By David Warren
On Drexel Boulevard in Bronzeville between 45th and 49th Streets, residents are pushing the 4th Ward Office of Alderman Sophia King to find a solution to limited parking.
King held a meeting in October 2019 to propose ways to increase parking, but ultimately she chose to make no changes to the layout when workers repaved the boulevard later that month.
King’s proposals included changing bike lane positions to allow parking on the boulevard interior, but cyclists objected, citing safety concerns. Limited parking also has led members at local churches to park in the bike lanes on Sundays, prompting complaints from area cyclists and their supporters.
Frank Johnson, a trustee and pastor’s assistant at Grant Memorial AME Church on the corner of Drexel and 40th Street, said church members have no choice but to park in the bike lanes. “We are locked in as far as churches go for parking. We have no alternatives for parking. It’s kind of a unique situation to be in.”
Johnson said church members use the bike lanes only for a limited time, around 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Sundays. He suggested moving the bike lanes to the center of the boulevard, “similar to what you have in the park district.”
Letting church members park in the bike lanes, even for a limited time, is not an acceptable solution to the problem, said Kyle Whitehead, managing director of public affairs at Active Transportation Alliance, an organization that advocates for bike lanes. “The need for people to park and get to their place of worship is obviously legitimate…but it can be balanced with the need for people to travel through and around the community safely. Those things can be managed so we are not choosing between parking and bike lanes. We can find a way to meet these parking demands.” Whitehead said he did not know what could be done in this particular situation, but that communities often have more parking than residents may know about.
According to Whitehead, regardless of the solution, “most people have said they are comfortable and supportive with the street the way it is set up and keeping the bike lanes in place, not just to make it safer for people biking but to preserve the character of the community and the neighborhood and make the streets safer for everyone.
“From what we know, adding a bike lane doesn’t just add safety for people on bikes,” Whitehead added. “It also narrows the travel lanes and encourages people driving to drive closer to the speed limit. And when people are driving safely, it is easier to cross the street, so it creates a better environment for pedestrians—and just generally creates a more livable neighborhood. That’s the type of feedback I saw from residents who were participating in the community conversation the alderman was coordinating.”
While cycling supporters actively defended bike lanes at the October meeting, some advocates have called for a nuanced solution more closely tailored to residents’ needs. Olatunji Oboi Reed, president and CEO of Equiticity, a racial equity movement, said he supports bike infrastructure but urged cyclists to compromise “with respect to the culture that exists in our neighborhoods. I am an active cyclist. I advocate for safe bike lanes…However, I am also a native South Sider. My mom took us to church on a regular basis. She goes to church on a regular basis. I also understand that perspective as well.”
Reed is concerned about white cyclists who do not live in the neighborhood “taking this blanket advocacy position that under no circumstances should bike lanes be blocked.” He believes that position will hurt both the cyclists and the community, and that what the neighborhood needs is “to integrate infrastructure in a way that is cultural and contextual. I don’t think the City of Chicago has done a good job at that.” Reed noted he was “cautiously optimistic” that new Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gia Biagi “will bring a sense of racial equity and mobility justice to this work and [that] we will begin to look at all types of architecture in a way that is contextual and cultural with respect to the neighborhood it serves.”
Naomi Davis, a board member on the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership and founder of Blacks in Green, a community building and organizing network, directly questioned the wisdom of supporting and maintaining bike lanes on the South Side of the city. Davis asked for a “forensic analysis of the cost of bike lanes in the City of Chicago. For me, this is part of the story. What is the cost? Is the cost of bike lanes extractive of black communities?”
From her experience, black and brown communities tend to commute in the bike lanes far less frequently than white communities, and churchgoers should not be inconvenienced in this situation. “Should neighborhood churchgoing people, in addition to possibly supporting a benefit that they are not enjoying, should they also be inconvenienced?” Davis asked. “Ticketed, inconvenienced, have to walk farther.”
The larger issue, she said, is that neighborhood communities on the South Side need “a more activated neighbor voice” in order to organize around their self-interests to persuade the City to adopt policies and programs that meet residents’ needs.
It remains to be seen whether the 4th Ward makes any of the proposed changes to the bike lanes or considers making room for more parking in Bronzeville. Alderman King currently does not have any other meetings scheduled with residents concerning parking, and her staff’s response to requests for an interview with the alderman was “Unfortunately, our office is unavailable to comment at this time.”
Active Transportation Alliance’s website is http://activetrans.org/, and the phone number is (312A) 427-3325. For the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, log on to https://bronzevillepartners.com/, or call (773) 532-9850. For Equiticity, see https://www.equiticity.org/, or call (773) 916-6264. For Grant Memorial AME Church, log on to https://grantmemorialame.org/, or call (773) 285-5819. Alderman King’s website is http://www.aldsophiaking.com/, and phone number is (773) 536-8103.