Enforcement Events Educate Drivers and Cyclists – If They’re Done Right

Sergeant Joe Giambrone speaks with a cyclist. Photo by John Greenfield.

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.”

Carlin Thomas, left, offers a driver tips for safely sharing the road with bikes. Photo by John Greenfield.

“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.

The police flagged down these women for running a red. Photo by John Greenfield.

“I can understand the good intentions behind such events, but ultimately think they’re a waste of time and resources,” wrote one Chainlinker. “Those resources could be put to better use giving those polite warnings to the drivers of vehicles that are much more numerous and far more likely to cause injury or death.”

Another member complained that at two different enforcement events, police ignored other cyclists blowing a stop sign and detained her, even though she was the only one who stopped. In one case an officer told her she wasn’t really stopped unless both feet were touching the pavement.

Charlie Short, CDOT’s bike safety and education manager, contacted me offering more information about the effectiveness of the program. He said last summer the ambassadors and police officers held six enforcement events over a three-month period at the three-way intersection of Kinzie and Kingbury, which he said many pedestrians pass through while walking from the West Loop to River North. The location is also next to the East Bank Club, an upscale fitness center where Mayor Rahm Emanuel and many other wealthy and influential Chicagoans work out.

The 18th Police District and 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly’s office received many complaints about bicyclists in the Kinzie protected lanes blowing stop signs at this intersection, Short said. Just before the first of the three events, CDOT staffers counted only two percent of cyclists on Kinzie observing the stop signs. After the last enforcement event, 36 percent were stopping. “Our experience on Kinzie shows that if we do it right, [enforcement events] definitely get people to be more aware,” he said.

The ambassadors' "share the road" logo is reminiscent of a peace sign. Photo by John Greenfield.

Short said he knows cyclists want to see more efforts made to curb dangerous behavior by drivers. “Last year we stopped about 3,000 cars,” he said, adding that the police issued more than 100 citations to motorists at enforcement events for violations like talking on their phones while driving, or not moving their cars from bike lanes when requested. “We don’t discourage the police from handing out tickets to drivers.”

CDOT has also been working with the police to do crosswalk enforcement stings, ticketing drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians in crosswalks at high-conflict locations like Foster Avenue by Gompers Park. Last year CDOT held 91 enforcement events for cyclists and motorists; over 100 are scheduled for this year; and CDOT hopes to do 100 bike enforcement events plus 100 crosswalk stings per year in the future, Short said.

He acknowledged that it’s important to focus bike enforcement efforts on dangerous behavior, such as riding fast on sidewalks, riding against traffic, or recklessly blowing red lights. Police should differentiate between these actions and harmless behavior that doesn’t follow the letter of the law, such as when people on bikes treat stoplights like stop signs, or stop signs like yield signs. “We also see these enforcement events as an opportunity to educate officers about bike laws,” he said. “We try to work with officers who are willing to listen to us and willing to learn.”

  • Jennifer

    No, “spread” implies a point of origin. Clearly the officer meant “littering” in the sense of “giving birth to a litter”; ie, the neighborhood’s unfortunate combination of poor adherence and lax enforcement contributes to the propagation of ghost bikes.

  • CL

    Yeah, that’s disheartening. The only way I could see that interaction not being wildly out of line is if the officer had told him to stop, but he kept riding through — since ignoring an officer’s order to stop escalates the situation very quickly to some version of “stop or I’m going to use force.” If it was the first thing the officer said to the cyclist, it’s terrible — the opposite of what these events should be. Of course even if it wasn’t the first thing the officer said, I’m sure there was a better way to get the message across that he needed to stop immediately.

  • Thomasz Friechuck

    Ghost bikes are littering the neighborhoods.
    After 1 year they should be given to the family of the deceased.
    Our city is not a graveyard and the ghostbikes look like shit after a while cuz no one cleans them up.

  • Beatrice

    Oh, come on. He’s a cop, not a professional public speaker. And he certainly seems sympathetic to bicyclists. Cut the guy some slack.

  • Ghost bikes are an important reminder to drivers and cyclists of the consequences of reckless behavior. Several of these memorials were refurbished in time for last week’s Ride of Silence. Many ghost bikes are well maintained by family and friends of the deceased and they become beautiful tributes to the person who died.

    For example the, ghost bike for Liza Whitacre at Damen and Wellington includes photos, remembrances and flowers planted below it. I pass by that intersection often and I am always moved by the sight. Here’s some info about Liza’s life: http://ghostbikes.org/chicago/liza-whitacre

  • Bryan, do you feel cyclists should be ticketed for Idaho stops or treating a stoplight like a stop sign?

  • True, it’s never a good idea to ignore orders from a police officer.

  • Fred

    I don’t think anyone is complaining about the idea of Ghost Bikes or trying to get rid of all of them, it’s just that there is a saturation point. A couple of bikes per neighborhood is a reminder; lining a street on both sides with them is less effective, visual clutter, and indeed litter. Proximity to other Ghost Bikes should be considered before a new one is placed.

  • How about we worry less about the aesthetics of the existing ghost bikes and more about trying to prevent new ones from being installed? The most effective way to do that is to create safer streets for cyclists by better engineering, education and enforcement.

  • Anonymous

    As I said before the Netherlands has had a holistic approach to bike safety and mode share increase for decades. This approach consists of much more than separating traffic lanes.

    Suggesting the difference between bike safety in Chicago and Amsterdam comes down to separating lanes without bothering to review the research is somewhat naive and simplistic.

    I am sure you read the discussion over on Jan Heine’s blog about the dangers of separated lanes He contends that separated lanes are in fact less safe. And he actually quotes some research to back up his viewpoint. (for the record, I find even his comparison somewhat simplistic, since he too ignores everything else that European countries are doing as part of that holistic approach and that will have some kind of impact on the statistics).

    Which bring me back to my original reply to Adam: If you make such strong statements (“many times”) it would be nice to point to some research that backs up your statement. Otherwise it becomes just another opinion. And there are already enough opnions out there.

  • Duppie, we always appreciate your input, since you’re a native of the Netherlands. Yes, research and numbers are very helpful in discussions like this. But common sense suggests that Amsterdam and Copenhagen are safe places to bike, at least in part, because they have protected lanes, not in spite of them.

  • tsubo

    why don’t bikes ride on side streets? Chicago is a grid, instead of riding on western, use artesian. I won’t even start on the bikes in the left turn lane. Slower moving, closer to bicycle speed, less traffic, hardly any doors and more room to maneuver are just a few of the benefits of side streets. In the last 3 years, my car has been hit TWICE by bikers on main streets, causing 1100$ in damage. One girl, after drinking at handlebar and riding a fixed gear on western at 2am t-boned my car door and thank god wasn’t hurt bad. i had to go to court twice, because i’m the licensed party. lets move the bikes to the slow streets for everyone’s safety. Thanks

  • Thanks for the feedback. You’re right, Western and other arterials are definitely not safe streets for cycling right now. One thing that’s really cool about bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam is that even the big streets have separated bike facilities. I’d love to see the city add protected or raised bike lanes on streets like Western so that they become truly accessible for all users.

  • The state and the city provide the right for anyone to bike on any street, except where it’s been signed otherwise. Many times the arterials, like Western, are preferred because one can bike faster on it (fewer lights, fewer stop signs), but the choice is ultimately up to individuals. The side streets are attractive in their own right and I don’t think anything should be done to say that people should bike in a certain place and not another.