This was a strange story. At first I was told the press wasn't invited to this ride, but I was, which is the sort of distinction guaranteed to give any reporter pause. On one hand, who'd turn down riding bikes with the mayor? On the other, it's almost like they're saying, "We're barring real reporters, but you're a tool, so you can come along." I don't consider myself a tool, so I went, if only to be there if he pedalled into an open manhole. The whole thing was supposed to be off the record, but I complained enough that parts got nudged back on the record. ("I'm trying to earn a living here," is what I actually said to the mayor). It made it harder to write an interesting piece about a puffball event, but there you have it. The line I use about Rahm Emanuel is that he's so concerned about his image, it makes him look bad. Still, I had a good time, and the mayor seemed at ease. We rode around, and then all had lunch at Revolution Brewing, and he was candid, though also distant, as is his way. Still, compared to the aloof, frozen lock box of a personality of his predecessor, Richard Daley, Rahm is Holly Golightly, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.
I had to go to Milwaukee and Wabansia to meet a man.
Monday was the latest in a string of beautiful mid-October days. A Divvy station is there, so I thought to bike it, my first long-distance — OK, 3 miles — trip on Chicago’s bike system. I left the Mart at 10 a.m.
The system isn’t intended for long jaunts — you are limited to a 30-minute trip before Divvy starts piling on fees. But I figured, even at my plodding pace, I could make it to Wicker Park in half an hour for my appointment.
The city was criticized when the program rolled out over the summer for not putting enough stations in the far-flung (and poorer, and minority) areas of the city. But reports from London and Paris, which have similar bike share programs, show that might have been a wise call for Chicago. Paris, which in good socialist fashion scattered its stations evenly around the city’s poorest quarters, is finding big problems with theft and vandalism, problems that London — and Chicago — have so far avoided by keeping the bikes mostly around the city center.
Heading to meet this guy, I took Orleans north, until it dead-ended at Division Street, then a left, past where Cabrini Green used to be. Times change. Right on Clybourn. I was distracted by a big shrine, pulled to the curb. Photos of a bearded young man, an expanse of plastic flowers stuck into a chain-link fence. "WE LOVE YOU BOBBY" freshly chalked on the sidewalk. A 26-year-old Groupon employee, killed last May, allegedly by a drunken
Mercedes driver. The rider was wearing a helmet. Didn't help. Also on the fence, a poem, protected in clear plastic.
"I don't want to get on my bike," it begins. "But you, Bobby Cann, wouldn't want that. You would want everyone riding whenever and wherever possible."
That's all you can do. Sitting on your duff can kill you just as readily as cycling can.
At 10:22 a.m. I reached Milwaukee and Wabansia. The fellow I was meeting wasn't due until 10:45. My plan was to stroll over to the Chicago public library across the street and poke around. But the library doesn't open until noon on Mondays. Hard times.
A group of young people were assembled, winners of some sort of contest. Their reward: to meet the same guy I was meeting. I asked one of them to tell me about the event, emblazoned on his yellow T-shirt. "I'm not allowed to," said Brian, 29.
Here's an idea, not a new idea, perhaps, but a good one: free press. You talk about your event, it gets into print. Think about it.
At 10:51 a.m. Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed up. The plan, as best I understood it, was to ride our Divvy bikes around the Logan Square area. The mayor likes bikes.
I expected some kind of Potemkin Village sham, with traffic held back and city workers hastily slapping orange and red paint on fallen leaves. But it seemed fairly straight, with the mayor in the lead, and the young people affiliated with the event following.
We stopped at a small park that will be an entrance to the new Bloomingdale Trail - nobody is going to call it "The 606," and those pushing the digits ought to give up trying. We stopped at the shuttered Congress Theater, where the city's director of historical preservation, Eleanor Esser Gorski, spoke briefly. She also talked at the Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square, which was designed, she said, by Henry Bacon, the architect of the Lincoln Memorial.
"This is why I love the city," said Emanuel, pedaling a blue Divvy bike, helmetless, along Logan Boulevard. He seemed buoyant.
Emanuel said that Milwaukee Avenue has the most commuter bike traffic of any road in the country, at some 4,000 bicyclists a day. He is pleased that "Divvy" has so quickly become an accepted verb in the Chicago argot. That won't keep branding rights from being sold—he said for $5 million or $6 million—to pay for upkeep and bike lanes. But that whoever buys the rights will keep the "Divvy" part, and so it'll be "Eli's Cheesecake Divvy Bikes" or whatever. (Citigroup, which owns Citibank, locked up naming for New York's bike-share program, dubbed "Citi Bikes," paying $41 million for five years).
After lunch, I cast a longing look at the L at California, but figured there will be time for that in winter. Hopping on a bike, I peddled south. Chicago isn't supposed to have hills, but there seems to be one on Chicago Avenue. As I approached the paper, my half hour was running out, so I cut down Kingsbury, I was going to check the bike in and get a new one, starting the clock over, like a Pony Express rider getting a fresh mount. But it felt so good to not be on a bike—I figure I rode eight miles—that I decided to walk, stiffly, a cowboy too long in the saddle, back to the paper. New York gives you 45 minutes.