Last week while pedaling downtown on Milwaukee, I came across Chicago Department of Transportation Bicycling Ambassadors and 14th District police officers doing safety outreach to people on bikes and people in cars. The ambassadors were handing flyers to motorists and cyclists reminding them not to use phones while driving and to obey traffic signals while biking. The police were flagging down adult cyclists who rode on the sidewalk or who ran red lights and giving them seemingly polite warnings that what they did was illegal.
Carlin Thomas, CDOT’s enforcement coordinator, said the response from people in cars had been mostly positive. “Most motorists are rolling down their windows at first wave, and often we’re finding that motorists are also cyclists,” she said. “So sometimes they don’t even want our free information. They’re like, ‘I’m a cyclist too. I don’t talk on my cell phone [while driving].’ Every now and then we’ll get a driver who’ll quietly put down their phone and take a flyer and apologize.”
I asked Thomas if this enforcement event was related to the recently proposed Bike Safety Ordinance 2013, which would raise fees for traffic violations by bicyclists from $25 to $50-200, as well as double the fine for motorists who open car doors on cyclists to $1,000. “We’ve been doing enforcement work for the past four years,” she said. “So we’re continuing to [raise awareness of] the most dangerous behaviors out on the roadway… The ordinance proposal certainly complements what we’re doing.”
“The officers here are patrolling with a bike ambassador and pointing out people’s behavior that may increase the likelihood of a [crash] without having to write a ticket,” said Sergeant Joe Giambrone. “You see all the white ‘ghost bikes’ that are littering the neighborhood?” Giambrone said. “That’s because of the prevalence of all these motor vehicle-bicycle [crashes]. I can’t reach and pluck the [cyclist] out of harm’s way, but by our positive enforcement events we can hopefully raise the awareness of both the motorist and the cyclist to help prevent that.”
Later this month, First Ward Alderman Joe Moreno and 32rd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack are sponsoring outreach events where people cycling at night without lights will be stopped by the police, then approached by ambassadors who will offer to install free lights on their bikes so they can avoid tickets. “That’s a very positive interaction,” Giambrone said. “Today tends to be a ‘slap and tickle’ – some people who don’t want to hear our advice are still going to ride badly,” he added.
I’ve heard grumbling from cyclists about the enforcement events in the past so, for a different perspective, I posted on The Chainlink, a local bike social networking website with over 8,500 members, asking whether people feel the events are helpful for encouraging safe behavior. Out of the dozen or so folks who responded, opinions on the usefulness of the stings ran about fifty-fifty.