Open Streets on State Street promotes alternative transit

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Grind: A filmmaker shoots a local skateboarder at Open Streets on State Street. | Gil Leora ~ FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

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After a blustery end of September, the sun came out on Oct. 1 for the first Open Streets on State Street event. Seven blocks, from Lake Street to Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago, were cordoned off for a day’s worth of outdoor, family-friendly activities such as biking, dance aerobics, roller skating, martial arts demonstrations and skateboarding. Even before the official 10 a.m. opening of the urban playground, organizers knew it was going to be a busy day.

“We shut down the street at about 8 a.m. just to start loading up and getting the streets ready,” said Adolfo Hernandez, director of advocacy and outreach for the Active Transportation Alliance. “Within the first minute of closing the street, we saw about four or five runners just running on the street already.”

Organized by the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago, Open Streets on State Street was the first event of its kind for the non-profit company that celebrated its 25th anniversary on Oct. 13. Active Trans promotes safety in alternative transportation in Chicagoland and is probably best known for its flagship event, Bike the Drive, an annual bike ride on a car-free Lakeshore Drive.

“Events like these, with traveling on a street by biking or walking, gives you the chance to experience for the first time safely,” Hernandez said.

Active Trans partnered with the Chicago Loop Alliance for the first time for the Open Streets event.

“It’s a great partnership in that the Loop is the most transit-accessible,” said Ty Tabing, Chicago Loop Alliance executive director. “We view the Loop as the center of the city. Since Active Trans really advocates for non-car transportation modes, it’s really a win-win for us.”

Up until three years ago, Active Trans was known as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. It expanded its advocacy for bicycling in the city and surrounding suburbs to include work dedicated to walking and public transportation.

“People want more options than to drive in a traffic jam,” Burke said. “When you walk, bike or even take the train, you’re going to have a more active commute.”

Its 40 employees organize events and push for legislation that promotes safer car-free transit choices. The group helped push for protected bikes lanes that are cropping up in the city, as well as the must-stop-for-pedestrians law, which requires motorists to yield at crosswalks and stop if a pedestrian is already in the crosswalk. Chicago has been installing these crosswalks and traffic signs since the summer of last year.

“We recognize that not every trip can be made by biking, walking and transit,” said Ethan Spotts, director of marketing and communications at Active Trans. “There is a need for cars, too. Our work in that is more along the lines in educating people for paying attention and not speeding, while also trying to get people to think about choosing for some of their trips to be biking.”

More recently, Active Trans has been working on additional pedestrian issues such as with the Safe Routes to Schools project. Active Trans is serving as the regional center for this international movement.

“We’re really encouraging kids and their parents to walk and bike to school, making that trip more safe and enjoyable,” Burke said.

Part of this program is working with communities to improve area crosswalks, he said.

For the future, Active Trans leaders hope to increase the number of events and number of people discovering other transportation options.

“It’s to see so many more people biking, and especially people that hadn’t before, to realize that ‘Hey, I can pull this off,’” Burke said.

Find out more at www.activetrans.org.