If You Build It They Will Come

Parker took this Elgin glam shot for Arabica Cafe's Facebook page. I'm looking forward to watching the newly renovated tower fill up with folks who are ready to "live in a landmark" and enjoy the wealth and health of this city. 
An active transportation advocate from Chicago recently remarked to me how much more difficult it must be to bike commute for a whole month in "the suburbs" compared to Chicago. I said I really wasn't sure. I've never lived in the city, and now that I think about it, I'm not sure I've ever lived in "the suburbs."

To be sure some parts of Elgin feel suburban. We've got strip malls and cul de sacs. But we've also got a re-emerging downtown and lovely city parks all built around an old city grid with slow moving traffic and manageably small blocks which makes at least the area of town I bike the most feel at least as bike-friendly as the neighborhoods of Chicago I've toured on two wheels (Except for the 606. I would eat my bike lights to ride on the 606 to work every day).

The advocate said well, maybe Elgin is a more bike-friendly place than other "suburbs." I said "maybe." I couldn't imagine myself, for example, bike commuting as happily down Golf Road to the Woodfield Mall every day. I don't know how far away most homes are from most grocery stores in Hoffman Estates. All I know is I can get to my office/my church, my doctor, my kids' doctor, my dentist, my grocery store, my favorite coffee shop, my hairdresser, my local art studio, my library, my pool (both indoor and outdoor), my police station, my yoga studio, my city hall, my closest local friends' houses, my veterinarian, and now even my acupuncturist on two wheels from my house.

credit: Brandon Wong via unsplash.com
So, is Elgin not really a "suburb" or is it a special kind of "suburb?" Maybe both. Besides being billed as "A community that cares," Elgin also goes by the tagline "The city in the suburbs." Chicago may be our bigger sister by the millions in terms of people, but she is only older than us by a couple decades. Since the founding of both cities the suburbs rose up to cover the farm fields in between (and all around Elgin) until we have the sprawling metro area of today. That means Elgin has a real town center to which, from which, and in which walking, biking, and public transit can take root more easily because that is the way people got around it when it was originally designed and built (Talk about an opportunity for "progress through preservation!").

It's true too that I don't know as much about what's out on Randall Road beyond my trek to Sherman Hospital and back (though I have found a back route to the hospital, Nick's Pizza, Portillo's, etc. that will serve should I need it and the buses not run there that day). That makes my Elgin experience different than some but I'm loving my experience.

Today we visited Evanston to redeem some store credit at Everyday Cycle and Motion and to take our Mazda on what might be one of the last long trips in it. Downtown Evanston, particularly closer to Northwestern University, has some legit bike culture with "kermit," separated and protected bike lanes, lots of clear signage about bikes and pedestrians, and multiple bike shops geared to commuters. The first time we visited was when we bought our Yuba Mundo eighteen months ago, and I remember having to pick my jaw up off the sidewalk after witnessing multiple tweens biking on the city streets by themselves like it was just normal. I have never once caught the young guys who roll through my neighborhood on their way to Channing Park riding out on Chicago or Channing Street. I'm guessing they just wouldn't feel safe, and I don't blame them.

The thing is I think we could do that here. We could do a lot of it even without costing anyone any parking or an unreasonable amount of money. We could do a lot with paint. We could do a lot with relatively cheap concrete curb. We could do a lot with signage (Imagine "Public Library 1.25 miles this way by bike," "Arabica Cafe .5 miles--->," "<----.75 miles by bike to Lord's Park" ). 

cred: Hector Martinez via unsplash.com 
Peter Walker in How Cycling Can Save the World has a chapter titled "If you build it they will come," in which he describes Seville, Spain and other cities like it where major bike lane creation was snickered at because of low existing ridership numbers. Spend all that money and who will use it? In Seville (as in neighborhoods of New York City and London) during construction they couldn't keep people off the emerging bike lane. Folks were jumping barriers and cutting plastic fencing to get out there onto the separated, protected paths. When the lanes were finished ridership skyrocketed and diversified. Once bike commuting to work, school, and the grocery store no longer required the bravado to contend with car traffic it was no longer the domain of predominantly fit, adult males. It turned out in Seville and places like it, there were hordes of people who were thrilled to become every day commuting and errand-running bike riders given the appropriate infrastructure.

It's a conversation I have heard more than once. "I'd love to bike to work... I used to bike my kids to school when we lived [somewhere else]... But I don't now because you'd never catch me on those roads. I would't feel safe."

cred: David via unsplash.com
But what if you did? What if we could do this in Elgin? What if bike riders went from being "permitted users" to "intended users" in our city? What if we had a little fleet of e-bikes for rent downtown? What if we made the most of our "city in the suburbs" uniqueness and blew all the other surrounding "suburbs" out of the Fox River water in terms of being a walkable, bikeable, healthy, connected city? What if we made the most of being connected to all those other Fox River Valley Trail communities and promoted the life out of the ability to tour such beautiful country on two wheels? What if the folks who will live in that newly renovated tower could see and learn to love this city like I do--on two wheels? 

I feel emotionally connected to my Mazda I realized today riding to Evanston thinking about selling it. I have a lot of memories, particularly from Iowa, of riding in it with my guys. I will mourn its loss if (and I feel increasingly when) we finalize our decision to sell it. But what I won't mourn is a loss of mobility since I find myself perfectly placed in a "suburban" city with great bones for getting around by bike and the potential for so much more to come.


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