Devising new cycle lanes that protect cyclists and contribute to more sustainable cities

Oliver Balch writes a good article in The Observer about plans for a novel new cycle path in Chicago that will be a floating car-free bike path along the surface of the Chicago River.

 

Chicago entices cyclists with plan for floating, solar-powered bike path

City cyclists, picture the scene: no more road-hogging drivers, no more day-dreaming pedestrians, no more puddle-splashing vehicles. Just a clean, clear ride straight downtown – and with river views all the way.

This is the vision of entrepreneur James Chuck, who is in advanced discussions with Chicago city government to build a floating car-free bike path along the surface of the Chicago River. Chuck, a former World Economic Forum award-winner for social enterprise, hopes to kickstart his ambitious four- to seven-mile RiverRide bike lane with two pilots next summer.

“If you look at photographs of Chicago a hundred years ago, you couldn’t throw a penny in the river without it landing on the deck of a boat or a barge. Now we’re not using the river at all,” says Chuck, co-founder of the design-oriented infrastructure company Second Shore.

The innovative project comes in response to a major campaign by city mayor Rahm Emanuel to make Chicago the most “bike-friendly city” in the US. The strategy is making progress but with more bikes on the road, come more accidents. Protected bike lanes can help, but full safety ideally needs “real separation” between bike and motor vehicle, says Chuck.

RiverRide will be built using structural concrete technology currently used for pontoons. The floating segments will attach at either end to the bank or bridges. The blueprints include the option of solar-powered lighting and a retractable roof to facilitate 24/7 use whatever the weather.

Will it work? Cities such as Philadelphia and Portland have already experimented with floating walkways, albeit much shorter. Moreover, Second Shore has an experienced technology partner in Finnish firm Marinetek, which has built more than 2,000 “floating solutions” over the last two decades. The list mostly comprises yacht marinas, but the company’s portfolio also includes several floating bridges and even a floating swimming pool in the Baltic Sea.

“The beauty of the floating system is that it’s quick and easy to install and dissemble … If you want to pick it up and reuse it somewhere else, that’s perfectly possible,” says Marinetek spokesperson Kristian Räme.

As well as being a simple solution for sustainable transport, Chuck says RiverRide will be a boon for downtown regeneration. The idea is for the bike path to connect existing cycle lanes, making it possible for cyclists to pedal seamlessly in and out of the city.

Paul Levy, vice-president at real estate firm Prairie Management and Development, is enthusiastic about the project. Prairie is currently developing a hub for small artisanal food and brewing companies in an old riverfront tannery near to the city’s Belmont district. “Hooking this up so people can get here on their bikes by river would be a huge asset for us,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced by the RiverRide proposal, however. Steve Vance, co-founder of the community website Streetsblog Chicago, worries that the cycle way won’t have space for pedestrians and that maintenance will prove costly.

His main gripe, however, is that it could redirect pubic money from street cycle lanes. “Not only are these more cost effective but they are more likely to grow bicycle ridership in the city because on-street cycling infrastructure intersects our neighbourhoods and homes … while the river only passes a few people’s homes.”

The financing plan for RiverRide involves a mix of public money and private sponsorship. The cost depends on the path’s final spec and length, but $70m (£56m) is Chuck’s ballpark target. An element of private financing would mark a departure from existing city schemes, which have generally been built at taxpayers’ expense.

Chuck’s initial proposal was for a pay-for-use model, but doesn’t fit with the mayor’s strategy of cycling “for all Chicagoans”. Environmentalists are welcoming of the project, too.

“Structures like this provide the opportunity to put some habitat in urban waterways,” says John Quail, director of watershed planning for the Friends of the Chicago River, a non-profit conservation group. The possibility of improving the river’s water quality by growing vegetation on the underside of the bike path marks an appealing factor.

Since the group’s foundation in 1979, the number of fish species in the Chicago river has jumped from around a dozen to more than 80 today. A floating structure such as RiverRide would offer fish and other river animals shelter and protection, Quail says. “As native species come back, they need places to stay,” he explains. “And that requires thinking innovatively about how you use the urban landscape to recreate environmental processes.”

As for the impact on river flow, Marinetek’s Räme insists that it’s negligible. The structure not only sits on the surface of the water, but it has no columns or other anchoring devices fixing it to the riverbed. A secondary advantage is that age-old industrial pollutants won’t be stirred up from the river-floor sediment.

Arguably, the project’s biggest sustainability benefit is the opportunity it gives to Chicagoans to get outside, get healthy and, above all, get back in touch with the river running through the heart of their city. Portland’s $30m floating Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade is an example of this.

Sitting in her office overlooking the Willamette river, the Esplanade’s designer, Carol Mayer-Reed, watches a succession of joggers, cyclists and pedestrians using the 1.5-mile walkway throughout the day. “Every time I look up from my desk, I always see people using it,” she says.

Currently the longest floating walkway of its kind in the US, the Eesplanade helps Portland residents to be “more multimodal”, says Mayer-Reed, principal at landscape architect firm Mayer/Reed. “For a lot of people, they’ll ride it rather than driving into the city. There’s also a health benefit obviously when people are out walking, as well as a social component to it.”

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