Local Spotlight – In Conversation with Charlie Saxe of the Skokie Bike Network

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Though all of us should always be mindful of our impact on the environment, and should always be trying to minimize that impact as much as we possibly can, with Earth Day just a couple of days away, there may be no other time of the year when our thoughts are more likely to turn to what we can do to reduce our own carbon footprint. One way we can all tread a bit more lightly on the planet upon which we all depend is by beginning to think more critically about the impact we have upon our own communities, which includes rethinking our commute — using our own personal vehicles less and opting to travel on foot, with public transportation, or by bicycle more. Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Charlie Saxe of the Skokie Bike Network, based in the northern suburb of Skokie, Illinois, about the organization, its history, its mission, upcoming events, building community, roadway design (including some of what is and is not conducive to encouraging residents to commute by bike or on foot, rather than by car), and much more. Read on to see what he had to say and, when you’re done reading, don’t forget to check out their website for even more information.

One of Skokie Bike Network’s “Pit Stops,” pop-up events that take place around the community (Photo: Skokie Bike Network)

Andrew DeCanniere: To begin at the beginning, what is the Skokie Bike Network? How did it start and what is it that the organization does?

Charlie Saxe: I think it was around last March when I started to pull the Skokie Bike Network together. I was at a meeting before the pandemic — it was a Skokie Caucus Party meeting — and [former Village Trustee] Randy Roberts made a point of saying “There’s Charlie Saxe. He’s a member of the Sustainable Environmental Advisory Commission.” As you know, Randy [was the Trustee Liaison for the Commission], and so he was talking up the Commission and mentioned that I am a cycling advocate as well. After the meeting, someone came up to me and said “Oh, so you’re the bike guy.” I said “Well, I guess so.” He said “You want bike lanes on Church Street,” and I answered “Well, yeah. There are plans to put bike lanes on Church Street.” He went on to tell me how he didn’t want bikes on Church, how there are bike lanes on Main Street, and how his wife gets nervous about driving on Main. It was just funny, because I thought “Okay. Well, I’m not just the bike guy. There are plenty of other people who are interested in cycling in Skokie.” I’d been thinking about this for a while. I’d wanted to organize a group of people who have a shared interest in cycling in Skokie, and to sort of get this effort together to do things like bike audits, to promote the necessary infrastructure and facilities, and to get feedback. I finally decided that it was time to do it, so we could at least have an organized constituency. I think it was also helpful given that, with the pandemic, there were many more people biking — and, actually, that has lasted beyond the [height of] the pandemic. Even anecdotally, you see many more people biking in Skokie.

So, I wanted to do a few things. First, I wanted to have an organized group. There is the Evanston Bike Club. There are a number of people who are involved with the Active Transportation Alliance. However, a lot of that is not Skokie specific. Mainly, I wanted to build a connection — I wanted to have a group that knew about each other, that could have a conversation, and that could have some organized rides and other organized activities. Mostly, the idea behind the organization was to help build the cycling community in the community. So, I started the organization and created a website. I sent out the word through a couple of channels, and we got an initial meeting about about 40 people or so. From there, we’ve organized a Steering Committee of about five people. We meet on a periodic basis to organize things, and we now have a mailing list of about 100 people and growing. We continue to get interest and, with the season coming up, I think we’ll start generating even more.

DeCanniere: Do you have any events scheduled this year or not just yet?

Saxe: We only have one event scheduled so far, and that is the Ride of Silence in May. That will kick off our season. Last year, we did a couple of theme rides. We also created a library of bike routes to the Backlot Bash, and we’re going to do a similar kind of thing for routes to local parks. We had a couple of rides where we joined other groups in the area, so we’ll do some of that again. There also are a couple of areas in which we haven’t done much yet, so I’d like to do that. One area, in particular, is the education side of things — offering some classes. I also wanted to see if we could organize an effort to do an audit of bike routes, and figure out what their conditions are, and what would be some areas of prioritization in terms of improvements.

DeCanniere: It sounds like you have quite a bit planned.

Saxe: Last year we also did some pop-up events, which we will probably do again, and then we also had a presence at the Farmers Market, which was very successful. We’ll probably be at the Farmers Market again this year as well.

DeCanniere: As far as the education aspect goes, I also think that sounds interesting. Personally, I never really got past the training wheels phase. I can focus on not falling. I can focus on moving forward. However, I never really mastered whole thing of not falling while simultaneously peddling forward. At least without training wheels. That said, I do think that biking is a healthy activity. Plus, as we all know, there are no emissions generated by cycling. It’s an active form of transportation, which is great — particularly living, as we do, in a day and age when so many of us spend so much time being relatively sedentary. Whether it’s at school, at work or at home, too many spend too much time sitting around.

Saxe: Well, I do a lot of biking and really enjoy it. It really is one of the more important things I do on a regular basis. I have been a lifelong cyclist, and there have been periods where I’ve not done a lot of riding. In the last 12 or 13 years, I’ve been riding pretty intensively. It’s a great form of transportation — certainly for the short trips. I think that, for a lot of people, it is difficult to incorporate cycling into their regular transportation regimen. I think that’s why, in Skokie, it’s a difficult thing to get beyond cycling as a recreational activity. There are some good facilities in the bike trails. We have two very good bike trails. There is the Skokie Valley Trail and there is the Channel Trail. We have the bike lane on Main Street — which is really nice — and we will eventually get something on Church Street. There is some progress there. When you ride around the neighborhoods, they are very bikeable. However, getting out of your neighborhood can be life-threatening. Even on a street like Main Street — which is not a terrible street to cross — you have to be a pretty confident and capable cyclist. You have to have a certain baseline capability to be able to do that, and that is a threshold not a lot of people feel comfortable with — particularly if they have kids. If you are riding with kids, going across these arterials is prohibitive.

A holiday display along the route of one of Skokie Bike Network’s family-friendly “Theme Rides.” (Photo: Skokie Bike Network)

DeCanniere: Right. Though, again, I’m not a cyclist myself, I could see how that could be.

Saxe: Keeler is a great street. It’s a bike route and it goes north-south. It’s a great street to ride on. However, when you get to Church Street, there’s no traffic control. There is one at Dempster, which is absolutely essential — but Keeler doesn’t have a traffic control at Oakton, at Church, at Golf or at Main. That is inherently limiting. Oakton is very high speed. It doesn’t have the same volume Dempster has, but it is a very high speed street. When you get to Main, it is not really high speed, but it is fairly busy. Even though it only has two lanes, it’s a trick to cross at Keeler. Dempster has a light, which is good, but then you get to Church and you have a high speed street. Golf is another animal altogether.

DeCanniere: Right. I know that Church, as you mentioned, is set to have bike lanes. Crawford is in the middle of being redesigned — at least north of a certain point. Obviously, I do think different people have different preferences for roadway design — whether it’s a design such as the one being proposed for Crawford, which is not a protected lane, or whether we are talking about a protected lane. That said, at least there will be a dedicated lane on Crawford, which is arguably better and safer than not having any bike lane at all.

Saxe: There are two things that configuration does. It’s not a protected lane, which means there still will be a lot of people who are intimidated. The other thing is that there’s a lane of parked cars, and then you have the door zone issue. That’s been a common complaint about a lot of painted bike lanes — that they’re adjacent to parked cars. There are various tiers of accessibility for various bike facilities. It’s definitely one of the higher thresholds. It’s just below not having a bike lane at all, and just having a street, in terms of it’s accessibility. The main thing that bike lane does is that it calms the traffic. I’ve seen this on Main Street and also on Howard. There’s part of the bike lane that goes by East Prairie School. When they put that in, it immediately slowed the traffic down. It was amazing how immediate and how noticeable that was. Even if you have no bikes in the bike lane, having the bike lane is an improvement because it slows the traffic down, and it makes it a much more habitable area. Crawford is a residential street. That was the argument when the idea was bouncing back and forth about what the traffic configuration should be. Cook County organized a public hearing about it, along with the Engineering Department, and one of the things that I made a point of saying is that this is not a commercial street. There are not businesses along that stretch. There are some at the corners, but this is a residential street. It may be an important north-south thoroughfare, but it is fundamentally a residential street, and we ought to treat it as such. By having one lane that is dedicated to traffic — right now it is effectively two travel lanes anyway, because there are enough parked cars that you only have one through lane through various parts of it. By formalizing it as one through lane, with a bike lane, it sends a signal to drivers as to what kind of driving you are going to do. There were some who were concerned it will cause traffic congestion. Frankly, I don’t think that it will cause any congestion. The traffic may move in a steady, single-file, so it may seem like it is congested — but if you go any faster on that street, you’re just racing between stoplights anyway. It’s not going to diminish the performance of the street in terms of volume of traffic that it can handle, but it will improve the performance of the street in terms of slowing the traffic down and making it much safer, and making it more amenable to the types of land uses that surround it.

DeCanniere: And I think it goes a long way to making it more suitable for multiple modes of transit. I think there’s this sort of gradual shift from being automobile-centric, to recognizing the importance of considering pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians also benefit from these changes.

Saxe: Anybody traversing that street is going to be much more comfortable traversing a single lane of traffic, with a pedestrian refuge in the boulevard, than they would be if it had four lanes. There will still be people who will be able to walk across that street at certain points. If there were another configuration, they would have just gotten into their car and driven. I think it helps mitigate some of the inclination to drive to get across the street. I live near Touhy Avenue, and it is very difficult to get across the street. There will be people who live on the Lincolnwood side who need to go to Proesel Park — which is literally two blocks away — but because they’re north of Lincoln Avenue, and it can be hazardous to cross Lincoln, they will drive to Proesel Park. You see this on Howard Street as well, with the kids going to East Prairie. A lot of people will drive their kids to school, even though it is only a few blocks away in a perfectly safe neighborhood. The only reason they are driving is because traversing those streets is hazardous, and they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

DeCanniere: Right. I actually know at least some of what you’re talking about. I know someone who used to live in Lincolnwood — just a little bit east of the overpass that runs over the Edens Expressway. They had a car, so I think that they were much more reliant on their personal vehicle as well. I remember that, when I saw the overpass, I wondered how anyone that doesn’t own a car would be able to get any further west than the overpass. It seems that they wouldn’t be able to do so on foot.

Saxe: You can’t. I’ve seen bikes ride across that overpass on Touhy. It’s crazy. I go north to Howard Street and then cut across Niles Center Road. That’s how I get across the Edens Expressway, but the Edens Expressway is a huge problem as well. Even the streets that don’t have exits, like Oakton Street — which doesn’t have an interchange and has a bridge across — that’s not a particularly good place to cross the expressway. Then, you go north of there, which has an interchange, which is life-threatening. Lincoln crosses the expressway. You can get across there, but that’s not really that convenient going east-west. You really have to go out of your way. It is a real problem. Part of the mission of the Skokie Bike Network is to have a collective voice and people feel confident that they can speak up and say “Hey, the way that the streets are engineered is not conducive to not driving.” I think that we’ve seen that with Crawford Avenue. We were able to organize a group to participate in the public hearings. When the car curmudgeons come out on NextDoor, there are people who are pushing back and who are saying “No, I’d rather have the bike lanes. I don’t need cars going 35 miles an hour. 35 miles an hour is too fast for that street.” That’s exactly the case that needs to be made. People need to feel confident saying that kind of speed on that kind of a street is not okay.

Photo from one of Skokie Bike Network’s activities, which include “Theme Rides,” “Pit Stops” and more. (Photo: Skokie Bike Network)

DeCanniere: I think that there are some significant strides that have happened — and that continue to happen — locally, in Skokie, and in neighboring communities as well. There are significant strides being made when it comes to considering all modes of transit — cars, pedestrians, bicyclists. I guess you touched on state of biking in the area today, and on the state of biking infrastructure, and what you would like to see or what you think needs to happen to make the area — including surrounding communities — more multi-modal transit friendly. Is there anything else you’d like to add where that’s concerned?

Saxe: Skokie still has a long way to go. I think that Skokie has an opportunity, because the infrastructure that it has is overbuilt for cars. It’s built around cars. The advantage of that is that there is room to work with. It’s not like we have to occupy other space to build the kind of infrastructure we want. We have the basic real estate to be able to do that. I think there needs to be a cultural shift around what transportation means, and around what driving means. I think people feel like they need to be able to drive at a certain speed. People feel like 35 or 40 miles an hour is not that fast, when in fact it is pretty fast for a moving vehicle. The other reality is that, in Skokie, you can drive that fast but your average speed isn’t anywhere near that fast.

Then, there’s this knee-jerk reaction of “I need a space to park a car. I need less traffic congestion.” So, the immediate thought is more capacity, and this is kind of the mindset that is baked in from the individuals like you and me, all the way up through traffic engineers, you know? This idea that the primary performance indicator for your transportation system is how much volume you can move and how fast you can move it. We need to change that mindset to one where we’re moving people around, and moving people faster in automobiles doesn’t necessarily mean we’re moving them more efficiently. In fact, a lot of times, it means the opposite of that. We just have to commit more and more resources to be able to maintain that volume and speed. There’s the single occupancy vehicle / single destination paradigm. That sort of has to shift, and I think we’re seeing that, because people are becoming aware of what that means. Nobody wants additional traffic in their neighborhood, and they’re making the connection. If you put in more parking lots, if you make the streets faster, if you induce more traffic, then you’re going to generate more traffic in their neighborhoods and they don’t want that. I think there are a lot of people who are much more conscious about wanting a place to be. They don’t necessarily need some place that’s convenient to drive through.

If you carve out parking lots and you put in drive-thrus — if you do the traditional suburban sprawl-type development — then it is not going to make it a better place to be. What that is then is a convenient place to drive. There are more people who are saying “No, I don’t want that. That’s not what I want to see in terms of the vision moving forward.” I think we’re seeing an evolution, but there still is this very strong mindset — even among those who will say otherwise — that things need to be convenient by car. There’s this premise that, when it comes to parking a car, I should be able to park anytime, anyplace that I want. So, when I get to some place, there needs to be a parking space available to me where I want it, when I want it. There is simply not enough space to do that. The geometry just doesn’t work. It’s impossible to do. But there is this kind of thing of “Well, if I have to go further away from where my destination is than I would like to, then there’s a problem.” I think we just need to learn that allocating all of this real estate to having space available is extremely costly — not only in terms of direct costs, but also in terms of opportunity costs. There are things that are being pushed out of the way to make that possible.

DeCanniere: Right. And I think that this kind of ties back into some of the issues you and I were considering when we had some discussions ourselves. I think what you’re saying about the size of parking lots, for instance, makes sense. I think that these are elements that need to be considered more carefully. It certainly sounds like there is the need to really examine the design of roadways, generally — not only in Skokie or, for that matter, not only on the North Shore — and see how they may be more thoughtfully designed and made better and safer for all modes of transit. Whether that’s adding dedicated bike lanes or that’s reducing the speed on a given stretch of road, or whether that’s something else entirely, I am sure that there are a whole host of options that are out there, available to municipalities.

Saxe: Again, this is part of the point of the Skokie Bike Network — designing for people. It’s really to give that point of view a voice. We’re not building convenient places to drive through. We’re building a good place to be. That’s what we want. We want Skokie to be a good place to be. Not just to be a convenient place to drive through.

DeCanniere: As an added bonus, as people get out of their cars and start to get around on foot or on their bikes or what have you, I also think that can foster more of a sense of community. I think that goes back to that article you sent me a while ago. If you’re always cocooned in your vehicle, there also can be less opportunity to really interact. There can just be this very different dynamic. The article talks specifically about the difference between driving along in your own vehicle versus being on the bus, together. While I can’t say that everyone on-board every bus is always on their best behavior, I do think that — at the very least — there is a certain civility. I am not sure that is always the case when it comes to, for example, two people in their cars. I mean, it seems we hear about road rage quite often these days. Similarly, I also feel that if more people get out of their cars in favor of walking around, I think that could foster more of a sense of community.

Saxe: I mean, if you ride public transportation on a regular basis, there are people that you see. I call them “familiar strangers.” There are people you don’t really know, but you know from that interaction. You see them everyday — or at least periodically. Eventually, you become a community, right? You have that 8:15 bus. There are probably a handful of people who are always on that bus. Eventually, they recognize each other, and you get the nods and the acknowledgement. You know, you might not sit down and have a conversation with them, but at least there is this sort of connection that occurs. Whereas, in automobiles, none of that happens.

DeCanniere: Right. And that familiarity — combined with the fact that there isn’t the same total anonymity — encourages better behavior. More often than not, anyhow.

Saxe: I think there is something to a shared experience, and seeing people eye-to-eye, having that kind of contact. I’ve biked downtown, and I’ve been in the bike lane on Milwaukee Avenue — which is a very busy area — and I will stop and talk to people. I’ll be at an intersection, and could be standing next to somebody, and you just start talking to them. I actually met somebody that I maintain a connection with today. I just happened to pickup a conversation at Milwaukee and Ogden. We were stopped and we just started chatting, and it turned out they had very similar interests to what I was doing, and we connected again through Active Transportation Alliance. There’ve been a number of people. There’s another person who is a rollerblader. I haven’t really talked to them, but I’ve seen them periodically. I wave and they wave back. We just see each other every once in a while on the trails. That’s the kind of thing that happens. When we did the pop-up events — I believe we did two of them — one was on the Channel Trail, and the other was on the North Branch Trail, we just ran into people and were talking to people. You find out all kinds of things. People really appreciate the connection and the information, and you learn a lot about what is going on. That’s how you build community.

DeCanniere: Absolutely. I am always interested to know what’s going on in the community, and to learn more about what other people are talking about, what they’re thinking and feeling about things. For municipalities, I’d imagine that such connections are an excellent place — an excellent first step — to begin thinking about what changes they might want or need to make. Last but not least, is there anything else you wanted to discuss?

Saxe: I would encourage people to connect with groups like ours. You can find them online. They have a Facebook presence or some sort of web presence — maybe even a Twitter account or something. There are people in your neighborhood, in your community, who are doing things nearby. It’s a great way to connect with your neighbors and with people who have a shared interest, and to just become more engaged with your community. It’s fun. That’s the main thing. A big part of it is just building community.

For more information about the Skokie Bike Network, including upcoming events, please be sure to check out their website. You can also connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

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