Bad Biking Behavior, and the Best Ways to Prevent It

Better infrastructure and education "carrots," rather than enforcement "sticks," are key

Bike riders line up at the light at Dearborn/Madison. Cutting in line is known as "shoaling." Photo: John Greenfield
Bike riders line up at the light at Dearborn/Madison. Cutting in line is known as "shoaling." Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

One of the main reasons biking is my favorite way to get around Chicago is the good vibes. Cyclists can bypass hectic, sun-baked arterials during hot-weather rush hours in favor of tranquil, leafy backstreet routes. And nothing beats a relaxed cruise home, past buzzing neon and packed sidewalk cafes on an absolutely perfect summer night.

While friction between cyclists and motorists is widely publicized, I have plenty of positive interactions with those around me when I’m in the saddle: the driver who waves me through a four-way stop, the pedestrians who wave thanks after I stop and nod for them to cross the street. Most of my exchanges with other people on bikes are similarly pleasant—after all, we’ve got something in common.

But cyclists still get on each other’s nerves sometimes, as a recent discussion on the Chainlink, a local social networking site, made abundantly clear. Chainlink president Yasmeen Schuller started a thread called “Pet Peeves Among the Pedals” and invited members to talk about annoying and dangerous bicyclist behavior they hate. She started with one of her own beefs, “the cyclist that blows past me so close to me I feel the wind of their SWOOOOOSH as they fly past, but they say nothing to warn me. . . . Buy a bell and/or tell me you are there!”

Some of the other practices cyclists railed against are annoying breaches of etiquette like “shoaling.” This term, coined by influential blogger Bike Snob NYC, refers to when a large group of bike commuters is stopped at a light and someone rolls up from behind and rudely cuts in front of the pack to get a head start.

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Particularly irksome is sexist “man-shoaling,” noted member Heléna Klumpp, “by guys who assume they’re faster than me—you know, because they’re guys, so they must be.” Kate M. added that it’s satisfying to loudly yell “On your left!” when passing these cads after the light turns green “because I am faster.”

Other irritating but relatively harmless phenomena Chainlinkers brought up included overly bright, flashing “seizure-inducing” bike headlights and cyclists who lock sideways to wave-shaped bike racks, hogging multiple parking spots. Mike W. complained about “Helmet Nazis, the people who feel compelled to shame the helmetless, often loudly in public.”

In a similar vein, one commenter with the telltale handle OnlyCHICyclerWhoStopsAtStopSigns griped about riders who don’t follow the letter of the law. “[It] just really, really angers me. Just freakin’ stop at the stop sign. . . . It gives all of us a bad name.” Others countered that it’s not practical for cyclists to come to a complete halt at every stop sign, and that there’s a big difference between mindlessly bombing an intersection and treating a stop sign like a yield sign (a practice known as an “Idaho stop” because it’s legal in the Gem State). At that point the stop-sign stickler sheepishly admitted to occasional Idaho stops.

The thread also brought up some inconsiderate cycling behavior that’s truly dangerous. On the Lakefront Trail there are oblivious folks who stop in the middle of the busy trail to chat instead of pulling to the side, as well as “Lakefront Lances,” Spandex-clad dudes who refuse to hit the brakes in congested areas lest they disrupt their workouts. Adults who ride fast on sidewalks endanger pedestrians and themselves. “Bike ninjas” who cycle at night without lights make themselves virtually invisible to drivers. “Salmoning” (another Bike Snob NYC term) is biking upstream against traffic, which is especially problematic for other cyclists when it happens in bike lanes that are protected by physical barriers such as curbs and parked cars. “Where the f**k am I supposed to go to safely get around these stupid fish?” fumed Chainlinker Skip Montanaro.

Riding too fast on the Lakefront Trail when it's crowded can create safety issues. Photo: John Greenfield
Riding too fast on the Lakefront Trail when it’s crowded can create safety issues. Photo: John Greenfield

My number one personal pet peeve? Riders blasting through red lights at busy intersections without yielding to pedestrians or cross traffic. While it’s perfectly reasonable for bicyclists to treat stoplights like stop signs, speeding through a hectic crossing in this reckless manner terrifies people, causing them to stop in their tracks or slam on the brakes. Ex-Chicago courier Travis Hugh Culley glorified this selfish style of riding in his 2001 memoir The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. “We can twist Madison Avenue into a runway and penetrate a crowd like it was a puff of smoke,” he writes. “There is no fear. These kinds of stunts come directly from our experience, and that experience should be trusted. An intersection burnt by a courier should herald cheers from cops, motorists and pedestrians alike. It is the clearest expression of a messenger’s technique.” Actually, in my experience as a bike messenger for six years, Chicago couriers are often among the most mindful cyclists on the streets because they don’t want to get killed on the job.

Some of the worst intersection-bombing offenders are on brakeless fixed-gear bikes. Look, I know that serpentining around cross traffic on a “fixie” is considered an art form, but so is skidding to a stop at a red and track standing until it’s safe to cross. If that’s too much trouble for you, get a frickin’ hand brake already.

While this kind of truly dangerous cycling deserves to be ticketed, police resources should be focused on preventing reckless driving, which causes exponentially more death and destruction. On the other hand, I don’t have a major problem with enforcement events staged by the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Bicycling Ambassadors and the police department at high-crash locations. Officers flag down bicyclists who run reds, salmon, and sidewalk surf, and then ambassadors talk with them about why the behavior is problematic.

CDOT Bicycling Ambassador Jose Briceno and an officer from the 20th District talk with a cyclist during a recent outreach event in Lincoln Square. Photo: CDOT
CDOT Bicycling Ambassador Jose Briceno and an officer from the 20th District talk with a cyclist during a recent outreach event in Lincoln Square. Photo: CDOT

Importantly, during these stings motorists are also warned about failure to yield to pedestrians, distracted driving, blocking bike lanes, and opening car doors on cyclists. Nighttime enforcement events where bike ninjas are given free headlights are definitely helpful. It’s also common for the ambassadors to do outreach about path etiquette on the Lakefront Trail.

Active Transportation Alliance director Jim Merrell notes that when it comes to improving cyclists’ behavior, enforcement “sticks” are less important than “carrots” in the form of safer bike infrastructure and better bike education. “Our priority is on redesigning streets and trails in ways that intuitively result in safe behaviors,” he says. “Well-designed, low-stress bike lanes lead to less sidewalk riding, and bike-specific traffic signals and high-visibility crosswalks result in better compliance with traffic lights and stop signs and yielding to pedestrians.” He adds that the Chicago Park District’s current project building separate paths for people on foot and bikes on the Lakefront Trail will reduce conflicts.

So if you get frustrated by bad behavior from bike riders, the most constructive thing to do is lobby decision makers for better bike lanes, paths, and education. In the meantime, noted Chainlinker Alex Z., when a fellow cyclist does something boneheaded, it’s best to take a breath, stay calm, and maintain some perspective. “You are on a bike, so by default things are going well.”

  • rwy

    What is proper light etiquette? I just figure that in areas with plenty of streetlights, flashing means that I’m more likely to be seen and saves battery life. Is this wrong?

  • rduke

    I generally try to have a flasher and a solid at night no matter how well lit. The flash says “bike”, the solid gives people something to triangulate on to judge distance. The flash should be a simple on-off-on-off, none of that strobey nonsense.

    During the day I generally only run a flasher in back, but both a solid and a flasher up front because I’m so sick of being ignored.

    Either way so long as they aren’t the 10,000 lumen (advertised) blinders aimed at eye level, you’re probably ok. You want people to see you, but you also want them to be able to *see* too.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    What rduke said. The original Chainlin commenter said overly bright lights are particularly an issue on the Lakefront Trail.

  • dr2chase

    Flashing on a path with no cars on it is somewhat rude.
    There are “better” flash patterns, too, that aren’t quite so strobe-like.

  • Carter O’Brien

    “While it’s perfectly reasonable for bicyclists to treat stoplights like stop signs.”

    I think it would be fair to say you’re going out on a limb with this one. Running a light isn’t a natural extension of an Idaho Stop, which already sounds like a stretch to many Chicagoans given the obvious difference in population density. Is there a state that allows this?

    For starters, you’re always going to have that cyclist that doesn’t know how to judge the speed of traffic on the cross street, which by definition has the right of way in this situation. That accident at Roosevelt and Halsted is a pretty good example of what happens when cyclists get ahead of themselves in this regard. It’s not worth your life to shave 10 seconds off of your ride, be patient and just wait for the light to change.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Coming to a full stop at a red light, checking for cross traffic, and then proceeding if it’s safe to cross, is legal in Iowa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idaho_stop A recent DePaul study recommended legalizing this at most intersections in Chicago, noting that in some cases it’s actually safer than waiting for a green: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2016/12/12/idaho-stop-in-the-name-of-love-depaul-study-endorses-rational-cycling/ The study suggested that some intersections may not be suitable for Idaho stops due to sight lines, high traffic volumes etc., and I agree. However, if the Idaho stop is legalized, it would be easy to post signs at some intersections where it is not safe to to the move, just as many intersections have “No Turn on Red” signs, etc.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Thanks for the clarification, I had totally forgotten that they also include traffic signals in their law. That’s great.

    I agree 100% with the DePaul study findings and recommendation as described in the report, noting this doesn’t apply to cyclists blowing red lights during rush hour, which would likely be a very legitimate sticking point, given that Idaho’s entire population is ~1.6 million, whereas Chicago’s North Side alone is ~1.3 million. That density comparison will be brought up, so might as well address it head on, I think the incremental approach could work, given it’s not really any different than other traffic controls regulating motorist behavior during rush hour.

    “RECOMMENDATION I:
    Evaluate the potential for legally permitting Idaho Stops at intersections with four-way stops, and
    assess incremental strategies for allowing Idaho Stops at signaled intersections.

    Observations from this study show that enforcing existing rules at these intersections would seem
    arbitrary and capacious, with only one bicyclist in 50 complying with the law when cross-traffic is not
    present. Stop sign intersections, especially four-way stops, tend to be less risky for cyclists practicing the
    Idaho Stop because even if cross-traffic is present, motorists are required to stop. Stop sign intersections
    also tend to be in lower-traffic areas, such as residential areas, where traffic, overall, moves at
    slower speeds. Permitting Idaho Stops at stop sign intersections would also help bikers feel more
    confident that enforcement efforts are being directed toward cyclists who pose legitimate safety risks, and
    may help to bolster confidence that the law enforcement community is more wisely allocating its
    limited resources.

    Further, a pilot program could be enacted authorizing Idaho Stops at select signaled intersections with
    relatively low traffic volumes. This could include posted signs and be limited to off-peak periods.
    Alternatively, one could envision allowing Idaho Stops more generally during late-night hours (i.e. 11p.m.–
    5:00a.m.) when traffic is very light and, no doubt, very few cyclists are likely make full stops at red
    traffic signals. Although such measures would require further study prior to implementation, it behooves
    the city to gradually move toward rules that reflect reasonable tradeoffs between convenience and
    safety. The City could also make known that law enforcement personnel will avoid issuing citations for
    Idaho Stops as a precursor to possibly legalizing them. Such efforts would help instill confidence
    among bicyclists that law enforcement personnel will not be arbitrary in issuing citations.

  • Joe R.

    I think you’re grossly underestimating the ability of regular cyclists to judge situations. In NYC it seems it’s common to not only pass red lights, but to treat them as yields, not stops. I do this myself. I find in general slowing to 8 to 10 mph gives me enough time to see what’s coming, and stop if it’s not clear. Of course, I come to a nearly full stop at intersections with poor lines of sight. And in some cases where lines of sight are zero (i.e. a pier or abutment) I just wait out the light because doing anything else is dangerous. If you want cyclists to be able to use good judgement when passing lights then they have to practice it. New cyclists should ride with someone experienced to show them the ropes until they get the hang of it. Point of fact, most people already jaywalk, so that’s similar in principle to what we’re talking about here.

    It’s not worth your life to shave 10 seconds off of your ride, be patient and just wait for the light to change.

    Why do people who are against passing red lights always continually bring out this nonsense that it only saves a handful of seconds? Maybe Chicago has a lot fewer traffic lights such that an average trip involves hitting one red light. NYC has over 12,000 signalized intersections. I’ve actually done comparisons of doing Idaho “yields” on some streets versus obeying the law religiously. I’m able to average 15 or 16 mph doing Idaho yields. Stopping at every light it’s difficult to average more than 10 mph, even if you accelerate rapidly up to 20 or 25 mph right after the light changes. In quite a few cases stopping at every light means averaging 6 mph. A slower rider would average even less. The difference between 15 mph and 10 mph on a very short 3 mile trip is already 6 minutes each way, or 12 minutes for the trip. On a 20 mile round trip you’re talking about adding a full 40 minutes. Sorry, but it’s rarely “seconds” you lose here. It’s more like minutes, many minutes in some cases. Also, I’ve noted I expend what feels like twice the effort by stopping at every light, and repeated stops will eventually cause my legs to suddenly cramp, possibly stranding me. On top of that it’s often safer for cyclists to get a head start on car traffic.

    It’s just not worth it, and has a pretty bad ripple effect in terms of bad PR for cyclists as a whole.

    In the final analysis it’s more important for cyclists to do things which make riding safer and more efficient than to worry about superficial outside appearances. In the end bike haters are going to hate bikes even if every cyclist was law-abiding. If there’s a failure here in PR, I think the failure is cyclists and advocacy groups not educating the general public on why they do things like pass red lights and stop signs. It’s not always just about saving time and energy. It’s quite often about safety. I used to stop religiously at every red light until I realized it was pointless. I had so many bad encounters with motorists when the light changed. Now I feel far less stressed. I no longer have to worry about trying to make lights or dealing with all the crap from motorists if I don’t. I just ride at whatever speed I want. I don’t care about the light color any more. If it’s green, wonderful. If not, I slow down, look, go if it’s clear, wait until it’s clear if there’s cross traffic. I’m also looking for cross traffic whether the light is red or green. That’s actually a good habit to get into. It’s saved me from a crash a number of times.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Well, on just my ride home yesterday I saw multiple cyclists pass cars on the right, that were properly signaling right and where they belonged. I also saw an extraordinarily clueless cyclist who shoaled me on Elston from Damen to Diversey, where he then weaved between 4 lanes of traffic as he couldn’t be bothered to make anything resembling a proper left turn at Western. You may or may not be a black belt level cyclist when it comes to navigation and physics, but many cyclists most assuredly are not.

    And I do agree with your math – 10 seconds x 30 intersections adds up to some real time, if 5m is your idea of real time, which I will grant you, in rush hour it sure feels like it is.

    But that doesn’t make it wise as a policy, which needs to work for the 8-80 crowd. How long have you been biking in Chicago? Were you doing so when driver accident data (among other datasets) suggests many humans are not known for making their best spontaneous decisions, say, the 16-21 age bracket?

    Consider you may just have gotten lucky so far. Or having spent time in an even more dense area like NYC, you very well may be better able to handle density and chaos better than your average bear. But again, looking at drivers, I don’t think I am “underestimating” the abilities of the thousands of cyclists that are coming here from places from smaller Midwestern college towns to foreign countries with completely different rules of the road.

  • Joe R.

    I never biked in Chicago but I’ve biked all my life in NYC.

    Consider you may just have gotten lucky so far. Or having spent time in an even more dense area like NYC, you very well may be better able to handle density and chaos better than your average bear.

    Luck generally doesn’t last 21 years, which is the last time I fell on my bike for any reason. Luck also doesn’t explain never having a collision with a car or pedestrian in my 39 years of riding. In general, I think the first 5 or so years spent riding are the most hazardous by far. That’s when you’re still developing you skill set. It probably takes a decade or more to get really competent.

    I don’t think I am “underestimating” the abilities of the thousands of cyclists that are coming here from places from smaller Midwestern college towns to foreign countries with completely different rules of the road.

    There’s a lot less of those types of people in NYC which might explain things. Most people here either have been here most of their lives, or came here from other parts of the Northeast (or other countries) which have at least a few things in common with NYC. Also, NYC tends to be a sink or swim place. If you make it here, you generally learn to deal with the chaos, both in the streets and in the workplace. If you can’t hack it, well this city spits people out like nobody’s business.

    But that doesn’t make it wise as a policy, which needs to work for the 8-80 crowd.

    How about training to go along with this? Sure, I’ll concede that quite a few untrained, inexperienced cyclists might be a problem but just as we train drivers, why not have cycling advocacy groups train cyclists? You could enforce this by policing some intersections. When cyclists fail to grant proper right-of-way, in lieu of a fine they go to a training class. I personally don’t believe laws should cater to the least common denominator. Rather, you base laws on what’s humanly possible with training, and then bring people up to speed. In this case we’re not even talking about a lot of training. A few hours is enough for people to get the hang of doing Idaho stops or yields. I personally find it resentful when I have to skill to do something but that thing is illegal simply because a handful of idiots can’t do it. I’d rather we train the idiots. Catering to the least common denominator is what we’ve been doing for the last 30 or 40 years. From where I stand it doesn’t seem to be working all that well. I want adults to be treated as such.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Ok, well, I don’t disagree we should have smarter engineering implemention, and that a small number of goobs ruin it for the rest of us, but practically speaking, this is a lot of wishful thinking AFAIC. Why? Because of the instinctive nature of municipal governments to shield themselves from legal liability. Also, bike riding may be relatively on the upswing, but going from 1% to 2% may sound amazing as a statistic in isolation, at least in Chicago, most people are driving. You don’t have the same sprawl development or struggling Rust Belt dynamic we do. It is really not the same, particularly when you look at a replacement of flesh and blood law enforcement with revenue Godzilla traffic camera enforcement.

    I would love to continue this conversation, but have to get back to parenting duties, will try and respond with a more suitably thoughtful response later this weekend, I do appreciate your perspective, as a 30 year street rider much of it speaks to me for sure.

  • Amy Taylor

    In Seattle, a flashing front light is illegal. Despite this, many people have a blinding front-flashing, strobe light….

  • Carter O’Brien

    “I’ll concede that quite a few untrained, inexperienced cyclists might be a problem but just as we train drivers, why not have cycling advocacy groups train cyclists? You could enforce this by policing some intersections.”

    Based on motorist behavior in Chicago, even having formal driver’s education hasn’t done much outside of getting people to at least drive on the right side of the road. People do exactly what they they can get away with, which is why you have such a backlash against the red light traffic cameras – nobody has even tried to pretend that all of these people aren’t breaking the law (countless millions of violations a year if you extrapolate from the data a small handful of intersections offer), they just complain the law is being enforced. We have tried one-off stings here in Chicago, they don’t have a long term impact from what I’ve seen, and we don’t have the police staff to do consistent enforcement at intersections.

    “Third, the biggest problem here is the fact we even have red lights at empty intersections! We certainly have the technology to prevent that nowadays. It’s just lazy engineering to do otherwise. It’s incumbent upon the state to engineer safety in the least intrusive way possible. That means traffic signals should remain green unless something is actually crossing the intersection. And they should remain red only for as long as it takes that something to cross.”

    While smarter engineering would certainly help, traffic signals are part of a larger grid-wide system. When you change light timing for one street, you are going to have a ripple impact on others, and I foresee a lot of “unintended consequences” happening here. That is the system-wide safety factor that needs to be prioritized, not trying to get someone faster by a negligible amount from point A to point B. Chinese finger puzzle physics here apply – when everyone relaxes, traffic of all kinds flows more smoothly.

    I am 100% in favor of more dedicated bike routes. With you there. But we aren’t going to get away from cars in the big cities, ever. The best argument for doing so was the emissions and climate change, but solar power and EV vehicles are the future, which negates that argument. Our climate swings are too ferocious to ever convince more than a small slice of the population to commute anywhere approaching 12 months a year.

    Sometimes it sucks as a cyclist, but in a democracy you have to respect the wishes of the vast majority of the population.

  • Mcass777

    Can we add bike in a straight line to the list? Yesterday I was at Grand and Milwaukee about 7 riders behind the crosswalk, wedged between a bus on the right and a truck on the right. The biker in front starts pedaling and nearly hits the bus causing me to stop and nearly hit the truck while the guy behind me does the same. The bus was continuing south with the mass of bikes and it was hairy trying to see who would wait and go behind the bus and who would pass the bus. For my own peace of mind, I will usually pass everyone to be in front of all traffic so I do not get mixed up with vehicles turning or continuing. You can scold me but after 22 years commuting I do not want to be guess which way the bike infront of me is going to swerve at low speeds. I really do not feel comfortable at busy intersections where low speed near misses are common putting those behind at risk. Scold me all you want but you won’t swerve into me!

  • Vooch

    NYC – Citibikes have blinkees front & rear always on

    I use blinkees also during daytime. Saved me thousands of times

  • Vooch

    I find my front blinkee a great preventer of getting doored in NYC during daytime

  • The real question should be why does the stop light even exist in the first place and can it be done away with? Ignoring stop lights is a sign that perhaps the infrastructure doesn’t work for the users. It’s a common “problem” among bicyclists in The Netherlands, but the Dutch approach is to evaluate the intersection for removal if possible, not increase enforcement as some would be inclined to suggest. As a result, many of Dutch traffic lights have been removed over the years, making travel by bike much easier.

  • Lots of salmoning is probably a sign that a two-way or contraflow bikeway is needed in the location, particularly on multilane roads.

  • Carter O’Brien
  • Yes, I’m aware that the traffic signal does predate bikes, but they tend to become unnecessary in environments without a lot of motor traffic since those places usually don’t have anywhere near the crushing levels of traffic that build the case for signals. Also, Americans overuse them (and stop signs) at near pathological levels in situations where even without reducing motor traffic, they wouldn’t be completely necessary.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I do not disagree that by making signals so ubiquitous we’ve in many cases removed their benefits and most likely have undermined their value across the system as a whole.

    I speak largely from my own personal experience in dense North Side neighborhoods (originally Lincoln Park Lake View, I’ve slowly migrated west to Avondale, where a lower housing density is more than offset by extra traffic coming to/from the expressway), and bike commuting to the South Loop/Museum Campus. I’ve seen lots of intersections that used to have just one street signaled changed so that both are, I’ve seen intersections that had stop signs changed to traffic signals (Wellington and Sheffield pops out as the first one I ever noticed, that was in the early 80s).

    I currently live just east of Kimball – and crossing it to go west is ridiculous. Cars will literally veer around you into another lane before they’ll stop or slow down. We’ve had those bright yellow “Stop for pedestrians” signs in the crosswalk, and none of lasted longer than about a week before being completely flattened. So as long as we’re going to have cars – and I don’t see them going away – we need signals, they are a necessary evil, perhaps.

    The 800 lb gorilla in Chicago is enforcement, and distracted driving due to the advent of smart phones is the double whammy. We wouldn’t need nearly as many signals if we did a better job of enforcing ones where they are really needed. If we really wanted to get revolutionary, and this is coming from a southpaw, we’d think seriously about restricting more left turns for motor vehicles across the board. This one behavior IMO is responsible for a lot of problems, as cars inch out into space dedicated for bikes so they have a better view of oncoming traffic, and as cars veer into bike space when a car. in front unpredictably and suddenly decides to turn left. There is a very good reason why UPS largely has their drivers only take right turns.

  • John SFO

    Regarding the last paragraph: So, when we get frustrated by bad behaviour from motorists, the most constructive thing to do is lobby decision makers for wider streets & expressways, and education, eh? Nah. Treat bad bikers like bad motorists.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Creating more space for driving results in more speeding, plus more more driving, pollution, and, ultimately, more congestions.

    Conversely, as the experiences of countries like the Netherlands (and Chicago’s Dearborn Street) shows, creating dedicated spaces for biking results in better compliance with traffic rules, more biking, a lower bike crash and fatality rate, and less pollution and congestion.