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Lots of Americans became cyclists during the pandemic. And across the country, cities are trying to accommodate this boom in cycling by developing more bike lanes and trails. But some cycling advocates say that's not enough. They see a disconnect between making safe cycling infrastructure and streets that still favor cars and trucks. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing along Chicago's iconic DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Cars are speeding through Grant Park. But that's what roads like this are supposed to do - right? - move cars and trucks along fast. Well, the first vehicles on the nation's roads weren't automobiles. They were carriages and bikes. In fact, the League of American Bicyclists has been around since 1880, long before cars.
BILL NESPER: We lobbied Congress at the end of that century to get the first paved roads in the United States.
SCHAPER: Bill Nesper heads the league and says it wasn't until after World War II that our streets became so car-centric.
NESPER: And it continues to this day - a prioritization of moving vehicles as quickly as possible through places. And it's absolutely true that people moving and getting around by foot and by bike is an afterthought if thought about at all.
SCHAPER: But many cities, including Chicago, are now trying to change that. In a recent speech to the City Club of Chicago, Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi announced a big new plan to build up the city's bicycling infrastructure.
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GIA BIAGI: So when you match this vision for trails and corridors to our pursuit of that citywide bike system, you get the most connected city in the country. And that is where we are headed.
SCHAPER: But many of those who ride bikes in Chicago are not applauding. In fact, they've been in a somber mood because in recent weeks, three cyclists have been killed by cars.
CHRISTINA WHITEHOUSE: I hate putting these on. I hate everything about this.
SCHAPER: Christina Whitehouse is founder of a group called Bike Lane Uprising. She and dozens of other cyclists joined the family of Gerardo Marciales in placing a ghost bike, a bike spray-painted white as a memorial, at the intersection where he was killed by a driver who ran a red light.
WHITEHOUSE: The reason that so many people are here is because we've all had our own close calls.
SCHAPER: Whitehouse says cyclists are getting hit and killed by cars and trucks at an alarming rate, so much so that she's had to start buying ghost bike materials in bulk. According to the National Safety Council, 1,260 bicyclists were killed in 2020, up 16% from the year before and 44% more than a decade ago. But cycling advocates say it's not just fast and reckless driving that puts cyclists at risk but also how roads and intersections are designed. Like many cities, Chicago has been adding bike lanes to its street grid, painting white stripes four to six feet wide on certain thoroughfares, giving cyclists their own lane. But very few of those lanes are protected, and Whitehouse says too many drivers don't respect them.
WHITEHOUSE: Paint is not protection. It's not going to prevent anyone from, you know, running me over.
SCHAPER: Her group Bike Lane Uprising documents bike lane violations and maps problem areas. Volunteers upload photos and videos of cars and trucks stopping, parking and driving in bike lanes with little to no enforcement. And Bill Nesper of the League of American Cyclists say similar bike safety problems exist all across the country.
NESPER: While there's been a lot of infrastructure that has been put in in the last 20 years, like bike lanes, protected bike lanes, more connected off-street trails, there still aren't safe places to ride in most communities where people feel safe.
SCHAPER: But Nesper says there's billions of dollars in new federal infrastructure funding headed to cities and states, some of it specifically for safe bicycling infrastructure.
NESPER: We believe that all of our streets - there is an engineering solution to this.
SCHAPER: At a minimum, experts suggest painting bike lanes green so they stand out more and adding plastic bollards between car and bike lanes. Ideally, they say bike lanes should be separated by concrete curbs or barriers. Amy Rynell heads the Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance.
AMY RYNELL: At any intersection on any street, there are things we could do for not a lot of money to slow cars down. And that takes political will. It may take removing some parking. It may take lowering speed limits or changing lights. But we could do it. It's not rocket science.
SCHAPER: Chicago and many other cities are installing some of these measures. But some urban planners say they have to walk a delicate line while building safe bicycling infrastructure at a time car and truck road congestion is getting worse because, like it or not, those vehicles are here to stay. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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