So Why Do Cyclists Even Care?


Tuber Times Cover

The discussion over the remarks made by one ChainLinker draw a rather interesting response. Here are the original comments:

Reply by Michelle Stenzel 15 hours ago
In response to what David Barish said — I think the problem is that we as a society are very quick to say that any crash that is motor-vehicle-related is simply due to bad luck, or “mere” negligence, simply because the result was not the intention of the driver. However, my gut tells me that many crashes must occur due to poor judgments that are made by drivers and risks that they take over and over, MOST of the time, with no negative consequences. So they believe it’s not actually risky, just normal driving. (Read the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt for tons more on this.) The person who blows through a red light has nothing happen the first 100 times they do it, until that one time a 12-year-old kid steps out onto the crosswalk with their signal into their path. And then somehow, the death dismissed as just “bad luck” on the part of the victim, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s sympathy for the driver because it “wasn’t really” their fault, he didn’t mean to harm anyone, and that “could have been me” in the driver’s seat. And so the driver just gets one ticket, maybe two, for “failing to yield to a pedestrian” and that’s it. And that’s just not right. I think often of the senior citizen who was struck and killed on Sheridan Road last year crossing on a crosswalk with the green (I wrote about it on Bike Walk Lincoln Park here). It was daylight, she was in the well-striped crosswalk, the cab was turning from a side street. How could running her over NOT be reckless behavior, and reckless homicide? I don’t think we should rely on civil actions to address this kind of crash.

All of this is true. But why pick on motorists who behave in exactly the same manner as cyclists “who blows through a red light has nothing happen the first 100 times they do it”? There is something of a disconnect here in the general thinking of the cycling community. They are at ease with their law breaking but uncomfortable when that same frame of mind is adopted by motorists.

I think I know the reason why. It is due to a collective impression that behaving badly on bicycles is inconsequential at best and none of your business otherwise. Take for instance the reactions by Wiggle riders in San Francisco when caught and ticketed for just the behavior that Michelle is decrying in motorists:

I am certain that many riders would cry foul because they feel (again a matter of limited perception on the part of cyclists) that very few of them behave badly and what is more the cycling advocacy community is always behind obeying the Rules of the Road. Well yes and no. A cycling club president responds to Michelle in this manner:

Reply by Anne Alt 1 hour ago
Well said, Michelle. Too many crashes and near misses are due to poor judgments and negligent driver behavior that has become “acceptable” because “everyone does it” – forms of distracted driving such as talking on the phone, applying makeup, shaving, and eating or speeding and running red lights and stop signs.

It’s that last little bit that has me concerned. Cyclists are prominent offenders in all these areas at least from my own experience in riding the streets of Chicago. In fact that very organization that awarded a lifetime achievement award (richly deserved) to Anne put a Ride Marshal on the road at the most recent (as of this writing) Four Star Bike Tour who broke just about every one of the rules mentioned above except the eating.

I watched in horror as he did things in front of attendees like my wife and me that we obviously intended to show his disdain for whatever anyone might think about his behavior. I wrote to Active Transportation Alliance and even put a comment on their website. But neither has been replied to. I wonder if there is a tendency amongst people in the cycling community to give lip service to the notion of following the Rules of the Road but in actual practice they fail miserably every time?

In this particular thread being discussed here there was a link to another thread on EveryBlock Chicago. At one point an actual defense of bad cyclist behavior is given as follows:

Julie S
Rick as a cyclist, I think the best thing I have heard about why we do rolling stops at signs is that as we are under our own momentium, having to come to a complete stop, when it is safe to go (ie for me that means no other traffic with the right of way) it would be like a driver turning off their car, stepping out for a second and then restarting the car.

And as to why sometimes we have to go out of the bike lane, it is often because, like on Damen, the bike lane is in such horrible shape that is is safer to come out into traffic to ride safely. The Elston lanes and some others also have flood areas. Also, getting a little ahead of traffic allows us to set some safety space when traversing a narrow spot (like NB Damen right now) so we don’t get squeezed into a curb where the pavement is often dangerous or we could have an accident.

And if cars are slow or stopped, it makes sense on a bike to ride past the traffic to get to the front to move when the light changes. There is often more than enough room for car and bike.

But having ridden all over this city, I can say that even when I bike in “protected” bike lanes I have been nearly hit by drivers texting and looking down instead of driving. There are decent drivers and bad cyclists and vice versa. Because we are very vulnerable out there, ie we have no metal protection we (at least most of us) are very aware of our safety. While it may not always seem that way to you, we know better than anyone that it does not take much for us to get harmed.

So please be patient to cyclists, look before opening your door or changing lanes, use your turn signals and also come out and bike as well, it’s a great way to get around and have fun.

This kind of thinking is far more prevalent amongst cyclists than one might imagine. And it is so engrained in the culture that when people spout this sort of drivel in casual conversation and if you point it out in a video like that shown above you get this kind of reaction from the great unwashed of the cycling community:

You can bring hundreds of cyclists out for a rally to memorialze a death on the mean streets of our cities. But you had better not try to get cyclists “fired up” about their own bad behavior. In fact their leaders will be willing to write letters to the editor in defense of the bad behavior by blaming in on the lack of adequate infrastructure.

I reject that notion because it certainly has not made drivers of cars any more willing to obey stop signs or red lights and they have quite a bit of infrastructure already. How individuals behavior when presented with traffic controls is a matter of personal integrity and responsibility. Trying to lay the blame on infrastructure is a two-edged sword.

I lack of infrastructure is a legitimate factor in bad cyclist behavior then when that infrastructure is present and cyclists still behave badly does that mean that it is the fault of the infrastructure or at the very least of the people who designed it that way? That would be opening a can of worms.

But we have ample evidence in our city of bike lanes which are too narrow for a cyclist to both avoid getting doored without also allowing the cyclist to move far enough to the right to ensure that passing motorists can give them the three feet of space designated by law. It would be wonderful to see the cycling community to “get in arms” over the poorly designed infrastructure that they have backed and are breathlessly awaiting more of. But I don’t think that will happen any time soon.

Another responder offers a very reasoned retort to Anne’s assertions:

Reply by David Barish 1 hour ago
This is the reason why the legislature has attacked issues such as distracted driving. Certain acts of multitasking are not negligent. They are indeed reckless and make people subject to criminal penalties. I support making these acts criminal. As a lifelong liberal who always sees a slippery slope of facisim with expanding criminal penalties I have a problem with criminalizing negilgent behavior. No question there can be a tragedy due to negligence whether a bike is or is not involved. Your kid leaves a skate on the sidewalk. You are responsible when your neighbor trips over it falls, and their brains spill onto the sidewalk. This is a horrible tragedy for everybody. You should not go to jail. However, your homeowners insurance will likely pay dearly to your neighbor’s family. Had the neighbor family complained of this before or complained of the kid leaving his bike, his coat or other detritus on the sidewalk the conduct may be more than negilgent.

This, by the way cuts both ways. You are on your bike. You are paying attention to the mirrors on the doors of cars on the right because you do not want to get doored. You do not notice the old man walking in between the cars coming from the left and you run him over. You may or may not be financially responsible but you certainly should not go to jail or risk going to jail because you didn’t see him when everybody else did. Now, if you are blowing through that lane with the cars all stopped and you are ziping by at 20+mph or you are performing a maneuver out of Premium Rush, your actions will be seen as reckless and you may be getting a ride home in a squad car.

There is an inconsistency that runs through the threads on this board. I am not pointing to any specific poster but to the amalgam of them. On the one hand we call for strict enforcement and criminal penalties for drivers who make errors. On the other hand we give ourselves a pass regardiing the rules of the road. I understand all 25 sides of both viewpoints 🙂 and am stitll trying to workout a theory that can tie them all together or at least get them in my pannier.

Bravo, Dave! When writing on the ChainLink you take your cycling life in your hands if you step out of line once too often. This is a place that provides succor to people like Gabe who on his profile page openly flaunts the notion of good cyclist behavior, why chasing away anyone who might want to give a bit of pushback to the general atmosphere that prevails there.

Anne responds to Dave in this fashion:

Reply by Anne Alt 52 minutes ago
Yep, it can be a fine line and a slippery slope in determining what is negligent vs. reckless and which penalties should be criminal.

A good example on the bike side of the equation is the cyclist in San Francisco who plowed through a busy crosswalk against the light and killed a pedestrian. Most acts of cyclist recklessness aren’t as extreme, but we need to be aware that it is possible to kill someone with a bike.

Now this is what I expect of the “adults” in leadership positions on this forum. I feel and have always felt that anyone trying to toe the party line is both running the risk of drawing the wrath of their party as well as being complicit in its failures. You really don’t have any middle ground.


I watched a recent episode of Chicago Fire (a new television series depicting the life and times of a engine company right here in Chicago). In the episode in question (I tape them so it might be a week or so old) the lieutenant who was first on the scene of an accident has to make a crucial decision.

There were two cars involved in a collision. The car that actually caused the collision is being piloted by a fellow who has strong alcohol smells on his breath and has open liquor in the front passenger seat in full view. Meanwhile the victims in this crash as literally teetering upside down on the edge of the overpass where the accident occurred. It is a father and son pinned inside the vehicle.

The lieutenant finds out before leaving the scene of the accident that the police officer who took the driver into custody refused to administer a breathalyzer or report the presence of the open alcohol. And he explains that the driver is the son of a well known and well liked detective who works in the narcotics division.

Later the lieutenant gets called in by the chief of the station who is demanding that he hand in the written report of the accident for which he is responsible. The lieutenant calls in a favor of one of the paramedics assigned to the station by asking her to get her brother to snoop around a bit to find out the details of the efforts to bury the citations which most certainly should have been given to the drunk driver.

But he is warned that this detective who son was the driver is a very mean person and will not allow such a report to be given on his son. And then the lieutenant has to ponder what he will do. Later the father of the son in the other vehicle shows up with a chocolate cake baked by his wife in thanks to the heroic efforts of the engine company. And he announces that his son will be paralyze from the waist down for the remainder of his life.

The lieutenant does the honorable thing and turns in the damning report, warts and all. His chief tells him “Leaders, lead from the front.” And that my friends is about the sum of all my blathering. “Leaders lead from the front”. Leaders do not pander to their friends and colleagues on a board like the ChainLink. They do no harbor or allow to be harbored miscreants who openly defy the norms of a civil society to wallow in their scofflaw behavior.

And if you cannot find enough of a reason to warrant taking the risk of going against the trend on this board then do it because it will help in keeping faith with all the drivers in both the city and suburb who have no dog in the fight over cyclists rights, but simply want to understand what the fair thing to do would be.

I do not want to at the end of the day find myself asking why one more person had to die whether it be a priest who runs a red light and dies or a cyclist who is crushed by a right turning truck when all parties were behaving well but there was a need for additional equipment on the truck or when a cool fashion in cycling like the fixed gear bike becomes a contributing factor in a dooring death.

We simply have to get beyond the very narrow narrative that we have for ourselves and our world view vis-a-vis motorists. This is not really about us versus them. It is more about us versus ourselves. We humans have designed a pretty neat world, but some of the things we do are dangerous even when lawful and well-intentioned.

Being an advocate for cycling is as much about lobbying for changes in the law as it is about discovering the cause of accidents when everyone had a reasonable expectation of things going right but did not. That takes a joint task force of savvy cyclists and caring motorists. I cannot simply be the responsibility of a single side in the equation, that will not work.

If you think about the situation in high crime areas where gun violence is rampant it becomes obvious that several things are equally important:

  • We do not need people muddying the waters by calling entire regions of the city “shitholes” and getting little if any pushback from the owners of the ChainLink. It takes oodles of effort by persons like John and Steve to undo that sort of stupidity. And despite Greenfield’s effort to help lead a ride into the south side there will be those who have read the hate speech of Gabe and will secretly harbor its meaning. That is why I am so very proud of pastors who invite the mayor of Chicago and of course the mayor and his entourage who came to march for change in the neighborhood of my youth.
  • We do not need neighbors in cities who complain about the gun violence but then refuse to bear witness in court. Long before the time of Capone this city was run by folks willing to cut your tongue out as a means of enlisting silence from its residents. It takes a strong will to go up against the fearfulness of your neighbors. But you can only “lead from the front“.
  • We do not need politicians and quizzlings who are unwilling to hear truth spoken to power. Anyone worth the effort of honoring or worthy of my financial backing as a civil rights advocate has to be willing to give real praise to the mayor and the police commissioner when it is due and condemn their behavior when it is lacking. And they have to be willing to call out the drug kingpins in the community in likewise fashion.

Now all of these things apply to the cycling movement. It cannot and should never be the bastion of people who are more interested in having their pictures plastered across television screens at memorials than solving the problems that contribute to the need for such memorials. It is about calling out the use of brakeless bikes in an environment where brakes are often required. It is about speaking to the wrong-headed notion that ticketing cyclists is a worthless activity when cops could be hassling motorists instead. It is about refusing to hide behind the excuse that running red lights and stop signs is an indication that we don’t have enough infrastructure when we know that this is a lie. We need to stop pandering to our community by writing letters expressing our outrage at this or that article that provides pushback to scofflaw cycling behavior and instead focus on providing real pushback to the notions of powerful writers who espouse scofflaw behavior.

Our advocacy community is entirely too chummy. It provides opportunities to one another for self-congratulatory plaques but little opportunity to fight the insidious thinking that has sounded the death knell for Vehicular Cycling.