share this series of articles with them.

·  Follow the ETA Facebook page to help us move forward, to ride with us next year, and find out more.

·  Join Go Evanston for safer streets.

·  Join one of our partners like Bike Wilmette or Citizens for a Greener Evanston.

·  Join a local equity movement.

·  Read the City of Evanston Climate Action and Resistance Plan.

 Evanston Transit Alliance members are John Fervoy, Steve Kismohr, Mike Moran, Jeff Balch, Jeff Axelrod, and Reuben Perelman.

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