Motorists Respond to Stranded Divvy Rider With Concern, Not Abuse

The Divvy rider on the Dan Ryan. Photo: Stephanie Kemen

Remember the unfortunate young woman who found herself pedaling a Divvy bike on Lake Shore Drive last November? Instead of offering to help the endangered rider, a couple of people driving by thought it was funny to shoot a cell phone video of her, while repeatedly calling her a “dumb b—-.” After the clip went viral on YouTube, many more people joined the chorus of ridicule, including a Chicagoist writer and downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly.

A similar incident happened last Saturday morning on the Dan Ryan, but this time the motorists had a more compassionate response. Stephanie Kemen was driving south on the Ryan with her boyfriend when they spotted a woman pedaling on the expressway near 18th Street, RedEye reported. “I felt so bad for her,” Kemen said. “I think at first we were laughing … but her legs looked tired.”

The boyfriend rolled down the window to let the woman know that biking on the Ryan is illegal and dangerous. “She was like, ‘I know, I know,’ and you could hear in her voice that she was scared s—less,” Kemen said. Afterwards, they called 311 and 911 to report the incident to the authorities. State police who responded said they received several calls about an “elderly woman” biking on the expressway, but when they arrived, she was gone. “I hope she’s OK,” Kemen said.

“We don’t know who rode the bike nor what the circumstances were, so we don’t know enough about the situation to comment on it,” Divvy manager Elliot Greenberger told me. “We’ve served nearly 2.9 million trips in the past 16 months and there have only been a couple of incidents like this that we’ve become aware of, usually through social media.”

Former Active Transportation Alliance staffer Lee Crandell summed up the situation nicely in a comment on the RedEye site:

Divvy users are just regular people, and incidents like this are a good indication of how unintuitive and confusing our streets are for regular people. I can see how if you’re not an “avid cyclist” and you’re riding on streets you’re not familiar with, you could easily end up making a wrong turn onto a highway ramp. And many Chicago streets already feel like expressways, so you might just keep riding before you realize your mistake.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Why not iust turn around and go back? And if you can’t tell the differnce between a highway and a road, well that’s a pretty poor excuse. Usually there is plenty of signage that says wrong way or do not enter. How she got off is just as mysterious as how she got on.

  • Velocipedian

    I wonder how many cars she overtook.

  • skyrefuge

    Crandell’s comment that she might not have realized it was an expressway does not appear to be a real attempt to actually explain anything that happened here, but rather, an opportunity to attach some unrelated “wah wah, Chicago is horrible for cycling!” hyperbole to a popular story. “How bad is cycling in Chicago? It’s so bad people can’t even tell expressways from non-expressways!” /JayLeno

  • jeff wegerson

    Actually full expressways with full shoulders are safer than the drive. Colorado used to allow bikers on some interstates where there were no frontage or other convenient roads.

  • Yep, once on a cross-country bike trip, when I left Denver and was heading northeast to Lincoln, Nebraska, the only efficient route was to ride on the shoulder of I-70. It seemed fairly safe, but a cop shooed me off at one point. After I snuck back on the interstate, I saw a sign that said “Bicycles keep to the right” and felt vindicated.

  • oooBooo

    The thing is she’s on the left side and she’s SB just south of 17th street. There’s no way to get there and not know it’s an interstate well before that point.

    Assuming mistaken entry downtown from one of the left side ramps that means she passed by the refuge and the chance to turn around at the accident investigation site. By the time one reaches the accident investigation site there is no mistaking that it is an interstate even if one has ignored all the signage to that effect.

    If she didn’t enter from a left side ramp that means she had to enter from the right (possibly from I290) and then crossed all the lanes. There’s no mistaking the ryan for anything but what it is when trying to cross all lanes. Ordinary people know exactly what they are attempting for such a move.

    Additionally, Chicago is a simple grid. It’s very intuitive and none of the city streets ‘feel like expressways’. I’ve ridden roads that ‘feel like expressways’ and none of them are within the city limits.

  • I was just in Denver and there’s a bike route from the airport to downtown on the shoulder of an interstate. I shudder to think of bicycling next to vehicles traveling 70 MPH.

  • Alex_H

    The highway between Baltimore, MD and Dover, DE is a state highway technically but it feels like an interstate. I found it to be quite comfortable riding on the extremely wide shoulder. It felt much safer than in many situations with a narrower shoulder and slower traffic.

  • BlueFairlane

    To be nitpicky for a moment, if you were taking the most efficient route northeast toward Lincoln from Denver, you’d have been on 76, not 70. Were you following the most logical path, you’d have been aiming for US 30, which parallels I-80.

    I’ve often seen bicyclists on interstates in the West. I once saw a large group of maybe 50 riding together up I-25 in Wyoming. A month or so ago, I saw a rider on 82 in Washington and another big group on 84 in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge. The lack of alternate routes and the lighter traffic make Western states much more accepting of freeway bicycling.

  • Couldn’t Divvy use Big Data to track that bike, look up who rented it, and ask her what happened?

  • Lawyer Jim

    My understanding is that Colorado is one of the states where it is legal to ride on the shoulder of an interstate highway specifically because there are so few ways to get through the natural obstacles, such as mountains.

  • You’re right, it was 76 — I misread Google Maps. Correct, that’s the route I took, which also parallels the Platte River. It’s the route my friend in Denver recommended, although I now see that I could have taken a more direct route via back roads, but perhaps goods and services would have been more difficult to come by.

    As it was, it was a pretty nightmarish ride through bleak terrain with temperatures in the ’90s. Since I was in a hurry to meet up with people in Lincoln, I was doing something like 100 miles a day. No fun. Read all about it in my book, “Bars Across America”:

  • SP_Disqus

    This is an example of Divvy showing the shortcomings in our bike infrastructure by exposing it to people that aren’t entirely familiar with the city. There needs to be very clear signage showing which streets are not available to bikes at every entrance to those streets. While there are some people commenting who scoff at the possibility that there is a very wide range of human behavior, this woman is proof that there are people confused about what is correct and the city needs to take responsibility for attempting to assure that people aren’t confused about where you’re supposed to bike. When I am downtown around LSD, I now try to take notice of what is keeping people from thinking it’s a normal bike friendly street and at some places there is absolutely nothing that obviously distinguishes it from other streets.

  • Fred

    Without knowing:
    The person,
    the serial number of the bike,
    the start location,
    the end location

    How would you go about even mining that?

  • Doesn’t each bike have a GPS transponder or something? How else are they tracking all those data?

  • Fred

    I was in Arizona in February and there were bikes allowed on the shoulder of I-17 between Phoenix and Sedona.

  • David P.

    There are still lots and lots of interstate highways in the west (I’ve seen then in WY, UT most recently) that are marked to allow bicycles on the shoulder. Often this is the case because there are no other roads for many miles.

  • Fred

    It is my understanding that they only know start and end location and make an educated guess about the route. Someone more knowledgeable on this topic (Steven or John) might be able to shed more light on this.

  • Observer

    Funny how when a person makes a very honest yet dangerous mistake, she’s ridiculed, as was the case with the woman last year. But when drivers routinely park in very obviously marked bike lanes, complaining about it labels anyone who rides a bike as just one of those radical, self-righteous safety freaks.

    Maybe a little more ridicule should be directed at drivers who are apparently “confused” about those really big bicycle stencils on the ground.

  • David P.

    Yes, Chicago is a grid but it’s not always a simple one, especially near major interruptions to the grid like the river, freeways, and other diagonals. When I’m riding in neighborhoods I don’t know very well I often have to consult a map to figure out how to get where I want to go precisely because it’s not always that simple of a grid.

  • Anne A

    I’ve had a similar reaction when seeing that configuration in Colorado.

    When I lived in NH, there was a state highway (101) that had a very wide shoulder in one section of the station and allowed bike riding on the shoulder. Only marginally less scary to be on a 55 mph road instead of 70 mph.

  • skyrefuge

    Why the shuddering? You’re certainly aware that intersections are where the *actual* danger is, and that’s something interstates do away with. The worst things about riding on the interstate shoulder is the noise (trucks @ 70mph are really damn loud) and the tiny wires from exploded tires that end up in your tires. Otherwise, they’re one of the best ways to get from place to place: smooth, relatively flat, tons of room to yourself, and no stops.

    Heck, anyone covering significant distance across the country on a bike is going to spend a lot of time on at least 55mph highways with shoulders smaller than Interstate shoulders. It’s really no big deal.

  • skyrefuge

    One uninjured Divvy rider per year ending up where they shouldn’t be hardly seems like a “problem” that needs to be solved by spending millions of dollars erecting signs that these riders would not have noticed anyway.

    What makes me think they wouldn’t have noticed them? Because such signs *already exist* at the Kennedy/Ryan entrances where this rider might have gotten on.

  • BlueFairlane

    Based on my experience, your friend steered you right. There are more direct routes, but it’s just you and the cows, and I’m not even sure you can get all the way through on pavement. As it is, that route is drudgery at 75 mph, and it’s one of the windiest roads I’ve traveled. I can’t imagine it on a bike.

    And I didn’t know you’d published a book … with the South Park Saloon on the cover, no less. (Been there.) You should advertise that more.

  • BlueFairlane

    I can’t imagine that one would be fun. It would probably be better headed south, but 17’s not exactly empty.

  • SP_Disqus

    I looked at a couple south side entrances and they have signs that say, “USE PROHIBITED BY MOTOR DRIVEN CYCLES / FARM IMPLEMENTS / PEDESTRIANS / NON-MOTORIZED TRAFFIC.”

    While it’s possible that this sign used to be enough to keep farmers safe, it’s possible that nowadays a tourist can come into the city, mistakenly bike down half the ramp until they get to the sign, read all 11 words of the sign and understand that “NON-MOTORIZED TRAFFIC” refers to bikes, but then be faced with the dilemma of turning around and biking into traffic on a narrow ramp or just keep going with traffic and hope for the best.

    I don’t know what the cost is to install mass produced pieces of metal with some paint on them, but the fact that this is happening and there are obvious fixes, such as signs at the entrance with bikes and crosses through it, makes not installing better signs that reflect the world we live in negligent. This sign is an embarrassment to the city, not to mention totally discriminatory against those that are illiterate or can’t read English. We’re living in 2014 so let’s act like it.

    You’re also assuming that this has happened to only 2 people and there is no way to know that. There may be a significant number that aren’t known to the blogosphere.

  • Fred

    IIRC, the right shoulders are extra wide, so it might not be too miserable. Certainly not ideal, but being 10-12ft away from traffic is at least far enough that you could wipe out without ended up in a travel lane.

  • BlueFairlane

    My thought would be that it’s a curvy, hilly interstate with a hell climb if you’re headed north, a number of purgatory climbs if you’re headed south, and pretty enough scenery that drivers aren’t necessarily going to keep their eyes where they’re supposed to be. And it’s packed, at least it has been when I’ve been on it.

    But then, there’s not really an alternate route, so that’s what you have to do if you want to go that way.

  • Yeah, other than the knowledge that if a motorist should make a wrong move, I’d be toast, I was fairly comfortable riding on the interstates out west — wide, smooth shoulders, and helpful backdrafts from trucks.

  • Thanks. It came out in 2010, but perhaps it’s time for another marketing blitz…

  • Do you really need signs not to head down an expressway ramp on a bicycle?

  • skyrefuge

    True, I have heard a lot of visitors to Chicago say “it was a nice city. Well, except for those totally discriminatory signs they have at the expressway entrances; what an embarrassment!”

    I’m quite sure that more than these two cyclists have inadvertently ended up on Chicago expressways. But if any of them had actually been injured, we would have heard about it. Thus, I’m still not even convinced that this is a “problem” that needs fixing, much less one that updated signs will actually fix.

    Drivers going the wrong way on expressways and injuring/killing people ranks much higher on the “actual problem” list, and universal GPS-tracking with engine kill-switches would prevent that, and in your world where money is apparently infinite and cost/benefit analyses don’t exist, we should probably at least implement that first.

  • Fred

    With rumble strip and 10ft of clearance between you and a travel lane, I wouldn’t worry too much about distracted drivers. How often do you see cars careening off interstate shoulders (assuming sober driver and no weather factors)?

  • BlueFairlane

    I see cars careening fair distances into interstate shoulders with some frequency, especially on curvy, mountainous interstates. You’d want to ride right on the guardrail if you were a bicyclist on 17.

  • Fred

    The question is: Did these riders not know that they were not allowed on the expressways and intentionally entered them, or did they accidentally end up on them? These are different problems with different solutions. Ignorance could potentially be fixed with signage; accidents are an indication of broader road design issues.

  • skyrefuge

    In terms of climbs, interstates are almost always the *best* routes. You won’t avoid hell/purgatory climbs by getting of the interstate; in most cases, you’ll make them much worse (and visibility will be worse too, and distracting scenery will be better). Interstate design guidelines flatten things out to 6% grades max.

    That said, I rode from Flagstaff towards Phoenix once, and I didn’t take I-17; it wasn’t really my direct route (I was going to Tucson), and I was willing to trade the extra hills for the better scenery and more time at elevation. But I bet I-17 would have been safer. It’s just irrelevant since getting hit from behind on a bike happens so rarely on *any* road that it’s not even worth worrying about.

  • BlueFairlane

    Interstate 17 probably would be safer than the alternates, and it would probably have less of a grade. That still wouldn’t make it “fun,” as that comes more from how you perceive a road than what the road actually is. My mental equations would tell me biking on, say, I-40 between Flagstaff and Winslow or Holbrook is just fine, but they’d give me a different result for 17 south of Flagstaff. I’m not saying the response is reasonable, just that it’s my response, and everybody’s math is different.

    So I stand by my original inability to imagine that one would be fun.

  • skyrefuge

    Given that these two examples ended up on the left side of the roadway with little or no shoulder, I find it highly unlikely that they intentionally entered them. Someone intentionally (even knowing the law) using an expressway on a bike would be much more likely to be found on the right shoulder (or taking a whole lane, if it was a “cyclist rights!” intention rather than a “nice shortcut” intention).

    We actually now have a bit of a field experiment about the effects of signage due to these cases. Despite it being a violation of city ordinance (9-52-020) to ride a bike on LSD, I curiously can’t find signs at any entrance indicating that prohibition (even though there are “no trucks” signs). Whereas almost all Interstate entrances have explicit signs. Though it’s a laughably small amount of data points (2), the fact that the number of known occurrences is equal between signed and unsigned roads suggests that signs have little to no effect in preventing this particular behavior.

  • I just don’t see how you can “accidentally” enter the Dan Ryan on a bike. LSD is a different story, particularly at the streetlight intersection with Chicago Ave.

  • Fred

    I agree, I think we have one of each case. I can see value in adding NO BIKE signs at certain places on LSD, but I can’t see anyone accidentally ending up on the Ryan.
    The woman on LSD was spotted near Ohio St heading north, so she couldn’t have gotten on at Chicago Ave. There is a left-side ramp from Lower LSD just south of where she was, so I imagine that is where she came from.

  • Alex_H

    I believe there is passive GPS so that if a bike goes missing they can find it. I don’t think that they can tell you where a bike _was_ on any given moment in the past.

  • Alex_H

    It’s a cool book–I recommend it!

  • oooBooo

    With regards to figuring out the fastest route, yeah look at a map before you leave. But that’s not the issue here. The grid is simple to work without a map, without the sun,
    without stars, without GPS.

    Here’s how to navigate: Look at two street signs, there’s your location on the grid. Look at another street sign or address. Now you have your compass directions. Now if you know where your destination is on the grid you can move towards it. Sure you might encounter a street that doesn’t have a bridge over or underpass under an expressway, river, or a railroad. Move over a block or three to find one. It also helps to be able to recognize what sort of street one is on and is crossing by looking at it.

    Getting lost in Chicago requires effort, especially on a bicycle where one has a much better field of vision, can almost always pull over and stop to assess the situation, and can change direction without much hassle.

    Ending up on an interstate on a bicycle in Chicago is like driving down a boat ramp into a river or on to a forest road in the middle of winter because GPS says so. It requires the suspension of taking in the available data. Ignoring signage, ignoring the road design… and maybe that’s the answer. She followed GPS.

  • oooBooo

    Such signage would create the impression that bicycling is only allowed on streets so marked. There are already signs in the MUTCD for this purpose. Signage everyone should know and won’t create the wrong impression.

    I’ve ridden the non-expressway portion of LSD downtown for a block or two on occasion. No big deal. Cops didn’t do anything either because it’s entirely legal in that section last I looked.

  • vprima

    She’s elderly? Damn, I’m in my mid-50s, and thought I had a few years before I could get the discounts.


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