Is biking in Chicago a risky proposition?

Chelsi Moy
September 25, 2013

Listen to the broadcast

ghost bike 2 © Flickr/emwilbz

ghost bike 2
© Flickr/emwilbz

A Curious Citizen wanted a point-by-point comparison to other modes of getting around. But just how close can we (or should we) get to that?

Motti Pikelny would fall in the group of people who are maybe less averse to risk than others. He used to pilot glider planes in competitions. Yet, the Oak Park resident won’t commute to work by bicycle because he thinks it’s too risky.

So, Pikelny turned to Curious City with this question:

How dangerous is it to bicycle commute in the city?

Pikelny would like to commute by bike for economical and environmental reasons. In fact, he has competed in century rides — 100-mile bike races — when he lived in Oregon. But the safety factor stops him from pedaling to work.

He wanted us to approach the question from a statistical viewpoint. He wanted to know the dangers of biking in Chicago as compared to other modes of transportation (i.e., motorcycles) or recreational activities (i.e., skydiving).

We talked to a lot of experts, all of whom said the same thing: This question is impossible to answer, but they all gave different reasons for why. Some say there’s not enough data. Others argue quantifying danger is subjective. Along the way, we learned how the decision to bike or not bike can be a heavy one — with or without key stats to help.

There are data, but are they the right data?

Many municipalities, including Chicago, as well as the state of Illinois, record bike injuries and deaths involving crashes with motor vehicles. In April 2010, the city of Chicago began tracking “dooring” incidents (fatal and non-fatal), as well. That’s when a driver or passenger opens a car door in the pathway of a biker and a crash occurs.

Here’s some recent data from the Illinois Department of Transportation regarding bike injuries and deaths involving crashes with cars in Chicago.

  • 2011: 1,302 bike injuries and seven deaths
  • 2010: 1,583 bike injuries and five deaths
  • 2009: 1,402 bike injuries and six deaths.

In 2011, there were 336 dooring crashes in Chicago.

This kind of data is important but it doesn’t go far enough, said Jen Duthie, a researcher at the University of Texas Center for Transportation Research. Duthie is a bike commuter and gathers bike data.

What’s unknown is the number of bikers on the road and how far they travel, said Steven Vance, author of Chicago Streetsblog, a bike advocate and local data wizard.

Also, no data are collected on pedestrian-versus-bike crashes in Chicago or incidents where bikers collide with other cyclists.

“I’m more scared of hitting a pedestrian on the phone than getting doored,” said Thea Lux, a Groupon employee who commutes daily during the summer months.

Often, Lux said, people are talking on a cell phone and not paying attention as they walk into intersections.

Researchers and policy makers can make generalizations about biking danger on a per capita basis by looking at the number of crashes that occur and Chicago’s population. But it’s not an accurate reflection of bike safety here. Vance said it’s impossible to say how likely a person is to crash on their bike.

Plus, Duthie added, near misses are not recorded, even though avoided crashes shape opinions on whether biking in Chicago is safe.

When data don’t help

© Flickr/TouringCyclist

© Flickr/TouringCyclist
Bike infrastructure may be placed in areas that are most convenient instead of areas that are most dangerous to bikers, suspects Steven Vance.

“In my personal experience, it’s slightly dangerous but mostly harrowing mentally,” Vance said of biking in Chicago. “The likelihood that you’ll get into a crash, I believe, is quite low but I don’t have data to prove that.”

Harrowing, that is, because of all the near misses that scare bikers.

Bike infrastructure may be placed in areas that are most convenient instead of areas that are most dangerous to bikers, suspects Steven Vance.

Vance launched a blog in May called Close Calls, which allows Chicagoans to record their near-crash biking experiences.

But Vance, ultimately, doesn’t care how dangerous it is to bike in Chicago. Unlike Pikelny, he’s already decided to commute by bike. That’s not a question, in his mind, at least. What’s more important to Vance is identifying specific intersections or stretches of roads that are the most dangerous  — and fixing them.

His other outlet, Chicago Streets Blog, pre-ordered a counter to track the number of cars and bikes passing through certain intersections. The city tracks that information in some cases, but he says his blog purchased the counter because the city wasn’t getting him the data when he asked for it.

Vance wants to make the data available to the public, with the ultimate goal being to identify the most dangerous intersections and stretches of road in Chicago. He finds that bike infrastructure is often constructed in areas that are convenient, but not necessarily areas that bikers consider the most dangerous.

But even with all the bike data in the world, determining danger — or in this case, risk — is still impossible.

David Ropeik, instructor at Harvard and author of How Risky Is It Really: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match Our Facts, says risk is subjective.

“We delude ourselves about some risk that is higher than they actually feel by saying, well, my general feeling about this from my experience, from what I’ve heard and read is that this won’t happen to me,” he said.

What that means is that biking in Chicago may seem dangerous to one person but may seem less to another.

And sometimes impressions change.

What once seemed safe

Catherine Bullard never thought that biking in Chicago could be fatal.

That was before Bullard, a biker, received an urgent Facebook message late one night from her boyfriend’s roommate. It said please call when you can.

(© Flickr/rocketlass)This is an example of a ghost bike, which memorializes bikers who have died on the road.

(© Flickr/rocketlass)This is an example of a ghost bike, which memorializes bikers who have died on the road.

This is an example of a ghost bike, which memorializes bikers who have died on the road.

“Without even thinking about it I knew that Bobby had been in a cycling accident, but I didn’t think for a second that he was dead,” said Bullard, who recounted her story to us while standing near the intersection of Larrabee Street and Clybourn Avenue — the same spot where her boyfriend, Bobby Cann, died biking home from Groupon where he worked. Cann, Bullard said, was an avid, safe cyclist.

Cann was struck around 6:30 p.m. by a driver who was allegedly drunk at the wheel. Cann was wearing a helmet.

“He was so, so safe,” Bullard said. “He knew hand signals I didn’t even know.”

Bullard hasn’t biked to work since Cann’s death. She’s conflicted about biking now. She never used to worry about getting hurt on a bike.

Now she wonders: How is it that something that once seemed safe — especially for those who followed all the rules — now doesn’t?

She wants to get back on the road. And she will. She’s determined. Except, for now, biking just seems too risky.

“Part of it is being afraid of what might happen, which I hate,” she said. “I hate that that is an impulse of mine and he would hate it, too.”

Perspective from a biking community

Again, the hard comparative data that our questioner Motti Pikelny wanted isn’t available, so we reached out to riders to get qualitative perspectives. The goal was to get some perspective from bikers on the ground. What do they see? What do they experience? Riders we spoke with agree that Chicago is becoming more bike-friendly in the sense that biking is gaining a higher profile and the city’s adding new bike lanes.

We found one particularly interesting set of riders at the Chicago headquarters of Groupon, the daily deals service. The office, located on the near North Side, has a robust biking community; among other things, it’s a regular participant in the annual Bike To Work week. According to the  Active Transportation Alliance, the event last year had 7,000 participants citywide.

As Groupon editor Sandy Kofler told us, just several years ago she was nervous about riding her bike on some downtown streets — enough that she would put her bike on the train, ride one stop, and then get off and resume her ride.

The addition of bike lanes since then has helped a lot, she said.

Today Kofler bikes to work, taking one of two routes to work from her home in Humboldt Park; the one she frequently rides has fewer bike lanes than the other, but at least she can avoid having to make two scary left turns.

When it comes to biking in Chicago, she said, “The safe ways are safe but they take longer.”

To get even more perspective, we recently solicited volunteers from Groupon to log their bike routes for three days. Consider these logs as anecdotes of what its like to pedal in the bike lane … or in some cases, the shoulder of the road.

The takeaway

I reported my findings — the limited data, the wealth of anecdotes — back to Pikelny, who wasn’t that surprised that there’s no answer to his question. It is, after all, what he suspected after he finished his own surface research.

That being said, though, he hopes for better data collection in the future. That would be good, he said, for him as well as others who are contemplating whether to bike commute at all. And that would be helpful, too, for people like Bullard, who could at least lean on firm data to help decide whether to put her feet back on the pedals.

Chelsi Moy is a Curious City intern. Follow her @chelsimoy.

Correction: A caption misspelled the name of a Chicago blogger and developer. The correct spelling is Steven Vance. 


“In my personal experience, it’s slightly dangerous but mostly harrowing mentally,” Vance said of biking in Chicago. “The likelihood that you’ll get into a crash, I believe, is quite low but I don’t have data to prove that.”

Harrowing, that is, because of all the near misses that scare bikers.

Bike infrastructure may be placed in areas that are most convenient instead of areas that are most dangerous to bikers, suspects Steven Vance.

So very much of the spin that comes out of the Urban Cycling Community is of the nature of the first quote by Vance. Everyone seems to think that cyclist is safe but he freely admits that this is more a hunch that a data driven assumption. And that makes all the difference in the kind of dialogue we have with the non-cycling community about the costs and meaningfulness of the decisions we wish to see made regarding bicycle infrastructure.

It all boils down to something he further admits and that is that the quantification of the risk one takes in trying to bike the streets of Chicago is not quite as important to him as the knowledge of where the actual accidents are occuring. In fact this is the kind of information that the folks from IDOT are anxious to get their hands on. They are reluctant to give an OK to the use of Protected Bike Lanes in the city (large due to the added expense) if it cannot be demonstrated that such lanes produce actual results. And as Steve points out the protocol is first to identify the places where accidents occur and then fix those.

This kind of methodology means that it takes several iterations (read years, probably three) before you can assess the effectiveness of your fixes. After all if you identify a problem area and “fix” it then it takes another round of data collection to verify that your “fixes” worked. The Urban Cycling Community is adamant about the fact that they want to see Protected Bike Lanes placed into the infrastructural system even before their effectiveness has been verified.

Why The Rush?

Money. If the political landscape should shift to control by the GOP and especially the Tea Party wing of the GOP gets their hands on the purse strings, all the “funny money” will dry up. The Liberals are thinking that it takes more money to rip out installed lanes than it does to simply leave them in. So all that blather last year from Ron Burke about the ‘safety‘ that was to ensue from bicycle infrastructure is getting in the way of a time table that is the elephant in the room.

But like the folks who want to push ‘fracking‘ without knowing just how dangerous it might be Urban Cyclists are using the same sorts of devious propaganda to further their own agenda and neither group has hard evidence to prove their claims. Curious that no matter what the political landscape a group hails from you always need to check your wallet when you finish talking to them to make sure your money is still inside.

Urban Cycling Is Essentially A Religion

Like it or not when you have a hunch that something is safe but you lack the data to prove it you are in the same situation as a person who believes in a religious tenet but has not scientific basis for that belief. You are as they say “walking by faith“. Everyone is aware of the fact that even if you attempt to duplicate a situation that works in New York it might not fly in Peoria.

It is simply not possible to duplicate the bicycle infrastructure that exists in the Netherlands here in Chicago and guarantee that the resultant safety benefits will be identical. There are too many variables and among them are the cultural traits of these two areas. The Dutch are far less car-centric than we are. Their bicycle style is far more sedate and their bikes far clunkier than those we prefer. All these factors make for a slightly different outcome where safety is concerned.

To listen to most Urban Cyclists you would think that like Christians who have doubts about the tenets of their faith admitting these doubts openly is a sign of weakness and having been a “back-slider“. But questioning authority is the basis for a healthy democracy. So question away.

More TakeAways

Following his interview for this radio presentation Steve Vance got a chance to hear from several members of the Chicago ChainLink Forum on his performance. He responded in this fashion:

Reply by Steven Vance 7 hours ago
While we’re on the topic of talking about personal crashes, I’ve had three!

  • The first was when I slipped on a huge pile of salt, fell over, and slid for several feet on my left side, bruising my hip and leg. (January 2006)
  • The second was when I rode a fixed gear bike for the third time, saw a pothole, decided to coast over it, before realizing I couldn’t do that. The crank arms flipped me over the front of the bike. I got major road rash, with bits of asphalt embedded in my skin for a week. (June 2007)
  • The third was when I was biking home from Jewel (Roosevelt/Ashland) to home in Pilsen via Roosevelt and got t-boned by an elderly driver going about 5-10 MPH. I got knocked to the ground, landed on my back (actually on my backpack) and spent the night in the hospital. (September 2007)

That all happened in 2 years!

I think my point in the Curious City segment came across just fine: there’s no way to tell the level of danger of cycling in the city and there’s no point in doing so.

Chelsi asked me in the interview (which lasted about an hour at the studio), “What’s one thing we can do in Chicago [to make it safer]?” I didn’t think about my answer for very long at all. I quickly, mentally, ran down the list: increased enforcement, separate infrastructure, mobility education, speed cameras, etc. but settled on “go slower”. And this would apply to everyone. And it’s a conscious choice we can all make. Going slower gives us more time to think about our next action. Going slower also means less injury when there is a crash.

However, I’m going to start doing a better job in not contributing to the “dangerization” of cycling.

Steve, You Did The ‘Right Thing’

Telling the truth about bicycling or heart surgery or unprotected sex or marriage or whatever is likely to frighten away some people. But every surgeon who is asking a patient to trust him on the operating table the duty to outline the dangers of such a procedure so that the patient and his family can collectively make an informed decision.

I lost a sister to breast cancer and it was not a pleasant experience to watch her waste away from not merely the cancer but the radiation treatments that she underwent several times a week. The cancer had spread to her brain and so an aggressive therapy was considered. My sister went into that regimen with her eyes wide open. She in fact interviewed another African-American woman whose cancer had also metastasized and got a chance to see what the radiation treatments had done to her.

My point is that we should never apologize for telling the hard truth about a harsh reality.

Bicycling Is Dangerous, Driving Even More So!

We cyclists like to focus on the perceived danger of cycling as if we were the most likely to die while plying the streets of the city. But a companion article to that of WBEZ states that of all the segments of the transportation landscape motorists are the most likely to experience fatalities!

No matter how you try and spin that information it ends up meaning that motorists are by far the most vulnerable. Now before you start complaining that this is ludicrous think about this. If we simply focus on cycling deaths we miss the fact that every death in the city counts. That means that we are concerned about pedestrians, motorists and cyclists. But one thing that probably contributes to the careless and reckless driving we see is that people driving those cars do not have an adequate sense of their vulnerability.

The next time you are at a cocktail party and someone tells you how dangerous cycling is respond by saying that your odds of death and injury are factually lower than that of a motorist. The proceed with your admonitions about “going slower“.

We Are All At Risk And Cyclists Need To Think More Globally

There is a bit of the whiney bastard in every ChainLink thread. We love to play the victim as we talk about how dangerous riding a bicycle was just that other day on that really busy street. And if anyone doubts us we cite this or that death of a cyclist under awful conditions and wait for others to follow with their horror stories. But frankly if death and injury are your passion then you need to talk to some of the cops and EMTs who arrive a crash scenes each weekend. You could cobble together full length feature films from the crash scenes of high school teens who drink and drive or text and drive.

Our ‘job‘ as members of the Cycling Community demands that we are two things:

  1. Less parochial in our view of injury and death on the roadways. We should be concerned about everyone, not just ourselves.
  2. We should be brutally honest about the dangers of cycling and driving and walking in the city. And we should be prepared to show that of all the groups needing to slow down and live it is most advantageous for motorists.

I say do what they do in highschools across the country and show those gory movies that spotlight the horrors of driving and cycling. Interview the folks who have been injured and must live the rest of their lives with disabilities (should they have been so lucky as to survive). Folks this is a bit like being prepared to go into combat in Afghanistan. Raw recruits do not need to be told that they have the smartest looking uniforms of any of the combatants in that arena. Or that they have the coolest looking rifles and helmets.

They should not be looking under the hoods of their HumVees to see how nifty the engines are. They should be taught that a failure to focus on security can get you killed. They should be shown what suicide bombers look like and what IEDs can do if not detected. Trying to cover up the reality of the dangers of cycling with a discussion of how cute your outfit would look while riding in knee high boots without a helmet is simply silly. I would far rather lose a dilettante to fear of cycling than have them maimed for life because they thought that answering their phone while riding Bike The Drive was a safe thing to do. It is not and I actually watched a biker on that fundraising ride fall and crash to the ground while trying to talk on a cellphone!

Get over the idea of “dangerization” being too harsh. If we can keep one kid alive to finish high school or college rather than having them wrap themselves around a tree following a drinking party then so be it.

“Dangerization” Is A Necessary Evil Or Not?

My contention is that the Urban Cycling Movement has gone out of its way to demonize automobiles and their drivers. What the Devastating Data Report emphasizes is that lives lost are lives lost. It does not matter whether they are car drivers, pedestrians or cyclists. Organizations like Active Transportation Alliance like to create a distinction because it drives money to them in the form of memberships and sympathy dollars every time a cyclist is killed by a motorist. The downside of this approach (not including the short-sightedness of making the distinction in the first instance) is that it inadvertently “dangerizes” cycling in the minds of those who are considering it.

In point of fact the widow of Bobby Cann mentions that she is having difficulties “getting back on the horse” following his death. This is entirely understandable. But she is not the only one affective by the news of his untimely demise. The very folks who are buying memberships are considering their odds of making it a full year despite the fact that they give.

I believe that you can neither sugarcoat the realties of riding in streets alongside cars nor should you. In fact you should be reaching out to motorists as well asking them to give to the Active Transportation Alliance in the hopes that their inordinately high death tolls can be brought under control. If you make this a campaign against a common enemy you are more likely to dissipate the already rather mean-spritied and rancorous debate that exists in the ChainLink Community over the presence of automobiles on our roadways.

Cars are not going anywhere. Worldwide their numbers are climbing and with good reason. They are more convenient in many cases than bicycles will ever be when the distance traveled is greater than 5 miles or so. Under that the bicycle probably wins. But in places where weather is harsh and winters are long the car is still the better means of getting around. It can accommodate more kinds of people than can a bicycle. And it works better when traction is limited and roadways are more hazardous than usual.

It will take a concerted effort by cycling advocacy groups to broaden their appeal even to motorists. It is time that the promise of a safer transportation landscape for all segments of the population was communicated to motorists as well. Their greater numbers means a more effective voice when budget considerations are being made in Washington, DC.