Sunday, November 11, 2012

The McDonald’s Cycle Center: Barriers and irony

by Michelle Stenzel

The McDonald’s Cycle Center is often held up as one of the features that makes Chicago among the top “bike-friendly” cities in the nation. Read the Wikipedia entry on this Millennium Park bike station if you’re not already familiar with it. StreetsFilms and NACTO even featured it once on a video

On paper, it seems like a great amenity for Chicago’s bicycling community, given that it offers covered bike storage, bike repair services, showers and lockers. According to the Wikipedia entry, there are 500 dues-paying members, as well as a waiting list, so it must be well used.
Chicago's McDonald's Cycle Center on Upper Randolph Drive alongside Millennium Park.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
But I almost never hear my fellow bicyclists talk about it, and even though I work three blocks away and commute by bike daily year round,  I’ve only stepped foot it in once. Occasionally someone will ask me whether I use the center, and recently I decided to go snap a few pictures to illustrate why I don’t. It turns out it’s all about location and access.
The cycle center is out of the way for most Loop workers.

The location on East Upper Randolph Street might be convenient for people who work in the Aon building or the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building across the street, but for anyone else, it’s pretty remote. Especially to a bicyclist who is used to riding directly up to a destination, it seems kind of inefficient to lock up your bike in one building and then walk numerous blocks to get to the office. 
The location of the cycle center is scenic, but not exactly in the heart of the action. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The center is on the northern edge of Millennium Park, which forbids bicycle riding over its 25 acres of space.

Why can’t we ride a bike through the park? I guess that during summer on the most crowded times of day, the throngs of people on foot wouldn’t want to have people on bikes mixing it up with them. But the park is huge, and for most hours of the day on most non-summer days, large swaths of it are mostly empty, and would make a fine route for a person on a bicycle. But no, instead Millennium Park blocks access for bicyclists, and it’s ironic that the multi-million dollar McDonald’s Cycle Center sits on the edge of this barrier.
The McDonald's Cycle Center is on the northwest edge of Millennium Park. 
"Please respect the rights of others by allowing open access to all areas of the park at all times". . .  except for people on bicycles, skateboards or rollerblades. Since these were Mayor Daley's rules and he's gone, maybe we can change them.
Wide paths crisscross Millennium Park, but are forbidden for use by people on bicycles.
The center is near the intersection of two of the least bike-friendly streets in the city.

Michigan Avenue is eight to ten lanes wide for motor vehicles, with no bike infrastructure of any kind. There are dozens of bus lines on Michigan, and taxicabs treat the street as if it were a quasi-highway. The 30 mph speed limit signs mounted along Michigan Avenue are soundly ignored as motorists gun it to try to hit as many green lights as they can, since the signals are timed to reward that behavior.  Not exactly inviting for a person on a bike.
Navigating Michigan Avenue's five lanes for motor vehicles by bicycle is not for the faint at heart.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
This citizen cyclist deftly negotiated his way through the Michigan and Randolph intersection on his bike, but I'd guess he's in the Strong and Fearless category of current cyclists. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Randolph Street is also eight lanes wide and splits into Upper and Lower Randolph right at Michigan, which adds another level of complexity for a person trying to ride a bicycle.

There is a conventional  bike lane on Randolph that leads up to the cycle center, but the bike lane is ALWAYS blocked by trolleys and tour buses. Always.

This November weekday there was only one trolley parked there, but I’ve seen summer days when trolleys and buses were stacked along the bike lane like a circus caravan. This requires a bicyclist to signal and move into the moving motor vehicle lane (while trying to pedal uphill, might I add), which is often crowded with impatient trolley, taxicab or delivery truck drivers.  Doing this over and over in the course of one long stretch? Not fun.
Upper Randolph Street east of Michigan Avenue has a conventional bike lane, but it's always blocked by trolleys and tour buses. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The view from the East Randoph Street bike lane. Uphill, bike lane blocked, the street splits just ahead. Yikes.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
After leaving the McDonald’s Cycle Center, getting to the Lakefront Trail from the cycle center requires a tortuous route, whether you’re heading north or south.

The bike lane ends at the top of the hill, at a barren projection point that overlooks Lower Randolph. In the distance, you can see Lake Michigan, but how to get there? 
Where the bike lane ends on Upper Randolph. Lake Michigan in the distance is so close, and yet so far.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
There are small signs that direct you either toward the river or down through the Cancer Survivor’s Park to get to the lake. When you look down that way, it doesn’t look promising. Those little signs are not enough, anyway. There needs to be an actual map. Eventually, you can get to the Lakefront Trail from here, but it’s not a direct route, nor intuitively obvious, nor well signed.
After the bike lane ends, small signs point in the general direction of the river or lakefront trails, but they're not enough to prevent people from getting lost, especially if you're trying to go north. BTDT. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
So the route to and from the cycle center on the south is forbidden for bikes, on the west it’s scary and bike-unfriendly, and on the north and east, it’s confusing and inconvenient. 

None of this is to detract from the center itself: It has cool architecture and cool double-level bike racks; it’s a convenient place for tourist bike rentals; and it’s generally a nice investment that the city made, in a different era. Also, the accessibility issues I’ve written about are nothing that we can’t fix through smart street planning, given sufficient vision and will.

Young men on rental bikes ride the sidewalk on Upper Randolph on their way back to the McDonald's Cycle Center. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Unfortunately, because of the very popular Bike and Roll rentals at the cycle center, the current reality is what thousands of visitors see each year and will remember about Chicago’s alleged “bike friendliness”. Even in the course of 20 minutes on a chilly November afternoon, I saw about 10 tourists with rental bikes, some with maps in hand, looking around perplexedly.

We have a long way to go.


  1. Great post. I don't understand why CDOT keeps the Randolph bike lane in that condition. A couple years ago it modified the bike lane by creating a hashed lane against the curb, moving the bike lane about 8 feet away from the curb (too far in the background of your photos, though) so that automobiles would still be illegally parked here but they wouldn't be blocking the bike lane. Well, that didn't work either: the vehicles that are parked here start parking against the curb way before the bike lane becomes offset, and the vehicles are much wider than a typical automobile so they hang into the bike lane.

    An alternative solution would be to create a bike lane on the sidewalk, at a slightly different grade than the sidewalk. A raised bike lane. You know, the kind the Bike 2015 Plan said several miles of which should be built.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I added most of the pics I took on Upper Randolph to a Flickr photo set at and there's one that shows the widened parking lane, but you're right that vehicles like minibuses still encroach into the bike lane.

      I believe the plan for Monroe is to put in a raised bike lane by carving out part of the sidewalk. Hopefully we'll see this specified soon in the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan when it's released. -- Michelle

  2. During the summer when I go from the Loop to the Lakefront Trail, I take Washington to the park. When it is crowded, I walk my bike on the sidewalk to Monroe; if not crowded, I ride my bike on the sidewalk to Monroe and then usually ride my bike on the south sidewalk to the trail. Yep, illegal. But, safe. Getting from the Loop to the LFP is a nightmare!

  3. Lisa, I now consider the concrete areas around the edges of all parks to be Multi-Use Trails and not in fact the sidewalks that they may appear to be, and MUTs are of course legal to ride on by bicyclists. This is based on what I learned during a Fullerton Parkway Bridge meeting: To get to the Lakefront Trail from Stockton on Fullerton, I thought I had been illegally riding on the sidewalk all these years, but the CDOT person said that if it runs through a park, it's a Multi-Use Trail. Extrapolating, this means that Monroe from Columbus to LSD with Grant Park on either side is certainly a MUT -- ride it without guilt! Since I can't find a formal definition of sidewalk nor MUT in the ordinances anywhere, I'm broadening the verbal definition to include that it's a MUT if it runs alongside a park (especially when no on-street bike facilities are provided). So, the concrete areas bordering Millennium Park are also MUTs, in my book. -- Michelle

    1. Michelle, if I am ever stopped (never have seen anyone stopped!)I will definitely use that rationale and cite to Michelle ;-).

    2. I was hoping to inspire you to hunt through the ordinances for a good definition. :)

    3. I guess I could do that! Will let you know.

    4. Well, cannot find a definition of multi-use trail in the Chicago City Code, but here is sidewalk: "Sidewalk" means that portion of a public way between the curb, or the lateral lines of the roadway, and the adjacent property lines, intended for the use of pedestrians.

      Also, the definition of Millenium Park says that it does not include the sidewalks along Michigan, Randolph, Monroe, and Columbus. This really does not help your analysis, but at least we know that the park security have no business telling anyone what to do on those concrete areas bordering Millenium Park.

    5. Thanks, good to know both those things. I think sidewalk must be a subset of mutli-use trail, given that the user set of MUTs is bigger. So even though the concrete areas bordering Millennium Park fit the definition of sidewalk, they can still be MUTs. That's what I'll be arguing if the need ever arises, anyway.

  4. Great post! I have been cycling exclusively for 8 years in Chicago and am very very frustrated by the poor design of Millennium Park for cyclists. Just this fall I was one of the super confused, super frustrated people trying to get to the LFP from Randolph, and failing miserably for about 1/2 hour. It's really embarrassing that we would build all this STUFF and then have none of it connect - literally and figuratively - with actual people on bikes. Oh, Chicago.

    1. Thanks, Poptart! Yes, I've been lost in that area to the northeast of the cycle center, always ending up on a cliff-like projection over lower Wacker or LSD or some other super busy street, and no way down. Kind of nightmarish.

      Hopefully the final version of the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 will provide a way to better integrate the area with the Loop, the Lakefront Trail, and the riverwalk. The draft version of the plan shows that Randolph and Fairbanks are both due slated for big upgrades (link to pic below, I can't embed a map and unfortunately it won't hyperlink) --MS

  5. I work at/bike to the Aon Center and would add that the tortuous route from Randolph to the LFT has gotten significantly more tortuous this month with the multi-year closure of part of Grant Park and some of the surrounding sidewalks. Active Trans recently posted a map of an alternate route, which is pleasant enough once you get the hang of it.