Car to Cargo bike: The rise of the cycling community in Chicago


Eric Henry

A man in Wicker Park sporting a mask while riding a divvy bike.

After paying her second traffic ticket off, Lindsay Bayley looked at her car and said to herself,  “Wow this is kind of a burden.”

 In her first week of living in Washington D.C. in 2007, Bayley got two traffic tickets, one of which she received while her friend was driving. The ticket was during rush hour, and if she didn’t pay it within a week, the $100 ticket would turn into $200.

 “Oh my god, this is so much money,” Bayley said after the fine doubled. After the second ticket, Bayley decided to sell her car.

 Bayley is now a transportation planner with a focus on parking policy and equitable transportation at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), where she has been working for about 13 years. 

 “I think it’s because I study a lot about traffic safety, crashes and fatalities, I’m so aware about how dangerous driving is,” Bayley said.

She has been living car-less since 2007 and has taken up biking as her main means of transportation.

 “It [biking] wasn’t something that I felt was a part of my identity until I was in D.C., and it just was the best way to get anywhere and it felt like pure freedom,” Bayley said. “It was the way to feel connected to your surroundings. I always knew I’d be somewhere on time if I rode my bike, and it was just really fun.”

Bikers head down the Lakefront Trail. (Eric Henry)

 After moving back to her hometown of Chicago, she met her husband Drew and together they have been car-less for 15 years and living in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

Biking in the city seems like a summer pastime, an enjoyable way to learn the streets around Chicago and an activity that tourists can easily enjoy in the summer with over 600 Divvy stations to rent bikes from.

But rain or shine, sleet or snow, 80 degree weather or even below 20 — Paul Boruch, a River North resident, can be seen commuting on his bike everywhere he goes. 

Laughing at his own honesty, Boruch shared that he only started biking in high school because he wanted to save up the money his mom gave him for the bus. 

“I didn’t want to spend money on the bus that my mom gave me, I wanted to use that money for other things,” he said. “So that was really why I started biking — it was to save that four dollars a day so I could go and, like, party with my friends later and actually have money.”

Boruch said he is a simple man who rides an everyday cruiser with an attached basket in the front. 

“That’s why I got this cruiser, because it’s a very casual bike, it’s not like a fancy road bike or anything like that — it’s just chill,” Boruch said. 

For some other Chicagoland bikers, the passion goes beyond saving a dime. 

Bayley knew that the person she wanted to marry had to be someone who shared her love for biking; she found that in her husband. 

“When we met, I had moved to Chicago and we were on a soccer team together,” she said. “It was kind of funny, he was like, ‘I just want to date somebody who has a car’ and I said, ‘ugh, whatever.’”

  Bayley and her husband very rarely drive a car, but when they need to — about four times a year — they rent or borrow one. 

“I hate it, I hate it — and my daughter hates it too,” she said. 

“Shh, shh, some people need cars,” Bayley often reminds her six-year-old daughter –– who she describes as an “anti-car” advocate –– after she points fun at drivers on the road.

 In the latest INRIX report from 2019, Chicago is the second-worst city in terms of vehicle congestion. In 2019 alone, the average commuter in Chicago wasted at least 145 hours in traffic which has cost the city nearly $7.6 billion.

FILE-A biker riding down Fullerton Avenue. Many students use biking as a way to get around campus. Photo by Carlyn Duff/The DePaulia

Although vehicle congestion has increased, the Active Transportation Alliance reported in 2018 that Chicago has seen an increase in bicycle use as the main means of transportation. The report noted that there’s been a dramatic increase in bicycle commuting, from around 2,000 commuters in 1980 to over 22,000 in 2016. This trend has been increasing while motor vehicle commuting has been steadily decreasing.

While living without a car in Chicago and starting a family, Bayley has taken to the use of a cargo bike as her main source of transportation for her family’s everyday tasks. The Bayleys have used their Tern Cargo E-bike to travel to work, drop their daughter off at school, take camping trips and do their weekly chores.

Cargo bikes are sturdy bikes that are built to carry heavy loads and sometimes two or more people. They vary in size and model and come with detachable racks for extra storage.

Depending on the person and family, some models have two or three wheels and an extra-long wheelbase than a standard bicycle to provide a sturdier form and avoid tipping over.

The use of cargo bikes has grown tremendously over the last couple of years especially in urban areas. Environmental factors, the rates of vehicle congestion and financial costs have all played into the growth of cargo-bikes.

In a recent study from the Transparency Market Report, the cargo bike market is expected to surpass the $6.3 billion dollar mark by the end of 2030. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, cargo bikes have emerged as one of the safest means of transportation and the demand has increased since last March.

Bayley said that since she and her husband bought their first cargo bike about five and a half years ago, they have been seeing more families on the road with similar bikes. 

“My husband always jokes about how there was a point in time where he knew everyone who was riding a bike in Chicago,” she said. “Then there was a point in time where he knew every parent who was riding a bike with a kid. So, all of the cargo bike families, we knew each other.  And now, it’s like there are so many. There are so many people on bikes, so many families who are on bikes that we don’t know them anymore.”

 Matt Martin, alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward, has also joined the cargo bike family. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Martin and his wife bought an Urban Arrow cargo bike and have loved it since.

“When I was thinking about the bike I thought ‘Well this is a very family-friendly activity,’” Martin said. “It could be a great way to spend time with them [family], good exercise of course and good for the environment. And there are also ways in which you could just run errands with it and do grocery shopping.”

 Similarly to the Bayleys, cargo biking allows Martin to experience and get to know his community a little bit better.  

“We have a very active biking community in the 47th Ward, including a very active family biking community,” he said.

  It also provides a sense of excitement and adventure for his kindergartener son.

“I think it’s a bit of an adventure,” Martin said. “I would say that he finds it more exciting going somewhere. He finds it more of an event. It’s a way for him to experience our community and adjacent communities in a new way. The community as we’re passing through it, is more visible for him.” 

 The cargo bike community is still growing here in Chicago, but it’s a tight-knit community that welcomes more families every year.

 “Hey, so, tell me about your bike,” Bayley said to a cargo bike rider a few years back, in one of Chicago’s many bike lanes.

 “When we were like ‘cargo bike curious,’ I used to talk to people in the bike lane,” she said. “There are families that I hang out with till this day from just starting up a chat in the bike lane. Once you’re in this group you just get to know more people.”