Underneath the Metra tracks at 53rd Street and Lake Park, a row of gleaming bicycles sit outside on the sidewalk. In a window behind them, bikes hang inert from hooks like animal carcasses. For the past few weeks, builders have been transforming the space, now enclosed within freshly-painted yellow walls, which was last occupied by a cigar shop more than 10 years ago. This bicycle center has just opened, sponsored by the University of Chicago and operated by the Chicago-based company Bike and Roll, which will bring bike rentals, tours, and storage facilities to Hyde Parkers.
The 53rd Street Bicycle Center comes as part of a series of developments on 53rd Street undertaken by the UofC. Across the street from the center, the steel frame of a new high-rise is under construction, part of the Harper Court redevelopment designed to anchor the street’s (supposed) rejuvenation. Bolstered by the recent arrival of restaurants like Clarke’s Diner and Five Guys Burger and Fries, the transformation is, as UofC spokesperson Steve Kloehn explains, to the benefit of both the neighborhood and the university. The community requested more commercial activity along 53rd Street, and for the university’s part, Kloehn says that, “in order to compete for the best scholars–faculty, students, visitors–we know that we need not only a first-rate intellectual destination, but an appealing community that offers the best of urban living.”
Ilsa Flanagan, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability, believes that the center will encourage biking in Hyde Park and provide a service to students through its collaboration with the UofC’s “recycles” program, which allows registered users to borrow one of 26 bikes from sites located across campus. “This program is very popular with our students, and they have been clamoring for even more bikes and more locations,” says Flanagan. “This collaboration with Bike and Roll at 53rd Street is a convenient location for the many students who live in that neighborhood.”
Others, however, believe that the center will be of use more to residents and commuters in the neighborhood than to students. David Jones, owner of the Hyde Park bicycle repair shop DJ’s Bike Doctor, says that the center may be of limited value to students: “Most of the students commute [by bike] in the neighborhood, not downtown–they generally won’t commute downtown unless they have classes there. The commuters are mainly local folks that live here and work downtown.”
According to Jones, residents typically use buses to commute to Hyde Park Metra stations–seven routes connect to the 53rd Street Station alone. Today, a lone bike rack is located next to the Metra parking lot, which has room for about six bicycles. Seemingly implicit in the creation of the center is the university’s desire to promote cycling as another option for commuters who use the station, although adding more bike racks at the Metra entrance would be a simple way to encourage cycling without forcing residents to pay for storage.
In spite of the limited parking space, Metra has been able to attract cycling commuters. Chris Willard, Shop Operations Manager at Blackstone Bicycle Works, which partners with the university to provide bikes for the recycles program, believes that a bike center will be useful to members of the community. “Go to a Metra station during the day and you will see the bikes lined up of folks who bike to the train, then go downtown or to the south suburbs,” says Willard. “I definitely think Metra would benefit from attracting tourists to take bike tours in Hyde Park on rental bikes.”
On the other hand, he feels that the storage option is “questionable.” He comments, “Paying for storage seems like a convenience reserved for those who want to safely store high-end racing bikes”–the type of bike that isn’t generally used to go to and from the train.
Bike rentals, another main service on offer, seem geared more to tourists than residents. Rental prices for the 53rd Street Bicycle Center haven’t been released yet, but Bike and Roll currently has prices ranging from $16-40 per hour to rent bicycles in the Loop. Similar prices in Hyde Park might not be realistic for community members who would rent bikes to commute to public transportation. Regardless, it’s not clear if it would be feasible for community members to rent bikes on their everyday commute. The Center’s bicycle tours appear to be another feature that, like the rentals, will appeal most to visitors. As such, it seems hard to discern what, exactly, the Center will offer to members of the community–besides just another location for students to pick up recycles bikes.
When asked what the University could do to improve biking conditions in the neighborhood, Willard commented, “The recycles program is a good start.” He further claimed, “more bike lanes and promotion of good shops like Blackstone,” where students can acquire bikes cheaply and close to campus, would help even more.
While these are more direct ways to make Hyde Park friendlier to cyclists, Jones equivocated as to whether the services provided by the 53rd Street Bicycle Center could do the same. “Time will tell,” he mused.