Shifting Gears: Becoming a Chicago Bike Commuter

Liz Baudler
Written by Liz Baudler

Part Three of Five

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5. The Bike on the Bus

 When I realized I could and should take my bike on the bus, partly to avoid having to leave it somewhere in case of Metra overflow and partly to save money, I committed to riding three miles to the bus stop.

It is a terrifying thing to entrust your bike to a notoriously awful transit system that can’t ensure its arrival times or basic safety. The CTA can ironically be summed up by the condition of its city bus bike racks. Most are new and simple in design: a rack mounted to the front of the bus folds down to reveal tracks to hold two bikes parallel to the grill; you rest your bike’s tires in the tracks, and secure the front tire with a bright yellow, spring-loaded claw.

Though it’s scary to watch your bike vibrate with traffic in front of a several-ton bus, I haven’t seen this new sort of bike rack drop a cycle yet. If by chance you encounter one of the older style bike racks, some of spring-loaded red metal mechanism that vaguely resembles a catapult, RIDE AWAY.

No one knows how to load a bike onto one…including the bus driver. This is so like the CTA—convenient and easy—except when it’s not. Trains derailing and buses rerouting without notice and with salsa and vomit slinking down the floors are par for the course.

Be unapologetically slow when checking to make sure your bike is secured. You can apologize to the bus full of angry, delayed riders when you get on, but do take the time to test the thing. One time the clamp wasn’t springy but I thought it was fine. The bus driver had to pull over because the thing had dropped to the midpoint of my tire and my bike was about to clatter onto bustling Cermak Avenue.

I usually just thank the bus driver unless they have been a jerk. Also, if you are the first one putting your bike on the bus, you should put your bike in the rack closest to the windshield, unless you are a 5’3” woman with low muscle tone, coordination issues, and a mountain bike. Then I say screw politeness. You wanna wait 10 minutes for me to get the bike on the rack?

When removing your bike, tell the driver you doing it so they don’t forget and try to run you over.

6. Streets of Danger

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One time I got off the train at Ashland Avenue. Perhaps I was afraid of the rush hour crowd, or being pushed off the train because of the 4-6 pm bike ban. Or perhaps I was crazy. That’s probably it.

Every city should have a street like Ashland—multi-laned, spanning from tony neighborhood to boarded-up ghetto, a street people alternately swear by and swear at depending on their time of day and comfort with city transportation. It is always teeming with cars that careen from lane to lane—the lost yuppies in their Volvos, the Latino teenagers with their bungee-corded bumpers and duct-taped turn signals.

I read—much later—that Ashland, along with sister street Western, are some of the most dangerous streets to bike in Chicago. I sort of realized this at a viaduct I went under as soon as I got off the train. Before the bridge, there was no room between the parked cars and the moving ones, and under it, I was convinced no one could see me. I rolled trepidatiously down the nearby steep and cracked sidewalks. Then I decided I was a wimp. Let the cars make room for me, I said, and pushed myself in the narrow alley lined with door handles.

What followed was exhilarating. Dangerous, yes, but thrilling. Competing with gas engines, the miles roll by. You mock the drivers you pass because you have an open path while they are hemmed in. You will never ride as fast as them, but you will ride faster because of them. There will be hills and diagonal streets. Stop at the light, but feel free to go when you need to go. The cars will mostly avoid you. Mutter about the people who get a little too close.

However, you can get this same cheap thrill by riding on streets with bike lanes. There, the deference is automatically granted, except by the nervous parallel parkers constantly reversing and inching forward and the occasional jaywalker. A surprising amount of streets have bike lanes, so no need to jump on the Ashland Autobahn unless you are reckless. Get a map so you know where they are, or go exploring and find them. Although if you bike in a city with any regularity, chances are you’ve got a daredevil streak, which is great for adventures but not so much for safety.

Bike lanes give you company, since many people use them. You can feel like you have a sensei or that you are in an elaborate race. Just be mindful that other people’s bad habits shouldn’t be your own, don’t follow too close, and watch out for the sudden opened car door or aforementioned parkers and jaywalkers. Unless unusually narrow, side streets are an option too. Only venture forth unprotected by parallel white lines when you have to.


About the author

Liz Baudler

Liz Baudler

If you ever hear a bespectacled girl in a camouflage helmet honking the horn of a bike that's much too big for her, you may have encountered Liz Baudler. She writes for Newcity, Chicago Literati, and periodically, Ms. Fit. Check out her stuff at

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