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.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Well said John. I too scratched my head at Grossman’s commentary.

    On the car – pedestrian death nexus cue Ooboo in 3, 2, 1 with his nonsensical aphysical editorials that cars are safer at higher velocities.

    It really is a mass velocity issue.

  • I think you are trivializing the potential for harm to pedestrians by scofflaw cyclists in order to make your point.

  • No, I stated what the potential for harm to pedestrians from bicyclists is. I just said it’s trivial compared to the danger posed to pedestrians by drivers.

  • John

    From the Grossman article, one might think that Mackinac Island is the most dangerous place on Earth.

  • David Altenburg

    Biking season’s nearly over, so the dying institutions like the Trib have gotta get their anti-bike click-bait in while they can.

    This saddest thing about Grossman’s piece is that his wheelhouse – the rich variety of Chicago’s neighborhoods – is a pretty damn good reason to ride a bike in the first place. So many of the great neighborhoods in Chicago are difficult to reach by public transit, too far to reach by foot, and who wants to sit in traffic all day to check them out? But by bike, they’re accessible and enjoyable. If it weren’t for my bike, I still would never have seen most of Chicago.

    But I certainly don’t need to tell you that, John. As the creator of the Perimeter Ride, the Ramen Ride, and countless others, you probably know that more than anyone.

  • oooBooo

    And that’s what is silly about this article, the ‘but,but,but that thing can hurt you more’ aspect. When the average pedestrian is buzzed (or hit) on the sidewalk or in the cross walk by a red light running bicyclist he isn’t going to think ‘gee, I am glad that wasn’t a car or a truck’, he’s going to think that ‘f’ing a**hole bicyclist belongs in the street (or ran a red signal)!’ Furthermore, the average pedestrian is also going to be a car driver and hasn’t been on a bicycle since he was 14 years old. He’s going to think ‘I have to stop when I drive, why can’t the bicyclist?’

    It’s just not a particularly effective argument IME and sounds more like justifying not following the rules of the road. Which is why I don’t use it. I use an argument that drivers like those who write these trolling trib articles don’t want bicyclists following the vehicle code to the letter. IME they are a bunch of hypocrites on the topic of the vehicle code.

  • oooBooo

    If it is, you should be going after trucks and buses rather than making nonsensical inaccurate snipes. Or would care to describe how 85th percentile speed limits have anything to do with running signals or operating a vehicle on a sidewalk?

    But if you really want to slow things down, this traffic model will do it:

    Of course that goes against the idea of greater complexity, rules and control.

  • I think you absolutely right about the reaction that peds have when they have a near incident with a biker. I think there are two reasons why they don’t have similar reactions to drivers. First, drivers have conditioned pedestrians to assume the worst behavior and therefore anticipate lawlessness. Second, cars are big, fast, and hide the operator. Yelling at or getting close to a car doesn’t serve much purpose other than increasing your chance of getting hit. Bikers, however, are more accessible and pose less immediate risk to pedestrians.

    Also, your assertion that people haven’t ridden bikes since they were 14 is rapidly becoming, if it isn’t already, outdated. Annectdotal sure, but at least 75-80% of the people I’m either friends with or work with have ridden a bike in the past year for commuting purposes. As more people ride the better the average pedestrian/biker interaction will be.

  • David Altenburg

    “When the average pedestrian is buzzed (or hit) on the sidewalk or in the cross walk by a red light running bicyclist he isn’t going to think ‘gee, I am glad that wasn’t a car or a truck'”

    Perhaps, but shouldn’t writers for the Trib put a little more thought into their pieces than the average pedestrian’s initial reaction?

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    John: Your caption on the picture above “To create safe, relaxing conditions for walking, get rid of the cars, not the bikes.”

    One nutty attitude about bikers from the Tribune. Another nutty attitude about cars from Streetsblog.

    Both, get off my lawn attitudes that don’t have much effect on anyone.

  • r

    Ah, the classic straw man. The Trib was actually saying “ban bikes,” at least for a day. But what most livable streets advocates want is not to ban all cars, but to create more of a balance with an increased number of car-free or car-lite places. Somehow this reasoned approach to city living gets interpreted as the mirror opposite of anti-bike cranks.

  • oooBooo

    Lack of depth and playing to the readership demographic seems to be a common thing be it writers for the trib or streetsblog or any place else.

  • oooBooo

    Um, the average pedestrian is a driver who hasn’t ridden a bicycle since he was 14. Yes I took a bit of license for effect, but one ride in 20 years doesn’t change the point I am making. Your sample of friends is probably a sample of like-minded people and if typical of american age segregation, of the same age group too. Thus it is not a representative sample of people as a whole. The baby-boomers still skew averages in this country and probably will continue to do so for another two decades.

    The thing is people do have similar reactions to drivers, but how many times does it happen for the frequency of encountering drivers? It’s much much lower. Essentially trivial as expressed as percentage of encounters. Just look at the numbers, total bicycle encounters is probably not even 5% of that with motor vehicles. Thus each incident becomes much more of a indictment of the class. They are at a much higher frequency. Three bicyclists out of 50 is a lot more than three drivers out of 500 or 5,000 or 50,000.

  • Mobility Lab

    Some nice points in this article from Streetsblog’s founder about how to talk to anti-bicycle bikelashers:

  • cjlane

    “at least 75-80% of the people I’m either friends with or work with have ridden a bike in the past year for commuting purposes”

    I know/can discern the commuting habits of about 200 people (ranging from 20-something, to 50-something, with the majority under ~45) in Chicago. Of them under 10 have commuted by bike in the past year.

    So, I must agree with ooob that there’s cohort bias going on.

  • I’m not saying they do it regularly (or have even done it more than once or twice in the past year) but the notion to most people haven’t ridden a bike since they were a teenager is probably no longer a true assumption.

  • cjlane

    I agree that the “haven’t ridden since 19” is a strawman (or cohort bias), but so is “80% of those I know commute by bike”. The truth is very much in between.