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Got the COVID-19 blues? Take a bike ride along the Chicago River

If you’re thinking the coronavirus might mean the end of city living as we know it, an hour beside the river will convince you we’ll figure out a way to make this all work.

The 312 River Run bridge spans the Chicago River between Addison Street and Irving Park Road.
The 312 River Run bridge spans the Chicago River between Addison Street and Irving Park Road. Most of the megaprojects now planned or underway in the city are located along the river, including The 78 and Lincoln Yards.
Mitch Dudek / Sun-Times

Tired of being cooped up in the house for the pandemic, my wife and I put on our best train-robber masks and went for a bike ride along the Chicago River. It was just what we needed.

If you’re thinking the coronavirus might mean the end of city living as we know it, an hour on the river will convince you: We’ll figure out a way to make this all work.

Our destination wasn’t downtown and the Riverwalk. Mayor Lightfoot probably wouldn’t have let us on that anyway.

Instead, we headed out along mostly deserted Belmont Avenue to the North Branch and rode north from there on the riverside trail for nearly a mile before having to detour back to city streets.

That might not seem like much of an achievement. But it wouldn’t have been possible a year ago. An important segment of the trail, the 1,000-foot-long Riverview Bridge connecting Clark Park at Addison Street to California Park at Grace Street, wasn’t completed till last fall.

Another trail link — beneath the bridge at Irving Park Road — is scheduled open later this year. Once that’s done, a continuous off-street bike and pedestrian path will extend from Belmont Avenue to Evanston with the sole gap between Montrose Avenue and Lawrence Avenue.

There, the trail diverts onto a side street reconfigured as a greenway through Ravenswood Manor — and if you have to pick a neighborhood to meander through, you could do a lot worse.

We didn’t go all the way to Evanston. We bailed somewhere in Lincolnwood. We’d seen enough to renew our belief in the magic of water.

Say what you want about how dirty the river is (though it’s cleaner than it used to be), how disfigured its banks are and how scruffy much of it looks. To descend from the street to the river’s edge is to be instantly transported to another world.

“I live on the North Side, and, 15 minutes from my house, I can be out by the river and see a fox — that’s fantastic,” says Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “What gives the river its charm is that it’s intimate. It’s so easy to step off the grid.”

Few things so vividly demonstrate the transformation of Chicago as the revitalization of the river. Once a neglected industrial waterway, the river is now one of the city’s foremost environmental, recreational and economic assets.

Civic groups and real estate developers are promoting ambitious plans. Friends of the Chicago River envisions a connected “blue-green corridor” of water and natural open space that provides benefit to people and wildlife. The Active Transportation Alliance has organized the Chicago River Trail coalition to promote a network of river recreational paths.

The river has become Chicago’s premier development corridor. Most of the megaprojects now planned or underway in the city are located along its banks, including The 78, Lincoln Yards and others.

The pandemic will slow river improvements.

“The pandemic has everyone rethinking their plans,” says Keating Crown, a principal with Sterling Bay, developer of Lincoln Yards, but he also says, “The river is an incredible asset, not just for Lincoln Yards but the city.”

“Would you want to be on Zoom calls all the time?” says Curt Bailey, president of Related Midwest, which is working on three riverside projects — The 78, 400 N. Lake Shore Drive on the old Spire site and the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes, the former Chicago Housing Authority public housing project along the North Branch.

“People want to be around each other,” Bailey says. “That’s why dense cities like Chicago are so much fun. Everybody wants to be out on the lakefront because a lot of other people are out there.”

He envisions The 78 as a major river destination. “There’s something about water — we’re drawn to it,” he says.

The redevelopment of the river will change the city in fundamental ways, but we need to plan for it more systematically than has been done so far. A few things to think about:

Commuter access

As development extends along the river’s branches, the downtown business core, already much enlarged, will expand even more, far beyond the reach of existing transit options.

Water taxis make for a delightful commute — in good weather.

From a social justice standpoint, transportation enhancements can’t be designed solely for the affluent folk who live nearby or arrive by car. Additions to conventional transit, including the rail system, need to be carefully studied.

“We are advocates for public transportation, one of the defining elements of the great cities of the world,” Bailey says. “If there are new ideas on how to enhance the existing grid, we’d love to be a part of figuring them out and would make space for them on our site.”

Ensuring diversity

The river trail network envisioned by cycling advocates is sure to be a popular amenity, but additions to it must be carefully thought through to avoid disrupting the surrounding neighborhoods, as happened with The 606. Provisions need to be made for affordable housing and other measures to help ensure that everyone — not just the affluent — benefits.

“We’re committed to ensuring local neighborhoods are front and center when discussing any part of the river trail,” says Jim Merrell, managing director of advocacy for the Active Transportation Alliance.

Active river management

As interest in the river has grown, conflicts have developed. Some riverfront property owners concerned about privacy try to bar public access. Cyclists and pedestrians along the crowded Riverwalk vie over who has priority. The river’s recreational value must be weighed against its role as a wildlife habitat.

The city and river advocates need to take an active role in anticipating such problems.

A lull in development is no reason to put off thinking about the river’s future.

“Steps taken in the 1980s and ‘90s to launch river revitalization — amendments to the zoning code, the first design guidelines — paid off decades later,” Frisbie says. “Steps now to take the river to the next level as a natural resource and public amenity would do the same.”