Cops Serve and Protect by Ticketing Cyclists for Totally Harmless Behavior

One of the cyclists receives a ticket. Photo: Alisa Hauser, DNAinfo.
One of the cyclists receives a ticket. Photo: Alisa Hauser, DNAinfo.

Chicago’s police resources are spread thin. On top our city’s gun violence crisis, an average of 110 people are killed by reckless drivers each year, and thousands more are injured. This problem should be addressed with crackdowns on the most dangerous behavior by motorists, such as speeding, red light running, DUIs, and distracted driving.

But apparently some officers have enough time on their hands to ticket bicyclists for crossing the street after a leading pedestrian interval walk signal comes on, but before they get a green light. While this move is technically illegal, it doesn’t present a safety hazard for anyone, so writing tickets for it is a complete waste of resources.

That’s what happened yesterday in Wicker Park during the morning rush, according to DNAinfo. At about 8:15 a.m. two men who were biking downtown on Milwaukee stopped at a red light next to a squad car at the six-way North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection. After pedestrians were given a walk signal, but before the cyclists’ light turned green, the bike riders crossed the west leg of the intersection and waited for the next light change by a Starbucks, presumably while hanging onto the adjacent guardrail.

It’s a very common move for bike commuters on the Milwaukee Avenue “Hipster Highway,” the city’s busiest biking street, and one that doesn’t endanger pedestrians, drivers, or the cyclists themselves. If it’s safe for people on foot to cross with the early walk signal, there’s also no risk that bike riders will be struck by drivers while making the same maneuver. And since the cyclists are traveling parallel to people on foot, they aren’t going to run into them.

As I’ve often said, cyclists who mindlessly blow red lights without regard to cross traffic are a danger to themselves and others and deserve to be ticketed. However, unlike for people who are driving multi-ton vehicles with blind spots, which can easily kill other road users, it’s not dangerous for bike riders to treat stop lights like stop signs, and stop signs like yield signs, proceeding through the intersection after making sure it’s safe to do so.

In fact, the state of Idaho has officially endorsed the latter move by legalizing the “Idaho stop.” And when cyclists cross an intersection with a leading pedestrian interval walk signal, it’s that much safer because there’s no cross traffic.

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Since the crosswalk configuration at North/Damen/Milwaukee requires people to make as many as three crossings to get where they need to go, people often take a shortcut. Photo: John Greenfield

On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend that bike riders break a rule of the road, even a pointless one, in the presence of police, who might interpret the move as a sign of disrespect for their authority. That may have been what happened on Monday. The officers pulled over the two cyclists and wrote them tickets for failing to stop for a red light, with a fine ranging between $50 and $200, which cannot be contested by mail.

One of the bike riders, Steve Kehm, has a court date on January 20 at the city’s Central Hearing Facilty, located at 400 West Superior. Kehm says he plans to fight the ticket, telling DNA that he has seen many people on bikes make the exact same move at this location without being fined. While he was pulled over, he snapped photos of pedestrians taking a shortcut across the intersection in a location where there is no crosswalk, a maneuver that is also technically illegal.

That’s a whole other issue. Since the layout of the crosswalks at this complex intersection forces people on foot to make as many as three crossings to get where they need to go, it’s not surprising that many of them take a quicker route. As DNA noted, in 2014 the Active Transportation Alliance ranked this intersection as one of the city’s ten most dangerous intersections for pedestrians. This issue could be addressed with a pedestrian scramble signal phase.

However, no major safety improvements have been made to North/Damen/Milwaukee for many years. Instead we’ve got police ticketing bike riders for completely innocuous behavior.

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Image: Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

Update 11/29/16 9:00 PM: After visiting the intersection this evening, I have a better understanding of how it works. The two southeast-bound bike riders crossed North Avenue while traffic on Damen had a green, Milwaukee and North had reds, and pedestrians crossing the North via the crosswalk at the west leg of the intersection had a walk signal.

After crossing North this way, southeast-bound cyclists typically wait in front of the Starbucks, holdings onto the nearby guard rail or placing a foot on the curb, until the next signal phase, when Milwaukee gets a green. Doing this means you have a shorter distance to travel across the intersection once you have a green. After the Milwaukee phase, traffic on North gets a green.

So, it looks like leading pedestrian intervals signals weren’t the issue in this ticketing case. Rather, the cyclists took advantage of a walk signal that was activated during a phase when motor vehicle and bike traffic on their street had a red, a similar situation. Regardless, this very common move by cyclists at this intersection is harmless, and it was a waste of time for the police to ticket it.

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