A Bicycle Is Not A Nose Ring

by Eric Vann
19 Jul 2012

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On the ChainLink this morning a forum member whose handle is “h’” posted an interesting article from an adjunct professor in the English Department at Columbia College in Chicago. His piece was titled “Crazed Cyclists Run Rampant”.

The essence of his piece would be:

“In my experience talking with Chicago bike riders, I get the sense that most believe that our traffic laws do not apply to them. Nothing could be less true and, in fact, the part of the Chicago Municipal Code related to riding bicycles is more than 4,000 words long.”

As might be expected the overwhelming majority of the comments were predictably negative. But one of the respondents whose handle is “Michelle Stenzel” offered a reasoned reply which merits consideration because it reveals not only the resentment urban cyclists have against motorists but suburban cyclists as well.

The response she wrote was regarding this paragraph from the authors piece:

“In 1979, when I saw the amazing cycling-coming-of-age film “Breaking Away,” I became a lifelong fan of the sport. The movie inspired me to pedal my bike across Florida and Iowa in group tours when I was in my early teens; when I was in college, I dabbled in both road- and mountain-bike racing. I also love to sit for hours watching long stages of the Tour de France, which is currently taking place.”

She reasons:

“That paragraph speaks volumes. He’s view riding a bicycle as a sport, not as transportation. His experience on a bike seems to be from decades ago, on long-distance group rides and mountain bike racing. He talks about running errands with his wife in his car more recently, and never mentions riding a bicycle in the city at all. I’d like to invite him and his wife to turn off the Tour de France coverage and ride their bikes around their city neighborhood, to go shopping or out to dinner, and then ask him about his impressions and opinions again.”

So here we have the crux of the problem when a “part-time cyclist” attempts to converse with a “committed urban cyclist”. I use the word committed because like putting a nose ring in place you have to be prepared to weather the responses you might get outside your community of body pierced friends.

For an urban cyclist the bicycle is the same as a car. You ride it to work, you use it to attend social functions, and you might even get married on one. Your bike might be of the utilitarian cargo variety. But it is a means of getting around town and that might be for the truly committed urban cyclist even in the dead of winter.

Commitment in this setting is something of a political statement, it is a badge of honor and urban cyclists seek out one another’s companionship because in that milieu they can share their transportation and life experiences without fear of rejection.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

Before any progress can be made in advocating for cycling there has to be some self-examination. One ChainLinker, whose handle is Liz, tried to express her feelings in this fashion:

“While I don’t think he should being singling out cyclists, he does have a point. I actually do wish that more laws where actually enforced, be if for cyclists, motorists or pedestrians.  The rate that ALL 3 violate codes is dangerous. I don’t think cyclists should be targeted more heavily than drivers, but it should be targeted at the same rate.  Chicago is pretty bad in terms of compliance for all modes of transportation.

Things like red light running and riding without lights are not just dangerous to that individual, they’re dangerous to the other road users as well.  I’ve had several times this summer I had been nearly hit on my bike by another cyclist blowing a red light.  This is not someone who approaches an empty intersection, stops than proceeds if its clear, this is someone who just never bothered to slow down, look or yield to others.  While a bike wouldn’t do as much damage to me as a car, I’d rather not find out how much damage getting t-boned by a one will do.”

And yet another hardcore roadie whose handle is Michael A took umbrage at the disparaging remarks about viewing the Tour de France:

“Once again, some people do ride bikes for other things then getting groceries
The tour is one of the world’s largest sporting events
I am not trying to start an argument here, but what is wrong with obeying the traffic laws?
I stop for every stoplight, every time. I do admit to only yielding the right of way for stop signs
How can we bitch about people parking in bike lanes,being on cell phones and such if we do not follow the same laws?”

Both of these “part-time cyclists” are willing to step outside the framework of the committed urban cyclist to view horizons that extend further than the city limits. Indeed they are willing to judge both the cyclist and motorist communities in a fair and open manner.

What they also avoid is trying to dictate a hardline view of what constitutes a “real cyclist” (i.e. committed urban cyclist).

  • You do not have to ride your bike to every social or business event on your busy calendar.
  • You can in fact drive an SUV or even a mini-van without fear of having violated some tenet of the cyclist religion.
  • You like motorists have broken laws when you should have obeyed them. And you realize that following laws is intended to provide safe passage on the roadways for everyone.

Another ChainLinker whose handle is James BlackHeron wrote:

“I totally agree Liz.  If only enforcement worked -or was even tried…
There was a really interesting segment yesterday on WBEZ about “Why Cars Don’t Stop for Pedestrians” and they went into traffic laws/enforcement/attitudes. What was really intriguing was that laws and even enforcement don’t really change behavior. People only follow the laws (or do anything, for that matter) if they feel it is Worthwhile. The trick was to convince/educate the scofflaws that what they were doing was not a good idea and that following the laws/rules of the road was actually in everyone’s best interests.”

Yikes! If people only follow laws they feel to be worthwhile then chaos will ensure. In a democracy you have remedies for laws that you do not like. You elect people who share your viewpoint and have them rewrite those laws. Failing that you appeal to through the court system to have the law overturned and thus force the legislature into rewriting the offending statues.

What you do not do in a democracy is simply ignore those sections of the code you find inconvenient (i.e. not worthwhile).

Defiant Urban Cyclists

The ChainLink should be the focal point for the Chicago Cycling Community as it engages with government to get laws enacted or rewritten to provide greater acceptance of an additional transportation alternative, the bicycle. ChainLink is also where cyclists come to share their knowledge of:

  • bicycle maintenance,
  • best routes,
  • dressing for inclement weather,
  • best values in tires, pumps, inner-tubes,
  • and more

What is clearly evident is that any number of these committed urban cyclists that haunt the ChainLink have no intention of examining their behavior as cyclists. They are in a word, defiant.

In politics they would be termed “hard-liners”. In religion they would be the “fundamentalists”. Any compromise to reach a shared responsibility in judging the current impasse they have with motorists is viewed as weakness.

In any thread that attempts to work through issues where cyclists have to take a very hard look at themselves they attack either the character of the person putting forth the ideas in the thread or resort to simple riding ridicule because he has not reached some experiential milestone they view as imperative. Most often this has to do with whether or not the person commutes to work on a daily basis. And most importantly that person must be commuting to a place of work somewhere in the city, because only then has that person truly arrived.

The Myth of Urban Cycling Difficulty

It is easier to traverse the City of Chicago than most of the far western suburbs. Riding in the city is not the mark of a real cyclist. In fact riding North Avenue as it reaches beyond Route 83 is probably more difficult than any roadway in the city that allows both cars and bicycles.

Chicago has an area of 227.2 square miles, exclusive of water[1]. With those areas factored in you have 234.0 square miles[2]. Now if you compare this with say DuPage County you get a feeling for the real differences between the two areas. DuPage County has an area of 327.5 square miles, exclusive of water[3]. DuPage County has a grand total of 336.41 square miles when you add the water[4].

The population of Chicago in that relatively small area is some 2,695,598 souls[5]. In DuPage County with its larger landmass there are some 916,924 souls[6]. What makes Chicago seem daunting is the population density. Cities are actually designed to handle lots of people in a very limited space.

The further west you travel from Chicago the less dense the population becomes. What this means to suburban cyclists is that traveling to a specific forest preserve for a picnic or simply as a stop over before heading back can take the better part of a day. Ride listings from my bicycle club calendar often contain warnings about the fact that you might have to travel some thirty miles or more before the first water break. Or you might be told that you need to bring your own foodstuffs, since the route is along fairly sparse territory and buying food from a convenience store might be difficult.

Urban cyclists are quite complacent when it comes to being prepared. I know this because for the better part of a year I rode the Lakefront Trail and encountered numerous riders who were unprepared to fix even a simple puncture. I have encountered the same sort of thing while riding trails and streets in the suburbs as well. But when I inquired of the urban riders about their lack of preparedness they seemed mystified that I worry about ever getting stranded.

I now realize that the population density in the city is so great that the chance of ever being out of sight of another person is fairly rare. People in the city are out and about at all hours. Suburban dwellers have a much shorter day. There is nightlife in the suburbs but it is not nearly as intense or plentiful.

Few suburbanites can walk to their downtown areas in distances short of a mile or less. It is the lack of population density that makes this a fact. Automobiles are a staple in the suburbs. For that reason parking is available in virtually every strip mall. In the larger cities like Wheaton or Naperville you will even find vertical parking garages. But they offer free parking which is virtually unheard of in Chicago.
Cities like Chicago even accommodate their commuters by providing diagonal streets. This is something you seldom if ever see in the suburbs. Route 20 does run at a diagonal for much of its length but that is a rarity.

Most suburban streets are not as brightly lit as those in the Chicago city limits. There are fewer main arteries to carry large volumes of traffic and the ones under development will have to provide sidewalk access for cyclists because it will be dangerous for them to use the right lanes. Besides some of the major arteries of the suburbs have speed limits in excess of 45 miles per hour and some are posted at 50-55 miles per hour. The suburbs are the land of the automobile. City planners are more likely to spend money on well established trails that to provide protected lanes on roadways whose designs make cycle traffic dangerous.

Chicago has plenty of side streets that can be taken to and from your destination without your having to ride major arteries. The abundance of relatively narrow side streets with tree canopies makes it far easier to ride in summer than in suburbs. Our tree growth is often newer and thus shorter. Streets in suburbs can be wider than those in the city. It is this fact that often leads to the feeling that you can ride more safely out here than in the city itself.

Both locations have their own issues. But on the whole neither is appreciably worse than the other with perhaps the exception of high crime areas. But Chicago has done a fairly good job of erecting large and sprawling police stations in these areas, in very prominent locations. I guess that this helps both the denizens of these neighborhoods and passersby feel safer.

So what makes committed urban cyclists use their daily experiences as the benchmark for being a real cyclist? They are certainly under the impression that their realm is the most car-centric.

A ChainLinker with the handle Sarah D. wrote:

“Agreed. Once folks like this spend significant time cycling in the city, now, then they’ll see how utterly car-centric our streets, traffic lights/signage/rules, and intersections are. It’s impossible to use a bike for transport in this city (and likely others) legally while staying alive and safe. I would love to educate non-cyclists on each hot-button issue/situation they don’t understand in a constructive way with a bike’s eye view IMAX film. Think they’d come see it?

Nah.”

Perhaps the real problem is that cyclists have convinced themselves that their situation really is horrific. I think this is probably a bit of hyperbole. After all the ChainLink group seems to be very much intact. There are deaths that occur and plenty of ghost bikes to prove that fact. But riders in the suburbs are often fatalities as well.

And as with the city it is generally in areas where there is no safe lane or shoulder and higher than normal speed differentials that these things happen. Another contributor to bicycle-automobile collisions could be the intersections with more than two streets.

I actually feel relatively safe on my bicycle when riding around Wicker Park. But driving in this area can be troublesome because of the high volume intersections with poor light timing and awkward turns. The intersection of Milwaukee and North Avenue is difficult to traverse.

But the intersection of North Avenue and Bloomingdale Road is much more difficult to navigate. The speeds are higher and the roadway width across North Avenue is daunting. Further north into Schaumburg and Elk Grove there are some similarly difficult high volume arteries to navigate. But there are also trails through places like Busse Woods that provide access to side streets that help to alleviate the difficulty.

Let’s face it automobiles are the primary vehicles that roadways are intended to accommodate. Pedestrians have virtually no chance of finding walkways along many of the busier suburban roadways. Chicago’s busiest street provide much better pedestrian accommodate that virtually anywhere in the suburbs.

A recent publication7 describes the twenty worst intersections in the greater Chicago area. Of that list only four of these are situated inside the Chicago city limits. The rest are in suburban areas. When you consider the population density differential between Chicago and other areas in the state this is a bit surprising. But traffic patterns in many suburban areas date back many decades and have yet to be updated.
In addition there are some surprising statistics on cyclist-motor vehicle collisions that are available for the years 2004-20108.

What they show is as follows:

Percentage of all bicycle crashes that are fatal: City Limits of Chicago

  • 2004 – 0.41%
  • 2005 – 0.55%
  • 2006 – 0.50%
  • 2007 – 0.17%
  • 2008 – 0.29%
  • 2009 – 0.34%
  • 2010 – 0.31%

Percentage of all bicycle crashes that are fatal: Suburban Cook County

  • 2004 – 0.43%
  • 2005 – 0.55%
  • 2006 – 1.12%
  • 2007 – 0.51%
  • 2008 – 0.37%
  • 2009 – 0.44%
  • 2010 – 1.07%

Percentage of all bicycle crashes that are fatal: Suburban DuPage County

  • 2004 – 0.57%
  • 2005 – 0.48%
  • 2006 – 0.00%
  • 2007 – 0.00%
  • 2008 – 0.51%
  • 2009 – 0.54%
  • 2010 – 1.00%

(Note: complete PDF file can be viewed here: Bicycle Crashes by County and City of Chicago (2004-10)

So while none of the areas is perfect it would appear that despite the population density disadvantage of the city the statistical certainty of death for cyclists is higher. Yes there are more crashes for the city limits but they result in a lower percentage of fatalities than these two suburban areas.

Clearly Committed Urban Cyclist Can Have Too High A Regard For Their Woes

Another ChainLinker “Michelle Stenzel” took up the notion that committed urban cyclists face far more dangers than even Tour de France riders:

“I posted my further thoughts on this on my blog Bike Walk Lincoln Park.”

I took a look at the kinds of issues she was touting versus those of the professional bike racer and came away aware that she does not have much experience in actually watching and understanding the dangers of professional cycling.

To that end I offer some sobering video clips from YouTube to set the record straight. Surely committed urban cyclists face a lot of dangers on their daily commutes, there is no doubting this fact. But the problem they seem to have in understanding their place in the “pecking order” of dangerous environments actually puts them below suburban riders when it comes to percentage of cyclist-motorist collisions resulting in fatalities.

And neither of these two groups faces anything at all like the kinds of crashes that occur in pelotons. My home cycling club has had its share of injuries due to peloton riding this year. But even it does not have crashes that are as dangerous or as inclusive as these:

My suggestion to committed urban cyclists is that you might want to actually make some time to watch the Tour de France, if for no other reason than to get your sense of danger reset to something more realistic.

Impressions of City Cycling

With an increase in population density that are surely statistical increases in the frequency of collisions. That is what the data show and it stands to reason. But having grown up in Chicago and lived here until leaving to attend college I was amazed during this past biking season at how manageable its streets are compared with some in the suburbs.

Many cyclists in the city do take the time to find alternate routes that allow them to travel in a less hectic environment than is provided by Milwaukee Avenue. We often take Wood Street north to the Native Foods Café and find it an altogether pleasant and quite peaceful ride. I get to hold an actual conversation with my wife and we get a chance to gape at the lovely brownstones along the route.

The same is true when riding the Hyde Park area in search of dining at the Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen. In fact the areas for several miles in and around Hyde Park and west of it as well are pleasant riding despite the traffic density.

We ride the Chicago area usually on the weekends. Admittedly the traffic patterns are greatly subdued but certain areas like Wicker Parker are quite active despite it being the weekend. Being alert and attentive is what one needs to do at all times when riding anywhere.

I note more often than I really care to that few city cyclists ride in brightly colored outfits. The number of roadie cycling kits that I see worn is very low. What I do see are people moving about on bikes often helmetless and in drab clothing suitable for the activity they hope to engage in upon reaching their destination. This tells me that they are more often than not riding for utilitarian rather than recreational purposes.

Some city cyclists have lights but most ride without them. Some use signals but I see greater numbers of cyclists in the suburbs dressed to be seen and demonstrating a knowledge of hand signals than I do in the city limits.

Urban Traffic Tactics

The usual method of dealing with urban traffic is a great deal more dangerous than the discussions on ChainLink would have you believe. The idea of running red lights is not usually about a right hand turn without coming to a full stop. Instead the tactic I seem employed is that a cyclist enters an intersection on a red light and proceeds to cross through the intersection in alley cat race style.

When traffic comes to a grinding halt at an intersection I have never ever seen an automobile attempt this same sort of thing. I have seen motorists try to pass on the right at an intersection however but only after the light has turned green. This is a very annoying and potentially dangerous maneuver especially if they are taking up a bike lane in doing so.

Motorists of course are notorious for turning right on red without coming to a full stop. This too is dangerous especially for pedestrians who might be in the walkway attempting to cross with the light.

One very dangerous trick that cyclists seem to like to perform is “skitching”9. The term was developed to describe a technique often used by skateboarders who hitch rides on passing motor vehicles. I however have seen more than a few bicyclists performing this maneuver while hanging onto the rear wheel wells of buses. Yikes!

About The Nose Ring Thing

Of all the venues where I think committed urban cyclists fare least well is on their forum. Sure they probably are guilty of passing too many slow cyclists and pedestrians along the Chicago Lakefront Trail. But it is in being downright vicious in sharing the conceptual road I think they should be faulted most.

ChainLink’s forum is not a virtual bathroom wall. But clearly the amount of unnecessary venom, profanity and character assassination that transpires there is not healthy for the future of Cycling Advocacy in the Greater Chicago Area.

At the very least, I think there is a disconnect between the notions of advocacy as envisioned by suburban cyclists and the committed urban cyclists of ChainLink. It is reflected in the fact that ChainLinkers are dismissive of their more affluent brethren and feel that anyone who might be doing errands in an SUV or minivan is unworthy of their respect.

How for instance watching the Tour de France comes to signal a lack of commitment to cycling is beyond me. But that is essentially what is being said in this thread. It is almost as if you need a nose ring to even join the group and in this case that means you commute exclusively by bicycle and avoid automobiles whenever possible.

It would not surprise me to know that a truly committed urban cyclist does not even own a car. He or she even goes so far as to move their belongings using cargo bikes and friends willing to share in the activity. This is not a bad thing but it means that an awful lot of people whose dollars are currently contributing to cycling advocacy need to get the memo which alerts them to their “backsliding” ways.

Cycling is not my religion. I don’t plan to submit to the tyranny of a hardcore few who think of themselves as purists of a sort that not even a professional cyclist could recognize. Even in Europe where there are hundreds of thousands of daily bicycle commuters do you find this sort of slavish conformity required to be thought worthy of inclusion in the community of true cyclists.

Quite the contrary is true. Folks over there, ride dressed in all sorts of gear and even do so on Dutch-style bikes. Those heavy but durable behemoths which are probably too slow for a good urban cyclist who needs to be able to sprint through red lights while avoiding collisions with unsuspecting motorists.

I have said more than once on the ChainLink forum that the “Lord of the Flies” mentality that seems to have gripped the hardcore members is both dangerous and offensive. I doubt whether the hardcore communists of the former Russia or even China were any more smothering in their rigidity. It is well past time for us to throw off the shackles of conformity and undergo some soul-searching. If we are going to get any cooperation from motorists in regards to sharing the road we need to be worthy of that trust.

I consider cycling a privilege. In fact I consider being a motorist or pedestrian one as well. I cannot decide to ignore laws just because I find them inconvenient. If I disagree with a law then my democratic right is to seek redress in the court system or the legislature. If I lose the battle in either arena my membership in a democrary requires that I bide my time and continue to overturn or enact legislation that I deem important.

Being in a democracy requires an adult perspective. It means that even though the motorist next to me at the intersection is behaving badly I cannot lapse into a scofflaw attitude as well. That way leads to anarchy and madness.


1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago
2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuPage_County,_Illinois
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuPage_County,_Illinois
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuPage_County,_Illinois
7 http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/11751201-418/the-chicago-areas-20-most-dangerous-intersections.html
8 http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=24bfd41e-d382-4e29-938c-17b41450f878&groupId=20583
9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skitching