The Windy City
I'm not going to lie, I was a little disappointed: Chicago's winds really didn't live up to their hype at all. What absolutely exceeded my expectations though was Chicago itself, in so many different ways. For this leg of the trip and the previously mentioned train ride I had a friend with me, Mariah, who works with Amtrak. It was awesome not starting out my adventure alone but this was particularly convenient because, in using the train-side check in service for Stevie, I was doing a test run of a service not scheduled to be available until early fall. While it was definitely reassuring to have Mariah there in case anything went wrong, the crew on the Lakeshore Limited dealt with an unfamiliar situation so smoothly that getting my bike out into Union Station was no problem at all.
Speaking of Union Station: for me there really couldn't have been a better place to start in Chicago. Walking into Daniel Burnham's great hall was such an appropriate first taste of the city's storied architectural and planning history, plus I am a huge Devil in the White City nerd (which, if you buy on Amazon Smile, will support NARP's work!), so really it was just cool. Me geeking out over everything was pretty much the theme of the day actually. I went, with the help of Ted from the Active Transportation Alliance, on the most amazing bike tour.
Describing all of the amazing things I got the chance to see would take so much more page space than is appropriate for a blog. So I present you with: my list of the coolest things I got to see in Chicago (can you tell I like lists yet?).
1. The 606 This amazing converted elevated rail track serves many purposes and is actually coming up on its first birthday! Spanning almost 3 miles it is simultaneously a commuter highway, and neighborhood park. Hosting everything from block parties to art installations it is so much more than a bike path, but manages to serve that purpose equally well. What was exciting for me is that this really unique feature is more than just a tourist attraction; on a Monday afternoon it was crowded with people that all seemed to be from the surrounding neighborhoods. With a project as exciting as this, though, there is always an increase in surrounding real estate value -- leading to that very familiar story of growing tensions between longtime inhabitants of a neighborhood and those people attracted to the area by a new amenity.
2. Lakeshore Drive There is an unfortunate tendency in many large cities to run major transportation arteries along the outer edge, very frequently that means next to waterfront. Chicago both has and has solved this problem with Lakeshore Drive and the Lakefront Trail. Tunnels and bridges help pedestrians and cyclists alike navigate the former and access the later, providing incredible views of Lake Michigan and an amazingly busy recreation trail. Even at noon on a Monday the place was packed to the teeth and it really wasn't difficult to see why. A major improvement is coming to the trail soon in the Navy Pier Flyover which will allow bicyclists and pedestrians a safer and more expedient path near the heavily congested Navy Pier area.
3. Northerly Island Park The Northerly Islands have at varying points in their history played host to both a Worlds Fair and an airport. Today though they are slightly more accessible as a major restoration project has reverted them back into a 91 acre park. This rolling terrain is populated by native flora and serves as a recreation area, an important refuge for migratory birds, and also as a buffer of lake Michigan. Designing for resilience is, as a student, something I hear a lot about, so seeing it practically applied was very exciting. Oh also its really pretty; I should probably mention that.
4. The Riverwalk I know, I know its touristy -- but at least I didn't say the bean, right? While this path isn't necessarily designed for bikes, and there are honestly places you should get off and walk for the safety of pedestrians, it was for me one of the highlights of the trip. Steel, glass and brick mingle in 200 years of architectural prowess, all of it rising hundreds of stories out of a twisting river. Predictably, and like many of the other places I got to visit, this place was absolutely packed.
5. 100 Miles of Protected Bike Lane So in a strict sense the lanes are not protected, but I saw a several miles of downtown Chicago exclusively via designated bike lanes, barrier protected bike lanes, and buffered lanes. In a very unfamiliar downtown area I was able to access areas of the city by bike that I would never have attempted to without these lanes. What makes these even more impressive is the incredibly tight 5 year time frame in which they came about.
Those are my highlights but I fell hard and fast for Chicago in every way. I'm not done yet but I am already sad I am going to have to leave. The scary part is the next time I get on a train its going to be taking me to another amazing city and then again I am going to have to leave that place. I have a funny feeling that by the end of this trip I'm going to feel like I got broken up with 18 times; you know, in a good way :)