Ever since my last Reader column on Chicago’s mayoral election was published, I’ve been fielding a lot of complaints about lawbreaking bicyclists. I mentioned Toni Preckwinkle’s statement from a recent debate that many bike riders “don’t pay any attention to the traffic laws, which is not only infuriating, but also scary for drivers.”
A typical comment I received on Twitter read, “Many, many cyclists ARE unsafe. Very self-centered, all-about-me-me-me and generally disrespectful.” Isn’t it great that drivers never act that way?
In fairness, though, hazardous and obnoxious cycling is a thing. So I’d like to throw a bone to the “there are a lot of reckless bikers” crowd with a look at what Chicago should do about bicyclists who break traffic rules.
Let’s classify lawbreaking by bike riders into three categories:
1. Technically illegal, but widespread and largely harmless, behavior. This includes slow, cautious cycling for short distances on sidewalks or against traffic on side streets. Another example is riders treating stoplights like stop signs and stop signs like yield signs. This is known as the “Idaho stop” because it’s legal in the Gem State.
2. Lawbreaking that may be annoying, but is mostly a danger to the cyclist. This includes riding for long distances on sidewalks or against traffic on main streets, and riding at night without lights. (People who do the latter are nicknamed “bike ninjas.”)
3. Willfully inconsiderate or reckless riding that can terrify or endanger others. This includes hauling ass down crowded sidewalks; failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks; and mindlessly bombing red lights and stop signs.
There’s a racial equity component to the question of how we should deal with these behaviors. A 2017 Tribune investigation found that some communities of color saw exponentially more tickets for bike infractions than majority-white neighborhoods. A police rep eventually acknowledged that this was due to officers using bike enforcement as a pretext for searches in high-crime areas.
To get some different viewpoints on the best policies to address unlawful cycling, I checked in with a few city agencies and transportation experts and advocates.
I contacted the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association for the right-wing windshield perspective. After all, the group’s hard-line stances against automated enforcement, lower speed limits, traffic calming, stricter DUI rules, and even seatbelt laws make the American Automobile Association look like Greenpeace. But I was pleasantly surprised by spokeswoman Shelia Dunn’s fairly balanced response, which stressed that everyone “driving, riding, or walking . . . should be responsible for their own safety and look out for others on the road.”
Predictably, the NMA doesn’t support legalizing the Idaho stop. Dunn argued that doing so would make it difficult for pedestrians and drivers to predict bicyclists’ behavior, and embolden cyclists to run reds and signs even when intersections aren’t clear.
Dunn called for better and earlier mobility education for kids, including safe walking, biking, and driving practices. “I lived in Germany for a time, and my fourth-grader was required to take a bicycling course in school,” she said. “This would be a tremendous help.”
I asked the Chicago Police Department about their cycling enforcement policies. (We didn’t discuss the racial discrepancies, which I’ve written about at length.) Spokesman Howard Ludwig said officers are told to use discretion when writing bike tickets, differentiating between behavior that’s merely unlawful, and that which is truly hazardous. For example, he said, a bike ninja on a dark side street might get a ticket, but “a cyclist without a light in a well-lit commercial area might pedal away with a warning.”
This latitude helps explain why officers often choose to ignore cyclists doing Idaho stops. But Ludwig said the CPD will sometimes conduct “targeted enforcement” stings on bike riders, staking out particular locations where residents or aldermen have complained about bike infractions, or in response to a cyclist-involved crash.
While the CPD’s job is wielding the proverbial “stick” of enforcement against hazardous behavior, the Chicago Department of Transportation provides “carrots” in the form of bike infrastructure, education, and encouragement. CDOT has built dozens of miles of physically protected bike lanes over the last eight years, which help make less-confident cyclists feel more comfortable staying off the sidewalk.
The department has also pioneered the use of contraflow bike lanes that legalize “wrong way” riding on otherwise-one-way stretches of designated side-street bikeways called “neighborhood greenways.” This has made already-popular low-stress routes like Glenwood, Berteau, and Wood even more useful.
Meanwhile, CDOT’s Bicycling and Safe Routes Ambassadors safety outreach teams pedal to schools, day camps, senior centers, and community events to spread the gospel. The ambassadors attended 515 events and directly educated more than 75,000 people in 2018, according to department spokesman Mike Claffey.
DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman coauthored a 2016 study on the Idaho stop that found that a full two-thirds of Chicago cyclists proceeded through stoplights if there was no cross traffic, and only one out of 25 riders came to a complete stop at stop signs. The researchers endorsed legalizing the Idaho stop here, although they feel more study is needed.
Schwieterman also recommended letting bicyclists take an online bike safety class in lieu of paying a fine. “It would send a clear message about safety while lessening tension with law enforcement personnel.”
Active Transportation Alliance advocacy director Jim Merrell argued that sidewalk cycling is best addressed with more protected lanes, neighborhood greenways, and off-street trails. Free bike light giveaways, which have been done in the past by the Bike Ambassadors, and Streetsblog Chicago cofounder Steven Vance’s grassroots “Get Lit!” campaign, can help eradicate bike ninjas.
Merrell doesn’t have a problem with police throwing the book at riders who endanger other people, especially pedestrians. “But it’s unclear that this behavior, while annoying and disrespectful, presents a [significant] public safety risk,” he said. “Crash data tells us that reckless behavior among drivers—especially speeding, distracted and drunk driving, and failure to stop for people walking—is by far the greatest cause of serious injuries and fatalities, so that’s what traffic enforcement should target.”
Merrell added that as biking becomes more mainstream, cultural norms will shift and help reinforce good behavior.
Indeed, when I visited Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin, places with universal bike education and seamless car-free cycling routes, I was struck by how orderly and law-abiding the bike culture was. My impression was that, in these cities where biking is totally safe and traffic rules are logical, if you don’t comply you run the risk of being perceived as a person with poor home training—or worse, an American. v