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Photos: Advocates Imagine A 27-Mile Riverfront Bike Trail For Chicago

By Stephen Gossett in News on Oct 18, 2016 6:11PM

By Rachel Cromidas and Stephen Gossett

For all of Chicago’s robust, award-winning biking infrastructure, one of the great visions for the city’s recreational and alternative-transit landscape—a continuous trail along the Chicago River—has long floated out of reach. But the city’s leading cycling/pedestrian advocacy group is spearheading the push to realize just that grand ambition.

Active Transportation Alliance unveiled on Monday their preliminary vision to establish an unbroken, connective trail along the 27 miles of riverfront that span the North and South branches of the Chicago River. The trail would then link up to existing suburban pathways, such as the North Branch Trail and the I&M Canal Trail Extension.

Ron Burke, executive director of the alliance, cited rails-to-trails projects such as The 606 and Pilsen's Paseo as evidence of a growing appetite for innovative infrastructure.

“The public demand for more off-street trails runs deep, as demonstrated by the overwhelming success of existing urban trails like the Lakefront Trail and Bloomingdale Trail,” said Burke. “Not only would a complete river trail be a great boost for recreation and tourism while improving access to greenspace in many parts of the city, invariably, it’ll serve as a highway for healthy transportation.”

There are already 13.19 miles of existing walkable and bike-able trail line along the river, with another nearly two miles to be added before year's end, according to ATA.

Among the most notable aspects of the ambitious plan is its inventive physical design: aside from traditional riverside paths, the project calls for portions of deck trail—which stretches across the river on pylons—and even so-called floating trails for "where no land is available for a traditional trail segment."

The vision leaves many open questions, but cost will probably be the deciding factor for many—for example, the question of whether the riverfront trail would run along one or both sides of the river.

"My guess is, we'll be really fortunate to have one side that's contiguous," Burke told reporters.

On a boat tour organized by the alliance Monday evening, we got a close-up view of the challenges ahead. Some portions of the riverfront already have bike-able and walkable trails here and there, but right now it's a hodgepodge of private and public walkways, parks and undeveloped land, particularly on the southern half, as the river passes through more industrial parts of town. To the average Chicagoan, the river is, if anything, a hindrance to their commute, while a few savvy pedestrians and cyclists know about some of the more tucked-away river paths.

The best shot at realizing the contiguous river trail vision will likely require pooling resources with private developers who are already planning on riverfront space, including the Riverline project and Rezkoville on the near South Side, the Tribune's Freedom Center and the Finkl Steel site in Lincoln Park. City zoning laws will require developers who build on each project site to create public-access spaces.

"Chicago has a long track record of creative financing, and could leverage private developments to get some of these segments that would work for both cyclists and pedestrians," Jim Merrell, an advocacy director for ATA, said. And Pilsen's Paseo trail, he added, could also connect to the trail. "We're agnostic of what has to go where. We want people to think of a river trail network that is flexible, so the Paseo trail could be the river trail in that part of the city."

If all goes according to plan, and the trail is not only contiguous, but links up to existing north and south suburban routes, Chicago would be able to offer cyclists and joggers a virtually uninterrupted path from Kenosha Wisconsin to Joliet, Illinois.

"That's what we mean about low-stress bike paths," Merrell said. "Anyone can do it; you don't have to be the most hard-core cyclist."