The Death of Vehicular Cycling

A Ride That Changed My Views

Active Transportation Alliance has a long and storied history here in Chicago. They describe themselves as:

A member-supported nonprofit transporation advocacy group, formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation.

I have an acquaintance, Keith Holt, who used to work for the CBF and has now moved north to Milwaukee. He was the first person to ever take me through the South Side of Chicago as an adult by bicycle on a group ride. I remember him expressing pride in the fact that he was able to open the minds of folks on bicycles to the possibilities of riding the far south side and seeing some amazing things and neighborhoods.

A few years later I realized that the Pullman District and areas in and around Hegewisch offered some relatively interesting cycling experiences and that these had been part of the ride Keith led those many years ago. It got reacquainted with the Chicago of my childhood and decided to spend a year of weekends testing out the various roadways and trails in and around the city. It was great! There really is nothing to compare with the visual vibrancy of the Chicago Lakefront Trail despite the huge crowds it attracts.

The south end of the trail is where the beauty of the trail is still visible. They have done an amazing job of introducing underpasses for cyclists and pedestrians that are lightyears ahead of the steel overpasses that I remembered as a child. Once again riding the trail and venturing inland was a delight that you could enjoy effortlessly. Hurrah!

During all this time I had been enjoying two rides each year in the city. The first was the Boulevard Lakefront Tour that used to originate from the Midway Plaisance and travel west and north through the neighborhoods that surrounded the grand park system known as the “String of Pearls”. It was a great deal of fun to join a throng of riders as they made their way along the streets to each of the rest stops and then traveled at the end of the ride back along the Chicago Lakefront Trail south to the Museum of Science and Industry and from there to the Midway Plaisance. There the bands would be warming up for the big picnic and groups like the CBF would have their tents up and hawked t-shirts from rides past or sold memberships to their group.

The other big ride was held by the Friends of the Park. It was named the Late After Twilight Ends or L.A.T.E. Ride. It began at the Buckingham Fountain where guys like Jerry Lee and Rick Wasserman would meet us and we would ride the streets of our beloved city late at night and enjoy the sunrise at the end of it all. The experience of seeing the sun rise over the lake is magical.

Both these rides had one thing in common that is lacking in today’s rides and that was active police escort through intersections. You really never dealt with stop lights or even stop signs because there was always someone at intersections to control traffic for the benefit of the bicyclists. Even the rides we did in the suburbs were largely like this in terms of traffic control.

The assumption was made that here were large groups of weekend riders who needed help in getting through busy intersections (and Goodness knows this was the case) and so skilled traffic handlers were provided. I have no idea whether the cities in these instances provided police services gratis or whether there was a donation to a fund on behalf of widows of officers slain in action or perhaps a retirement fund. I just know that there were usually cops everywhere and the level of quality traffic control was impressive.

Ride the Rock is the last ride I remember doing where you could see actual police directing traffic at intersections all along the route. This particular ride runs along and through an existing trail system.

All of these rides are intended to bring out families with children to enjoy cycling in a relatively safe environment on a weekend. You got a t-shirt as a memento and perhaps enjoyed a picnic lunch afterwords and Dad got to look like a hero and the kids were exhausted enough to sleep soundly for once.

This love affair with large bike rides began almost 25 years ago. During that time we have ridden lots of other rides in and out of the city limits. And for the most part they have been pretty enjoyable. Sometimes you would find a ride where the route markings were pretty lousy and tons of folks got lost in the maze of cornfields that stretch for miles in the farm country south and west of Chicago. But even the relatively small rides like Lon Haldeman’s Roun’ Da Manure Tour were laid out well enough that you find your way back home and the dinner afterwards was great!

The feeling after such tours was that there was plenty of fun and relaxation to be had in cycling. You could bring family and friends and make a day of it. Kids were welcomed and often encouraged since these rides learned that having very short routes on protected trails as an alternative made a lot of sense.

Things Have Changed

In the beginning we volunteered to serve as Ride Marshals whenever we could. We did this for a couple of years on the BLT and the Ride for the Arts (the Milwaukee area counterpart to the BLT) and enjoyed every minute of it. You rode along and looked to be of assistance to riders who had managed to get flats and of course had nothing at all to fix one. Our club the Elmhurst Bicycle Club had a cadre of folks who drove SAG for the ride they used to offer called the Metro Metric. I worked for several years as a SAG driver and found out first hand how unprepared most riders could be when attempting to do mileage that was well beyond their current fitness level with virtually no training preparation beforehand.

But the idea was the these rides modeled what “could be” for folks who had never even considered riding on streets. This was a time when the vision of John Forester’s Effective Cycling seemed possible. But then the movement took a militant turn and rides like Critical Mass were born and transplanted east into cities like Chicago and New York and the relationship between bicyclists and police became problematic. You had police and protestors recreating the kind of animosity that had shaped the demonstrations of the ’60s on the roadways of large cities and that changed the complexion of everything.

Suburban cycling clubs became adamant about no longer supporting groups like the Chicago Bike Federation. At the time I was unaware of the underlying philosophical differences that led to this rift but I am now fully aware of why it exists. Groups like the League of American Bicyclists (formerly the League of American Wheelmen) had long espoused the notion of Vehicular Cycling.

Using the book Effective Cycling strategies for cycling on streets anywhere (not just in cities) were taught and then practiced in training classes like Traffic Skills 101. The League of American Bicyclists has an entire curriculum. At the end of your training you were encouraged to become a League Cycling Instructor (LCI). It meant that your inculcation with Vehicular Cycling ideas had been completed. Now you were ready to train others.

But Vehicular Cycling has run up against a great deal of pushback from our European Cousins. In Copenhagen and Amsterdam our notions about riding with traffic are deemed evidence of a secret sect. Europeans are adamantly against such ideas as wearing helmets or accepting anything short of physically separated bicycle lanes. The call Vehicular Cycling techniques “riding with the bulls”.

Helmets it is reasoned convey the notion that cycling is dangerous. An interesting read for us Yanks would be the series from the Copenhagenize website:

Cycling Infrastructure easy enough for a child to navigate.

In this series you can see that most of what they have to say about cycling revolves around a vision of cycling that is 180 degrees opposite that of John Forester. He loathed bicycle trails believing them to be the equivalent of quarantine areas for casual cyclists that went no where in particular and could not serve to allow an individual to commute to the office or do real chores. But in Europe the notion of trails for cycling has been elevated to that of bicycle superhighway. The places where a cyclist can ride to are indeed useful and the same routes that serve weekend picnickers are the same one which the following Monday will serve to deliver Dad or Mom to the office. These are not quarantine areas but vibrant physically separated infrastructure which serve human powered vehicles.

The Europeans have little love for our Critical Mass movement. They like to think that it focuses on the wrong issues entirely. In fact I would suppose that at best our physically separated bike lanes are little more than a stop gap awaiting the day when real bicycle infrastructure can be built. And when they say “real” the operational definition includes allowing a toddler to ride on it without having to worry about their safety. Having ridden all of the existing protected bike lanes here in Chicago I cannot say that were I a parent with a toddler that any of them would be useful even if I were present to ride along with my child.

Part of the problem with these lanes is that they are too narrow for multi-speed travelers. And more to the point they intersect endlessly with turning motorist traffic. Chicago cycling is at best mildly pleasant for experienced adults and at its worst quite dangerous. But children on bicycles in traffic are not my notion of a sane idea.

We Live In An X-Rated Cycling World Now

Like our television fare precious little of it can be shared with the family just after dinner time. The language alone is enough to have most parents racing for earplugs for their children and heaven knows that blindfolds would be needed for the lovemaking scenes that are aired on regular weekly television series. Ironically the show Burn Notice which is about spies and has lots of gun violence and explosions is far tamer than Suits when it comes to language or sexual scenes. I frankly would have imagined it would be 180 degrees the opposite. After all spies are far more likely to need to shout an explicative from time-to-time than a guy in a $5K suit but perhaps I am wrong about that.

Our cycling scene has changed from one in which you can invite the kids out on a weekend to ride and enjoy the out-of-doors to one where we need to be certain not to trot them past riders engaged in the Naked Ride. You would think that such a ride would be held at midnight, right? But no camera crews get to enjoy the kickoff of such rides in full daylight.

Our forums where we discuss all of those issues so near and dear to the hearts of cyclists have become the playground of the creeps who write on bathroom walls. Four letter words are as common as punctuation used to be and cyclists have taken to running down entire sections of the city while decrying the pushback from guys like me for not actually living in those sections of the city. Forums like ChainLink which touts a membership of 7K have devolved into the verbal equivalents of Critical Mass.

No longer are people chattering about which Vehicular Cycling techniques they find most useful in approaching the intersection of Halsted and Milwaukee but are instead finding new an every more inflammatory ways of dissing the police whom they now view as adversaries and drivers who are the “spawn of Satan” if you care to read behind their rather thinly veiled language. It leads me to despair over there ever being an adult approach to cycling advocacy here in Chicago.

Leading By Bad Example

What has led me to write this essay was what I saw yesterday while participating in the Four Star Bike Tour. You learn to expect that the participants will behave badly if there is no police presence. But what you don’t expect is that they main exemplar for that kind of behavior will end up being the Ride Marshal that is escorting your group along the route. There is no mistaking a ride marshal. He or she is given a commercial band walkie-talkie and carries a floor pump in a basket on the back of the bike. They are dressed in bright yellow mesh vests and have on t-shirts identifying who they are.

Our Ride Marshal seemed intent upon displaying as outrageous behavior as he could muster. At several points along the way he deliberately rode into oncoming traffic even when there was no apparent reason to do so. That yellow line is there for a reason. And if you are a serving as a Ride Marshal you are in effect the person who is demonstrating what Vehicular Cycling is about in a real world laboratory of sorts.

A several points in the ride he entered the intersection on a red light and proceeded to make a nearly full circle of the intersection and then head into the cross traffic coming the from right ending up in their left hand turning lane before turning around and waiting for our light to turn green. Then he would peel off with us and continue riding with our group as if nothing had happened. The crossing traffic during all of these maneuvers was active and moving and there was no particular reason for his having to do what he did. He did not serve as a corker for our group so that maneuver seemed out of place.

When I watched this display of poor cycling behavior I wondered to myself what had transpired in the cycling world to have led to this sort of thing? I say this because the Executive Director of the hosting organization for the ride, Active Transportation Alliance has given a short speech at the outset in support of the emails and web information delivered to each participant encouraging us to follow the Rules of the Road, etc. So why the obvious open display of disregard to those admonishments?

There is a thread of thought in the Urban Cycling Community that used to be argued was a myth. But thanks to articles like those appearing in the NYTimes under the byline of Randy Cohen the notion of myth has been disproved. This is a stark reality. Urban Cyclists have become open scofflaws. They have all sorts of justifications for why they run red lights and stop signs and do not bother to use hand signals and should not be required to have licenses or ever be given a ticket for disobeying traffic rules they deem unworthy of their obedience. Steven Vance of the Grid Chicago site likes to explain that cyclists have various mores that define their culture and judging by what I saw on Sunday that means that “anything goes”.

We were warned about riding no more than two abreast on the ride from the Executive Director and his emcee who were chattering throughout the ride start. Yet when we were less than five miles from that same ride start we had blown every single stop sign in sight. Several riders routinely crossed on red lights and at one point the group was riding at least eight abreast. In fact they had cross over into oncoming traffic and the motorists there were honking to have them move back to their side of the roadway, to no avail I might add.

I had paid for this ride months in advance and I was going to try and enjoy it despite the people who were displaying poor cycling behavior all around me. I just wondered how the families with kids on Trail-A-Bikes felt about what their kids were seeing. I guess the folks who were having a bout of scofflaw fever murmured to themselves that they should have taken the kiddie route and thus not subjected to children to all of this.

But the ride changed my thinking about the Active Transportation Alliance and Cycling Advocacy in general. Up until now I had assumed that the verbal scofflaws on the ChainLink forum was just outliers. You know the ones who in any junior high school class are going to try and provoke the teacher and gain “street credibility” with their peers. But I am beginning to understand that things are well beyond just a “few bad apples”. This is a systemic change that has occurred. The absence of police is probably due to the underfunding of various departments and the inability of ride hosts to make donations to offset the costs of all that police protection.

Besides there has been a rather pronounced and open rift between urban cyclists and the police that you can smell a mile away on the ChainLink. It is something that I find worrisome and curious all at the same time. Having been a child of the ’60s and watched as the police took positive action against the Black Panthers for saying and doing the same sorts of things where scofflaw behavior was concerned I am fully aware that if the current crop of scofflaws were black their behavior would not be tolerated. But they are white and have gained a certain amount of clout with city officials. And that means that they are taken more seriously than a group of black radicals.

There is pushback from motorists who can write. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune has done a fine job of pushing back. But the urban cycling behemoth has found itself empowered and gets even Cycling Advocacy groups to do its bidding. For all I know these organizations are populated and run by closeted and not-so-closeted scofflaws. What I do know is that the folks who serve as their Ride Marshals are not shy about flouting their responsibilities. And that makes all the difference to me.

I do not need to pay dues to an organization which tells me one thing and does another in actual practice. You either believe what you saw or you do not. I am reminded of the situation before the GOP captured the House during the second term of then President Bill Clinton. The GOP ran on the notion that they wanted to institute term limits to ride the system of politicians who had taken a short term advocation and turned it into a life-long feeding at the trough of public monies. Well history tells us that having won their majority in the House they declined to make term limits a reality under then Speaker Newt Gingrich. So much for saying one thing and then doing quite another.

Cycling Advocacy has become a way for folks to gain access to Federal dollars for their communities while earning a salary. I suppose that cycling lobbyist salaries do not compare with those on K Street but these organizations provide jobs for cyclists and influence for their leaders nevertheless. What is not clear is where the decades of cycling’s training infrastructure have left us. We appear to be at a point where Executive Directors dismiss bad cycling behavior by laying the blame on a lack of physically separated cycling infrastructure. But common sense tells us that motorists despite all the infrastructure available still behave badly when police are not looking.

Red Light Cameras were hooted down because there is no wiggle room when you are caught on camera entering an intersection on a red light. You are left to pay the fine and that is that. Cyclists are humans and will skirt the laws of the land as often as motorists and frankly at present are simply ignoring stop signs if Sunday’s ride experience is any evidence. There is some sort of hesitancy among the more timid cyclists to ride through red lights but many did just the same. And the coup de grace was delivered by a Ride Marshal in service of the very organization advocating for equal treatment for cyclists.

I will give some serious thought over the winter as to whether I will (a) continue being a member of the Active Transportation Alliance a group I have supported since it was named the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation and (b) whether I will continue riding the Four Star Bike Tour. Bike The Drive is a far more pleasant experience largely because traffic issues are simply non-existence in the context of riding a motorist free thoroughfare on a pleasant Sunday morning.

But I could never bring the pre-teenage children of my nieces and nephews on a ride like this and try to explain that running red lights was not okay when they can clearly see that every single stop sign was ignored and nearly every red light was ignored by at least one or two cyclists at each intersection. This is not how cycling advocacy is supposed to be supported.