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 showed 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.

  • The Tribune sure knows how to freak people out.

    A 50% increase in the cable TV tax means from 4% to 6%. It’s not like your cable bill will get 50% more expensive. I’m not implying that most readers won’t get that if they really think about it, but come on…

    The rest of the editorial is devoted to point out that biking is dangerous, and as drivers (and “occasionally bike”, of course), they fear that more bikes mean there will be more accidents. Less pollution and fitter citizens is good, as they point out, but they offer no suggestion for how to make it more attractive?

    If you install safer infrastructure, which the Trib curiously doesn’t advocate for, a lot of the problems they complain about will disappear. Luckily a lot of the Tribune’s suburban reader base can’t vote in the city, and will just have to deal with it – the city’s changing, and for the better! Someone should take all of these bike editorials in the papers and condense it down to a formula. It seems like they’re all the same: curiously void of suggestions to make it better, and meaningful hard data.

  • Chicagio

    “Someone should take all of these bike editorials in the papers and condense it down to a formula. It seems like they’re all the same: curiously void of suggestions to make it better, and meaningful hard data.”

    You are right on. After the trib posted Ald. Dowell’s proposal yesterday an article (if you can call it that) appeared from John Kass. I took a glance at it and just thought, “oh, it’s a reprint.” Then i checked the date and was surprised to find it was dated yesterday. It’s like the tribune has these articles written by a robot… an irrelevant, bankrupt robot.

    Edit: Also, I wonder… they say bikes and cars on the road at the same time scares them to death. Does this mean that if only cars were on the road, they would be less scared to death? I only ask because they seem to forget that cars driving among themselves are pretty effective at, you know, causing actual death.

  • An irrelevant, bankrupt robot… that generates pageviews!

  • Chicagio
  • sarah

    Uh… cars were here before bikes? Really?

  • Reader

    Definitely good, by why do “Bikers need to take responsibility for their own” when no one calls on drivers to clean up their collective act?

  • That’s it! I knew it existed.

  • Chicagio

    So the editorial half-correctly states that an Idaho stop is when a biker is allowed to treat a stop sign as a yield sign but it apparently “has no place on milwaukee avenue”
    I am curious, though, what is the argument against allowing bikes to treat stop signs and red signals as yield? That’s pretty much how i bike now. I approach a red light, i stop or come very close to it, if no cars are coming and no pedestrians are in the walk, i proceed. Personally, if i’m a driver, i’d rather have bikers do that since it allows them to get separation from me so i can drive less anxiously. I really can’t understand why people have such a problem with bikers doing that except biker-envy.

  • Milwaukee Avenue, at least on all the parts I’ve been on south of Belmont Avenue, has not a single stop sign.

  • Tribune writers often pre-write articles, before a meeting or event has taken place.

  • Adam


    Comparatively, cyclists moved very quickly. Earning the moniker, ‘scorchers’. Thus the recent rise of cycling for transportation is the return of the scorchers.

  • Mishellie

    Well. There is one (sorry…)

    I don’t remember the cross street, but it’s the one right by Irazu.

  • I knew there had to be at least one. That’s at Moffat and Oakley.

  • So ms. Dowell should look up Dutch history with the bike tax. Exactly for the reasons that the suntimes points out, the bike registration and fees were abolished during the 1930s because revenue simply fell far below expense of enforcement and management, and before that never yielded much positive income anyway. It belongs in the category of wind and light tax, some other antiquated concepts.

  • You wrote “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.” I think that that argument really resonates with non-bicyclists when you add the words “just as pedestrians often do.” I think most people who walk in the city will admit they’ve crossed minor streets on red when there’s no motor vehicle in sight, and that vision may help them understand how the act doesn’t impinge on anyone else’s right of way nor endanger anyone, including themselves.

  • MarkB

    Okay, Ms. Dowell:
    1.)There are a LOT more cable users than cyclists, so if it’s revenue you’re after, you’re going the wrong way.
    2.)It makes more sense logistically to use an already-existing infrastructure to collect revenues than it does to create and pay for a new one — ESPECIALLY when the revenues that new infra will collect won’t pay for itself, much less the bike lanes.
    3.)If KASS is aligned with you, you’re DEFINITELY on the wrong track.

    Women are supposed to be able to use both hemispheres of their brain, according to research my sister has done; time for you to try it.

  • MarkB

    Nope — not really. I know you know this, from how you phrased the comment. What I find funny is Adam’s use of Carlton Reid’s source to back up that cars WERE here first. Reid thoroughly debunks that.

  • Eric

    Cars weren’t there first. Paved roads in America are a direct result of bicycles.


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