The Chainlink

Why 2020 was such a great year for biking in Chicago

Greatly reduced traffic opened up streets to cyclists like never before. Biking was a great escape during a ridiculously stressful year — and a way to seek adventure when major travel was out of the question.

The year 2020 was awful, but there has never been a better time to bike in Chicago.

What made biking so enjoyable in 2020 was the combination of greatly reduced automobile traffic, decent weather and the vastly improved biking infrastructure in the city and suburbs. What’s more, with so much canceled or closed, biking became a way to escape during a ridiculously stressful year — and a path to adventure when major travel was out of the question.

The most unnerving part of biking in Chicago has always been the street-clogging traffic.

All that vanished in March. As pandemic stay-at-home orders took effect and businesses, offices, schools and other institutions shut down, the streets opened up to cyclists like never before.

Traffic in the city, particularly downtown, plummeted by as much as 60% last spring and still remains considerably below normal, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

To be sure, we all wish the coronavirus never came and we can’t wait till it’s gone.

But there is no describing what it means to seasoned cyclists to have access to major streets that were basically off limits previously. While it’s true that a spike in reckless driving led to more traffic deaths, I still felt way safer this year with far fewer vehicles to look out for — though I continue to stay on high alert and take my normal precautions.

On one downtown jaunt in April, my daughters and I rolled up to a stoplight on State Street, looked around and realized we were the only ones headed in any direction. By Macy’s. At lunch hour. On a weekday.

The rest of the story...

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Bob, I'm glad you had a great year cycling! I'm sorry to report that where I generally cycle, it wasn't so glorious. Regardless of the fewer miles being driven, automobile-related deaths in Illinois are considerably up in 2020. There were 999 automobile-related fatalities in 2019, there have been 1,075 as of today this year. Traffic deaths in Chicago were up almost 40% at the end of September, with the speeding cameras registering considerably higher average speeds. My perception here on the south side, particularly on the Archer Ave. International Speedway, is that the less traffic there is, the more liberated the more crazy drivers feel. Blowing stoplights, going through red lights five seconds after they've changed, switching lanes incessantly, people seem to be emboldened to do whatever they want out there. I always thought I was a careful cyclist, but now I'm on red alert seemingly all the time. It isn't pleasant. Of course, this is based on a limited sample size, and the trails are a different story. I never thought I'd say this, but I almost wish there was more traffic out there to force people to use more restraint.

I certainly agree that it's been a different story downtown. Especially at first, it was downright eerie, like some post-apocalyptic movie. It's quiet even now. A lot of the energy is missing.

I hope those bike shops are squirreling away some of that unexpected revenue. I would expect sales of new bikes will plummet next year close to as much as they peaked this year. I know several people who rushed out and bought bikes, but found riding in the city too uncomfortable to deal with. There are going to be a lot of good deals on Craigslist in the near future.

Happy holidays, everyone, and a safe New Year!



I think this underscores the disconnect between actual safety (as reflected in empirical analysis) and the perception of safety.

This is not to say that cycling this year in the city was not special -- it was a lifeline for me personally.

2020 was a great year for cycling but didn’t prevent me from being hit by car drivers—twice. The first time was in November on the LFT at LaRabida where a driver who was exiting the hospital and had a red light knocked me down in the crosswalk. I was shook up but uninjured. The second was in December when I was sideswiped by an old lady who said she was distracted because she was looking for street signs. That fall was much harder and I’m still suffering its effects. 


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