In Pilsen, bicycling not just for hipsters
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For 30 years, Amado Lopez has lived in Pilsen and gotten around by bicycle.
He doesn’t have a driver’s license, so public transit and his mountain bike are the only ways he can go to church, the market and his job as a jeweler.
“I don’t know how to drive, I don’t have a car, and since I was little, I was taught to ride a bike,” Lopez said in Spanish. “I like riding a bike, I get exercise and I have more energy to move around the city.”
Lopez is part of a strong community of bicyclists in the Lower West Side, where bicyclists have tight relationships with each other and the owners of bike shops like Irv’s — a go-to repair shop in that opened in Pilsen in 1972.
Biking’s gained a higher profile in Chicago since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office. By 2020, the city plans to have 645 miles of dedicated bike lanes and other bike-friendly paths.
Still, even with these investments, only 1.6 percent of Chicago residents get to work by riding a bike, according to U.S. Census estimates.
But cycling is strong in Pilsen.
The Census Bureau estimates from 2016 show Pilsen is home to the highest percentage of commuters traveling by bike. In one segment of the neighborhood — between Ashland, Cermak, Laflin and 16th Street — an estimated 16.3 percent of workers over 16 commute by bike.
The neighborhood is home to many University of Illinois at Chicago students who bike to class. And for residents who work in the Loop, they can make the commute in less than 20 minutes on bike. There are also 19 Divvy stations in Pilsen.
James Alfred, who commutes from South Side, said he goes through Pilsen because it’s the easiest to bike through.
“If you’re on a bicycle you can actually beat travel times,” Alfred said.
Lynda Lopez, who lives in Pilsen and writes about transit, gentrification and displacement for StreetsBlog Chicago, also rides her bike to work.
“Biking isn’t seen exclusively as a white-person thing here unlike the hipster connotation in places like Logan Square, Wicker Park,” she said.
Lynda Lopez – no relation to Amado Lopez – has been monitoring community discourse around proposed infrastructure to make the area even more bike-friendly.
The El Paseo bike trail, which was first announced two years ago, is to run along abandoned BNSF rail tracks along Sangamon between 16th and 21st streets, connecting Pilsen and Little Village.
At the time, Ald. Danny Solis (25th) jokingly called the path a “poor man’s 606.” But since then, there has been concerns about the consequences on the already gentrifying neighborhood.
“We’re looking to learn from the 606 example, though we’ve been talking about Paseo for two decades even before the 606,” Solis said Wednesday.
Solis said the city is currently in the middle of negotiations with the railroad to acquire the property, though in some sections, the tracks have already been removed and the land has been cleaned up.
“A lot of people do bike in Pilsen, but there’s still much reluctance for something like El Paseo because you’re in the context of gentrification,” Lynda Lopez said. “For me as a cyclist I like the idea of having more avenues, but housing stability is a primary concern.”
Wendy Stark-Riemer moved to Pilsen in December from the South Loop. She bikes to work and supports the El Paseo proposal.
Still, she hopes it doesn’t displace people like the 606.
“There’s some undertones of concern around gentrification but what I have felt is whether you are African American, Asian, Hispanic, white, whatever, everyone I’ve met is, it doesn’t matter and that’s kind of how it should be,” Stark-Riemer said.
Henry Mendoza, a resident of Pilsen for 49 years, was caught in the rain one morning while on his plain steel road bicycle. But the weather doesn’t stop him.
“This is my work bike, I got a brand new bike at home,” said Mendoza, who commutes to Lake View for work.
If there’s anything the city can do for the biking community, he said, it’s repainting the lines for the bike lanes on 18th Street.