Biking the Village

bikes on Lake

By Julie Chyna

Oak Park is a city of cyclists. Despite the dense traffic—at least at certain times of the day—the Oak Park streets and parks are full of hardcore cycling enthusiasts, casual riders, children with training wheels, and everyone in between, all using their bicycles to get around town. Fortunately, Oak Park also has a lot of resources for this wide range of cyclists.

“One of the reasons I chose Oak Park for my business is that the market here supports it,” says Curt Warner, owner of Bikefix, a Lake St. shop that sells high-end bicycles and repairs all types. “The main driver of this business is our service department, because there are so many cyclists here. Everybody with a bike needs service whether they ride every day or only pull out their bike on sunny days.”

The Plans for Bikes

Because of the ever-growing number of cyclists in Oak Park, in 2008, the Village adopted a Bike Plan developed by the Transportation Commission to make it easier for residents to use their bikes.

As part of that plan, with the help of the Active Transportation Alliance, the Village identified a network of local streets to be part of the Bike Boulevard System. These are streets with lower volumes and lower speeds where people can feel most comfortable riding their bikes.

Additionally, the Village has painted lines for bike lanes on busier streets such as Division St., Chicago Ave., and Jackson Blvd. Oak Park street renovation plans now usually include installation of more bike racks, as they did in the recent upgrade to Roosevelt Rd.

Acting Village engineer Bill McKenna says that Oak Park has received federal funding for many of these enhancements, including the wayfinding signs that point cyclists toward parks, tourist destinations, and other popular sites. Federal funds will also cover the cost of new HAWK (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK) beacons at Chicago Ave. and Harvey Ave., that will be activated when a pedestrian or cyclists needs to cross the busy intersection.

Other future plans include implementing some recommendations from the Transportation Commission’s study on bike sharing.

“Because of the grant we’ve received for Divvy Bikes, we are working to identify the best locations for bike share stations,” McKenna says. “The Commission’s study names nine top priority locations, and the grant specifies that the stations should serve transportation hubs, so we need to combine those lists come up with the best options.”

Promoting Cycling

“Oak Park has been progressive in doing things to help cyclists,” says Bill Watson, outgoing president of the Oak Park Cycle Club, “so I’m very much in favor of those efforts. Anything to keep cyclists safer is a good thing, and encourages more people to get on their bikes.”

The Oak Park Cycle Club is a the oldest bike club in the state of Illinois. Its goal is to encourage cycling at all levels, whether for recreation or transportation. Anyone with an interest in cycling may join and take part in the camaraderie and increased safety of group riding. Information about membership and scheduled group rides can be found on the group’s Facebook page.

“Also, there’s a greater fitness benefit because people tend to ride further and at a slightly faster pace in a group than they would by themselves,” says Watson. “In our club rides, we leave no one behind. If you’re riding a little slower than the group, someone will stay with you. The whole point is to ride together.”

Safety First

Watson used to commute from Oak Park into Chicago and says that the best way for cyclists to stay safe is to “act like a car” as much as possible.

“Motorists are used to signals letting them know what your next move is,” Watson says, “so I use a lot of hand signals and courtesy waves. Motorists’ awareness of cyclists is far more important for safety than lanes painted on the street or anything else. I also use a helmet mirror so I know what’s going on behind me. And don’t trust that anyone else is going to necessarily follow the rules. Stay on your toes.”

Greenline Wheels, a bike rental shop on Marion St., also working to promote safety for cyclists.

“I go to schools in the area to talk to the kids, which is so much fun,” says David Poppei, manager of Greenline Wheels. We like to get cyclists while they’re young. We talk about safety and the importance of wearing helmets.”

Bike Access for Everyone

Greenline Wheels rents bicycles, but only about half its customers are out-of-towners, Poppei says.

“In the summertime, we get a lot of tourists from all over the world. They usually want to rent bikes to ride around the Frank Lloyd Wright houses, downtown Oak Park, and other attractions in the area,” Poppei says. “But the other half of our customers are locals.”

Many local customers are taking advantage of Greenline’s bike share program. For $45, a cyclist can rent any of Greenline’s $8-an-hour bikes for the day, every day, for a full month.

“We include a helmet and a lock, and you don’t have to worry about storage or maintenance,” says Poppei. “It’s a great option for people who only ride during the warmer months.”

The shop also offers rentals of tandems, motorized bikes, and other unique cycles that renters might want to just try for the day. There are also specialized bikes available for disabled riders and others who might have difficulty riding a typical bicycle.

“We believe that nothing should hold you back from cycling,” Poppei explains. “We have a two-person bike that I call the Purple Beast, which we rent out for free to cyclists with limited use of their arms or legs. We also have three-wheeled bikes for adults, which we rent free to riders age 65 or older.”

A Growing Culture

“Oak Park can sometimes be challenging to ride around, compared to other suburbs that don’t have the density that we do,” says Bikefix’s Warner. “On the other hand, we have a lot of things to see and do in Oak Park that are very accessible on your bike. Maybe more accessible, because you don’t have to find parking! We have a healthy, active population who are aware of the environmental impact of cars, so that has created a large and growing bike culture here.”

Watson of the Oak Park Cycle Club agrees. “It’s probably a combination of having more bike lanes, more interest in biking for fitness, and the awareness that you don’t necessarily need a 3,000-pound vehicle to go a mile to the grocery store,” he says. “When I’m riding down the street, I often see other cyclists out and I think to myself, ‘I wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago.’”