Why everyone hates bicyclists—and why they hate everyone back

By: Daniel Libit November 11, 2013

Everyone Hates Cyclists

Everyone Hates Cyclists

Anyone visiting downtown for the first time in a few months will find a city transformed. Chicago has become a bike city.

Chicago has 200-plus miles of bike lanes and 13,000 bike racks. It is planning a total of 645 miles of lanes by 2020. Census data show the local population of those bicycling to work has increased steadily over the past several years. Some 2,713 more commuters bicycled to work in 2012 over 2011.

As the city continues to elevate two-wheeled travel—ushering in the Divvy bike-sharing program in June and working toward constructing 33 miles of bike lanes by year-end—the last couple of months have provided enough headline-grabbing incidents to make residents wonder how bumpy the ride will be on the path to mode-share harmony.

A pregnant woman riding a Divvy bike was struck by an Illinois Department of Transportation vehicle. (She and her baby have recovered.) A pair of condominium owners in Lakeview sued to remove a Divvy station from outside their building, declaring it a “hideous” intrusion. Bikers grumble about incidents of “dooring” by clueless motorists. Pedestrians grumble about bicyclists on sidewalks. Drivers grumble about cyclists blowing through stoplights and zigzagging through traffic.

And all the while, the flames are being fanned by some admitted anti-bike pugilists in the press, such as Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who routinely has railed against the new lanes and the Divvy program.

42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly

42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly

“I see the value over the long term, but this is disruptive and there are growing pains that come with it.” — 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly

“With the Emanuel administration came an aggressive movement to install a lot of infrastructure as quickly as we can,” says Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, whose downtown ward has been at the heart of the bicycle developments. “I see the value over the long term, but this is disruptive and there are growing pains that come with it. We have all this infrastructure that a lot of folks frankly don’t know how to use, and there are still many bicyclists in Chicago who aren’t aware you can’t ride on the sidewalk.”

A CITY BUILT FOR CARS

Mr. Reilly says some Loop business owners along Dearborn Street, where the city has reported a 100 percent jump in bike traffic since last year, have complained to his office about an increase in near-collisions between bikes and cars. Residents in the district have been upset about bike racks or Divvy stations that have displaced street parking or loading zones. And still others just seem constitutionally opposed to change.

The change is especially wrenching because Chicago, like most cities, is built for the car. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be retrofitted. Bicycling magazine named Chicago the fifth-most bike-friendly city of 2012. This year, CNN.com rated Chicago among its eight most bike-friendly cities. The city is on track to have the biggest bike-share program in the nation. Some 650,000 Divvy trips have been taken since the program began June 27.

Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein

Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein

“People are so nice before they get behind the wheel” of a car. — Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein

Optimists say this is all part of the process of moving to happier and healthier times. Eventually, the thinking goes, the greater number of bicycling citizens and infrastructure will raise the public’s consciousness, encourage more people to obey the rules and breed magnanimity throughout the streets.

Before that happens, Chicagoans need to adopt new behaviors to accommodate the new world order, observers say. Novice bicyclists must learn the rules and intangibles of the road; early-adopter cyclists must stop riding the streets as if they’re in the Tour de France; pedestrians must stay out of bike paths; cabs must be more mindful of where they are picking up passengers; and cops must issue more tickets.

In addition to creating bike lanes and improving signage, the city has launched initiatives to educate the public. In the last year, it has held “enforcement events” with the Chicago Police Department; installed “LOOK!” stickers on taxicabs; hosted a Divvy bike-safety video contest; and held bike camps at Chicago Public Schools. The city’s Bicycling Ambassadors, a nine-person team that goes around town promoting safe cycling, educated some 63,500 people last year.

But Mr. Reilly says these efforts have failed to keep pace with the explosion of cycling.

The man at the heart of the bike reformation, Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein, who was summoned here after successfully overseeing a bicycle overhaul in Washington, says Chicago has some inherent attitudinal challenges it must overcome.

GROWING PAINS

Despite its reputation of solid, Midwestern goodness, Mr. Klein, who recently announced that he is stepping down from his job, says he has found the city to be “a little like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: People are so nice before they get behind the wheel.”

Mr. Reilly says the city has a challenge in striking a balance between “educating the public and ticketing the public. I get complaints from both sides of the equation: motorists complaining that bicyclists are getting away with murder, and those in the bicycle community saying, ‘Why on earth are police pulling me over?’ “

In September, the City Council approved an increase in the maximum fines, to $200 from $50, for bicyclists caught riding the sidewalks on Sheridan Road north of where the lakefront path ends. In June, the council passed an ordinance that increased fines to $1,000 from $500 for motorists who cause dooring collisions. Meanwhile, fines for bicyclists who violate the rules of the road jumped to between $50 and $200 from $25. In October, Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, suggested cyclists pay a $25 registration fee and take a class on safety and rules of the road.

Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th, who proposed the hike in fines for bicyclists riding on sidewalks on Sheridan Road, notes that other cities have experienced similar growing pains as they’ve moved to elevate bicycling.

“What we are going through as a city is not an anomaly,” he says. “If you look at cities like San Francisco and Portland, (which) have promoted cycling, there comes that point where there is a cross-section of tension between pedestrians, motorists and cyclists.”

Contact: life@chicagobusiness.com