John Kass Returns to Bike Baiting: “I Can’t Stand Those Divvy Bike People”

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J.C. Steinbrunner and Amalie Drury at the Pine Grove Divvy station. Photo: John Greenfield

After a series of anti-bike columns in the Tribune, designed to tick off cyclists and rack up pageviews, John Kass crossed the line last May with a piece that implied motorists shouldn’t be expected to watch out for bikes before opening their car doors. Dustin Valenta, who sustained a cracked skull, fractured pelvis and shoulder blades, 23 broken ribs, a punctured lung and a lacerated shoulder after he was doored by one driver and then run over by another, responded to Kass with a statement on Streetsblog Chicago:

I just think that it’s sad that he’s drawing a line in sand, as if there’s a difference between human beings in cars and human beings on bikes, and that we should be at enmity with one another. I think what he’s doing here is creating a conflict between humans that doesn’t need to exist. Ultimately if you’re riding a bike or driving a car you should be trying your best to not destroy the lives of other people around you and your own life.

After Valenta set him straight, Kass was blessedly silent on bike issues for several months. During that time, his Trib colleague transportation reporter John Hilkevitch took up the slack with a couple of articles suggesting that the city’s new Divvy bike-share system was a ripoff, and a dysfunctional one at that. Hilk changed his tune last week with an article that acknowledged the system’s impressive early ridership numbers, but Kass returned to his bike-baiting ways Friday in a video interview that puts him squarely on the wrong side of history again.

Two days earlier, married couple David Kolin and Jeannine Cordero, both lawyers, filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Department of Transportation and 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman, demanding the removal of a Divvy station in front of their condo at 3565 North Pine Grove. They argued that the facility is “hideous,” attracts garbage, and could be a magnet for strangers who might follow their kids into the building. As a Streetsblog commenter pointed out, if one intended to abduct children, a giant blue bicycle explicitly tied to one’s identity and location might not be the best choice for a getaway vehicle. On Friday, a judge dismissed the couple’s request to have the station removed immediately; the next hearing will take place at the end of September.

In the video discussion with Trib reporter Jen Weigel, Kass expressed sympathy for the NIMBYs’ plight. “Would you want a Divvy bike station in your courtyard?” he asked. “I still can’t stand those Divvy bike people. You know why? Go outside on Michigan Avenue… Reporters going in and out of this building almost get killed. ‘Cause you’ve got some little old lady from Denmark… and she’s on the sidewalk, and she’s almost smashing into the Polish pedi-bike guys.” He later referred to the pedicabbers as “Polish, Russian, whatever.”

“I almost got killed by a grandma,” the columnist complained. “I wanted to give her an elbow, like [hockey player] Eric Nesterenko. 85 years old. I don’t want ‘em in my neighborhood. Go to the other person’s neighborhood. Don’t be here by the Tribune.”

Ethnic stereotyping aside, if I was John Kass and had previously gotten called out for blaming dooring victims for causing their own injuries, I wouldn’t even be joking about violence against bicyclists, let alone seniors. Perhaps some of his disdain for Divvy is sour grapes. Kass would have had convenient access to Divvy at work, but 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly vetoed a docking station proposed for the plaza next to the Tribune Tower.

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Rules of the road printed on a Divvy bike's headset.

While it’s true that adults should walk their bikes on sidewalks, a rule that is printed in big letters on the middle of the Divvy cycles’ handlebars, people ride bikes on the sidewalks of Michigan Avenue because they’re afraid to ride in a multilane street full of speeding motor vehicles. The best way to solve this problem is to provide safer conditions for biking by installing more bike lanes on downtown thoroughfares, especially retail-rich corridors like Mag Mile. Enforcing the rules of the road on scofflaw drivers, a much more serious threat to pedestrians, is essential as well.

As for Kass and the condo owners’ assertion that Divvy users represent a negative element, here are a few of the shady characters I encountered when I dropped by the busy bike-share station on Pine Grove Friday after work. Juliann Cecchi, who works in higher education, had cruised up the lakefront from Lincoln Park and was checking in her bike to avoid getting a late fee before returning home. “I’m out on leisure trip, just ‘cause it’s a beautiful night,” she said. “Divvy is great. I love it.”

Nearby residents Amalie Drury, a writer, and J.C. Steinbrunner, a painter, were grabbing bikes to go out for dinner and dessert; they planned to go for a spin on the lakefront the following morning. They had heard about this particular station because of the news coverage of the lawsuit. “We live nearby here but we came out of our way to come to this station, even though there’s one right by our house, because we had to see what these people are making a fuss about,” Drury said. “So we’re checking it out to see if it’s really intruding on their lives.”

“I don’t see how it could be,” Steinbrunner said. “It’s a pretty handsome set-up. I don’t see what all the hubbub is about.”

“The bikes are pretty,” Drury agreed. “We first rented Bixi bikes in Montreal a few years ago. There were the bike stations in residential areas and commercial areas, everywhere you looked, so it’s kind of expected that they would set it up that way here too.”

Luckily for Kass, he doesn’t have to worry about Divvy riders coming to his real neighborhood, since he resides in the western suburbs. That said, perhaps he should keep his nose out of Chicago bike policy and let those of us who actually live in the city enjoy this useful, efficient and fun transportation system.

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