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Trib Bikelash Writer is Confused About the Real Threat to Pedestrian Safety

Stop bars and crosswalks are meaningless
Cars create an obstacle course for pedestrians at Western/Diversey/Elston. Photo: Steven Vance

The Tribune is a reliable source of bike backlash articles, and Monday’s op-ed by Ron Grossman was a particularly entertaining example, from a particularly confused reporter. The piece, titled “Maybe Chicago should ban bikes for a day,” argues that lawbreaking cyclists are the leading threat to pedestrians’ safe enjoyment of the city’s vibrant streets.

It’s understandable that Grossman was angered by a recent incident, in which a bike rider nearly struck him while he crossing Lincoln with a walk signal, and then shot him a middle finger. It’s certainly true that cyclists who disobey stop signs and traffic lights in a reckless manner, forcing others to stop in their tracks or slam on the brakes to avoid a crash, are a danger to themselves and others. They deserve to be ticketed.

Bicyclists do occasionally injure people on foot, and the recent, highly publicized crashes in New York’s Central Park serve as a reminder that it's possible for bike-pedestrian collisions to be deadly. All road users need to travel in a mindful manner, and do everything they can to avoid causing harm to others.

Open Streets on Milwaukee. To create safe, relaxing conditions for walking, get rid of the cars, not the bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

That said, the danger to pedestrians posed by 200 pounds of bike and rider is trivial compared to that of a two-ton car. It’s worth noting that, while there are no records of bicyclists causing the traffic deaths of others in Chicago in the last few decades, drivers killed 48 people on foot here in 2012 alone.

In his article, Grossman, who specializes in writing about Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, waxes rhapsodic about the rich tapestry of sights, sounds, and aromas one encounters on a stroll though the city’s diverse communities. “But it's hard to enjoy when you have to be prepared to evade a bicycle with a quick move worthy of a toreador,” he sighs. The author seems oblivious to the way bad urban planning has degraded our city’s pedestrian environment, and how the danger, noise, and stink caused by too many cars makes walking riskier and less fun.

Street Stickers 29x29_Biker_5_30
CDOT sidewalk decal on Dearborn.

Instead, Grossman proposes periodically giving pedestrians a holiday from the perceived bike menace by closing Chicago streets to cyclists. What would a day without bikes actually be like? It would be even louder, more congested, and more dangerous than a typical day.

If the author wants safer, more relaxing, and more civilized streets, what he’s really looking for is a holiday from motorized traffic. He could have experienced that at one of Chicago’s Open Streets ciclovía events. On those days, streets like State and Milwaukee were open for leisurely strolling, cycling, and other forms of car-free, carefree recreation. Unfortunately, the program was canceled due to insufficient organizational and financial support from the city.

Grossman is especially confused when it comes to safety messages directed at pedestrians, which the Chicago Department of Transportation has installed along the Dearborn protected lanes:

[Bicyclists’] sense of entitlement has been given a municipal stamp of approval, at least to judge from a sidewalk sign at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Randolph streets: "LOOK!" it reads, with a stick figure bicyclist perched between the two O's. "BE SAFE BE ALERT," it cautions… The warning is repeated just off the curb, where the pedestrian-crossing lane intersects a bicycle lane: "LOOK BIKES” … To my eye, they are the city's way of saying to its non-cycling citizens: "You are on your own. Don't look to us to protect you by enforcing the traffic laws."

Actually, those messages aren’t there to warn people on foot to watch out for lawbreaking bicyclists. CDOT found that red light compliance by cyclists improved by 161 percent following the installation of the bike lanes, which include bike-specific traffic signals.

A pedestrian stands in the Dearborn bike lane while bicyclists have the green. Photo: John Greenfield

Rather, the messages are there to remind people to check for legal, contraflow bike traffic on Dearborn before they step off the curb to illegally jaywalk or stand in the bike lanes while waiting for the walk signal. That is to say, they’re there to protect pedestrians from themselves.

We weren't the only ones who were bemused by Grossman's "get off my lawn" rant against bicyclists. Read other responses by Chicagoist and the Trib's own Kevin Williams.

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