Did You Know?

Roughly every three days, one person biking or walking is killed by someone driving a car in the Chicago region.

A Q&A with departing executive director

After nearly nine years leading Active Trans, Ron Burke recently decided to step down.

As he moves on to his new position at Lyft, we decided to ask for his take on what’s been happening at Active Trans during the past decade.

Here are his thoughts about various topics, like the organization’s recent accomplishments and what’s in the cards for Active Trans’ future.

Active Trans: What accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure as executive director of Active Trans?

Ron Burke: We’ve contributed to some important changes. And when I say we, I mean the extended family of staff, community partners, and volunteers across Chicago and the suburbs. My top five would be:

1. The expansion of advanced bike lanes and Divvy bike sharing coupled with a serious public relations strategy to manage the “bike-lash” and ensure that Chicago didn’t hit the brakes. In 2010-11 there was skepticism about protected bike lanes and bike sharing. We got newly-elected Mayor Emanuel on our side and helped recruit a pro-biking and -walking CDOT commissioner. Chicago’s first protected bike lanes were installed June 2011, just a few weeks after Emanuel took office.

Then came the “bike-lash” against the lanes and Divvy led by Tribune columnist John Kass, and a lot of work was needed by Active Trans and others to maintain the momentum. For example, we partnered with the AAA Chicago to meet with the Tribune and Sun-Times editorial boards with a message that this is the new normal. Years later, it was satisfying when aldermen who once dismissed Divvy were asking for it in their wards. All of this contributed to an amazing surge in cycling, and we became an example that many other cities followed.

2. Separate trails for walking/running and cycling on the lake front. This win took nearly 10 years and involved much more than Ken Griffin’s $12 million check! Along with the Navy Pier Flyover, it’s the culmination of our 30+ years of work to gradually convert the trail from a dumpy sidewalk into a multi-modal crown jewel befitting Chicago’s amazing lake front open space.

3. $50 million/year of state funding for walking and biking projects. This recent win in Springfield showcased Active Trans’ growing influence and included the creation of a sister 501(c)(4) organization, Active Transportation Now. Illinois is now second only to California for state funding of biking and walking projects.

4. State law requiring K-8 public schools to teach biking and walking education. We set the stage for this win by seeding and implementing various school-based programs over the years, to demonstrate they are feasible and affordable.

5. Becoming the region’s leading transit advocate. Our 2008 mission expansion into transit was going slowly when I arrived in 2010. We have since become the region’s leading transit advocate and contributed to the creation of Loop Link, reinstatement of express bus services, introduction of some bus stops with pre-board payment, new bus lanes, and support from Mayor Lightfoot for 50 miles new miles of bus lanes. The region badly needs more of these improvements to reverse declines in bus ridership.

Active Trans: Can you think of a favorite moment during your time at Active Trans?

Ron Burke: One favorite moment was when Rahm Emanuel said to me, “F— Portland” in vowing to catch up to that city’s bike infrastructure, shortly after his election.

Another favorite is when we introduced Mayor Emanuel to Megan Williams, who was badly injured in a lake front trail collision and she asked him to create separate trails (see photo above). We had asked many times already, but that was the moment he decided to make it happen.

I love it when we honor volunteers at the annual meeting. The amazing goodwill people demonstrate gives me goosebumps!

Active Trans: How do you think the organization has changed under your leadership?

Ron Burke: Active Trans is firmly multi-modal today but that wasn’t true when I arrived in 2010, and the mission expansion approved in 2008 was moving ahead in slow motion. We got past that and today we are viewed as advocates for vibrant, healthy, and equitable cities through transit, walking, and biking.

Another change has been the ability to recruit and retain more experienced staff with relevant experience who like cycling but also embrace the broader mission. We have an amazing team today!

Perhaps the most important change is that the public and government increasingly want active transportation. Our assistance is in high demand and managing expectations for Active Trans to engage locally is a huge challenge. It’s a great problem to have, of course!

In order to make a difference across 280 suburbs and 50 Chicago wards, and to leverage the power of growing local support, our operating model has evolved to emphasize training and empowering local advocates who are well positioned to affect change, in addition to creating policy change at the local, regional, and state levels that has broad, population-based benefits and/or equity benefits for disadvantaged communities.

Active Trans: What do you think is in store for Active Trans’ future?

Ron Burke: With the emergence of new mobility options and companies, and the growing popularity of non-car modes, the landscape is changing in ways that makes Active Trans even more important while present exciting opportunities. The sky is the limit for moving cities away from car dependency and helping forge policies that make it easy and affordable to get around without owning or driving a car. The bigger question for Active Trans is whether it can continue to navigate the institutional challenges to be in a position to seize the moment.

Active Trans is much smaller than many people realize — about 21 full-time staff today. We are entrepreneurial and scrappy, and that will continue, I’m sure, but we should not take Active Trans for granted. In short, the future is promising, but Active Trans needs funding to take advantage of the oppotunities. Please become a member!

Active Trans: What’s your prediction for the future of micromobility in Chicagoland?

Ron Burke: With more people in urban areas swapping car ownership for a suite of alternatives, we will see less driving and parking. The only questions are how fast and what are the alternatives. People are focused on scooters now because they are new, but scooter sharing is as much about testing the concept of shared micromobiilty as it is testing scooter design and operations.

To increase the number of people who don’t own or drive private cars, I think it’s important to support emerging alternatives, and to make sure they are done right — as Active Trans has advocated with scooters. In the future, cities will dedicate street space for more efficient modes so they are faster and more convenient than driving alone or for-hire vehicles carrying one passenger. This can unlock the potential of new mobility.

It’s interesting to me that the private sector is more willing to look beyond the current paradigm of car ownership and single occupancy vehicles than most governments. It’s strange given that it was the private sector that led us down this path in the first place by orchestrating the explosion of suburban sprawl, among other things. Perhaps the private sector can help lead us in the right direction this time. That is my hope in going to Lyft.