Active Trans: New Bike Safety Ordinance Good for Cyclists

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The new taxi sticker design.

Yesterday Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced the 2013 Bicycle Safety Ordinance to City Council, including plans to double the fines for motorists who door bicyclists from $500 to $1,000, as well as to raise fines for cyclists who break traffic laws from $25 to a range of $50-$200, depending on the infraction. Emanuel also announced that all 7,000 Chicago taxicabs will be required to display “Look! Before Opening Your Door” stickers to help prevent injuries to people on bikes and other road users. The ordinance was sent to the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee for consideration.

“If they are sharing the roadway with vehicles, cyclists need to obey all traffic laws, including yielding to pedestrians, stopping at traffic signals and indicating when they are making turns,” Emanuel said in a statement. “When the traffic laws are obeyed, everyone is safer. By increasing the fines for failing to obey the law, cyclists will behave more responsibly, increasing safety and encouraging others to ride bikes.”

There were more than 250 dooring crashes in the city last year. In addition to doubling the dooring fine, the new ordinance would raise the penalty for leaving a vehicle door open in traffic from $150 to $300. The new red, transparent taxi stickers were designed by MINIMAL design studios, whose employee Neill Townsend was killed after he swerved to avoid a car door and was over by a truck on the Near North Side as he rode to work.

“Taxicab drivers need to be aware of cyclists traveling near their vehicles, but their customers must also take the time to look before opening doors into traffic,” Mayor Emanuel said. “These stickers will remind taxi customers to be more conscious of their surroundings before they exit the vehicle,” Emanuel said.

While cyclists have applauded the anti-dooring initiatives, some aren’t happy about the city raising the fines for bicycle violations, since running stop signs or stoplights on a bike is much less likely to cause injury to others than breaking the same laws in a car. “I’m all for safety but there are certainly non-reckless ways to go through a red light [on a bike],” Tony Adams posted on The Chainlink, a local social networking site for cyclists. “It makes no sense to sit at a red light, or come to a complete stop at a stop sign if there is no cross traffic with the right of way.”

Active Transportation Alliance Director Ron Burke said his organization supports higher fines for dangerous behavior by cyclists. “Like motorists and even pedestrians who use roads recklessly, people who ride bikes recklessly should also be ticketed,” he said in a post on the group’s website. “We don’t endorse ticketing cyclists and drivers for minor violations that put no one at risk. Let the police focus on more important matters. But if you’re putting people at risk, a ticket is warranted whether you’re biking, walking or driving.”

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Cyclist's viewpoint of a driver exiting a car. Photo by Steven Vance.

Ethan Spotts, communications director for the advocacy group, responded to Adams’ Chainlink post. “We support people getting tickets if they are disobeying the law, whether they are driving or biking,” he wrote. “We’re not calling for a crackdown on people on bikes. As an advocacy organization, we simply can’t say ‘It’s OK for people on bikes to blow red lights.'”

Chainlinker Cameron Puetz wrote to say he agreed with Active Trans’ viewpoint. “Respect gets respect and especially with the spring thaw there are a lot of people [riding] like idiots out there,” he said. “Unfortunately, the bad apples are the most visible. The guy wearing headphones on a brakeless fixie who weaves around pedestrians to blow a red light at a high traffic intersection just became the most memorable cyclist of the day to a lot of people whom he just endangered. He did something wrong and deserves a ticket.”

It seems unlikely the new ordinance alone will lead to police officers writing significantly more tickets to cyclists. In general the police, except for a relatively small number of traffic cops, dislike writing traffic tickets because of the paper work hassle, and they really don’t like to give out bike tickets. The Chicago Police Department wrote an estimated 1,300 tickets to cyclists in 2012, less than four per day. Needless to say, the number of tickets written to motorists is much higher.

While higher ticket prices to discourage dangerous biking might make sense, it wouldn’t be rational to charge cyclists anywhere near the same penalties as drivers. Since the new bike fines would be set by the CPD after the ordinance passes, we don’t yet know how the fees will compare, but Burke expects that fines for cyclists would be about half those for motorists. Currently, the fine for motorists running a stop sign is $100 to $300 for the first offense, $500 to $700 for the second and $1,000 for subsequent offenses.

Commenting on Streetsblog Chicago today, Active Trans Director of Campaigns Lee Crandell argued that even if there is no change to enforcement, the media attention generated by the new ordinance is a positive thing. “Press is … an effective way to raise awareness and educate the public,” he wrote. “Increasing the fines is generating a good amount press to bring attention to the dooring issue, while the stickers in cabs … will help cement ‘dooring’ into Chicago’s vocabulary.”

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Dooring Survivor Dustin Valenta Responds to John Kass

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Last Thursday, after Rahm Emanuel announced a new ordinance that would hike the fees for infractions by bicyclists from $25 to $50-200, it wasn’t a shocker that notorious bike-baiter John Kass responded with a smug “I told you so” column in the Tribune. However, the ordinance also doubles the fine for drivers who “door” cyclists […]