Last month Chicago Tribune transportation writer Mary Wisniewski did a major service to the cause of bike equity in our city when she reported on a massive discrepancy in the number of tickets being written to bike riders in African-American communities compared to other neighborhoods. In the wake of this news, two local cycling advocates offered to share their experiences of “biking while black” in our city, and told me they’re determined to hold the Chicago Police Department accountable for ending its unfair enforcement practices.
First let’s take a look at the numbers. The Tribune‘s analysis of bike citation data from the CPD found that more than twice as many tickets are being written in majority-black community areas as in predominantly white or Latino areas. Seven of the top ten community areas for citations are black, and the other three are Latino—despite the fact that many of parts of the city with the highest numbers of bike commuters, according to the U.S. Census, are majority white.
In some cases the numbers are absurdly lopsided. Wisniewski found that over a roughly nine-month period last year, police issued 321 citations to people on bikes in the Austin neighborhood. But during the same time frame, a mere five tickets were written in Lincoln Park, even though it has one of the highest levels of biking in the city.
Some online commenters have argued that the skewed figures can be attributed to a greater police presence in African-American neighborhoods plagued by violent crime. Others have argued that residents on the south and west sides may be more likely to ride on the sidewalk or against traffic because there are fewer bike lanes and there’s less access to bike-safety education in their communities.
These things may be factors, but there’s no way they account for 64 times as many citations being issued in lower-income, majority-black Austin as compared to affluent, majority-white, and bike-crazy Lincoln Park. While the motives of the officers stopping and ticketing cyclists aren’t certain, the numbers clearly show that the police are being far more aggressive about enforcing bike laws in African-American neighborhoods.
When I asked the police department and the Chicago Department of Transportation—which is coordinating the city’s Vision Zero effort to eliminate traffic fatalities—how they plan to respond to the Tribune piece, they were fairly tight-lipped.
“CPD is invested in the public safety of all Chicagoans, including creating the safest environment possible for pedestrians, vehicular and bicycle traffic,” police spokesman Frank Giancamilli said via e-mail. “Where bicyclist and vehicular safety has been an issue of concern, officers have been working with the community to enforce applicable traffic and safety laws.”
“As we roll out Vision Zero across the City this year, we will be working closely with community members and local stakeholders to develop education and enforcement initiatives that are appropriate for their respective community areas,” wrote CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey. “We are also working with enforcement agencies to ensure enforcement efforts focus on behaviors that are most likely to cause severe traffic crashes.”
But black bike advocates Angela Ford and Waymond Smith say they’re not willing to wait any longer for the police to stop targeting African-American cyclists. They’re planning to speak with the police department and south- and west-side aldermen to try to change this trend, and are looking into the possibility of filing a class action lawsuit.
Ford, 52, is a real estate consultant who lives in the Washington Park neighborhood. She also runs a sustainability nonprofit called the T.A.G. Foundation, which has previously partnered with Working Bikes Cooperative to distribute hundreds of free bikes to families in Bronzeville and North Lawndale. Ford doesn’t own a car, and uses her Trek hybrid and the Divvy system as her primary means of transportation during the warmer months.
Ford says it’s particularly unfair for police to concentrate enforcement in low- to moderate-income communities of color because many residents there can ill afford the $50 to $200 fines.
—Bike advocate Angela Ford
“It’s just another example of what we call a ‘black tax,'” she said. “It’s more expensive to do things or even live in Chicago as a black person.”
Smith, 64, is a retired prepress operator who lives in the South Shore neighborhood. He volunteers at Working Bikes and the Riverdale-based bike group We Keep You Rollin’. Last fall his attempt to pedal from Canada to Mexico via the Pacific Coast Highway was cut short when a driver struck him in Santa Cruz, California, fracturing his collarbone. But he’s back in the saddle now.
Smith says that in 2000 he had a run-in with the police while biking through Lincoln Square on his way to work in Skokie, after an officer in an SUV deliberately drove too close to him three different times.
When Smith cursed at the cop, he was pulled over, and the four white officers riding in the vehicle jumped out, surrounded him, and issued him a ticket for not riding far enough to the right. He now says there appeared to be a racial element to the incident.
“The guy who had been driving kept ranting about O.J. Simpson and Johnny Cochran,” he says.
Last summer Smith was at the Bronzeville Bike Box pop-up shop at 51st and Calumet when he saw police ticket two black men in their mid-50s who had ridden their department-store mountain bikes for a block on the sidewalk.
“It’s a high-crime area, so I’d think the officers would have something better to do,” he says. “They could have just warned them.”
Smith says he suspects the police may be using bike enforcement in African-American neighborhoods as an excuse to search residents for drugs and guns. The use of such controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactics became even more fraught after the city reached a recent agreement with the ACLU requiring more paperwork for street stops.
Smith calls this tactic counterproductive. “Biking has health and economic benefits,” he says. “You’re discouraging people from riding bikes who could benefit the most.”
Smith and Ford both agree that it’s time to fight back against the targeting of African-American bike riders. “We’re going to try to mirror the success of other communities that have said no to aggressive ticketing,” she says. She noted that after a police staged a crackdown on cyclists last January in Wicker Park, residents voiced their displeasure to local alderman Brian Hopkins.
“It’s not just about biking,” Ford added. “It’s about [African-Americans] being treated like criminals who are OK to profile. But I am optimistic that we can move the needle on this particular issue.”
Hopefully Ford and Smith’s plan to lobby police leadership and politicians—and go to the courts if necessary—will help bring an end to these unjust enforcement practices. Regardless of whether a Chicagoan is on foot, in a car, or on a bike, he or she has a right to travel freely, without fear of racial profiling. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.