Old Urbanist has put up a nice overview of the potential pitfalls of pro-bicycling efforts. In short, we should not expect that merely promoting bicycle use will reduce automobile use; indeed, many new cycling trips will replace transit or walking trips rather than car trips. For instance, my wife bought a Brompton, which she often uses to ride downtown to work, but she does so in place of taking the Metra. And pollution aside, bicycles in a dense urban environment have many of the same problems as cars: like cars, space is needed to park them, and a street full of zooming bicycles is nearly as dangerous to pedestrians as one full of zooming cars, if not more so. Moreover, bicycles aren’t terribly compatible with transit. These aren’t serious problems in an urban environment like present-day Chicago, where overall bike use is low. But in the long run, devoting too much attention to the bicycle is at odds with building a truly walkable city.
Hyde Park has been a hot spot for bicyclism as of late. The University of Chicago began its own bike-sharing program in 2009 and is currently planning to partner with a bike-sharing company to build a cycling center under the 53rd Street Metra tracks. And the Chicago Department of Transportation recently introduced a plan to install protected bike lanes along 55th Street and King Drive.
Now, I think all of these things are positive developments for Hyde Park. The protected bike lanes will help reduce traffic on some busy streets and thus improve walkability, and the easy availability of bicycles will help connect Hyde Park to neighboring communities. I can certainly imagine hopping on a recycles bike and pedaling up King Drive to Bridgeport to grab a delicious savory pie for lunch. But the underlying issue still remains: the South Side is sparse, transit-starved, and not terribly walkable. I fully support short-term, stop-gap efforts to improve things, but we must recognize them as such. We need to begin having the real tough conversations about urban development, the ones where we argue not about protected bike lanes on automobile-oriented streets, but about streets that are designed first and foremost for people, not vehicles.