Marilyn Katz Uses Yesterday’s Tragedy as an Opportunity to Scold Bicyclists

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Marilyn Katz

For a person who makes a living doing PR, Marilyn Katz, head of River North-based MK communications, sure has trouble getting her facts straight. In the wake of the tragic death of bike courier Blaine Klingenberg, 29, fatally struck yesterday evening by a tour bus driver at Oak and Michigan, Katz fired off an inaccurate and tone-deaf op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. I’m sure she meant well, but her windshield-perspective commentary really does more harm than good for the cause of reducing fatalities on Chicago streets.

First of all, in her piece titled “Make bicyclists accountable to the same rules of the road as motorists,” Katz writes from the assumption that Klingenberg is chiefly to blame for his own death. But as the Tribune itself reported, while some witnesses said the northbound cyclist ran a red light, others said the westbound Chicago Trolley driver also blew a red, because southbound traffic on Lake Shore Drive had a left-turn signal.

After the obligatory mention that she occasionally bicycles herself (known in bike advocacy circles as the “Some of My Best Friends Are Bike Lanes” talking point), Katz argues that Chicago’s increasing bike mode share is making the streets more hazardous, not to mention less convenient for drivers. “Klingenberg’s death should be a wake-up call for Chicago to rethink its bicycle policies,” she writes. “All of us who drive in the city know that one never knows what the cyclist next to, behind or in front of us will do. That needs to change.”

Right, because people operating a 3,000-pound car in our city, rather than a 30-pound bike, can always be counted on to travel predictably, legally and safely. It certainly is reassuring to know that Chicago motorists never drive at deadly speeds, barrel through red lights and stop signs, or recklessly swerve between lanes. It sounds like the vast majority of, say, the 130 Chicago traffic fatalities in 2013, must have been the fault of scofflaw bike riders.

“I’m… terrified as a driver — truly afraid that I will be the one who strikes a cyclist,” Katz writes. She argues that the solution to reducing the death toll isn’t more enforcement of traffic laws for motorists, lower urban speed limits, or safer street design, but rather licensing cyclists.

“Just as we require motorists or horse-drawn carriage drivers to pass the rules-of-the-road examination, so too should bicyclists,” Katz argues. Offering more bike education opportunities for residents would certainly be a good thing. But studies have shown that bike licensing isn’t the answer for creating safer streets. Not only are such policies difficult to administrate and enforce, they result in fewer people riding bikes, which makes cyclists less visible to drivers and negatively impacts public health.

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A man rides by the “ghost bike” memorial to Bobby Cann in one of the Clybourn protected lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

Finally, and ironically, Katz uses Klingenberg’s death as a chance to complain about recently installed buffered and protected bike lanes that help prevent crashes. “A drive down Clybourn Avenue or Elston Avenue now takes twice as long as former two-lane arterial streets have been reduced to one to accommodate bike lanes and where traffic is fraught as cyclists weave in and out for advantage,” she writes.

Not only is this wrongheaded, it’s wrong. Clybourn got curb-protected bike lanes last year following the 2013 death of cyclist Bobby Cann, who was struck by an allegedly drunk, speeding driver. Contrary to popular belief, Clybourn, and most of Elston, never had two lanes in each direction. Rather, the existing travel lanes were narrowed somewhat to make room for the bike lanes, which helps discourage speeding. And could someone please explain how it’s possible for a bicyclist to weave in and out of a curb-separated lane?

“There are many deaths on the streets of Chicago,” Katz concludes. “Those of bicyclists are some we can prevent.” Agreed. But the best way to do that, as well as improve safety for all other road users, is better enforcement of traffic laws for motorists, lower speed limits, and safer street design, including more “road diets” and protected bike lanes.

  • planetshwoop

    I’ve thought of an art project (surely already done elsewhere) where I attach huge amounts of silver shimmery tape to make my bike as long as a small car. Sort of a Priscilla Queen of the Desert attachment for biking.

    I like the idea that she’s scared. Good. Means she’ll slow down. I’ll blow kisses if she honks when I pass her sitting in traffic.

  • In political terms Katz is one of those people who “conservatives” can call on when they need a so-called “liberal” to agree with them. Of course, in Illinois and Chicago especially all the standard political jargon often gets stood on its head. Meaning political labels are pretty useless ways of trying to communicate.

    That is what makes Streetsblog such a nice forum. Firstly you are very careful to eschew political labels. Politics here is reduced to physical markers. We have a common understanding of the elements that make a dense city function at a high performing level. When we say cars are a problem, that for us is not a political statement it is a geometric statement. Sure we could claim that the lack of dedicated bicycle lanes is a civil rights issue. We could say that it is unfair for pedestrians and motor vehicles to both have dedicated infrastructures while bikes do not. But why bother. Our arguments based on geometry and physics are way sounder and scientifically reality based.

    Motorists like Katz want to have their cake and eat it too. They want all of the benefits of living in a dense quality urban environment yet have the convenience of a fast driving suburban car culture. As people know I am wont to say: Katz should move back to the suburbs where she belongs.

  • Chicagoan

    Ms. Katz says that she never knows what the cyclist next to, behind, or in front of her might do next.

    It’s funny, I never know what the motorist next to, behind, or in front of me might do next.

    She should be ashamed of herself for taking a young person’s death and using it to make a cyclist vs. motorist point, especially since there are conflicting comments about what happened.

    She just took the comments that best fit her narrative and made them fact.

  • Marilyn – do you remember when you wrote “perfecting your message and then precisely targeting the media to reach your core audience.”? How do you and your board feel you delivered on that mission with your opinion to Blaine’s death? I’m sure many profit, not for profit and government officials would be interested to your timely and perfectly crafted response. In the interim, we’ll gather as a community to honor a life.

  • Todd Farkas

    Once again John Greenfield writes that every cyclist death is someone else’s fault, and invokes the 3,000 lb weapon line.
    Share the road John, stop being such a bike-nazi.

  • BBnet3000

    The word weapon does not appear in this article.

  • Check out my Twitter feed from yesterday. A dozen negligent and/or law breaking actions by drivers who are presumed to be “following the rules of the road” and “held accountable.”

    Hardly.

    My wife was doored three years ago, traffic crash report had the “dooring of a pedal cyclist” box ticked. Why didn’t the officer write a citation when the driver was clearly at fault?

    That’s right, because drivers aren’t held accountable.

  • GA

    The little driving I do is mostly up and down Elston and Clybourn. She’s full of it that the same journey now takes twice the time, it doesn’t. Old people love complaining about bike lanes even when no (or very minimal) actual space on the road has been taken from them. They should be paid no heed.

  • Chicagoan

    At no point did Mr. Greenfield invoke the 3,000 lb weapon line, though I would’ve.

    I admire your restraint John.

    I call them 3,000 lb death machines, I only wish more motorists would realize as much.

  • Chicagoan

    Ms. Katz used this cyclists death as an opportunity to make a pro-motorist point, using but one sentence to remember the young man, before commencing her cyclist shaming diatribe.

  • PP

    She should focus on encouraging drivers, cyclists, bus drivers to be aware of their surroundings and others on the road rather than using this tragic death to bash bicyclists.

  • PP

    To be fair it was implied “Right, because people operating a 3,000-pound car in our city, rather than a 30-pound bike, can always be counted on to travel predictably, legally and safely.”

    I agree with the posters point that weapon was implied but his position (anti bike) is absolutely wrong.

  • Trotting out licensing, one of the dumbest ideas.

  • archibike
  • HeyYouKidsGetOffMyLawn

    She’s truly a halfwit.

  • Marc Freeman

    thank you for posting this.

  • planetshwoop

    But made out of glitter!

  • lykorian

    “But something must be done!”

  • Ryan Lakes

    John, you or someone from Active Transportation Alliance should meet with her to fill her in on the research, other cities’ successes/attitiudes/policies, the Mayor’ Bicycle Advisory Council’s goals/position, etc. Educating her would make a real difference if she has a wide audience.

  • PP

    “just think of the children!”

  • tooter turtle

    When I’m driving, I am rarely terrified by cyclists. Some of them make stupid/illegal maneuvers, but so do many, many drivers. Most unsafe situations can be avoided by slowing down and calming down.

  • Chicagoan

    I was just out on my lunch break and was almost hit by a motorist who failed to stop at an intersection right in front of my office.

    Let’s try and not scold cyclists, they’re not the ones cruising in 3,000 lb death machines.

  • dr2chase

    that much?

  • Anne A

    I just *love* that she conveniently forgets how hundreds (if not thousands) of drivers run red lights and drive unpredictably in the city every single day, making life more hazardous for any vulnerable road users near them.

  • We all know there are reckless cyclists. The difference is that reckless cyclists get themselves killed while reckless motorists kill others.

  • Ryan

    Maybe if she unburied her face from her cell phone, she might be able to see the cyclist in the clearly demarcated bike lane.

  • David Altenburg

    Unfortunately, in this case, I don’t think education would help. Marilyn Katz isn’t actually interested in licensing cyclists or in removing bike lanes. Her interest, as a PR professional, is ensuring that the conversation is not about Chicago Trolley, the company that owns the buses that have run over two people in the last 7 months. Instead, she’s trying to shift the conversation to those “out of control bikers”. Based on the coverage I’ve seen today (and even the comments on this site), she’s succeeding.

  • lindsaybanks

    I will accept licensing of bicyclists if we install speed cameras and red light cameras at every intersection. It could do wonders for the City’s budget. And people would get actual numbers of how many drivers break the law versus cyclists. Oh, and the cameras should also give tickets for cell phones in hand.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Although actual vehicular homicides are fairly common in Chicago, no one is implying that the vast majority of drivers would ever use their car as a literal weapon.

    Rather, people who drive cars (like me, occasionally) should be mindful that they are operating a roughly 3,000-pound machine that, unlike a bicycle, has a huge potential to cause death and destruction. All road users — pedestrians, bike riders, and motorists — should avoid endangering themselves or others. But when you’re in charge of a vehicle that could easily kill someone, you have a big responsibility to do everything possible to make sure that doesn’t happen.

    Again, all of us, whether walking, biking, or driving, have the ability to act like jerks. While Katz is fixating on the behavior of people on bikes, she’s conveniently ignoring the fact that unpredictable, careless, and aggressive behavior by people in cars is an exponentially bigger problem.

  • neroden

    Ms. Katz, if you’re rationally afraid that you’ll run into a cyclist, YOU ARE A BAD DRIVER AND SHOULD SURRENDER YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE. Any competent driver can avoid running over people.

  • neroden

    OK, completely awesome. Great idea.

  • All drivers think they’re above-average in skill.

    We could, any of us, have a bad day (a bad ten minutes) and accidentally kill someone. We must be mindful of this at all times when operating a motor vehicle, and take extra caution not to do so AT ALL TIMES when driving, without letting ourselves be distracted or drive on autopilot.

    Even objectively good drivers (as opposed to people who THINK they are good drivers) can kill someone with their car.

  • Jeremy

    Are we sure she wrote that? It reads like it was written by Brock Turner’s father.

  • neroden

    No, we couldn’t. That is, unfortunately, the bogus argument used by the “let ’em off with a warning” attitude towards killer drivers.

    Nearly all killer drivers turn out to have a long record of dangerous driving, with lots of citations on their record.

    A good driver is *extremely* unlikely to accidentally kill someone, though they *might* accidentally injure someone under extreme circumstances.

    A good driver makes a point of not driving when tired or distracted. I’ve called cabs because I knew I wasn’t safe on the road.

  • It remains true that most people in Chicago think they’re excellent drivers, whether you think they are or not. So telling drivers to modify their behavior has to be done from a standpoint of “even good drivers need to be careful,” not “crappy drivers need to get over themselves,” beacuse everyone will decide they don’t need to do this special thing that only crappy drivers should do.

  • Chicago Cyclist

    First, bicycle ‘registration’ and bicyclist ‘licensing’ are different
    things. I think that Ms. Katz (like many others) may be confusing them.
    For “registration”, national registries
    (https://www.nationalbikeregistry.com/) have proven more effective than
    local registries. These national and local registries are focused on /
    aimed primarily at recovering stolen bikes.

    As regards licensing, the important point to understand is that bicyclists do not pose a
    significant
    threat of injury, death, and/or property damage — let alone, transport
    of contraband, illegal substances, etc. — similar or of the same
    magnitude to that which motorists do. Although it is of course
    frustrating for drivers (of automobiles) to
    see a bicyclist run a
    stop sign or red light, speeding and/or distracted drivers pose an
    exponentially larger threat to exponentially
    more people and so the
    efforts of police to eliminate all speeding and distracted motor vehicle
    driving does and should constitute a higher priority than bicycling.
    For this reason, licensing bicyclists has been deemed ‘by nearly all
    jurisdictions that have investigated or tried it’ to be unnecessary to
    maintain public safety and the financial responsibility for
    damages/injuries caused. Licensing bicycles has, in fact, been shown to
    cost governments much more than it brings in (in terms of financial or
    safety benefits). As a result, it has been judged to be an inefficient,
    wasteful use of tax-payer monies. Finally, communities must think
    through and ask themselves about the feasibility/desirability of
    licensing bicyclists: e.g. do communities license 4-year old cyclists?

    In
    some states — such as Maryland — bicyclists convicted of certain
    traffic violations do face “points” on their driving records. In
    Maryland, as I understand it, if a bicyclist, who is convicted of a
    traffic violation, does not have a drivers license (which is not the
    majority of adult cyclists), she/he is issued a Maryland ‘Soundex’
    number (the equivalent of a driver’s license number) and the points are
    held in abeyance until that person obtains a Maryland drivers license.
    At the time the points show up on the license that is issued.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Appreciated: fact-checking the author’s claim about driving time.

    Not appreciated: the generalization about old people.

    –R.A. Stewart, 65, and how many years would you say I’ve been a reader and commenter on here, John? 4? 5?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Quite a while, and a loyal supporter, thanks.

  • This is likely related to the “rush hour parking controls” problem, where Chicago drivers have been told – explicitly – that magical driving lanes appear when no-parking signage creates, usually just barely, enough space for a car to squeeze by on the right.

    I had someone on Everyblock insist Elston used to have 4 lanes, but when tasked with providing evidence they had to finally admit that what they were upset about was losing parking.

    Regardless, Elston as a bike corridor is here to stay.

  • lindsaybanks

    Today I said in these exact words to a texting driver who was rolling through stop signs in Wicker Park, “Put your phone down.” His response: “FUCK OFF!” and he went through the next stop sign even faster. I turned right. But, yeah, bikes…

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