Bikes take over Ridge Avenue

Brian Rosenthal

Mayor Lorraine Morton sat in a bright yellow and red pedicab, brazenly barreling down the middle of Evanston’s busiest street.

Further down the road, dozens of children in Halloween costumes wove their tricycles through the four lanes of traffic, while their parents leisurely followed behind them on bicycles.

Volunteer Elizabeth Kinney smiled, standing in an orange vest on the side of the road to keep cars from driving on the street.

On Sunday, Ridge Avenue belonged to bikes.

It might have been a strange sight for residents of a city not known for being “bike-friendly,” but an estimated 440 people took to the road Sunday morning for Bike the Ridge, touted as the first event for bicyclist families sponsored by Evanston.

From 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., city officials closed the road to vehicular traffic between Howard Street and Church Street.

At south Evanston’s Ridgeville Park, public safety officials gave out helmets to attendees who registered their bikes.

“We just thought it would be fun, when all the construction was done, to have a little biking event,” said resident Candace Hill, who came up with the idea.

Ald. Steve Bernstein (4th) said the event lets the city focus on positive aspects of Evanston.

“We need events to honor important new things in town rather than violence,” said Bernstein, who took some flak from fellow residents for not bringing his bike. “This should take precedence for the day.”

Biking helps the environment, increases health and fosters camaraderie, Bernstein said.

He also addressed charges that the event was a waste of valuable tax resources. It cost $8,000, a little more than half of the original $15,000 proposal.

The event was worth it, Bernstein said.

“I’m not scoffing at eight grand,” he said. “But we need things like this – interaction between neighbors who never see each other and people having fun.”

The event was particularly special because it took place on Ridge Avenue, a road that’s usually closed to bikers because of its heavy traffic, said Evanston Bicycle Club member Ben Schapiro.

“It’s a nice opportunity to ride the one street in Evanston that’s always closed to bikes,” said Schapiro, 55. “This is really cool.”

A bike-friendly city?

Event attendees disagreed on whether Evanston is a “bike-friendly” city.

“Evanston is pretty good,” said Schapiro, whose 400-person club goes on weekly rides. “The streets are fairly wide and low-speed and people are sensitive to us.”

But other residents disagreed.

“It’s not a very easily biking city,” said Hill, who said she doesn’t own a car. “Evanston is an old city; the street system can’t grow and can’t change.”

Poor weather conditions prevent Evanston from becoming a top-tier biking city, Bernstein said.

The city is working hard to improve, said Paul Schneider, director of transportation and engineering.

“We’re in a continuous effort to try to improve bicycle access through town,” said Schneider, who took over earlier this month.

The city has taken steps since receiving a grant two years ago, said Ald. Anjana Hansen (9th).

That year, Evanston received a $200,000 federal grant to develop routes. The routes have been created and advertised, and more bike lanes are slotted to be drawn, Bernstein said.

“We’re trying to expand as we do re-surfacing,” Schneider said. “I don’t think roads are thought of for cars solely anymore.”

Student biking

The biggest problem with biking in the city is Northwestern students illegally riding on downtown sidewalks, Schapiro said.

“Riding on the sidewalk is just insane,” said the bike club member, who said he’s been clipped by bikers while walking. “Statistics show it’s the most dangerous place you can ride.”

While the practice is illegal downtown and on other sidewalks, many students do it, he said.

Weinberg freshman Jonathon Roullard is one of those students.

“I always bike everywhere I want,” he said. “It’s less dangerous than riding on the street. It’s not like you’re going to run into people. “

Police do occasionally patrol to look for bikers riding on the sidewalk, said Evanston Police Department Cmdr. Tom Guenther. Violators receive a traffic citation and must go to court, he said. Guenther would not say how often police patrol for bicyclists or how many citations are issued.

NU bikers have been injured in the past. In February 2006, then-Weinberg senior Archana Sriram was hit by a Hummer while biking to campus from her Rogers Park home. She suffered injuries to her face, jaw, pelvis and leg.

Bikers should think of themselves as cars, Hill said, adding that students should be educated about the dangers of illegal riding.

“It’s really hard to grow up from riding anywhere you want to obeying the traffic laws,” she said. “But when you learn to do it, biking is even more fun.”

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