What's your favorite route? An experience on the back streets

In the past year of living in Chicago, I've biked about eight miles (sixteen round-trip) on an almost daily basis for school and work. In this time, I've experimented with a number of different routes, taking back streets, main roads, bike paths (for example, Chicago's 606 and Lakefront Trails), and even a few sidewalks - although I've since learned this is a punishable offense! (One sidewalk route included a brief 1,400-foot / 430-meter mosey along Western Avenue's sidewalks as it crosses under the I-90 Interstate, from Schubert Avenue to Altgeld Street). I'd like to share my experience of riding on back streets in the city of Chicago. In the last year of my riding here in Chicago, I've learned that just because a street has a bike lane does not mean that it is the most preferred street to bike on. It's taken time to come to this conclusion, and it is only an opinion, so it could change without notice.

Here is my present route (takes back streets, see below): https://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/2560759195.

Here is one of the fastest routes (takes main streets): https://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/2560777183.

The method for routing which I am presently using is to find small streets through residential areas, streets which are purposely made to be "slow" driving ("back streets"), and then link these back streets together to make a "back route". Main routes, on the other hand, are usually direct connections between places but are highly trafficked. In my present route, there are only a few places where main routes are necessary, in particular one section of the trip where it is required to cross a river and interstate in one fell swoop. What a doozy! (In the part of the city where I bike, rivers and interstates are almost always only navigable via highly trafficked main streets and bridges.)

How to describe riding on a "back street" versus riding on a main road? A back street has low traffic volume. In my area of the city, many back streets have speed bumps and stop signs on every block. In urban planning-speak, this is referred to as traffic calming. On the other hand, main roads typically have stop lights and an endless flow of traffic. Main roads are meant to be major thoroughfares, with the goal of allowing and even ensuring an endless stream of traffic. On the other hand, back streets are meant to have reduced traffic, with traffic never passing through an area but always coming back to or leaving from some place. On back streets the cars go about the same speed as the bikes and they frequently pass each other (cars pass bikes, bikes pass cars). On the main streets, cars usually travel two or three times the speed of bikes and many cars are passing a bike in short intervals. The difference between pollution (noise and exhaust) on the two types of streets is plainly apparent. On back streets, the majority of time is spent without other vehicles, admiring the houses, parks and schools, the birds, greenery, fresh air, subtle noises of a quiet but typically densely populated space, hidden factories and industrial centers, vast expanses of parking lot. There are lonesome train bridges, flower pots, bars and restaurants patios filled with laughter and friendly chatter, chimneys to smell and parkas and other snow gear to hail in the winter. On the main streets, the majority of time is spent listening to engine-after-engine blare out in distress, being behind pickups and trucks spewing out black clouds of exhaust, feeling the whoosh of air as cars speed by, eyes batting about for danger points of pedestrians walking into the street, car doors opening, bad drivers, crowded intersections, potholes and road detritus. There are no birds chirping on the main streets, no flowers blooming, no trees providing shade, no kids playing in schoolyards, no dogs being walked, no families out on strolls - no quiet and solitude.

The back streets are not car thoroughfares, and for good reason - they go through neighborhoods with children playing, past schools and parks, and residential buildings meant to be quiet and secluded. On the other hand, main car thoroughfares are typically loud, highly trafficked, and have much higher exhaust and noise pollution.

But this is just an immediate view of the situation after one year in Chicago. I imagine there are many differing views on routes - mine have changed significantly within only a one-year period.

One final thought on dedicated bike highways and bike paths. These are completely separated from roadways. Typically they go through nature preserves, along lakefronts, or as replacements for abandoned elevated rail lines. These are excellent modes of transit and should be adopted widescale in cities. It is very easy to imagine a dedicated "bike highway", as I like to call them (as they allow very high biking speeds due to completely open road and no obstacles), every couple of blocks in cities. It ought to be an imperative in cities to provide bike highways traversing the entire city in a grid pattern, making it possible to within minutes find and easily hop on a highway to quickly and quietly get close to any destination in quick fashion.

What's your route?

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We have a number of great resources on The Chainlink for routes. Definitely please add to it with your favorites.



Thanks for the links! I'd seen the mellow Chicago bike map before but it's been awhile. Good resource. Do you know if there is a community-sourced version? I think it would be an interesting project to rank every street in the city, broken down block by block, based on the street's perceived mellowness, safety level, and noise and exhaust pollution levels. (The rankings could then be used to easily create automated route mapping where a user could enter in their preference for mellowness, etc., and get on-the-fly directions of their liking. For example, I really like Monroe from the United Center to Skinner Park over Jackson Blvd. for the similar stretch.)

Sounds like the makings of a great app... As far as i know nothing exists in this form. I think Greenfield updates the mellow map from time to time, but i assume its a manual process. And IDOT ranks streets for biking on their state maps, but their rankings don't always match my take.

Also, welcome to biking in the city! I like Chicago so much because there are a million route options almost no matter where you’re going. It’s great to be able to choose routes based on how I’m feeling as much as where I’m going. 

Mellow Chicago Bike Map is my new favorite! Thanks so much for sharing it so I could remember. Last night I used it to take a trip down to the North Loop from my house near Horner Park. So much easier than charting it out on my own. Here was my quick route: Cullom, Ravenswood, Waveland, Lakewood (love the streetcar tracks in the asphalt - at least not covered by asphalt!!), Burling, Fullerton, Geneva Terrace becoming Larrabee, Oak, State, Rossi's bar (for my birthday party :)

On the whole, a super mellow birthday ride!

Awesome. The MCBM will be expanded citywide later this summer.

I wish when the original MCBM was made on google maps( https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=17mPyCktdurhbwt9HcBZFS... ), that you had done a few things differently such as shade Wilson all the way west to Pulaski, not just west to Manor and the part between Kimball and St. Louis. As I can vouch as I bike this way often, that Wilson all the way west to Pulaski is a GREAT alternative to biking on Montrose and Lawrence.

Honestly, I'd like it if you included mellow bike routes in nearby inner ring suburb communities just outside Chicago, as well. I.e. Augusta in Oak Park and also River Forest, Hinman Ave in Evanston(in lieu of Chicago Ave), you get the idea. I'm sure Cicero and Berwyn would have some good bike routes you could use to avoid busier streets like Cermak, Cicero, Harlem, Roosevelt, etc. as well.

I'll second a couple of those. I live in Avondale and use Wilson to get west when I'm going to northern neighborhoods, from Central Park east. It's very easy to ride. I never take it west of Central Park, so I can't say anything about that part. 

Hinman from South Boulevard all the way to the south end of the NU campus is very, very easy to ride. 

Some streets on your route are one way and don't have stop signs or stop lights to cross arterial roads.

Have you tried Rockwell? When I go to that area I take Roscoe west and cross Western Ave, go past the shopping center, cut thru Devry's parking lot, and take Rockwell north. But I stopped at Addison. Does Rockwell continue north of Addison? I see a parking lot at 2631 Bradley Pl. Maybe that goes thru? North of there the Cubs have a parking lot. Is it fenced? The view from the northern border of the lot (Rockwell & Byron) shows an open lot, so it's possible you could cut through, cross Irving Park, and take Campbell further north.

I turned on the satellite mode of google maps, and am struggling to figure that out myself. Which is the part just north of Bradley Place between Bradley Business Center(this is the huge building on the north side of the street) and ASI Signage Innovations, then through the Cubs parking lot. The street view I saw at the south end of Rockwell south of Irving, makes me suspect there's a fence on the south end of that lot? Not sure, this is an area I will investigate on a future bike ride, and come back with a report about that.

Anyway, I did see a workaround via satellite maps, in case there's no access through the south end of that Cubs parking lot. Which is(going north) take Bradley Place(going east) all the way east to Campbell, go north on that sidewalk only part till you hit Grace Street, take Campbell north to Byron, then make a left into Revere Park till you get back over to Rockwell. Do vice versa, if you're going south.

Map of that workaround. And I should note you do NOT use Rockwell south of Irving, but just use the park entrance into Revere that's just to the east of Rockwell(or vice versa, then cut onto Rockwell St. north of Irving): https://goo.gl/maps/nhNfzvBBRBtVobjX8

Side map, google maps is really weird even if you put dots to instruct it to show a path a certain way. I kept trying to show the map north of Irving Park as going straight from that park path onto Rockwell going north, and it oddly showed Irving Park, Campbell, then on that alley back to Rockwell. UGH!

Byron looks fenced off. You'd have to go through the park. But using Campbell means a lot of back and forth. It'd be better if you could go straight north/south using Rockwell.

Definitely, the fact I couldn't figure out for sure if one could bike and cut through that Cubs parking lot is really annoying me. At least say, on non-Cubs game days(regular days). My gut suspicion is that you can't, and like I said in that other comment probably have to cut through Revere, then onto Campbell, the sidewalk just south of Grace, then west on Bradley Place then south on Talman. And vice versa, going north.

As a reminder, workaround map in case one is not able to continue biking through on Rockwell south of Irving: https://goo.gl/maps/nhNfzvBBRBtVobjX8


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