THE LOOP — Local bicyclists are furious after a driver killed another bicyclist near the Lakefront Trail, a path beloved by pedestrians — but one they’ve also long said is fraught with peril.
On Feb. 28, Gerardo Marciales, 41, was riding his bike in a crosswalk across DuSable Lake Shore Drive from the Lakefront Trail when a driver hit him, police said. Marciales, a Lincoln Park man who’d recently gotten engaged, died from his injuries.
Marciales is the second cyclist to be fatally struck going to or from the lakeshore path in recent months. Ade Hogue was killed when a driver hit him Oct. 27 at Grand Avenue and DuSable Lake Shore Drive.
At the time of Hogue’s death, his friends noted accessing the Lakefront Trail there can be dangerous. Bicyclists and pedestrians have to take tunnels — which are sometimes inaccessible — or cross directly in the path of cars on busy DuSable Lake Shore Drive to get to and from the lakefront park.
Michael Podgers, who works with transportation advocacy group Better Streets Chicago, said Marciales’ death made him question “how it is that the city hasn’t figured out that this is an extremely dangerous way to build our park.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating to see the city and state endorsing system that we have known for years — that planners have been calling out for years — as being faulty and dangerous and that leads to real, traumatizing death for residents,” Podgers said.
Christina Whitehouse, the founder of cyclist advocacy group Bike Lane Uprising, said her organization has started to order white spray paint in bulk to keep up with all the bicyclists being killed in Chicago. The group creates white ghost bikes after a cyclist is killed.
“People go out of their way to get to the lakefront path, and it’s proving deadly,” Whitehouse said.
‘Living His Dream’
Marciales emigrated from Venezuela, making his home in Chicago in 2019. He began working as a technical consulting engineer for software company Cisco, whose offices are a short trip west of where the crash occurred, according to his family.
Marciales got engaged to his fiancee, Jaime Bolognone, in June. He popped the question while the two of them rode down the Chicago River on a boat.
They planned to get married in about six months; instead, Bolognone is saying goodbye to the man she loves.
“He loved the lake, river and the energy of the city,” Bolognone said. “He loved to hop on a bike and ride down the bike path to get to where he needed to go, especially on a nice day.
“He will be missed most of all for his sense of humor, generosity and kindness.”
Former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who is also a Venezuelan immigrant, shared the story of Marciales’ death on Twitter, saying it was sad and referring to the bicyclist as “one of my sons.”
“A fellow Venezuelan living his dream in Chicago,” Guillen wrote.
‘It’s Not Like We Don’t Know Where The Dangerous Areas Are’
Activists have said Marciales’ death was preventable — and that the city has neglected to make obvious, much-asked-for changes that could protect bicyclists near the trail.
The Mayor’s Office has a Pedestrian Advisory Council and Bicyclist Advisory Council that are supposed to meet quarterly, with stakeholders giving city officials advice on safety issues and other issues that affect bicyclists and other pedestrians. They have not met since 2020, and the online meeting archives haven’t been updated since 2019.
During the last Bicyclist Advisory Council meeting in December 2019, members said they wanted “more accountability” from elected officials and the city and state departments of transportation. Were the bicyclist group still meeting on the first Thursday of March, as it used to, its members would have convened the day after Marciales was killed.
Whitehouse said bicyclists have asked for that council’s meetings to come back “over and over and over,” especially since other city-run groups have met remotely during the pandemic.
A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about why the meetings have stopped and when they could return.
And while those meetings have disappeared, the numbers of bicyclists killed and injured have gone up in Chicago.
An average of five to six bicyclists were killed every year 2012-2019 in Chicago, according to state data. But nine Chicago bicyclists were killed in 2020; in 2021, 10 were killed, including a 16-year-old, Jose Velásquez.
The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency also reported a more than 25 percent increase in the number of bicyclists and pedestrians who were seriously injured in September 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.
“There’s been an all-time record high of cyclists being killed, and there’s zero communication of what the city is doing to try and circumvent what’s happening,” Whitehouse said. “It’s not like we don’t know where the dangerous areas are.”
Chicago has also failed to meet federally mandated targets set each year by the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency in coordination with the Illinois Department of Transportation for reducing traffic-related fatalities and injuries.
Minutes from a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting in February 2018 include a public comment warning the council it was only a matter of time before the exact traffic violation that killed Marciales on DuSable Lake Shore Drive ended with someone getting hurt.
Referencing the intersection at Jackson and DuSable Lakeshore drives, just two blocks North of where Marciales was killed, the speaker said “there are two left-turn only lanes, and drivers tend to drive straight through the inside lane with the turn signal, endangering pedestrians with the walk signal,” according to the minutes.
The driver who hit Marciales was reportedly in a left-turn lane but continued straight.
A 2005 survey of Chicago residents shows “improving the Lakefront Bike Path was a clear favorite” when respondents were asked what type of bicycle facilities they’d like to see built, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.
“Many people wanted to see it improved, widened and made safer for all,” according to the results. In particular, people requested “more connectors between Chicago streets and the Lakefront (tunnels under Lake Shore Drive),” according to CDOT.
The trail has seen major improvements since then.
But bicyclists said there still aren’t enough tunnels or other safe connectors, which forces them to cross Lake Shore Drive and encounter drivers.
And the tunnels that do exist are often inaccessible due to flooding or other factors — another factor forcing bicyclists to cross Lake Shore Drive, transportation advocates said. Whitehouse said the city often doesn’t put up notifications or communicate when a tunnel is inaccessible.
“There aren’t a lot of avenues to get access to the lakefront path, and of the ones that are out there, many of them are chained up, boarded up or flooded,” Whitehouse said.
The Park District has an online map of the Lakefront Trail access points that is supposed to be regularly updated. The Buena Avenue underpass remained listed as “open” on the map despite being boarded up for a week at the end of February.
“The city would not treat [DuSable] Lakeshore Drive like this,” Whitehouse said. “There’s just a level of respect that they have for drivers that they just do not share with anyone else.”
Lilly Lerer, a medical student who bikes the Lakefront Trail from Hyde Park to Streeterville daily, said she encounters flooding at the 55th street underpass “anytime there’s a heavy rain.”
In February, on a day when the flooding was particularly bad, Lerer snapped a photo of the underpass and sent it to her partner, Steven Lucy, who tweeted it.
“The water was even deeper than my boots,” she said. “I commute in my professional clothes. It’s just not feasible.”
The unreliable underpasses and otherwise unsafe access points to the trail, combined with the city’s decision to close the Lakefront Trail all together at the start of the pandemic, perfectly “symbolizes how the city thinks about the trail’s value,” Lerer said.
‘People Shouldn’t Get Stressed Out And Fear For Their Lives’
Advocates don’t want the bike path gone — they just want more safety.
Despite the issues, Lerer said riding the Lakefront Trail “makes [her] day every time.”
“It’s a pleasure and a source of a lot of pride in my city,” Lerer said.
CDOT is working through plans to build five bridges on the South Side to improve access to the lakefront. The fourth and most recent project is the 43rd Street overpass; the final project, to rebuild the vehicular bridge over the railroad tracks at 31st Street, is scheduled to begin in late 2021.
Advocates said those changes aren’t enough.
Better Streets Chicago’s Re-define The Drive campaign calls upon the city “to basically go back to the drawing board, redefine their mission and rebuild and redesign the northern half of DuSable Lake Shore Drive,” Podgers said.
“There are a lot of different ways that we can improve safety for all road users that would also improve mobility, and the city and the state refuse to explore them,” Podgers said. “It’s super disappointing, and it’s incredibly sad because what happens then is actual people get killed.”
Proposed changes include “a real reduction in travel lanes and the footprint of the roadway” and turning the drive it into a multi-modal boulevard by repurposing car lanes into bus- or bike-only lanes.
The Better Streets team sees redesigning the drive as “one of the first steps the city can take to not only improve overall mobility along the lakefront but to specifically also improve the safety of cyclists and transit users and pedestrians,” Podgers said. “It isn’t even just about cyclists; it’s about everybody. Let’s improve the system for everybody.”
Podger’s said Better Streets’ campaign draws inspiration from The Embarcadero Enhancement Program in San Francisco, where a double-decker highway was transformed into a multi-modal boulevard along the bay in the city’s downtown area.
“People shouldn’t get stressed out and fear for their lives doing simple something as simple as going from point A to point B,” Podgers said. “The fact that we allow mobility to be a potentially fatal situation on a daily basis is incredibly concerning for us as a city.”
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