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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Wealthy Benefactors Put Money Where Their Bikes Go

Cities across the country are embracing bike commuters. But for some wealthy benefactors, the changes aren’t coming fast enough, so they are putting down their own money.


Douglas Belkin

Last year, billionaire Ken Griffin wrote an email to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel complaining the “lakefront bike path is a disaster.”

It wasn’t an idle complaint. This week, workers are finishing the first stages of a $12 million, 18-mile face-lift of the path along Lake Michigan, courtesy of a check from Mr. Griffin, the founder of hedge fund Citadel LLC.

The new path will separate bike and jogging traffic, making a safer experience for everyone, including Mr. Griffin, an avid biker himself. He declined to comment for this article.

Cities across the country are embracing cyclists, with bike-share programs proliferating and bike lanes squeezing onto more streets. But for some wealthy benefactors, the changes aren’t coming fast enough, so they are putting their money where their wheels go.

In Arkansas, the Walton Family Foundation, run by the family of Wal-Mart founders, has invested at least $15 million in bicycle-trail development. In Philadelphia, the Haas family, through the William Penn Foundation, has donated about $40 million for bike infrastructure in recent years. And in Carrollton, Ga., Laura Richards, founder of Carrollton Greenbelt LLC, gave about $12 million to help fund an 18-mile bike path in and around her hometown. The city, which is the base of Southwire, a wire-cable manufacturer that Mrs. Richards’s family owns, celebrated a grand opening in April.

“I led bike tours in Europe and I saw the benefits of separated bike paths from the motorway,” said Mrs. Richards, who moved back to her hometown in 2009 after 20 years away. “This is like a linear park and we’ve really seen the health benefits.”

The total number of trips taken on bike shares increased to about 28 million in 2016 from 320,000 in 2010, according to a study by National Association of City Transportation Officials. But the U.S. bike infrastructure isn’t keeping pace. While the rate of cyclist fatalities has fallen by 30% in the U.S. between 1990 and 2014, Australia, Japan and Canada all saw reductions closer to 50%, according to a Virginia Tech study.

In seven large cities—New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore.—the number of miles of bike lanes rose to 2,499 in 2014 from 1,602 in 2007, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Chicago has made significant strides in building out its bicycle infrastructure. The city now has more than 200 miles of on-street protected bike lanes, and the mayor has made it a priority of his administration. Still, the Lakeshore Pathway that runs along Lake Michigan remains a trouble spot. The pathway is among the busiest in the nation: About 100,000 people cram on it during summer weekends, according to Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago nonprofit advocacy organization. It carries a chaotic mix of pedestrians, roller bladers, cyclists and joggers moving in proximity in different directions and at different speeds.

Mr. Griffin’s largess will create a second bike path running parallel to the original to give pedestrians and cyclists their own lanes. The paths have been under construction most of the summer and are opening up section by section. The work is scheduled to be finished by year-end.

In 2014, Megan Williams was out for a run when she was hit by a cyclist on the Lake Pathway. She woke up in the hospital with a breathing tube down her throat and a bleeding in her brain. She recovered fully and has become an advocate for separated paths.

“When I heard about (Mr. Griffin’s) gift, I started crying,” she said. “Changing the infrastructure in a major city is not easy.”

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com