My son, who is 12, recently asked if he could ride his bike alone to Games Workshop, where he could indulge his passion for playing Warhammer, without the inconvenience of having me wait for him and tap my foot.
The Games Workshop is located in a suburban shopping center, perhaps three miles from our house. There are several major arteries that have to be crossed, as well as an interstate, but there are also plenty of signaled crosswalks, a bridge over the highway, and a number of small neighborhoods streets that I imagined could conveniently be used. So, I thought that with a couple of trial runs with me, he could handle it on his own.
I decided to follow a route along residential streets that we sometimes take to our martial arts class. With a light at Peterson and a push-button light at Devon, this route would take us about half-way there. Then, I was planning to show him the special shortcut I like through suburban Lincolnwood.
Like others, I look back with longing and nostalgia on the days when kids could easily go off on their own with little or no parental supervision, but these romantic visions don't seem to find any reflection in modern day reality that I see before me from the saddle of my bicycle. And, what I thought was going to be a fairly simple undertaking turned out to be much more complex and fraught with difficulties, partly having to do with my own nervousness, partly with my son's inexperience, and hugely with the inconsistent, unpredictable, haphazard traffic patterns, city planning, street signals and bicycle/pedestrian facilities in place on the border between Chicago and its neighboring suburbs of Lincolnwood, Skokie and Niles.
Although I have ridden the first part of the route with my son many times previously, my nervousness kicked into high gear when I realized that I was now prepping him to ride without me, to make his own decisions and rely on his own judgment. It was one thing to have him ride on the pavement behind me, and quite another to imagine him trying it on his own. Suddenly, things that I do through force of habit acquired over 20 years of street-riding experience were not so obvious. After all, he doesn't have that experience to guide him.
The frustration with the urban-planning aspect of the ride began as soon as we got to Devon. A bicyclist riding on the street is too light to activate the green light. The push-button activator for the green light was placed with pedestrians in mind. If I was riding alone, I would simply wait for the gap in traffic, and ride through regardless of the traffic signal (gulp!). But with my son, I insisted we cross with the light. Thus, we had to duck-walk our bikes onto the sidewalk to push the button to get the light to change.
Things got even worse when we turned onto Devon. With two lanes of curb-to-curb each traffic way, I had already planned to ride a few blocks on the sidewalk, thinking we would again use the push-button crosswalk signal at Cicero. Well, I am here to tell you that that is the most poorly designed set of signals in the city, and while the right-turning vehicles get their own special green arrow for the entire duration of the green light, pedestrians have to wait out a full light cycle to deserve their own signal. My nervousness increased as I was having visions of my son getting impatient, and running the light while traveling on his own, with all those right-turning cars just waiting to run him over.
We proceeded along the sidewalk on Devon over the Edens Expressway, and arrived at the very pleasant street called Sauganash just on the other side. A broad, quiet, tree-lined residential street runs on a soft diagonal through the posh Lincolwood suburb. The kind of street bicyclists dream about. If the route consisted of only streets like this, I would have absolutely no qualms about my son riding alone. Alas, after several blocks of this paradise, the street ends abruptly at Central, with no bicycle or pedestrian crossing to make things easier. There is a light half a block down at Pratt, but there is no sidewalk, and not enough shoulder for a young bicyclist to safely reach it. So, we make a run through a gap in traffic for the sidewalk on the other side of Central. But I can't have my son do this when he's riding without me!
Now, we're pretty much home-free. The sidewalk continues down toward Touhy, and curves around the shopping center to deposit my son safely at the Games Workshop. Because we are riding on the sidewalk, I still admonish him to look over his left shoulders for any cars who may be turning right out of the parking lots.
By the time my son is done playing games, and I have scoured the shelves of the local second-hand book store, I have completely revised my riding strategy. Although I have always believed that cyclists should ride with traffic and behave like traffic, I find that my convictions do not hold when the safely of my child is at stake. Sidewalks in this part of town are rarely used by pedestrians, and they might as well be used by budding cyclists. On the way back, we forget all shortcuts and finesse. We ride in straight lines on sidewalks to major intersections with dependable pedestrian signals, we make only right-angle turns, and we arrive home safely, in one piece, and with little stress.