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Cyclist’s Tragic Death Highlights the Need to Make Michigan Avenue Safer

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Blaine Klingenberg. Photo: Facebook

I know from personal experience that nothing beats a dip in Lake Michigan after a hard day of bicycle delivery work in hot weather. It appears that on Wednesday evening, bike courier Blaine Klingenberg, 29, was on his way to enjoy that simple pleasure at Oak Street Beach with friends. Tragically, he instead lost his life in a crash with a double-decker tour bus, making him the first bike fatality of 2016.

Yesterday in the late afternoon Klingenberg, who worked at Advanced Messenger Service, posted on Facebook “Who’s down for the lake?”, inviting friends to join him for a cool-off. From the thread, it looks like they decided to head to Oak Street Beach, one of the closest beaches to the Central Business District.

According to authorities, Klingenberg was riding his cargo bike north on Michigan Avenue with a small group of cyclists at around 5:25 p.m. Just south of the underpass to Oak Street Beach, at the intersection of Oak and Michigan, he was involved in a crash with a double-decker tour bus operated by Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co., which was heading west on Oak.

Klingenberg was trapped under the bus and firefighters had to use airbags to lift the vehicle, according to the fire department. He was transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where has was pronounced dead on arrival.

Advance Messenger owner Bruce Kohn told the Chicago Tribune that Klingenberg had left work about a half hour before the crash. “He was probably the best, nicest bicycle messenger I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and I’ve been doing this my entire adult life,” Kohn said. He added Klingenberg was a “cautious” delivery cyclist.

The Chicago Police Department stated that “The victim disregarded the red light at Oak and turned into the bus, causing the fatal collision.” Sadly, but predictably, the comment sections of articles about the crash in the mainstream media quickly filled up with callous remarks blaming Klingenberg for his own death, as well as blanket statements about urban cyclists being reckless and foolish.

However, it’s still not clear how the fatal crash went down. While some witnesses did say Klingenberg rode quickly through a red light, others stated that the bus driver also had a red light, because southbound traffic from Inner Lake Shore Drive had a left-turn signal at the time, the Tribune reported. Major Accidents is investigating the case.

It would be great if online commenters would show some basic humanity towards Klingenberg and his loved ones, instead of rushing to blame the victim. It may turn out to be the case that the cyclist’s actions contributed to his death. However, it must also be pointed out that this is the second time in seven months that a Chicago Trolley bus driver has fatally struck a vulnerable road user on Michigan Avenue.

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Bicyclists and pedestrians heading to Oak Street Beach. In recent years the city closed both pedestrian underpasses at Oak and Michigan, which made it less safe and convenient for pedestrians to navigate this complex intersection. Photo: Justin Haugens

On November 21, 2015, a Chicago Trolley driver who was turning south onto Michigan from eastbound Monroe Street struck and killed Hiromi Hosono, 42, a professor who was visiting from Ithaca, New York, as she crossed Michigan in the crosswalk with the walk signal. The 49-year-old female driver was cited for striking a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Hosono’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the bus company in January.

These two deaths raise the question of whether there’s something inherently dangerous about huge, double-decker tour buses operating on busy downtown streets. It appears sightlines may have been an issue in the November fatality.

Klingenberg’s death is also a reminder that it’s relatively unsafe and inconvenient to travel between Michgan Avenue and Oak Street Beach – one of Chicago’s most popular beaches — by foot or bike. At the complex Oak/Michigan/Lake Shore Drive junction, car traffic comes at vulnerable users from several directions. In recent years, the city eliminated two safer routes to the beach for pedestrians by closing underpasses on the east and north sides of the intersection.

This tragedy also highlights the fact that drivers on Michigan are heavily prioritized over pedestrians, cyclists, and CTA bus riders. North and South Michigan avenues, our city’s premier shopping and cultural boulevards, should be safe, efficient, and pleasant to travel by walking, biking, and transit.

Instead, Michigan is a six-lane highway with no dedicated lanes for buses or bikes. As an example of how car-centric the street is, when north-south traffic on Michigan gets a green light, dozens of people walking north and south on the west side of the street are forced to wait an additional phase while a handful of motorists get a left-turn signal.

And downtown alderman Brendan Reilly underscored the fact that Michigan is a dangerous place to bike when he vetoed the installation of Divvy stations along the corridor three years ago. He argued that most Divvy users would be afraid to ride in the street, so they’d pedal on the sidewalk, creating a hazard for pedestrians.

Obviously, all road users should take responsibility for their own safety, and that of others. But as the Active Transportation Alliance recently pointed out, the onus for preventing crashes lies most heavily on those operating multi-ton vehicles on our streets.

Let’s stop arguing about what Klingenberg could or couldn’t have done to prevent himself from being fatally struck by the bus driver. Instead, let’s talk about what we can do to prevent more deaths of vulnerable road users on Michigan Avenue in the future.

Update 6/16/16, 5:30 p.m.: Friends have launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for Klingenberg’s funeral expenses.

Fatality Tracker: 2016 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths
Pedestrian: 13 (seven were hit-and-run crashes)
Bicyclist: 1

  • Pet P

    I wholly agree that we need to make our streets safer, and part of that includes bikers obeying traffic lights. You can’t expect to be able to blow a red light on a busy street and not have anything bad come of it.

  • I would note that there’s no real difference in scofflaw behavior between bikes and cars. On a 1.5mi drive to my kid’s school, I regularly see at least two cars insisting they have the right to keep driving through a light well after it turned red, just because they’re behind the two cars that started into the intersection on the yellow.

    Especially (but not exclusively) when turning left. In the left-turn lane I often see 2-4 cars blow through well into the red (and the OTHER direction’s specific left light, therefore leaving space for one or zero cars to LEGALLY turn left in that direction of travel).

    So quit making this a bike thing.

  • madopal

    Except that the cycles of these lights, especially on crazy intersections, aren’t timed for something like a bike to make it through. Many cyclists learn to try and take empty turn arrows or simultaneous red lights as a chance to get through when cars aren’t jockeying for position.

    Parts of the cycle like that are the reason we have the cycle where the pedestrians get a walk *before* the light is green. Drivers, especially turning ones, tend to be too distracted to watch out for peds/bikes. The special cycle is the only way to deal with it, and in absence of those, experienced cyclists learn to read the lights and look for such an interval.

    I can’t speak to that light, because I haven’t ridden it, but since he was a messenger, I have to believe that might have been what was going on. Wasn’t just as simple as blowing a light. You don’t live long in traffic throwing your body in front of moving cars, despite what many drivers seem to believe.

    Echoing Elliot Mason, you see cars do this as well, like turning right on red despite a sign before left turning traffic stars on their cycle. Or waiting in an intersection and emptying the intersection on a red. Illegal, but necessary sometimes given the way traffic is and the lights are timed. Drivers just don’t get when cyclists do this because they aren’t looking at the lights as anything other than someone in a car.

  • I regularly use the red cycle to turn left. It is very enlightening by you to call that, as you note, extremely common practice “blowing a red light.” Now my own personal rule is that I must be in the intersection or blocking the crosswalk to do that. Even though it is stealing time from the other street I consider it a de-congesting and re-balancing of congestion. Red light cameras are either programmed to ignore it or the human judges of the maneuver ignore it.

    But yes the bigger point here is the struggle for presence on the street. Our urban streetscape has been over designed for cars for the last 70 years and seriously under designed for bikes and pedestrians. When I walk I walk as a militant pedestrian by pushing the envelope where I have the letter of right-of-way but am being denied it by over privileged drivers. Likewise I jay-walk and blow red lights as a pedestrian with impunity where it is safe to do so.

    I love Divvy bikers. They do not know the local customs and they too often push envelopes often without realizing it. Divvy riders on the sidewalks! That is telling us something. It reminds us that both pedestrians and cars have dedicated spaces in our streets. Only now are bikes beginning to see dedicated spaces for bikes.

    I feel for bikers on our streets as they are, even by their simple presence, our front line guerilla fighters against over-privileged drivers. Blaine Klingenberg deserves a medal of honor in that war. May he rest in peace.

  • A-bomb Nation

    I think it’s true that it is unsafe for motorized two-ton vehicles to blow red lights, however, I do not feel the same is true for bicyclists – if it were this would certainly not be the first cycling fatality of the year.

    I do think all users of the road should yield the right of way, as it is both courteous and safe, however, in my own experience it often improves my safety to go across the red light through an empty intersection in order to avoid obstructions that often are awaiting on the other side of the street such as bus-stops, double parked cars, loading trucks, construction zones, or a narrowed roadway due to a turning lane. By crossing through a red light I can pass these obstructions in my own space without cars trying to squeeze me out.

    I know it upsets some car drivers to see cyclists pass through red lights, but they don’t seem to get upset about the sets of laws that their fellow motorists break on a regular basis – not completing full stops at stop signs (80% of motorists), not yielding to pedestrians in walkways (95 % of motorists), using electronic devices while driving (40-50% of motorists), not yielding three feet of space to cyclists when passing (5-10% of motorists)

  • what_eva

    You have to be behind the stop line on red and then proceed to get hit by a RLC. If you’re in the intersection at red or in the crosswalk, you’re clear. If there’s a police officer there (police on traffic patrol in Chicago, unfortunately rare these days), it might be a different story.

  • skelter weeks

    All the hand-wringing over this unfortunate situation, and how it’s the fault of the city for having a ‘dangerous intersection’, when it’s clear to anybody that Blaine obviously made a wrong move.
    Meanwhile, nary a word is said about Joni Beaudry, killed in Mount Prospect while trying to cross a street on her bike. Is it because one death happened in the city, the other in the suburbs? Or is it because Joni’s death doesn’t fit their agenda? The intersection in Mount Prospect had ‘safety upgrades’ (pedestrian refuge island, rectangular rapid flashing beacon system, asphalt bike path, new signs, and new pavement markings). Joni did ‘everything right’ (she pressed the button to activate the signal).
    Joni relied too much on the safety culture to save her (similar to the belief that helmets will save you) and now she’s gone, because she didn’t use her own eyes to see if it was safe.
    And to all the bike haters out there, safety (MY safety) is the reason I ‘run’ the red light (actually slow or stop, see if street is clear, then cross the street). Because a street with no moving vehicles IS safe.
    Finito.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “It’s clear to anybody that Blaine obviously made a wrong move.” As explained in the article, it’s not yet clear exactly what happened. Some witnesses say the bus driver blew a red light.

    I did link to an article about the Mount Prospect case in our morning headline stack. However, yes, while Streetsblog Chicago does occasionally cover suburban news (a post about Evanston is on-deck), our focus is the city. We do posts about every pedestrian and bike fatality that occurs within the city limits, but we don’t have enough staff to write a post about every case that happens within the region. However, I’ll consider writing a post about the Beaudry case next week, since that does involve some important issues.

    From what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like Beaudry “didn’t use her own eyes to see if it was safe.” Rather, she had a reasonable expectation that drivers would obey the law by observing the flashing beacon and yielding to a vulnerable road user in the crosswalk. All of the drivers did, except for one reckless, selfish individual.

  • Marc Freeman

    current bike messenger and friend of the deceased here: and I need to speak.

    The outright negativity I’m seeing in these posts blaming the victim, when NO ONE has the complete story, is outrageous, and frustrating, and sad. Sad, that even after the death of a cyclist (no matter who’s fault it was) brings out the peanut gallery telling us to ride safer, to obey all the laws etc. Guess what, we’ve heard it, we hear it everyday. But someone died, a family lost a loved one, a mother lost a son, and an ENTIRE WORLD WIDE MESSENGER COMMUNITY (I needed that in caps so you guys could see that we are a world community, not just the scumbag kids you look at while you walk to your train) lost a bright soul.

    here’s an example of how you should act, regardless on your stance on bike safety, or who should get to own the roads we all pay for:

    yesterday a random person walked up to me and a bunch of friends at the merchandise mart (our hang out downtown) and she asked “was it the guy on the yellow bike?” she didn’t tell us that we need to ride safer, she wanted to genuinely know if the smiling face she saw everyday on her walk to the train was ok. And when we told her the sad news, she cried. That’s right. a random person cried, bc she had seen him. she didn’t even know him, but she rememberd. she didn’t go on a tirade telling us to be safer. She wished is good luck and to be safe and went on her way.

    THATS HOW YOURE SUPPOSED TO ACT. so act accordingly. because you never know who your comments on situations like this are going to hurt.

    -a messenger downtown.

  • Jeff Gio

    come on dude, Streetsblog Chicago has limited resources. Covering all bicycle and pedestrian deaths in chicago alone is commendable.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    90% of statistics are made up.

  • Kevin Ngo

    My thoughts and prayers go out to Blaine and his family.

    I did have a question for anyone who knows the answer. I’ve searched around the internet but have not found much related to the topic. Are there any plans to make Michigan Avenue more bike, pedestrian, and transit friendly? I love the Loop Link BRT and the accompanying bike lanes. However, I think Michigan Avenue is in much greater need of BRT.

    I would be grateful if anyone had anymore insight.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Active Trans floated the idea of partially or fully pedestrianizing the Mag Mile during certain times of day or days of the week, which Emanuel’s office immediately shot down. The Chicago Streetcar Renaissance has proposed adding a streetcar line in the median. I don’t recall any proposals by the city to make major changes, although ex-CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein discussed the idea of making the street more People-friendly. It was a small victory when CDOT recently reinstated crosswalks on Michigan that were, perversely, removed in conjunction with the opening of Millennium Park.

  • Kevin Ngo

    Thanks for the quick reply. It just seems like such a giant opportunity. So many people come there for work and play. Also there are a dozen or more buses that are always mired in traffic along the avenue.

  • “Now my own personal rule is that I must be in the intersection or blocking the crosswalk to do that.”

    My personal rule, learned since childhood from drivers in my family who were licensed in New York state (where you can get ‘points on your license’ for things like being stranded in an intersection when the lights turn red — and enough points mean you lose your privilege to drive for a while) that if you don’t KNOW you can get out of the intersection, it is incorrect to ENTER the intersection, or even beach across the crosswalk.

    When you go in and demand intersection space, even when you know you can’t get out again, that causes congestion.

    I get so, so many drivers behind me in the left-turn lane pissed off that I refuse to “take a lead” when I can obviously see that the oncoming traffic is utterly dense and it’s really not likely we’re going to get a gap before the red.

    The way I figure it, if I get a start-of-light-cycle turn light, there’s no real reason to rush it. I’ll get a turn. If I get to turn before that, because there’s a gap in traffic, then awesome; but I have zero right to block up the intersection or steal someone else’s part of the cycle just because it’s custom to always go into the intersection if you want to turn left.

  • Steve Timble

    I don’t have the words to express how heartbreaking this is. The tragedy of this death supercedes right and wrong and the world is a poorer place with the loss of Blaine Klingenberg. Please be careful out there cycling/riding/walking/driving friends. Life is short and, in the end, it is all we have.

  • Toad734

    Not to mention 80% of all drivers fail to stop at stop signs, they simply roll through, then there’s the speeding, texting, not yielding the right of way, opening doors into traffic…When I hear “They always break the law” I just assume they are talking about drivers and not cyclists.

  • You do have a different approach than I do. How do you deal with the situation with congestion and without a turn arrow? Could you not find yourself sitting through several light cycles waiting to turn?

    As for the impact on congestion I believe that ones car already in the middle of the intersection fills in the gap created by the acceleration time needed for the first car at the light in their new lane. It is like merging from one lane to another when there is a gap.

    But isn’t congestion a factor of the number of cars more than their behavior? And indeed, isn’t waiting an extra cycle increasing congestion? It would seem to me that at that intersection where you wait a cycle that you could then count yourself as two cars at the intersection rather than one.

    But there is another factor to take into account. That is the case where we turn from a busier street onto a freer street. Getting more cars off the busier street faster relieves the congestion on it. And since the freer street has space to spare the additional traffic may still be short of creating actual congestion there.

  • Anne A

    I was discussing this crash with a CPD officer who works in the 18th district and has responded to many crashes at Michigan & Oak over the years. His response: the stoplight cycle is complex there and lots of crashes happen due to people running red lights. It is a hazardous intersection, especially for pedestrians and cyclists.

  • Mcass777

    I cant figure how this accident happened. I figure Blaine was on the right side of northbound Michigan but where was the bus coming from? Was traveling west from the east side of Michigan on Oak? Very sad…

  • Pet P

    If anyone drove their car the way many people bike, they’d get in a crash every day and soon lose their license, not to mention their car. So no, car drivers are not “just as bad”.

  • My anecdotes are just as valid as yours, and your description does not at all match up to how I see bikes driven in my neighborhood.

  • Those underpasses were closed because they were tiny, crowded, and an excellent place to get robbed (personal experience)!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Approve.

    John Greenfield312-560-3966Streetsblog ChicagoChicago Reader

    Subject: Re: Comment on Cyclist’s Tragic Death Highlights the Need to Make Michigan Avenue Safer

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t yet have all the facts about how the crash occurred. Hopefully more witness testimony or video footage will be available in the future to shed more light on what happened.

    I just called Police News Affairs to double check what’s in the crash report. Officer Nicole Trainor confirmed the report states that Klingenberg was biking north on Michigan towards Oak and the tour bus driver was on Oak east of Michigan (officially called East Lake Shore Drive), driving west towards Michigan. She said that the diagram an officer drew on the report doesn’t indicate that Klingenberg or the bus driver were turning.

    Although the crash report states that Klingenberg ran a red, a lawyer who specializes in bike crash cases contacted me this morning with a reminder that it’s very common for these reports to be found inaccurate after a case is fully investigated.

    We also have this report from the Chicago Tribune:
    “Two people who said they were in the area at the time said it appeared the bus had a red light. But one of them said Klingenberg also had a red light because southbound traffic from Inner Lake Shore Drive had a left turn light at the time.”
    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-north-michigan-bicyclist-killed-by-bus-20160615-story.html

  • Jim Ryan

    I guess I won’t be seeing that yellow bicycle riding south on one way northbound Franklin Street near Monroe anymore.

  • Dennis McClendon

    So long as we’re making suppositions in the absence of video evidence, let’s just note that the signal at Oak and Michigan is part of Chicago Trolley’s regular tour route. The bus driver had probably awaited that signal hundreds of times before; perhaps twice already on that day alone.

  • Marc Freeman

    after a call to Ms Katz office, she returned my phone call and we talked for 20 minutes. she feels no remorse for this article, because she’s a popular writer and has received praises for it from a lot of cyclists. when asked about her credentials to have an opinion on riding a bike in the city she said she isn’t apart of any advocacy groups, and that she doesn’t really ride much anymore, and that the last time she rode a bike here was last week in Lincoln park. when asked why she decided to write this article not even 24 hours after the incident, she said that it called for immediate attention. she does not think her article blames the cyclist.

    lastly, before I left the phone call, I asked her why she offered no condolences to the deceased in her article and her reply was “I don’t know if he has family.”

    she has offered to meet the bike messengers and here our opinions on bike safety in the loop, where we work.

    she doesn’t seem to understand that her words hurt a lot of people.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s also possible that the Chicago Trolley driver who killed Hiromi Hosono had made that maneuver hundreds of times before. As will be discussed in an upcoming post, there is video of the recent crash. Hopefully that footage will reveal whether or not the bus driver blew the red, as witnesses reported.

  • Pet P

    You only see what you want to see.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Folks, please refrain from personal attacks. Future comments along these lines will be deleted. Thanks.

  • thorhild

    the thing about being dead is that Klingenberg (and every other dead cyclist ) will never get a chance to tell his experience of the crash. The fact that so many are willing to blame the victim reminds of us what? oh yes, rape in rape culture. Let’s all be aware of power disparities inherent in car culture as well, and how onlookers basically subscribe to “might-makes-right”

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