Jon Anderson, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 12, 2000.
Photo by Chuck Berman
“How many of you are car free?” asked Katie Alvord, standing on a podium in the Pulaski Park fieldhouse, roughly 100 yards west of the Kennedy Expressway. Amid hollering, almost every hand in the room shot up.
Later, cheers greeted a slide showing a self-reliant bicyclist using a bike-trailer to haul home an 8-foot Christmas tree. In contrast, a picture of a snarled tollway drew howls of derisive laughter.
It was clogged with cars and campers creeping past a sign urging motorists to “Enjoy Your Holiday.”
For six hours Sunday, before pedaling off to a reception a mile away, some 300 bicyclists, cycling activists, city bureaucrats and transportation policy wonks took what they described as “first steps toward creating a sustainable and equitable Chicago transportation system designed around people, not cars.”
It was a day for sharing ideas, tips and personal transportation preferences-with much anti-car rhetoric.
“Every day,” noted one of the gathering’s fliers, “car commuters clog Chicago’s roads, inching along, wasting time and resources, lowering the quality of life for all Chicagoans. Cars are the major source of air pollution. They trash public space. And they promote a sedentary life-style, while obesity becomes a national epidemic.”
Certainly, the crowd at “Break the Gridlock: Overcoming Car Dependency,” as the conference was called, was among the trimmest in recent memory Most participants arrived on some form of cycle, creating an impromptu exhibition of inventive, pedal-powered vehicles in the parking spaces outside the meeting hall.
Alvord, a speaker and author of “Divorce Your Car,” a 305-page guide “to liberating ourselves from our addiction to car culture,” brought a bicycle on wheels.
From her home in northern Michigan, she said, she recently traveled the country on a book tour, collapsing her bike into the suitcase when she wished to use local transit systems or long-distance trains. Some wheeled up in recumbent bikes. Others displayed bike-drawn storage units with enough space to haul home a day’s worth of groceries- or other items traditionally fetched from establishments by car.
Indeed, the point of the day was to figure out how to shape an evangelism, one that would catch the imagination of the public, promoting pedal power to counterbalance “the billions of dollars spent on the image of driving.”
Bicyclists are not anti-technology, conference manager Michael Burton went on, noting that many of the conference’s ideas have been posted on the Internet, at www.breakthegridlock.org. Rather, he said, many cyclists feel that the driving of motor cars, as portrayed in print and TV advertising, rarely reflects modern urban realities.
“People always say, ‘But I need my car,'” said Tooker Gomberg, a pro-bike activist from Toronto, where he is running for mayor. “What,” he asked Alvord, “has been the reaction to your book?”
Surprisingly good, Alvord replied, though she noted a radio interviewer recently introduced her as “a person who has been making suggestions that are un-American.” To Sunday’s crowd, she seemed the soul of sense.
“Do a map with your home in the center,” Alvord urged. “Draw circles of half a mile. Pinpoint the stores you need. Walk or bike to them.” Or set up a “walking school bus,” with a parent picking up youngsters along a prescribed route.
“Make a list of your transportation options. Before you automatically take the car, consider the choices,” she said, a suggestion endorsed by another speaker, Jane Holtz Kay, author of “Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back.” Almost two-thirds of car travel, Kay reported, involves short trips to do errands, chauffeur people around or engage in what she called “the romance of shopping.”
To get bicycling into that action, conference organizers will hold a follow-up session Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Pulaski Park fieldhouse. As they noted, plenty of bike parking will be available.