Are Lawbreaking Divvy Riders Really Causing Major Safety Issues?

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Detroit Native Junior Bashi rides on a Michigan Avenue sidewalk near the Art Institute. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Chicago’s master bike-baiter, Tribune columnist John Kass, was one of the first local pundits to warn the public about the dangers of Divvy. “I can’t stand those Divvy bike people,” he griped in an online video in August 2013, a couple months after the system launched. “Go outside on Michigan Avenue… Reporters going in and out of this building almost get killed. ‘Cause you’ve got some little old lady from Denmark… and she’s on the sidewalk, and she’s almost smashing into the Polish pedi-bike guys.”

However, more than one year and 2.6 million trips later, the bike-share system has a solid safety record. To date, there have been zero reports of Divvy riders being involved in crashes resulting in serious injuries. What’s more, last August Reuters reported that there have been no bike-share-related deaths in the U.S. since modern bike-share debuted in this country seven years ago.

Probably the biggest reason bike-share is so safe is the cycles themselves. They’re heavy vehicles with low gearing, which discourages fast speeds. They have a low center of gravity and fat tires that help take the shock out of potholes. Their fully enclosed brakes work well in wet conditions, and generator lights ensure that riders are easy to spot at night.

Still, ethnic stereotyping aside, there does seem to be a kernel of truth to Kass’ complaint of lawbreaking by Divvy riders. I myself have noticed a number of people pedaling the bikes on the sidewalk or against traffic, usually in the Loop or River North. I could see how this behavior could annoy or freak out pedestrians and drivers.

There was the time I encountered a line of six adults riding Divvies on the sidewalk for several blocks of Jackson Boulevard in the Loop. It turned out they were visiting from São Paulo, Brazil. When I explained that sidewalk riding by adults is illegal in Chicago, their leader replied, “What? It says right here [in text between the handlebars] ‘Walk bikes on sidewalk.’” It turns out that the Portuguese for “to ride a bike” is “andar de bicicleta” or “to walk by bicycle.” No wonder they were confused.

At a recent meeting of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, a rep from a local bike-rental company said that she’s heard complaints that Divvy users don’t seem to be as aware of the rules of the road as other cyclists. She asked what’s being done to educate these customers about safety before they’re allowed to hit the streets.

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Bashi on the sidewalk by Millennium Park. Photo: John Greenfield

In addition to the admonishment against sidewalk surfing, the text on the bikes’ headsets reminds users to ride with traffic and yield to pedestrians. Safety rules are posted on the docking stations’ map panels, and customers buying twenty-four-hour passes from the kiosks must press a button to confirm they know the rules before being given a code to unlock a bike. Annual members receive packets in the mail containing safety materials, along with their dock key.

At the meeting, transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld acknowledged that some Divvy users don’t always ride lawfully. “I think we’ve all experienced that,” she said. Since the city will be expanding our 3,000-bike system by another 1,750 cycles this spring, Scheinfeld said it’s an opportunity to make the headset text on the new bikes more conspicuous by printing the warnings in a different color and/or font.

“We’re aware of the perception that Divvy riders are less experienced riders,” general manager Elliot Greenberger told me. “But it’s hard to say whether Divvy riders are indeed breaking the rules more or if they’re just more identifiable.” He added that Divvy recently began granting a month-long membership extension to all members who complete the gold level of the League of Illinois Bicyclists’ Bike Safety Quiz, an online bike safety course.

However, roughly twenty percent of the 2.6 million rides were taken by out-of-towners using day passes, Greenberger said. “Sometimes people coming from another state or country may not be familiar with local bike laws, and that’s generally when there might be an issue,” he said.

I posted a query on TheChainlink.org, a social networking site for local cyclists, asking if members thought lawbreaking was more common among Divvy users. They agreed with Greenberger that the majority of sidewalk and wrong-way bike-share riders seem to be from out of town. “But they’re also quite slow, so it’s not a huge hazard,” wrote one commenter.

That was the case with Junior Bashi, twenty, a visitor from Detroit I spied pedaling a Divvy down the west sidewalk of Michigan Avenue near the Art Institute last week. When I buttonholed Bashi, he said he didn’t know about Chicago’s sidewalk riding ban, and he hadn’t noticed the text on the headset. It was his first visit to the Windy City, and he didn’t know his way around, so he chose to bike on the sidewalk rather than take his chances on the six-lane Boul Mich. Overall, however, he seemed to be having fun on Divvy. “It’s good,” he said. “I like it.”

If Bashi is typical of ill-informed tourists on bike-share, it seems like these folks don’t present much of a threat to pedestrians, other cyclists or themselves. Should Divvy be doing as much as possible to alert these newbies to the rules of the road before they saddle up? Yes. Is there much risk of a bike-share bloodbath anytime soon? No.

  • BlueFairlane

    For me, the issue isn’t so much one of safety as it is one of annoyance at a lack of standard courtesy. Chicago sidewalks are narrow and crowded enough as it is, but when you add the mix of people who don’t know where they’re going and are usually only half paying attention as they amble along on these ungainly behemoths, forcing you to negotiate around them, you’re left with a very sour feeling.

    It’s kind of like when you’re on the Lake Front Trail, and one of the cop SUVs or park district pickup trucks comes along taking up the whole trail, forcing you out of the way. They’re usually moving at a crawl and aren’t at all dangerous, but man are they annoying.

  • “Scheinfeld said it’s an opportunity to make the headset text on the new bikes more conspicuous by printing the warnings in a different color and/or font.”

    This will do little to combat the problem stated by Kass or the owner of the local rental company. Better designed infrastructure – that’s part of a conspicuous network – will keep people off sidewalks, not signs. The city is doing one (better designed infrastructure) but not so much the second.

    “Local bike laws” are generally the same across medium and large cities around the world: no biking on sidewalks and ride in a bike lane when there is one. Signal your moves. Pedestrians always have the right of way in a shared use area.

  • Fred

    “zero reports of … crashes resulting in serious injuries.”

    What about the pregnant lady who was hit by an IDOT truck while riding a Divvy bike last September and was knocked unconscious, suffered deep wounds to her face and body and fractured her right foot? I don’t know what your definition of a “serious injury” is, but that is the most serious Divvy injury I recall.

  • FG

    Actually, sidewalk cycling is legal in Boston for instance or in Oak Park and Evanston in our region. I’ve seen a lot of divvy riders who are plainly local riding on downtown sidewalks.

    Just because there are no accidents reported doesn’t mean there aren’t collisions. Sidewalk cycling is one of my biggest peeves – one of my neighbors was hit by a bike on a sidewalk and his injuries have left him with a permanent limp.

  • potpie

    “Chicago’s master bike-baiter, Tribune columnist John Kass”

    I see what you did there.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Sidewalk cycling is also unfortunately legal in Seattle, WA
    But sidewalks are also much wider in Seattle.

  • Madison, Wisconsin, used to have a sensible rule that sidewalk riding is legal, but only in locations where there are no adjacent buildings.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I believe Portland as well. At least that’s what I was told and saw when I visited.

  • As with driving, you tend to get the users you design for. Where bikes aren’t given their place, they tend to exist in an uneasy place with either pedestrians or cars. More road diets, more PBL’s, wider sidewalks, everyone (well, almost everyone) is happy.

  • ohsweetnothing

    “It was his first visit to the Windy City, and he didn’t know his way around, so he chose to bike on the sidewalk rather than take his chances on the six-lane Boul Mich. Overall, however, he seemed to be having fun on Divvy. “It’s good,” he said. “I like it.”

    I find that comment very telling. I’m an experienced biker in the City and there are streets where I wouldn’t begrudge even someone very familiar with cycling laws from riding on the sidewalk (I wouldn’t advocate that they do so either). A first time tourist on Divvy faced with the prospect of biking down the Magnificent Mile is far more likely to stay on the sidewalk because…well, wouldn’t you in that situation?

    My uneducated guess would be that as streets are continually being designed to accomodate bike traffic and as people become more familiar with the City and which streets to avoid, sidewalk cycling will decrease.

  • JacobEPeters

    I am guilty of riding my bike on the sidewalk & I am a local. Usually it is because I am approaching a dock & there is too much fast moving traffic to dismount safely in the street, or not enough room to dismount on the sidewalk without blocking the sidewalk. It usually results in at most 100 ft of sidewalk riding, almost always at speeds slower than I normally walk.

  • Alex_H

    My friend got a ticket for biking on the sidewalk in Evanston in 2006. Perhaps the law has changed, though.

  • David Altenburg

    Chicago law actually makes this explicitly legal:

    “…only if such sidewalk has been officially designated and marked as a bicycle route, or such sidewalk is used to enter the nearest roadway, intersection or designated bicycle path, or to access a bicycle share station.”

    http://www.amlegal.com/nxt/gateway.dll/Illinois/chicago_il/title9vehiclestrafficandrailtransportati/chapter9-52bicycles-operation?f=templates$fn=default.htm$3.0$vid=amlegal:chicago_il$anc=JD_9-52-020

  • Yes, I would take the “zero reports” with a grain of salt as well. I personally witnessed a CTA driver hit and injure a Divvy bike rider badly enough to require ambulance transport to the hospital. To me, that is a serious injury. However, in that case and others, it’s impossible to know if it’s recorded as a “Divvy-related crash”. Having said that, I still think Divvy riding and Divvy riders are safe in the grand scheme of things.

  • 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.

  • JacobEPeters

    Was that change made last year?

  • Roland Solinski

    Michigan is exactly the kind of landscaped boulevard that should have a two-way cycle track as part of the sidewalk on the east side.

    Common sense would suggest that walkways within, or on the perimeter of, major parks are fair game for cycling.

  • For the last few days I have had to bike on Michigan (Columbia College, where I work, is partially spread along South Michigan—I had to go from one end to another with little time, and no desire to take a detour). The stretch from Roosevelt to Congress has very wide sidewalks on the east-side that could easily accommodate a bike lane without inconveniencing anyone. Riding on Michigan itself is something even this ex-Amsterdammer prefers not to do. So I rode the sidewalk (on the east-side). If you seriously wish for Divvy users to ride lawfully, advocate that the persistent lack of meaningful infrastructure for bicycles, and that the problem of speeding SOV’s downtown be addressed. Don’t fault people for trying to stay safe.

  • Yes, around June 2013.

  • There are a few more bike paths in the south loop now—they function mostly as convenient places to double park.

  • oooBooo

    Since others are slamming Michigan Ave… I’ll defend it.

    North Michigan ave I have no idea, never rode it. From or going to the south I typically use Michigan ave because it has the bridge over I55 and doesn’t require going through CHA housing projects. From about 9th all the way to 33rd st I’ve had no issues on it over the years. Traffic moves about 20-30mph, I can get a pretty good clip going if I catch some green signals. It’s not like I’ve ridden it daily, but I’ve done it in the evening, weekends, late night, middle of the work day, etc.

    The gentrification of the neighborhood solved the only issue I ever had with that route, and that wasn’t the road’s fault. Al Capone’s old haunt the Lexington hotel dropping pieces from above when all alone at night only added to creepy desolate atmosphere in the early 90s, but I digress. It just wasn’t a place I wanted to be on foot, on bike or in a car once it got dark. Day time was ok though.

  • oooBooo

    please no more clueless bike riders on that side walk…

  • JacobEPeters

    don’t know how I missed that

  • JacobEPeters

    if you look to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, it would show that when you provide the protected two way cycle track it actually reduces the number of “clueless bike riders” on the sidewalk.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I’ll defend it too, as I ride almost daily on Michigan from roosevelt to 31st (IIT). It’s a fine street to ride on. And I ride on north michigan avenue on occasion as well when it is going where I am (which again is only occasionally), and frankly, its easy to ride on north michigan avenue. It looks intimidating because there are so many cars but they are never moving very fast. And there’s 6 damn lanes with right turns and busses in the right lane, so its not like you’re honestly slowing anyone down. Sometimes on my way home from IIT I ride Michigan from 31st to Ohio because I like the views on michigan and my legs are feeling up to the task (most days I don’t feel like stopping every other block so I ride up roosevelt, leftish at columbus and onto the LFT). There is no downtown street that I’m actually afraid of, except Lower Wacker and Lower Randolph, and sometimes I even ride those because they go where I’m going. (for instance, when I ride to my car – I live at Lake Point Tower and ride to the Fairmont Olympic Hotel (200 N. Upper Columbus) and the fastest, and only truly reasonable route to do that is to take Lower LSD to Lower wacker, transfer up to Upper Wacker and take a left on upper columbus. Its not ideal, but the alternative is to take like Grand to Rush Pull three rights onto michigan, left off michigan onto Lower E.S. Water Street, and ramp up to Upper Columbus – or to take michigan all the way to randolph, and ramp up upper randolph to columbus. or take the LFT to The Lake Shore East Cut-off Gravel Path, go under LSD, under whatever the East Border Street of LSE is, go all the way around LSE park, Climb up both levels onto upper randolph and take a right on upper columbus. There’s basically no good way to do it. Basically since I don’t usually use my car alone though (I use it to take friend home late at night or friend who live outside CTAs service area for the most part) I just walk to it, because that’s a ton easier.

    But at any rate, I don’t feel too worried taking any of these streets. LEast of all on Michigan Avenue, where people just don’t drive that fast, and there’s so many lanes that they can easily go around me. I take up the right lane, and get where I’m going without a problem. I seem to have had more problems in the protected bike lane on kinzie recently than on Michigan Avenue.

    And riding on the sidewalks of Michigan is SUCH A DICK MOVE. South of Roosevelt they are too damn narrow, North of Roosevelt, they’re too damn busy. Don’t do it. Get off and walk the bike, or take wabash which has buffered bike lanes one block east if you can’t handle michigan avenue!

  • whetstone

    I think a lot of it has to do with the patchwork of bike laws across the country. As mentioned upthread, sidewalk cycling is legal in almost all of Evanston; it’s legal in a lot of cities. Somewhere I came across a great map of sidewalk-cycling laws in California–no consistency whatsoever. I don’t know but I’d venture to guess that it’s extremely common nationwide and that big, dense urban cities are outliers in numbers (if not necessarily by population).

    And for logical reasons, I also expect. If you’re a city manager in a suburb/exurban city and don’t have the money/support to build infrastructure, maybe it makes more sense to permit (or even encourage) bikes to stay on the sidewalk because the roads are bad for biking and there’s not much pedestrian density. It’s not like they get a ton of support from the state or feds.

    I think making the prohibition more clear, maybe making it clear that it’s the law and not just a Divvy thing, could help. But for the reasons John describes, I’ve never found Divvy sidewalk riders more than a very mild annoyance, even though I work on Michigan Avenue in River North.

  • Some day you’ll be brave enough to use your real name as your account name.

  • Depends on the area the person was riding. Business districts, it’s off limits.

  • No bickering please. Anonymous commenting is fine as long as the comments are civil and relevant.

  • R.A. Stewart

    So did I, after another cup of coffee. :-)

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t know how I missed that. Maybe I’m having a stroke.

  • Anne A

    I think the inconsistency of laws on sidewalks from one municipality to another do create confusion. I occasionally see Divvy riders on sideawlks going faster than is really safe for conditions, but most are going slow enough that they don’t create a major hazard.

  • Anne A

    Conditions south of Roosevelt are VERY different from what you’d find north of there, especially north of the river. I generally find it quite easy and pleasant on the south side – absolutely the opposite of how I’d describe it from Wacker Dr. up to Oak St.

  • Anne A

    There is signage prohibiting sidewalk riding in downtown Evanston. Not sure if that’s the case in any of their neighborhood business districts. They DO enforce it downtown.

  • Alex_H

    Yeah, it happened downtown. Thanks for that info, I didn’t know that!

  • oooBooo

    I walk on that sidewalk from time to time and the present level of adults bicycling on it is bad enough. I’d rather not be hit by one. Does this have any more relevance if I tell you my name is Floyd Thursby or Jim Tagert or Effie Perine? I don’t think so.

  • oooBooo

    So instead I’ll get hit by a turning car when I am bicycling south on the east side of the street. Even worse IMO.

  • JacobEPeters

    is that something that has happened often on the prospect park cycletrack? otherwise you’re speculating

  • Neil Clingerman

    Awesome, something I’ve been guilty of as well.

  • oooBooo

    Wrong way bicycling is not a good idea. Painting lanes for it doesn’t make it a good idea. In the case of such a two way’cycletrack’ on the east side of Michigan ave, southbound bicyclists are not likely to be visible to southbound drivers turning east until its too late. Northbound drivers turning east will also not be looking for southbound traffic on their right. Westbound traffic turning northbound will not be watching for southbound traffic. Eastbound traffic will not be looking for southbound traffic on the east side of the street.

    Complex signaling can be used to try and mitigate this, however that’s the best it will do. But such complex signaling has issues all of its own. For instance many movements will have to be on signal only which will cause congestion.

    If one wants a ‘cycle track’ there is one not far east of michigan ave, where it can work because there is no crossing traffic of any significance because to the east is a large body of water.

  • Alex_H

    Do you not believe that the Dearborn PBL operates well?

  • JacobEPeters

    he’s explaining the potential issues with a 2 way cycletrack next to a 2 way road. But the alternative route along the lake will never attract tourists who are visiting on Divvy & riding to destinations along Michigan Avenue because it would require a 2,000 ft detour in each direction. Regardless, let’s wait to debate this until after the 2-way off street cycle-track parallel to the two way thoroughfare of Roosevelt Rd. is completed & has been used for a year.

  • oooBooo

    Dearborn is a one way street northbound for all vehicles not bicycles, the southbound bike lane is on the west side of the street where southbound traffic would be expected on a two lane road. Complexity is at least an order of magnitude lower than what is proposed here. It’s put two way traffic to the left of left turning traffic from dearborn. It’s bad, but since biking on the left side of a one way road is permissible under the Illinois vehicle code it’s not a huge change from bicyclists who risked left hooks by doing so. However now the bicyclist is blocked from view. Signal complexity and legally requiring the bicyclist to stop for left turning traffic mitigates left hooking. Again adding complexity which also annoys motorists who then have to wait for a turn arrow. This of course isn’t exactly easing congestion.

    I would not consider this arrangement to ‘operate well’. The previous condition for me would have been safer, faster, and more efficient. I have not ridden this road since this thing went in, nor do I plan to.

  • Alex_H

    For the rest of us, it has transformed the experience of biking through the Loop from hair-raising to (most of the time) quite pleasant.

  • oooBooo

    It’s always been pleasant experience, never raised a hair there. Well except for the time a CPD paddy wagon ran a red signal and nearly hit me. The loop is one of the better places I’ve ridden on this planet. At least until some people decided bicycling needed to be confined to special areas.

  • R.A. Stewart

    *rimshot*

  • BlueFairlane

    How did you know?

  • Alex_H

    Hard for me to believe you would prefer riding down LaSalle with cars buzzing you from inches away, but, to each his own I suppose.

  • oooBooo

    I’ve found downtown traffic to be at my bicycling speeds and quite orderly. I’ve taken the left lane and passed cars to my right, keeping up with traffic in front of me, and nobody took issue. In the suburbs when I’ve gone into the left lane and passed a slow driver there’s a fair chance that driver will go nuts, sometimes as far as to try to kill me. Downtown they seem used to it and accept it. That’s what made it pleasant.

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