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.

 The Lakefront Redesign Addresses the Climate Crisis 

The Lake Michigan lakefront has been taking a beating due to record level high water and storm waves. If the trend continues, our low-lying lakefront can expect continued erosion and flooding. Climate change is likely one cause, but lakeshore development and infill of shoreline buffer zones over the decades are probably contributing factors as well. 

Much of this infrastructure has been implemented under the guise of beach protection, while it also works as a buffer for Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive (LSD) quasi city-highway. The 2014 Illinois Bike Transportation Plan estimates that cyclists made up about 0.6% of all commuters. A 2015 report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy determined that if bike commuting increased to 14% by 2050, carbon emissions would be 11% lower than they are today. The City of Chicago’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) is currently seeking input on the renovation of LSD – including dedicated bus lanes. Can we reduce carbon emissions through increased bike and bus commuting while protecting existing parkland and private property along the lake – with one unified plan? 

As envisioned in the Burnham Plan, “the Lakefront by right belongs to the people… not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.” The City of Chicago must have run out of funding and will power as the plan’s implementation stopped at Thorndale Avenue. Public access is interrupted by private property heading north. Communities currently are spending millions of tax dollars on short term fixes. One example is covering Juneway Beach in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood with erosion protection elements (rocks), eliminating the beach to protect the park. Eventually communities will need to expand further into the lake for additional protection measures – as Chicago has to maintain their beautiful public lakefront from Rainbow Beach on the south side to Foster Beach on the north. We would like to propose a long term viewpoint – one which enhances our region’s coastline while protecting it.

Predictions on lake level rise also suggest private property owners along the lake will be forced to spend large sums to reinforce their lakefront to avoid destruction of homes and yards. The Chicago Tribune recently published a three part series on the challenges of lakefront erosion including “A lot of money for ‘a bunch of rocks’: The costs of combating erosion are forcing North Shore communities into hard choices.

Maybe this is already underway? A lakefront property owner in Wilmette requested a controversial variation to build a fence at the water’s edge of their property to try to prevent visitors from walking through their public back yard. Does this intervention speak of a trend where a great deal of investment to shore up shrinking protective measures results in reduced public access?

The Last Four Miles vision promoted by Friends of the Parks suggests expanding the parkway through the two miles of shoreline north of Edgewater where the trail currently ends, as well as two miles at Chicago’s southern border. We believe this vision should be expanded the final two miles north through Rogers Park and beyond to Evanston and Wilmette. All these communities need continuous lakefront access to maintain access to fresh air, recreation, and active transit for all their citizenry and visitors. 

As such, we propose a continuation of Chicago’s Lakefront Trail to be extended beyond its current dead-end at Ardmore Avenue (one block north of Hollywood Avenue) to provide safe biking, running, and walking for residents of three communities. Simultaneously, private owners could keep their lakefront protected with new off-shore revetments that could double as recreational trails. (See illustration.) A real win-win-win!

The City of Evanston might already agree. They have adopted a Climate Action and Resistance Plan with the following transportation goal: “Expand safe, convenient, and complete networks in Evanston for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit; facilitate the expansion of strong bicycle and transit connections between Evanston and neighboring communities.” This is the primary focus of ETA and the lakefront is the crown jewel of our region. It deserves protection and expanded public access.

Conclusion

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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