We’re taking John Kass’s bike bullying seriously

Background Reading


Posted By Gwynedd Stuart on 11.14.14 at 03:10 PM

Source: Chicago Reader

A bike lane—John Kass's unhappy place. Chandler West/Sun-Times Media

A bike lane—John Kass’s unhappy place.
Chandler West/Sun-Times Media

Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to make something go away is to ignore it. But rules usually have exceptions, this one included. For instance, you can’t ignore away cancer, disfiguring goiters, bleeding hemorrhoids—or, it would seem, John Kass. The Tribune columnist has made a hobby and cottage industry of engendering contempt for Chicago cyclists or, as he calls them, “the Little Bike People.”

Kass is what the kids might call a troll. He writes intentionally inflammatory things that are posted on the Internet to anger people and, since he’s employed by a news organization, drive up that site’s traffic to benefit its advertisers. More egregious examples of his trolling of bike riders have included blaming cyclists who use designated bike lanes for “ramming into” the car doors of innocent unsuspecting drivers of “legitimate vehicles” and writing off cyclists who’ve reacted negatively to his columns as “militant two-wheelers” harboring an “irrational hatred.”

That Kass is a troll isn’t the best-case scenario, of course—the best-case scenario is that he’s a doddering cane waver preaching to a west-suburban choir of fellow coots, content to be the on the wrong side of history in a cultural shift toward more sustainable forms of transportation. But the fact of the matter is, he’s a writer for a major metropolitan newspaper, and he has a huge audience and considerable influence.

He was back at it again on Thursday. In a column about the city clarifying its dog-licensing regulations (which, granted, are bullshit), he attempts to pit dog people against bike people with this bizarre segue . . .

Another problem [with the proposed dog-licensing requirements] involves fairness under the law. While the Dog People have to pay, what about the so-called Little Bike People, Rahm’s darlings, in their salmon-colored pants, thick-framed glasses and hipster beards, riding their bicycles to and fro across Chicago?. . .

Now, bicyclists aren’t required to have papers, or even a bicyclist license. And the cops don’t make a practice of chasing those who ride their bikes through red lights, something you see almost every day. But you need to carry papers if you’re walking a dog on the same street?

That seems almost, what’s the word, unconstitutional?

Woof. Where to start. How about the “salmon-colored pants” he sees everyone riding around in. Maybe on a tandem bike on Nantucket, bud. And really: Unconstitutional? This premise is so tenuous he doesn’t even attempt to make a case for it—he just tosses it like a grenade and inches slowly out of the room. Also, and maybe this is nitpicky, but it’s very strange to call something “so-called” when you’re the only one who’s calling it that.

He goes on to accuse cyclists of riding on sidewalks and flicking off old ladies, and to make a distinction between good cyclists and bad cyclists. The good ones wear spandex and yellow shirts (even though in a previous column he’d condemned spandex-clad cyclists in yellow shirts).

I had to force my colleague Philip Montoro, a longtime cycle commuter, to read the Thursday column. He’d also written Kass off as a troll, but agreed it was worth calling him out. In a Gchat he wrote:

This column makes it clear (perhaps clearer than ever before) that Kass derives perverse pleasure from bullying and baiting cyclists, who are already threatened, harassed, injured, and even killed simply for trying to get from one place to another. Cyclists are vulnerable to begin with, and this highly paid man with a huge public platform has made it his mission to foment hostility against them.

There’s something pathological about this. It’s sick. If he can’t be shamed into stopping, he can at least be exposed and ridiculed at every turn till no one with two brain cells to rub together takes him seriously.

At the risk of giving Kass too much credit, the vitriol he sows is actually harmful. A bike is a legitimate form of transportation, and encouraging drivers to dismiss cyclists as nuisances, rather than people traveling to work or school or the grocery store, is dangerous. His own publication reported in October that Illinois is fifth in the nation for cycling deaths, based on numbers from 2012, but since then it’s likely pulled ahead. According to Chicago Streets Blog, there have been eight cyclist deaths in Chicago in 2014, twice as many as there were in 2013. Not to mention injuries. (To put it into perspective, there were seven bike deaths in 2011 and 1,300 injuries.) But numbers aren’t as compelling as stories, which put a face on the dirty bearded hipster “Little Bike People” Kass so despises. How ’bout this story about how 26-year-old Bobby Cann was killed by a careless, intoxicated driver on Clybourn in 2013?

If Kass can’t be shamed into giving it a rest—he doesn’t strike me as someone who shames easily—then at least we can go back to ignoring an old malcontent who wants to make Chicago a worse place to live.


Did you ever get that feeling that somehow all of this indignation with respect to anything John Kass says is to put it bluntly, phony? You can read the ChainLink Forum thread Think of this as a Missed Connection on any given day and read far more critical things written about cyclists, motorists and pedestrians than anything John Kass could get past his editors.

My take on this situation is that John Kass gets ‘free drinks‘ from the guys over at Active Transportation Alliance to serve as their boogeyman. He writes something and the ‘knee jerks‘ who frankly have little to vent about these days ‘rev up‘ their indignation motors and yet another season of fund raising is begun.

Meanwhile the ‘suckers‘ who think they are being well-represented by the Active Transportation Alliance are staring down an 11% rate hike.

And please do not allow the guys over at StreetsBlog to join in the chorus that sounds like ‘fleet modernization‘ is the sole justification for this. Nope. The real culprit is the fact that the U. S. Highway Trust Fund is broke. And with the GOP in control of the budget the lion’s share of the monies we have will be going towards updating our fleet of aircraft that move the POTUS and his Cabinet members from country to country, as well as building up our forces in the Middle East to fight ISIS.

So after years of haranguing the Congress for its focus on the automobile, the Cycling Movement is now having to deal with getting what it wished for. The money form that fund I mentioned paid for most of the infrastructure improvements and changes around the country. That is going to change rapidly.

We are about to enter the era when personal income taxes will have to serve as the revenue stream for street improvements and that includes bike lanes. And you can look forward to a torrent of fund raising efforts from every single Cycling Movement Advocacy Group imaginable as they struggle to get along with all that money from the Highway Fund.

It might be a better use of your time and writing skills to go after the liars who told us that having more infrastructure would make things safer. It obviously has not.

According to Chicago Streets Blog, there have been eight cyclist deaths in Chicago in 2014, twice as many as there were in 2013. Not to mention injuries. (To put it into perspective, there were seven bike deaths in 2011 and 1,300 injuries.)

What you want to know is why the numbers are going in the opposite direction when the number of miles is growing. I suppose you could decide that John Kass is secretly making things ‘less safe‘ on our streets but even ChainLinkers would have to wonder at that logic.

Pick your battles. Nothing that John Kass writes can possibly help you ‘spin‘ the reality of the numbers themselves. Sometimes this sort of article reminds me of the one referred above from the FBI to Martin Luther King, Jr. There are always those whose ideas of the First Amendment Freedoms stop with themselves. Evidently someone like MLK talking about things that the FBI did not like, was enough for them to issue a stern warning that they too were ‘taking his bullying of white people seriously‘.

And we all know how that ended. Let’s get over ourselves and grow up a bit. Cyclists are as harsh on themselves as anybody else when they want to be.

Early on John Kass made reference to the number of riders of Divvy bikes that used the sidewalk. If memory serves cyclists were outraged that he pointed this out. The along comes a rather revealing article on this issue and here is what one of the respondents wrote about her attitudes:

Michelle Stenzel a month ago

I’m also a local and there are streets, including Michigan Avenue, that I would never ride on, due to the large numbers of motor vehicles traveling at high speeds. So I ride on the sidewalk as well, and will do so until I’m given a better alternative. What is needed much more urgently than larger print on Divvy bikes telling people not to ride on the sidewalk is a network of safe bike lanes that people can ride on instead of the sidewalks. One north-south protected bike lane in the Loop is simply not enough.

So it would appear that his remarks were ‘spot on‘. It is just that the problem is more widespread than even he knew. Now of course lots of bicyclists ride on sidewalks even when there is no real danger using the streets:

Reply by Anne Alt on July 18, 2014 at 2:06pm

AM 9.5 said:
To the guys in suits riding on the sidewalks in the Loop between 12 and 1, when 90% of workers are getting lunch, um, no.

I suppose that these two cyclists are guilty of ‘bullying‘ for even mentioning the fact that cyclist are:

  1. Breaking the law
  2. Endangering the lives and limbs of pedestrians
  3. at the busiest moment of the work day

I know that I certainly taking this sort of ‘bullying‘ seriously. I welcome it and send kudos to those who have enough backbone to buck the trend of the self-righteousness of writers like Gwynedd Stuart. There needs to be more of this kind of honest self-criticism of the Urban Cycling Movement members and far less of the rather mealymouthed victimhood response offered up by the author. I for one am oh so very tired of the Drama Queens in this movement.