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Article updated: 6/17/2013 11:41 AM

Suburban bikers find a groove but want safer streets

By Marni Pyke

Potholes. Oblivious drivers. Busy streets with high speed limits.

There are plenty of hazards for suburban commuters who want to use two wheels, not four, Monday through Friday.

But the pleasures outweigh the pitfalls, say participants in last week's Bike Commuter Challenge, held as part of Bike to Work Week. Teams of workers from across the region competed to see who reached the highest percentage of employees biking to work.

"It is a simple machine good for our bodies, communities and environment," said veteran cyclist Terry Witt of Bartlett. "The bicycle is fun and it is freedom."

What would make the experience even better, say cyclists, are safer routes and municipalities that want to invest in infrastructure for bikers and pedestrians.

More than 430 teams competed in the commuter challenge, organized by the Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting cycling and walking in Chicago and the suburbs.

Participants included corporations like Baxter International and Motorola Solutions, small businesses such as Witt's Spin Doctor Cyclewerks and government bodies like the Villa Park Library.

Mild-mannered Sean Birmingham is adult services librarian at the Villa Park Library from 9 to 5, and a biking superhero after hours. He peddles 15 miles a day from Westmont to his workplace, mostly on the Prairie Path.

"I like doing it -- it's nice to save on gas and it's a good way to get a workout," Birmingham said.

Designated trails like the Prairie Path are a godsend for suburban bikers so they can avoid the obstacle courses looming on dangerous major roads or circuitous neighborhoods, explained Birmingham.

For example, Roosevelt Road could be a fast alternative for him, but "cars drive 55 mph without designated bike lanes." He's avoided harm so far but "my father who rides his bike to my house (from Stickney) got clipped by someone turning right at 1st Avenue by Brookfield Zoo."

The commuter challenge is a great launchpad for first-time bike-to-workees, said Ethan Spotts, ATA marketing and communications director.

But "we want to make this sustainable and encourage people to bike throughout the year. There are challenges for suburban commuters who experience higher speed arterial streets and needing safe places to stop, whether it's a side path or nearby trail," he said.

A growing number of municipalities are realizing that encouraging biking takes cars off the roads and creates a healthier environment, Spotts said.

Such communities include Buffalo Grove, which has more than 50 miles of 8- to 10-foot paths and multiuse sidewalks. The village is starting to analyze the bike system with the intent of improving it, cyclist and Village Planner Bob Pfeil said.

Pfeil doesn't just talk the talk. He walked -- or rather biked -- the walk, cycling 11 miles each way between home in Libertyville and the village hall for Bike to Work Week.

"I've been doing this for several years so I've got a pretty good routine," he said. Pfeil counts himself fortunate that the village provides a place to shower and change -- "not every workplace offers that," he said.

Linda Kappas has a fitness center to retreat to after her 17-mile commute, a reward for a sometimes too-adventurous trek from home in Skokie to work at Baxter International in Deerfield.

The senior financial analyst uses a bike trail for 1.5 miles, then it's on to busy streets including Lake Avenue and Pfingsten Road.

Kappas loves cycling but admits to a few close shaves, mainly because of drivers heedless of cyclists. "What scares me is when they don't leave enough room if you happen upon a pothole in the road. You can feel the wind next to you as they pass very closely," she said.

Witt thinks the safety factor is solved by "encouragement, engineering, education, enforcement, and evaluation and planning.

"It is more a matter of resolve than money," he said. "Many communities are committing to the people who live there. Too many are still committed to the car. A balanced transportation plan fills in the important holes that we now experience."

The Active Transportation Alliance has plenty of regional bike maps to share if you want to cycle to work or just get out and spin your wheels. To find out more, go to www.activetrans.org.

Got any thoughts on biking in the 'burbs or other transportation issues? Just drop me a line at mpyke@dailyherald.com. Or give me a shoutout at www.facebook.com/pykeintransit or twitter.com/DHInTransit.

Your voice

So how are those CN trains affecting your life? "Sometimes, it feels like the aftershock of an earthquake, from two blocks away, the whole house rattles," writes Elizabeth Chambers of Barrington.

"Sometimes, it blocks traffic at three major crossings, creating a snarl that corrects itself after two or three cycles of the traffic lights, only to happen again less than an hour later. Last night, between 11:45 p.m. and 1:15 a.m., I counted six freight trains, barreling through the middle of town, horns blasting. Barrington's history is linked to the development of the railroad lines and now those very same railroad lines are bringing an unwelcome future of political debating, wasted studies and bad proposals which may or may not lead to construction of an over/underpass at only one of the crossings. Things are definitely worse and unlikely to improve."

Gridlock alert

Be strong Lake County. Daytime lane closures start today on Route 120 in Grayslake and Round Lake from Bacon Road (love the name) to Seymore Avenue. The project, which involves pavement patching and resurfacing, wraps up Sept. 30.

One more thing

And speaking of bacon, Rosemont workers can get the BLT of their dreams without driving thanks to a new Pace circulator. The Rosemont Lunchtime Circulator, more humbly known as Route 810, operates from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. Rides are free. Every nine minutes the bus will pick up hungry employees at offices including MB Financial, US Foods, Culligan, EGS Electrical, Pointe O'Hare, Wintrust, the village hall and Fashion Outlets of Chicago (opening in August).

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