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Safe bike access at Big Marsh

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Big Marsh bike park on Chicago’s far south side is going to be a world-class venue for mountain biking, cyclocross and BMX racing, leisurely trail riding, walking and running. There will be trails appropriate beginners, professionals and everyone else — and supporters are hoping to open the park in the spring

Big Marsh has a lot going for it, including its close proximity to the Pullman National Monument, which will likely lure in plenty of out-of-town guests. 

But in order for the park to be successful, it must be accessible to the surrounding neighborhoods, which include low-income communities and communities of color. To help make this a reality, Active Trans is currently working on a project to ensure that the park is easy to access for people who live in nearby communities. 

On a lovely July day, a handful of Active Trans folks and Olatunji Oboi Reed from Slow Roll Chicago biked over to Big Marsh from the Pullman neighborhood. We came from a meeting at the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Pullman with its Executive Director David Peterson and the Chicago Department of Transportation on making Big Marsh an easier place to reach on bike. 

These challenges go beyond potholes and streets without bike lanes. The Bishop Ford Expressway and a golf course cut off access from the west, rail yards flank Big Marsh to the north and east, and Lake Calumet and the Calumet River surround Big Marsh on all sides. What this means is that Big Marsh would be a safe place for a well-stocked fortress during a zombiepocalypse.

Arguably, the best route from Pullman to Big Marsh is to take 103rd St. to Stony Island (both are worthy of road diets), but 103rd was out of our way. So our group chose a more direct route.  

“We will bike down 111th St. until it dead-ends, then take a left onto the highway on-ramp” Oboi, our fearless and friendly leader, said as if he was giving us a totally normal set of biking instructions. “Stay to the right, and this is important… halfway down the exit ramp is a turnoff onto Doty Ave. Take that gravel road.”

Our group pulled it off, but nobody was eager to repeat the experience. The next section of our route involved a bike ride northeast on Doty Avenue and then southeast on Stony Island around Lake Calumet and a golf course.  

The roads were empty, except for the semi trucks. Some semis were headed to Big Marsh to dump piles of velvety dirt for the construction of the biking trails. Between the rumbles of the trucks we chatted about the unlikely habitat that had sprouted up in this former industrial dump.

At the park, Oboi reiterated how “Big Marsh is a bicycle park without bicycle access” and that Big Marsh can provide the surrounding communities with much needed open-space, and with jobs.  

We looked around the park. There were blooming wildflowers, heaps of soil and bike trails leading off in various directions. It was oddly pastoral. After exploring some of the existing trails, we wrapped up our trip by returning to the Metra station for a train heading downtown. 

Sure, it is possible for Big Marsh to exist as a destination only reachable by car, but if that were to happen, Big Marsh would lose a diverse user base and local community engagement. Seeing this through involves spurring Illinois Department of Transportation, Cook County and CDOT to collaborate to add bike infrastructure on multiple roads, including 111th, 103rd, 122nd, Doty, Stony Island, and Torrence.  

Many cyclists will want to bike to the park, not drive there. Furthermore, if Big Marsh is inaccessible by bike, that would prevent people who do not own cars, and teens and kids who cannot drive cars, from using this bike facility.

There must be bicycle access to Big Marsh. Big Marsh must be inclusive.

One day there will be easy and safe bike routes to Big Marsh. This need is acknowledged by the surrounding communities, 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, CDOT and others.  

Stayed tuned for updates as we share with you news about our progress. 

In other Big Marsh news, Friends of Big Marsh launched a major fundraising initiative that will help flesh out phase 1 of the park. Help Big Marsh answer the $1 million challenge just issued by a private supporter of the project. 


This post was written Samantha Kearney, an advocacy intern for Active Trans.

Photo of courtesy of Friends of Big Marsh