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Clueless Tribune Editorial Endorses Dowell’s Bike Licensing Proposal

Alderman Patricia Dowell

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell has done some good things for cycling, including negotiating a compromise on upgrading the King Drive bicycle lanes, and sponsoring a youth bike camp. But her ill-conceived, unworkable proposal to require a $25 licensing fee for bicyclists instead of raising the tax on cable TV service has resulted in plenty of kooky commentary on traffic safety and accountability for cyclists.

In addition to a predictable rant from noted Tribune bike-baiter John Kass, who calls for hiking the fee to a c-note and impounding the vehicles of cyclists who don’t comply, the Trib ran a tone-deaf, error-riddled editorial endorsing Dowell’s plan. “Dowell's proposal drew hoots from many directions, but we think she's on to something,” the editorial reads. “Not just because the city could use the money — though really, those miles of protected bike lanes are costing an awful lot, so why not?” Actually, PBLs aren’t costing the city much money – in most cases 80 percent of the funding comes from federal transportation grants, and the lanes are incredibly cheap compared to car infrastructure, since they mostly consist of paint on the road.

The editorial isn't exactly anti-bike, but it’s pretty clueless about traffic safety:

More bikes mean fewer cars, less pollution and fitter citizens. We know in our hearts that this is a good thing. But it scares us to death. Why? Because we drive — and occasionally bike — in the city. In the corridors shared by two- and four-wheeled commuters, the morning and afternoon rush hours are mayhem. Last year, 1,675 crashes between bikes and vehicles were reported in the city. Every driver or biker has a near-miss story to share.

The piece is written as if the ever-growing number of people on bikes in Chicago is a safety problem that needs to be addressed. However, as has been shown in city after city, as bike mode share grows, the crash rate drops due to the safety-in-numbers factor. Cyclists become more visible, so that drivers learn to check for bikes before making a turn or opening a car door. If motorists are scared to death of hitting someone on a bike, that’s a good thing because it causes them to drive more cautiously, which benefits all road users.

“We're not suggesting the cars should own the road simply because they were here first, but we do think the cyclists joining those cars on the road ought to observe the same rules,” the editorial continues. “It's confounding how many will argue point blank that no, they shouldn't.” Of course, bicycles were a common sight on Chicago streets decades before the automobile was invented, and the cyclist-driven Good Roads Movement led to the birth of our modern highway system, but we’ll let that one pass.

Bicycling on Milwaukee Avenue
Cyclists on Milwaukee Avenue in River West. Photo: Steven Vance for CDOT.

“In Idaho, bikes can legally treat a red light like a yield sign; pedaling through without stopping is known as ‘the Idaho Stop,’” The Trib states. “It has no place on Milwaukee Avenue.” Here the paper is really confused. The Idaho stop allows cyclists to treat a stop sign, not a stoplight, like a yield sign. That’s a perfectly logical rule and should be the law everywhere because, unlike motorists, people on bikes are not operating a potentially deadly, 2000-pound vehicle with limited sight lines, and unnecessary stopping at stop signs is a momentum-killer for human-powered transportation.

For the same reasons, it doesn’t make sense to ticket cyclists who stop for red lights, look both ways to make sure the coast is clear, and then safely proceed through the intersection. Furthermore, the Idaho stop is largely irrelevant to Milwaukee Avenue, since its most highly pedaled stretch from Logan Square to the Loop has no stop signs.

In contrast to the Trib, a short editorial in the Sun-Times titled “Bicycle tax a bad idea” nailed the issue. “As a city, we should be encouraging more people to use bikes instead of cars, not discouraging them,” the piece states. “Bikes are better for the environment and our health and do far less tax-eating damage to our roads.”

The Sun-Times points out that the bureaucracy needed to enforce the licensing fee would probably cost more money than the tax would bring in. In addition, enforcing the license requirement would be a waste of police resources, and most officers and bicycle owners alike would probably just ignore the ordinance, the piece states. It’s good to read that one of our two local daily papers knows what it’s talking to when it comes to Dowell’s half-baked proposal.

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