Could Chicago’s floating cycle route defy the doubters and reconnect the city?

Plans for a continuous road along the Chicago River include cycling on floating pontoons like the controversial Thames Deckway in London. But with the US citys cycle numbers growing, this long-held aspiration could yet be realised

Cycling is no stranger to invention, from the steady swell of Kickstarter campaigns to the nearly innumerable cycleways dreamed up to be dangled, dug and floated on various bodies of water around the world. The latest, a 6.5 mile, $84 m( 67 m) floating pontoon, is currently being imagined for the Chicago River, between the citys Chinatown and Ravenswood Manor.

The RiverRide, to connect Horner and Ping Tom Park in Chicago, was dreamed up by James Price Chuck, investor and co-founder of Second Shore. Its a six- to 12 ft-wide, steel reinforced concrete pontoon, intended as a commuter and leisure route through the city.

Weve assured the likes of the RiverRide before , not least in the shape of the Thames Deckway, a 7.5 mile, 600 m floating pontoon on Londons river which, this time last year, raised some sceptical eyebrows.

Then there was the idea to build bike paths in abandoned tubing passageways beneath London.

Many of these projects tend to miss the point that cycling journeys, like any other journey, involve easy access to stores, places of work and schools; a straight road, with a ramp only every half a mile or more, makes unnecessary detours inducing it impractical for everyday trips. They are often expensive, overly engineered cycling infrastructure, when cheaper, proven solutions are seen again and again on the roads in places like the Netherlands and Denmark, and increasingly in London.

Is this one any different?

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Chicago already has cycling and walking roads along 13 miles of the 27 -mile river. Photograph: Raymond Boyd/ Getty Images

The RiverRides design itself is not perfect at its narrowest the six-foot width for a two-way bike road is not enough. And Chucks suggestion that it would be for bikes only at rush hour, then merely rollerbladers or pedestrians at other hours, misses the phase of a passenger route, potentially omitting those who work unconventional hours. Although Chuck tells the ramps will be a maximum of 500 metres apart, exactly how the pontoon will connect with the citys many moveable bridges is unclear.

However, the idea of a floating cycling and walking pontoon on the Chicago River may not be as frivolous as it may seem, and Chuck is surely not the first person to suggest it.

The creation of a continuous cycling and strolling trail on the river was first mooted in 1909 and, just last week, local advocacy group, the Active Transportation Alliance( ActiveTrans ), published a report setting out ways to attain the dream a reality along the rivers length. Ways to connect existing cycling and walk-to roads which already encompasses 13 miles of the total 27 -mile portion of river within Chicago( if not on the same side of the river) include on-river answers like platforms and, yes, floating pontoons.

I appreciate the feeling of scepticism from some of the projects that have been proposed elsewhere, ActiveTrans Jim Merrell tells. But whats exciting about the Chicago River trail is that were not starting from scratch; its all been about connecting these existing roads together in such a way that going to be accessible and useful for everyone in the city of Chicago.

The challenge to providing a continuous road has been the diverse nature of the riverfront, from the Downtown area with builds immediately abutting the river, to the former industrial areas north and south of the city centre, some still use, and some being redeveloped, or slated for redevelopment in years to arrive. These right of way matters and poor on-street connections to the river in places are significant issues.

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The planned cycleway would build on and connect to the rivers existing roads. Photo: Second Shore

But the city can work around these challenges by using different elements, from traditional riverside trails to floating segments, like the RiverRide concept, and decked roads on pylons, like the Riverview Bridge, which is being constructed next year.

We think its going to take all of these different approaches to have a continuous river trail, tells Merrell. The challenge becomes how can we make it seamless and easy for people to use, recognising thats going to take a lot of different design options, and a lot of different sources of funding, and a lot of sources of public support to get the continuous river trail built.

With more than 900,000 people living within a mile of the Chicago River, with its desirable north-south alignment through the city, ActiveTrans and Second Shore insure the potential to bring an under-used resource back to life as an active transportation corridor.

The two organisations schemes have , not by coincidence, coincided with a growth in cycling in Chicago. One of the town newest and highest quality cycling routes, on Milwaukee Avenue, which operates parallel with the river, and diagonally across the citys grid system, sees around 5,000 cycle journeys per day. The city Divvy bike share strategy, meanwhile, covers one of the largest geographical areas of any in the US.

Part of Mayor Rahm Emanuels Chicago Street for Cycling Plan 2020, which includes a 645 mile network of cycle roads, these schemes, and his objective to attain Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the United States, has helped companies and people insure cycling as a viable way of get around the city. This has, Merrell tells, helped Chicago leapfrog other cities in terms of cycling growth, building a groundswell for the continuous river road, and inspiring many of the emerging notions on how to stimulate that a reality.

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Chicagos new road for passengers? Illustration: Second Shore

Merrell hopes as well as everyday journeys the river route will link to a network of parks and roads, from the shores of Lake Michigan to a regional off-road trail system across the nation, including the citys 606 road, a High Line-style stroll and cycling road on a former elevated railway track.

There are floating pontoons that the project works. One is the Eastbank Esplanade in Portland, Oregon, a $30 m, 1.5 -mile floating cycle and walkway which includes a 370 -metre floating walkway, currently the longest in the US. Another is on the Lea River in East London, helping those on foot and bike employ sections of canalised riverbank without a towpath.

As Second Shores James Chuck put it: The river is between two of the most travelled streets in the city and these hallways have the most motorcycle collisions and fatalities. This is not a coincidence: Chicagos neighbourhoods grew up adjacent to the river because the river used to be the main commercial artery of the citys growing merchant economy.

But rail and road took over the transportation undertakings and river traffic declined rapidly. Today the neighbourhoods still exist on the rivers sides and Chicagos downtown central business district is the centre of the citys economic activity. So the rivers route perfectly connects the business district to 28 of Chicagos 77 residential neighbourhoods and RiverRide is, de facto, mapping perfectly to the important origin-destination phases for a massive and diverse amount of Chicagoans. Fortunately cities like Chicago, London, New York and many the world over are where they are because of the water( rivers, lakes, oceans, bays, oceans etc) that enabled their founding and growth. Now the key for these places is to manage their evolutions and harness sustainable opportunities for growth and connectivity.

Whatever floating or pylon-mounted cycling and strolling answer Chicago utilizes, it needs to be one that works for the people using it, providing access on and off the river to places people need to go. It seems like, in this case, cycling on a floating pontoon to get there may not be so far-fetched.

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