Watch it, buddy, I’m pedaling (driving) here

By Greg Hinz
December 17, 2012

Source: Crain’s Chicago Business

Greg Hinz

Greg Hinz

As someone who literally bears battle wounds from the war between the bicycle and the automobile—a dislocated shoulder, a scar where my tibia gashed through my shin, etc.—I have a lot of sympathy with Gabe Klein’s drive to keep the two safely apart.

I just don’t know if it’s possible.

Mr. Klein, the city’s transportation commissioner, has been busily putting up dedicated bike lanes throughout Chicago, some of which place an actual physical barrier between the hunter and the prey. One of those protected lanes was to open this weekend on stretches of Dearborn Street downtown, in which bike riders going both ways will get a no-cars lane on the side of the street, with parked vehicles between bikers and motorists.

The eventual goal is to create at least 100 miles of protected lanes in town—enough to bump up the 1.3 percent of Chicago commuters who travel via bike to something like the 3.6 percent in Minneapolis, or even the 14 percent in Berlin, where the weather is just as bad as it is here.

“The end objective is to make it safe and fun to use active transportation in Chicago,” says Mr. Klein, who adds that surveys find that as many as 60 percent of Chicagoans would at least occasionally commute via bicycle if they thought it was safe. “Every street is different. We’re customizing programs to recognize that.”

The reality, however, is that it’s not safe out there. According to the Active Transportation Alliance (formerly known as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation) 39 Chicago bikers were killed in crashes from 2005 to 2011, with an average of 1,451 injured every year, based on data from the Illinois Department of Transportation. And the toll actually is worse than that because, until 2010, the state didn’t track a biker’s worst dread: being “doored” by someone who throws open the car door into a passing bicycle without looking.

Another reality is that bike riders often are responsible for their own carnage, bobbing and weaving and racing through red lights and pretty much playing the bull to the motorists’ toreador.

The reality, however, is that it’s not safe out there.

To deal with that, Mr. Klein, whose bike-lane campaign has Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s full support, says authorities have stepped up traffic law enforcement, with nearly 5,000 bike freaks stopped and/or ticketed last year for running red lights and the like. Lee Crandell of the Active Transportation Alliance says its ambassador’s program held dozens of “share the road” events with police and aldermen last year designed to encourage bikers to follow the law. Both Messrs. Klein and Crandell are hopeful that, as the amount of riding goes up, the younger hot dogs will be outnumbered by more reasonable types and a sort of peer pressure will develop to encourage law abidance.

Still, there is a certain dogs-and-cats element to this.

For instance, Dearborn was picked because Mr. Klein says it had “too much capacity,” which promoted “speeding.” He may think traffic moves too quickly in Chicago, but I have a hunch the average voter feels otherwise. On the other hand, it’s a rare biker who, seeing a red light and no sign of oncoming traffic, will meekly pull aside and wait for the green.

That said, things are improving.

Crain’s website, ChicagoBusiness.com, last week carried an opinion piece from DRW Trading Group LLC CEO Donald Wilson about how technology talent is drawn to cities that are bike-friendly. The essay got a ton of reaction (it, and some of those comments, are here). And while Chicago may not yet be Berlin, the amount of riding here has exploded in the past few years and, with milder winters, seems likely to rise further.

Rather than paying a fortune to drive or cramming into an overcrowded bus or train, biking is a good, fun way to get around. And we’re not about to disappear, no matter how much some of my waddling peers would prefer. All sides need to live together here. So, let’s do it.