Spotlight on the Prairie State - 10 Great Things Happening in Illinois

Posted 10/01/13 by Jake Lynch in America's Trails, Success Stories

Photo CC BloomingdaleTrail via Flickr

We have to admit, RTC has a bit of a soft spot for Illinois.

A lot of that goes back to May Theilgaard Watts, the much-loved writer, illustrator, naturalist, scientist and teacher from the Highland Park, north of Chicago. Her determination that Americans stay connected to their natural landscape in a time of increasing urbanization in the 1960s was the catalyst that led to the formation of the Illinois Prairie Path.

This year, the Illinois Prairie Path celebrates its 50th anniversary - 50 years of not only serving the residents of Illinois and its many visitors, but also of inspiring the development of new rail-trails across the country. The rail-trail movement has a lot to be thankful for in Mrs. Watts and the other founders of the Illinois Prairie Path for showing us what is possible.

From city street to rusty windmill, there are lots of great things happening behind trail development in Illinois, and encourage biking and walking as a healthy and sustainable form of transportation. As we kick off our month-long spotlight on The Prairie State, here's a list of 10 Great Things Happening in Illinois. What would you add to the list? Let us know! Email me at

Photo ©

1. Work Begins on the Bloomingdale Trail. The good things in life are worth waiting for, no doubt. It has been 10 years since Rails-to-Trails Conservancy helped local volunteers build support for the idea of an elevated rail-trail along a disused corridor through northwestern Chicago. A decade later, a great idea is about to become a wonderful reality

2. Chicago's Bike-Friendly Leadership. Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have followed on from where former Mayor Richard Daley left off, building a bike landscape that has seen Chicago rise up the list of bike friendly cities. A boom in protected bike lanes, and the launch of Chicago's bike share program, DIVVY, are a couple of the biggest hits during this fine time for two-wheels in the Windy City. (Love this great video by the Active Transportation Alliance - Everything You Wanted to Know About DIVVY But Were Afraid to Ask). 

3. New State Law Supporting Public Recreation. This summer Governor Pat Quinn approved a new law that will give liability protections to private landowners that open their land to the public for recreation, conservation, and education. This is a massive win for Illinois' effort to connect more people with the great outdoors through trails and greenways. Congratulations toOpenlandsThe Nature ConservancyIllinois Environmental Council, and the many other land and conservation organizations that worked to make it happen.

4. The League of Illinois Bicyclists (LIB) committed effort over the summer to drive public involvement in the Illinois Bike Transportation Plan was coordinated advocacy at its best. In August, LIB Executive Director Ed Barsotti sent a letter to Illinois DOT head honchos with a list of detailed policy recommendations for the Illinois Bike Transportation Plan - foremost among them: factoring current bike/ped conditions into road project selection, and committing at least 80 percent of federal Transportation Alternatives money for bike-related projects. Keeping feet to the fire. The plan is due to be released in December.

5. Active Transportation Alliances' (ATA) Neighborhood Bikeways Campaign. This much-respected hub of bike/ped advocacy in the state continues to drive Chicago to improve its bike infrastructure. Conscious that ward leaders often have the final say on what happens on the streets in their neighborhoods, the ATA launched the Neighborhood Bikeways Campaign to work block-by-block mobilizing grassroots support for positive changes to Chicago's streets. Among the highlights of this hyper-local campaign has been raising massive neighborhood support for safe bikeways along Milwaukee Ave., Broadway in Uptown, and Vincennes Ave. from 85th to 103rd.

6. GITy Up! Aside from a great name and a great logo, Trails for Illinois' new(ish) annual bike camping weekend has done a great job of making trails touring family-friendly and accessible. GITy Up! is one of the many great initiatives launched by the young and energetic Trails for Illinois and its hardworking executive director Steve Buchtel.

7. Speaking of Steve Buchtel, Mr. Trails for Illinois has contributed his savvy to the effort to extend the Tunnel Hill State Trail in southern Illinois. Advocates in Pulaski County are working on extending this wonderful rail-trail three miles southwest from Karnak to Grand Chain, and eventually, past Mounds City and across the levees to Cairo. The project has received Transportation Enhancements (now Transportation Alternatives) funding and is pretty much shovel ready. The sticking point now: negotiations with Norfolk Southern Railroad on acquiring the unused corridor. 

8. The Old Plank Road Trail. This 22-mile rail-trail through towns of Joliet, New Lenox, Frankfort, Matteson, Richton Park, Park Forest and Chicago Heights has grown to become one of the most heavily-used trails in Illinois. In fact the recent counts by Trails for Illinois and RTC found the Old Plank (127,637 annual users) attracted far more users than even the Fox River Trail (86,561). And, supported by grants from RTC, its growth continues. On its western end, a new multi-modal transportation center is underway in Joliet, which will link trains, buses, and trails. On the trail's east side, a connection to Chicago Heights is under consideration, which would tie the trail into the region's vast trail network. 

9. Bikes on the South Shore Line.Jon Hilkevitch at the Chicago Tribune wrote this week that railroad officials have announced it is hoping to allow bikes onboard the train between downtown Chicago and the South Bend Regional Airport in Indiana by next spring. The South Shore Line, which services an average of 15,000 people each weekday, is the only major transit operation serving the Chicago area that prohibits bicycles onboard. Congratulations to those local organizations, including the excellent Active Transportation Alliance, for keeping the pressure on.

10. The Imminent Construction of the Cal-Sag Trail. A lot of work has gone in over the years to smooth the way for this 26-mile rail-trail through Chicago Southland to the Indiana border. When it's complete, more than 185,000 Southland residents live within a mile of the trail, and about 1.2 million people within a 15 minute drive. Construction is set to begin any moment, with the trail's western segment, Cicero Avenue in Alsip to Rt. 83 in Lemont, due to open by summer next year.


Undoubtedly there are tons of other great projects, inspiring people and important works going on behind trails, biking and walking in Illinois. We want to hear about them! All this month we are devoting out blog and social media to sharing news and shout-outs from Illinois.  Using #RTCIllinois, get on our facebook pageretweet the tweets @railstotrails, post some pretty pictures to our instagram page @railstotrails, and help us spread the word about the good things happening in the Prairie State.

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