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As the city’s bike ambassador, Courtney Cobbs wants Chicagoans to feel safe on their streets.

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How bicycle ambassador Courtney Cobbs gets around Chicago

A hula-hooping cyclist’s quest for more bike lanes—and more bus lanes, too

Courtney Cobbs moved to Chicago six years ago from Little Rock, Arkansas, so she could more easily live and work in a city without a car. And she’s been wildly successful at that—for the past two years, she’s racked up more mileage on the city’s bike share system, Divvy, than 99 percent of all other users.

Now the hula-hooping Reiki master teacher and self-care coach has been named a bicycle ambassador for the city, channeling her energy and enthusiasm into improving transportation for all Chicagoans. Follow her at @PurpleFemmedigo for more curbside observations and join Cobbs as she weaves through Chicago’s transit system—surveying the infrastructure for inequities and calling out truck drivers who block the city’s bike lanes.

Friday, May 24

I recently took a job with the City of Chicago’s Department of Transportation as a bicycle ambassador and one of my first working assignments is on the Southwest side in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. I take my bike with me on the train for the 60-plus minute trip from my home.

I’m traveling across the city, providing training on biking and walking safety, doing outreach to educate folks about bike lanes in Chicago, and educating drivers about how to drive safely. So after getting off the train, I purposely miss the bus to experience biking conditions on West 47th Street, a “stroad”—an extra wide street that’s more like a road—that sees a lot of truck traffic and speeding.

As I bike, I see a man riding his bike on the sidewalk—an indicator the streets are not safe or at the very least do not feel comfortable. There are many times during this bike ride I can feel myself tensing up as big 18-wheel trucks barrel past me. This street is so wide it could easily accommodate a physically protected bike lane. Plus, the bus that serves the area does not run frequently so a bike lane would give transit-dependent folks another mobility option. I bike to the 47th Street Red Line station to head to a team meeting.

The bike ambassador with her brand-new (used) bike.
Courtney Cobbs

As I wait at a red light a few feet away from the train station, a school bus driver honks at me, waving his hands saying I needed to get off the road. I’m still not sure if he was concerned about my safety or saw me as an impediment.

After my work meeting I decide to load my bike onto the 147 express bus home. I’m grateful that traffic is relatively light so the trip doesn’t take as long as I anticipated. However, my trip would be so much more predictable if CTA buses were given their own lane on Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive.

A few weeks ago Chicago elected a new mayor who seems to be on-board with a progressive vision for transportation: more bus-only lanes (we currently have five miles of bus-only lanes), more protected bike lanes, lower fares for low-income transit riders, and stimulus for equitable, transit-oriented development in divested communities.

I end up chatting with my bus driver about all the ways the city could speed up bus service. Another passenger overhears me and says the mayor of Chicago needs to put me on her staff.

Saturday, May 25

Despite having my own bike, I check the Divvy app on my way out to run errands to see if there are any bikes at the station near my apartment. There aren’t. Initially I’m kinda bummed about having to ride my bike, but after completing all my errands for the day on bike I realize how convenient it was.

I’m able to get front door bike parking at the hardware store. I can lock my bike right by my barber’s storefront (admittedly it was to a street sign), when normally I have to dock my Divvy bike about a half-mile away and walk. I bike from my barber to Whole Foods and back home. The ride isn’t without its everyday issues, mostly drivers parked in the bike lane and understanding I have just as much right to the road on the side streets.

Sunday, May 26

Today’s the annual Bike the Drive event held by Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicagoland advocacy group for active transportation. I walk around handing out bike maps, checking out booths, and encouraging folks to interact with the bicycle ambassador booth so I don’t get to experience riding Lake Shore Drive, where a 30-mile route is closed to cars.

It was cool to be recognized by a few people from my Twitter account and see so many cool bikes. On my 12-mile bike ride home, the reality of the tiny scraps doled out to folks on bike and foot is made apparent as cars return to Lake Shore Drive and everyone else on bike and foot moves to the lakefront path.

Monday, May 27

I live in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago which, on paper, is well-served by transit. I have a variety of bus lines to choose from, I’m a short bike ride to the 24-hour Red Line service, and Metra service (Chicago’s regional rail) is about a 10-minute bike ride away.

Train-platform perspective.
Courtney Cobbs

However, many of the buses are stymied in traffic and some routes don’t come that frequently. This sucks even more because Rogers Park is at the northernmost edge of the city. I love where I live but I won’t lie that living at the edge of the city sometimes has its disadvantages when it comes to traveling.

It’s Memorial Day, and a day off work, so I spend most of the day at home relaxing with my cats. I was able to easily pick up my groceries on bike a few days earlier. I like that all of the grocery stores in my area are easily accessible from the Red Line.

Tuesday, May 28

In the past I would have Divvy’d to the train, hopped the train, and Divvy’d to Resilience, the nonprofit I’ve worked at for three years in Lincoln Square/Ravenswood (my last day is this week). It’s five miles from my house, which is a little more than I’d bike in a typical day using Divvy. I decide to skip the crowded elevators which are necessary to get my bike on the train and just ride my bike to work.

Today, I encounter a large delivery truck parked in the “bike lane” along a neighborhood greenway. I reach out to the business by phone to alert them of the safety issue and the woman I speak with is very receptive. She says that many of the employees at the business bike so they get it. Given her warm reception, I mention that I’m trying to convince the alderperson of the ward to convert the existing bike lanes to parking protected bike lanes. She says she’ll pass this on to folks at the business so they can add their voices in support. Normally I wouldn’t call a business to report issues with their vendors or employees parking in bike lanes but given this great reception, I’ll be sure to do this more in the future.

I end up creating a video on my Instagram encouraging folks to call their alders in support of protected bike lanes.

Wednesday, May 29

Another day of riding my own bike to work. After years of being a very active Divvy member—I was in the top 1 percent of riders the past two years—I set a goal to spend as much time as possible outside during this summer. When I got a job that required a lot of biking, I realized a few weeks ago I had to buy my own bike.

Calling out the cars and trucks blocking Chicago’s bike lanes.
Courtney Cobbs

I purchased my bike at Working Bikes, a Chicago organization that collects and repairs used bicycles and sells them at an affordable price. Working Bikes was 90 minutes one-way on transit, so I hopped the train to car2go, a car-share service that’s operating on a trial basis in certain parts of Chicago. I had a $10 credit from referring a friend which covered my 30-minute, 14-mile trip. I hope the system’s service area expands.

With this new bike, gone are the days of just docking my bike at the train station and various other places I frequent in the city. I now have to contend with worries about my bike being stolen and the inconvenience of taking a bike on train that wasn’t designed with bikes in mind. I often worry what other transit riders think of me when my bike is awkwardly taking up so much space on the train.

Thursday, May 30

This was such a busy day—I end up working two jobs. I start the day working at home for my nonprofit job and then venture out to talk to seniors about feeling safe while getting around their neighborhood of Jefferson Park.

My perception of Jefferson Park is a suburban-style neighborhood that is resistant to anything that would improve biking, transit, and housing affordability. I know not everyone in the neighborhood feels that way but I do think the sometimes satirical/somewhat serious tweets from the Gladstone Park Business Association are pretty spot on.

My bus ride to Jefferson Park is frustratingly slow because the bus shares a lane with single-occupancy vehicles. I had to catch another bus after getting to the Jefferson Park terminal. I was so grateful this bus driver was speedy.

The seniors I speak with feel relatively safe getting around—with the exception of those who bike. The seniors who bike say they bike on the sidewalk because they don’t feel safe. My coworkers and I encourage the seniors to get in touch with their aldermen.

I keep talking about emailing our aldermen but I often feel like these concerns are of no importance to them. The responses I’ve gotten have frequently mentioned “public opinion”—as in, people are voicing opinions in opposition to safety improvements. I understand constituents’ voices are important, but public opinion should not supersede safety. The issues I experience on Chicago streets as a cyclist are a safety issue. It is not rocket science that bike lanes need physical protection. If a “bike lane” doesn’t have physical protection that prevents drivers from parking or driving in it, it is not a bike lane. Studies show that many bikers and would-be bikers prefer physical protection and would bike more if these amenities were more widely available.

A surprising amount of bikes parked at the Jefferson Park terminal station of the Blue Line.
Courtney Cobbs

After my presentation, my coworker and I go to the Jefferson Park terminal to board the Blue Line. I am pleasantly surprised to see so many bikes at the terminal in spite of the hostile, suburban-style streets. I bet we’d see even more bikes at this station if Chicago committed to building more protected bike lanes.

After our meeting, I eat a quick meal downtown and ride the Green Line to West Loop for the annual fundraiser for Resilience. I have a good time and catch a ride home from a coworker.

Friday, May 31

I bike to my last day at Resilience. Along the ride to work I encounter a recycling truck parked in the contraflow lane of the neighborhood greenway.

I see two police officers leaving the 7-Eleven and flag them down. I let them know about the truck and they clearly see it from their vehicle. One of the officers ignores my valid point that the truck is putting lives at risk. As he argues with me, a cyclist is almost hit by an oncoming vehicle because the truck was in the bike lane. The officers don’t cite the driver and he smirks at me as I bike away frustrated. A few blocks ahead an officer is parked in the bike lane as she “fills out paperwork,” the excuse she gives me for parking in the lane.

Once I get to work I write a quick email to my alderwoman and the alderman of the neighboring ward I biked through. It often feels like the experiences of folks on bikes are inconsequential in our car-dominated streets. The political culture around bike lanes seems to defer to car owners as opposed to asking the larger question of what streets are for. Are streets for storing private property or moving people efficiently? Are they potential channels for economic development and cultural exchange on a human-scale—or are they asphalt paths for as many vehicles at as high a rate of speed as possible?

Tiny details you only notice when you’re not in a car.
Courtney Cobbs

I have my final session with a client, clean out my office, and head to a farewell lunch for Ethiopian food with some of my coworkers. I passed by the restaurant for years—multiple times a week!—before trying it. But I knew it would happen eventually. I always appreciated it was right off the Lawrence Red Line stop. I think about all the missed opportunities drivers miss out on as they zip past storefronts, parks, and homes. I also think about what an economic engine quality, frequent, well-designed transit can be.

Some of the business owners along the Lawrence stop fear a loss of business as the CTA closes two stations to speed up the Red Line in the area. I don’t think the fear is unfounded, yet a lot of the businesses who have been there for a while will likely survive. I think the CTA could increase mobility for residents and tourists during the shutdown by adding a bus-only lane for the 36 Broadway bus that runs parallel to the Red Line from the Buena Park/Sheridan stop to Loyola. This is honestly a good idea now, given that I actively avoid the 36 bus because it is constantly stuck in traffic. I once got off a slow and crowded 36 bus and biked to my destination.

As I spend more time on my bike, I’m realizing I’m hopping the train less for local errands. I have been frustrated for years at the slow bus speeds in Chicago. I feel more in control of my commute on a bike. Sure, I get slowed down by single-occupancy vehicles on narrow streets or streets without bike lanes, but in many cases I can travel faster than a row of single-occupancy vehicles creating traffic. I’d much rather dedicate more road space to protected bike lanes and bus lanes so more people can travel efficiently with low environmental impact. Cars take up so much space to only carry one or two people!

I bike the 5.5 miles home after lunch with my coworkers. It’s a lovely day and I’m feeling good about closing a chapter in my life and beginning a new one. Despite this great mood, I encounter no less than seven vehicles parked in the bike lane along a single mile of the Kenmore Avenue segment of my ride home.

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