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Not Just For Bikers

Chicago's biggest alternative transit organization moves people under a new name.
Monday Jan 12, 2009.     By Sharon Hoyer
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Sunday Parkways
photo: Courtesy Active Transportation Alliance

At a potluck dinner party a few weeks ago, I listened in as a vermicomposter regaled a group of partygoers with an animated tale of her ongoing battle with an unknown nemesis bent on depositing her worm bin in the dumpster behind her apartment building. Eventually the conversation turned, as customarily happens at these things, to work. One person asked the spirited composter about a transition at her office. She responded enthusiastically; her employer—formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation—had recently changed its name to the Active Transportation Alliance.

This rang a bell; I'd heard the CBF was rebranding to a broader (if somewhat less fetching) moniker. The young woman expressed high expectations for the change and said the organization was looking forward to increased community support.

"So what can I do to support the Active Transportation Alliance?" I piped in. She turned and fixed me in her penetrating gaze.

"Become a member." The brisk reply came out as a command more than a suggestion. Not one to argue with a woman who can deliver such an arresting stare through thick-rimmed glasses, I visited the handsome new ATA website when I returned home to investigate the benefits of membership.

A little background: the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation has been advocating bicycle use and safety in Chicago for 20-plus years and can be thanked for making our city—despite the oft brutal climate, decentralized neighborhoods and rabid motorists—one of the best bike-commuting cities in the U.S. It's because of the CBF that we can hoist our bikes on the Metra. They also helped push through Complete Streets legislation in Illinois, requiring all state-funded road projects to include sidewalks and bike lanes. And it was the CBF that convinced the city to turn Lakeshore Drive over to cyclists one day each year and close the emerald necklace of boulevards to cars for two Sundays last year (fingers crossed for more in '09!), allowing folks to leisurely pedal between the expansive parks on the west and southwest side.

The Bicycle Federation has been such a distinctive presence in Chicago, I was surprised to hear they were rebranding. But according to Margo O'Hara, the Director of Communications for the Active Transportation Alliance, the new name better reflects the overall mission of the organization.

"This name gives more weight to the conversation," she said. "By including pedestrians and mass-transit riders, we represent more people. And these systems are interdependent; pedestrians and bikers often take the train; the more bike lanes there are, the less cars on the road."

Several ongoing Bicycle Federation projects include pedestrian and mass-transit issues already, most notably Safe Routes to School—an international movement to help kids living in rougher neighborhoods or areas with poor infrastructure to walk and bike to school safely.

"Parents might feel their neighborhood isn't safe for kids to walk through because of traffic, so they drive their children to school," said Margo. "But it only adds to the problem: more and more cars making roads less and less safe. We try to put a plug in the cycle."

Ultimately, the inclusive name is intended to court membership beyond the hardcore biking community, a rallying cry for all non-car commuters to join forces for the cause. The ATA currently has about 6100 members; Margo is excited to see if the ranks swell with self-identified transit riders and pedestrians. "The more people come to us, the more we can speak for them."

So what does membership entail? For 30 bucks (the lowest level), you'll get a Chicagoland Bike Map, deals on registration for Active Transportation Alliance events, the newsletter and discounts at bike shops, restaurants, breweries, museums and businesses from the north suburbs to southwest Michigan.

I joined up immediately and my timing was impeccable: the membership card arrived right before the opening of Bike the Drive registration and about three days before I had to mosey over to Boulevard Bikes (exercising the pedestrian aspect of my commuting identity) for new tubes and a patch kit. Membership already has its benefits.

It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.


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