BY CHRIS FUSCO AND TINA SFONDELES Staff Reporters September 3, 2012 12:12AM
Leah Jones doesn’t know what she could have done differently.
The social-media marketer, then 33 and living in Edgewater, had been riding her rebuilt 1963 Schwinn Varsity 10-speed bike south down Halsted Street on a gorgeous summer day nearly two years ago en route to pick up her paycheck in the West Loop.
Around noon on Sept. 10, 2010, she reached Halsted and Chicago Avenue — one of the most crash-prone intersections for cyclists in Chicago — and says she started pedaling through on a green light.
“It all squeezes into this intersection where there’s a ton of potholes and a really short yellow,” she says. “Even if you leave on a green, it could be really hard to get through the intersection before it goes red.”
Jones isn’t sure if the light on Halsted went from green to yellow to red while she tried to cross Chicago Avenue’s six lanes of traffic, a trip that was cut short when a woman driving an SUV east on Chicago crashed into her.
“She hit me full on,” recalls Jones, now 35. “Her bumper went into my thigh.”
Jones ended up on the pavement with a broken left ankle and a sprained left wrist. She is one of the more than 1,000 people to suffer “incapacitating” injuries since 2005 while biking in Chicago, according to state transportation department data analyzed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Another 43 have died in bike crashes citywide in that time, including seven last year, records show.
In all, the number of bike crashes reported to the Chicago Police Department rose by 38 percent between 2001 and 2011 — a reflection of the growing number of cyclists in Chicago.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.2 percent of Chicago commuters biked to work in 2009, up from a half-percent a decade earlier. The percentage of Chicagoans who take regular bike trips is probably actually two to four times higher than that because the census doesn’t count trips for recreation, shopping and other non-commuting purposes, according to John Pucher, a planning professor and transportation researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Studies show the number of cyclists on Chicago streets is sure to grow, given Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to invest an estimated $28 million on 100 miles of new protected and buffered bike lanes — lanes separated from moving cars by posts or pavement markings — by the end of 2015.
Also, a multimillion-dollar city bike-sharing program is set to debut next spring, making 3,000 bikes available for rental at 300 stations.
In Chicago — home to six-way intersections, pothole-forming winters and legendary rush hours — there already is plenty of animosity between bicyclists and drivers. Some drivers see cyclists as redlight-running daredevils, while some cyclists see motorists as oblivious to their existence.
Drivers also complain that the new bike lanes eat up space for cars, making traffic worse.
Gabe Klein, who as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation is Emanuel’s top transportation official, disputes that, saying tests have shown that the 12 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes installed since Emanuel took office aren’t delaying rush-hour trips.
“It’s important not to focus on these as bike-lane projects. They are safety projects,” says Klein. “If we do this well, automobiles will be able to move better.
“There’s some streets where . . . you need to segregate the bikes, the pedestrians, the buses and the cars. It makes a lot of sense to segregate users, and the operational efficiencies you get out of that are dramatic — and it’s much safer.”
Despite Klein’s assurances, even some bike advocates are questioning parts of Emanuel’s approach.
Most agree that the 33.5 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes that the mayor plans to have in place by the end of this year will make biking safer. But some say City Hall is failing to make simpler, lower-cost safety improvements — especially at crash-prone bike intersections.
Halsted and Chicago appears to be one of those. Between 2005 and 2010 — the most recent year for which intersection-by-intersection crash data is available — it saw 17 crashes, ranking it among the top 20 most crash-prone intersections citywide. It also ranked in the top 20 in terms of intersections with the most wrecks that left cyclists with incapacitating or fatal injuries, among them Jones’ 2010 crash.
Steven Vance — a former Chicago Department of Transportation Bicycle Program worker who co-writes the biking and pedestrian blog Grid Chicago — agrees with Jones’ assessment that fixing the pavement in parts of the Halsted-Chicago intersection would improve safety. (Since a Sun-Times reporter visited the intersection with Jones, some pothole filling has been done.)
Extending the yellow light beyond its current three seconds also might help, he says.
“I agree that the pavement conditions here are atrocious” at Halsted and Chicago, Vance says, adding that yellow-light timing issues plague other big intersections as well.
“Many intersections’ timing is such that you enter on green, are there for the entire yellow phase, there for the red phase, and are still there during the cross direction’s green phase. This is not right,” Vance says. “Each intersection should be looked at individually, and consider the slowest users — people walking and biking — in determining an appropriate phase length.”
There’s another problem: cyclists who don’t stop at red lights and surprise drivers who aren’t expecting them.
“People get impatient at three-way intersections and at complex intersections, and they try to outsmart traffic, to their own peril,” says Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University. “Bicyclists sometimes act as pedestrians and sometimes like motor vehicles, so there could be a sense of chaos at those intersections.”
Bike crashes have become so common in Chicago that there are personal-injury lawyers who specialize in them. Most of those crashes happen at intersections or involve “doorings” — instances where cyclists collide with doors opened by drivers who have parked in parallel-parking spots.
One of those lawyers, Brendan Kevenides, is working on eight cycling-related cases, six that happened at intersections, plus two doorings. He says all of the intersection-related cases “arose from the motorist allegedly not seeing the bicyclist.”
Jim Freeman, an attorney and bicycle mechanic who won an out-of-court financial settlement for Jones, says about a third of his cases involve doorings and another third involve what he calls “left crosses,” in which an oncoming car makes a left turn into a cyclist’s path. “Most, but not all, of those cases are intersection-related,” he says.
Told of the complaints about Halsted and Chicago, city transportation officials say that the yellow lights there — as well as all others in the city — are set according to federal standards based on the speed limit and that changing them would open up the city to lawsuits in the event of crashes.
Still, the standards “are time-tested recommendations developed over many, many years by many committees, so sometimes they’re not quite up to date in terms of how cities are changing quickly, especially with bikes,” says Luann Hamilton, a CDOT deputy commissioner.
Halsted and Chicago, which is at the top of a viaduct, is slated to be rebuilt within the next few years as federal funds become available, Hamilton says.
City officials say cyclists should call 311 if they see dangerous conditions on a bike path so they can assess whether work needs to be done.
Many of the crash-prone intersections for bikes are on Milwaukee Avenue, which runs through neighborhoods with relatively high concentrations of bike commuters.
Milwaukee, Ogden and Chicago is the most crash-prone, with 38 crashes between 2005 and 2010. It’s the area where a pedestrian, Eric Kerestes, 30, was killed by a speeding cab while waiting for the bus on Aug. 14.
Cassandra Hornbuckle, a 25-year-old salon desk manager, knows the intersection well. Last summer, she was riding her Schwinn Hollywood to work southeast on Milwaukee at 8 a.m. when a pickup truck driver turning left onto Ogden didn’t see her. The crash left Hornbuckle in the hospital for two days with an injured spleen and a sprained wrist. She later hired Kevenides and won an out-of-court settlement.
On a recent visit to the intersection, Hornbuckle pointed out that parts of it need repaving but that its inherent dangers are hard to fix: several lanes of traffic combined with a steady stream of cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians and bikes.
“Drivers hate bikers, and bikers hate drivers,” she says. “Everybody wants their space, but there’s not enough space for everyone. And I don’t know what the solution is.”
CDOT is taking steps to give cyclists on the North Side and Northwest Side more routes to the Loop. By early next spring, the city plans to install protected bike lanes on Milwaukee between Kinzie and Chicago. Cyclists then will be able to link to Elston, where more protected bike lanes can take them further northwest.
By the end of 2020, the city plans to make Milwaukee one of a half-dozen “spoke routes” into downtown, adding more protected lanes and maybe also bike-only traffic signals.
Pucher, the Rutgers professor, says those new routes and the addition of bike-sharing might actually make cycling in the city less dangerous.
“As you have more and more people cycling, you have this notion called safety in numbers,” he says. “Motorists start to expect to see them crossing at intersections, and that generally makes it safer.”