Equiticity’s Oboi Reed Responds to the Latest Tribune Report on Racially Biased Bike Ticketing

Almost a year after the Trib revealed apparent racial bias in ticketing practices, little has changed

Robert Calvin rides in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. 264 bike tickets were written in the community last year, compared to only five in Lincoln Park. Photo: John Greenfield
Robert Calvin rides in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. 264 bike tickets were written in the community last year, compared to only five in Lincoln Park. Photo: John Greenfield

Last March the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Wisniewski uncovered a massive discrepancy in the number of tickets being written to bicyclists in Black neighborhoods compared to other communities, especially majority-white ones. For example, Wisniewski found that over a roughly nine-month period in 2016, police issued 321 citations to people on bikes in the Austin neighborhood. But during the same time frame, a mere five tickets were written in Lincoln Park, even though it has one of the highest levels of biking in the city.

In the wake of the report, community members and bike advocates have said the tickets, mostly written for biking on the sidewalk, appear to be an excuse for stop-and-frisk policing to search for illegal guns and drugs, which would otherwise be unconstitutional. Some of them vowed to fight this inequitable enforcement practice.

However, Wisniewski’s latest look at ticketing numbers, published this morning, suggests that little has changed in the past year – police are still issuing most of the bike tickets in Black communities. She found that in 2017 roughly 56 percent of the bike citations were written in majority-African-American neighborhoods, with only about 24 percent written in Latino communities, and a mere 18 percent issued in majority-white neighborhoods. This is despite the fact that Chicago’s population is split roughly equally between the three demographics, and many of the neighborhoods with the highest bike mode share are majority-white.

These neighborhood percentages percentages are similar to those for tickets written between 2008 and 2016. However, Wisnewski found that that the total number of bike tickets written dropped 14 percent between 2016 and 2017, from 4,158 total tickets to 3,577.

Once again there were some absurdly lopsided ticketing numbers. Last year officers wrote 397 bike citations in North Lawndale while – for the second year in a row – only five citations were issued in Lincoln Park. I encourage you to read Wisniewski’s article for a full breakdown of the data, plus commentary on the numbers from local authorities, advocates, bike shop owners, and community members.

Oboi Reed, the former head of the bike equity group Slow Roll Chicago who currently leads the mobility justice organization Equiticity, is briefly quoted in the Tribune piece, stating that he believes the bike ticketing is an excuse for stop-and-frisk policing. I checked in with him earlier today for his full reaction to the news.

Oboi Reed
Oboi Reed

Reed said he “was really quite shocked” by the new numbers, especially because he and other Black advocates met last year with representatives of the mayor’s office and the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is leading the city’s Vision Zero efforts, to discuss the ticketing issue and other Vision Zero-related matters.

Joining Reed at the sessions were Ronnie Matthew Harris, from the transportation advocacy group Go Bronzeville, and public policy consultant Amara Enyia. Representatives for the city included deputy mayor Andrea Zopp, deputy policy director Cara Bader, deputy chief of staff for public engagement Roderick Hawkins, and CDOT commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld.

The advocates presented the officials with a list of nine “Vision Zero Asks” to make the crash-reduction plan more equitable. For example, they requested that additional traffic policing be taken off the table as a Vision Zero strategy in light of the Chicago Police Department’s documented issues with civil rights abuses. They also asked that the leadership of the Vision Zero program be transferred to one community organization on the South Side and one on the West Side, since the city is focusing its efforts on high crash neighborhoods in these parts of town. Reed said that, disappointingly, the officials tuned down both of these requests, although they committed to creating more ownership of the program on the local level, which he said was encouraging.

At last year’s meetings, the advocates also brought up the bike ticketing issue. “The mayor’s office said they were taken off guard by [the ticketing numbers] and would take steps to change this,” Reed recalled. “But despite their promise, this inequity is still taking place.”

“There will be a full-throated response [from advocates] to the city’s continued racism, inequity, bias, and paternalism, which continues to harm, and in some cases kill, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of color in our city,” Reed added. “These tickets are financially harmful, and socially harmful, and any police interaction in our neighborhoods comes with a risk [of police violence.] We’re bearing the brunt of this policy.”

It’s certainly disheartening that little has changed since Wisniewski’s last report on unfair bike ticketing practices. The city is under intense pressure to address the issue of  racially biased policing, and part of the response includes plans for a new $95 million training academy on the West Side. Solving the problem of unfair bike ticketing practices seems like a relatively simple matter – commanders should be able to order their officers to ease up on ticketing in parts of town that are currently getting a disproportionate number of tickets. While it’s possible that more sidewalk riding is occurring in North Lawndale than Lincoln Park, surely it’s not 80 times as prevalent there.

Moreover, the CPD should have expected that if it didn’t change its ticketing practices, it would once again be embarrassed by a news report on the issue. The fact that the force still didn’t bother to take action on this relatively cut-and-dried matter doesn’t bode well for its ability to solve much more complex and challenging police abuse problems.

  • Jeremy

    The next mayoral and aldermanic elections are 12 months away.

  • Michael

    They should be targeting Milwaukee Avenue. Bring LA style ticketing of both pedestrians and bicycle riders to Chicago and our streets would be FAR safer for everyone.

  • Tooscrapps

    Our streets would be *safer* if the CPD cracked down on drivers citywide. Start with the Loop and the lawlessness of speeding, running lights, failing to yield to pedestrians, turning R or L from the center lane, blocking bike lanes and the box.

  • CIAC

    I think that this is an example of what people miss when they simply complain about “Inequitably” or uneven enforcement in majority black vs. majority white neighborhoods. I don’t think enforcement of bicycle riding on the sidewalk should be applied equally to all neighborhoods. I think the police should enforce the law against sidewalk bike riding pretty heavily in very dense neighborhoods with lots of pedestrians on sidewalks, which generally are majority white, but not enforce it very much at all when nobody is on the sidewalk anyway. Majority black neighborhoods usually have very little pedestrian traffic, as do some majority white and majority Hispanic neighborhoods. So in effect, the problem is not that the police are enforcing this unequally. It’s that they are enforcing it unequally in the wrong direction. Places like Lincoln Park and Wicker Park are where this needs to be enforced the most. It’s always extremely annoying to be walking in these types of neighborhoods and have bicyclists using the sidewalk. But when almost no one is ever on the sidewalk there’s no reason for bicycle riding on the sidewalk to be a problem. The law, I’m sure, is meant for places like Lincoln Park and not low density neighborhoods. That’s why most suburbs, I think, don’t have any prohibitions against sidewalk riding. I always rode my bike on the sidewalk when I was a kid, for example. The problem is that everyone is assuming everything is equal. That’s why this is a citywide rule with people unable to make distinctions among different neighborhoods. We see this with other things too. Students at CPS schools in well off neighborhoods do doubt have to follow districtwide rules that are meant for schools in troubled areas. We should stop trying to pretend that the ideal is equal treatment of everybody regardless of the context. In this case, when we do look at the context and do what should be done based on it there would be less enforcement of this rule towards people in most minority neighborhoods compared with those in many white neighborhoods. In other circumstances, the situation would be different. But it’s good to look at context.

  • merdusco

    Until I retired several years ago, I supervised prosecution of all tickets for bike riding on the sidewalk. This article confirms what I observed at the Department of Administrative Hearings, where ticket recipients (“respondents”) went to contest such tickets. In the five years on the job there, I recall exactly one white guy showing up for a biking on the sidewalk ticket hearing – and he was homeless and, basically, living on his bike.

    It’s the same as cars that were impounded for playing loud music. I waited in vain for the rich, white guy respondent blasting Puccini or Wagner at 100 decibels out of his BMW or Porsche. That person had nothing to worry about.

  • Justin

    Do black communities want bicyclists buzzing at speed past grandmothers and mothers with strollers on the sidewalk? Do they want the inevitable dangerous collisions that will result? No? OK, good, everyone agreed that we didn’t want old people breaking their hips and toddlers bloodying their faces, so now it is only a matter of enforcing the rules we all agree on.

    So many of these “social justice” complaints just sound like a small, regressive, dysfunctional element within the black community complaining about being punished for breaking the law, and disrespecting the majority of the black community that are much more interested in maintaining law and order within their communities.

    I live and bike downtown and on the North Side and I have to tell you, I almost never see anyone on the sidewalk besides maybe a short, less than 1 block detour around some obstruction in the road. Nobody is biking long distances on the sidewalk. Don’t worry about white people have sidewalk biking parties while you’re getting tickets. It doesn’t happen. It is a fake concern borne out of racialized hysteria.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    So you’re saying that the ticketing is being done proportionately, and sidewalk riding is 80 times more common in North Lawndale than in Lakeview. Got it.

  • Justin

    Nope, I’m saying that we all agree that biking on the sidewalk is dangerous and that biking on the sidewalk should be against the rules, and also that biking on the sidewalk is not a common occurrence on the North Side.

    Whether this infraction (or any other infractions) are enforced in exact equal proportion in Lincoln Park as in Lawndale, I believe that there is much to consider with regards to the difference in the overall level of criminality and violence in those respective communities and what that dictates with regards to policing strategies. Lincoln Park is not a major neighborhood for crime in the city, it is a pacified, functional, law-abiding neighborhood. In contrast, North Lawndale is a major center of crime in the city, at times and places it has an air of lawlessness and sense of social malaise that perpetuates hopelessness and inspires even greater criminality, so in accordance with policing best practices AS WELL AS THE REQUESTS OF THE RESIDENTS, there is much more police presence and much more vigilant enforcement of the law.

    If these millions of dollars that the City (“North Side Taxpayers”) spends to provide badly needed law and order in North Lawndale means that bicycle infractions are disproportionately enforced, it is only as a result of an inherently progressive and egalitarian policy that involves people on the north side sending their money to help people on the south side to reduce violence and criminality in their neighborhoods. I think that the more South Side residents that do their part in following the law to make their own contribution towards a safe, pacified, law-abiding community, the better. Let’s all work together to get to a time when the South Side neighborhoods are not beset by criminality and don’t require such omnipresent policing.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “We all agree that… biking on the sidewalk is not a common occurrence on the North Side.” You lost me there.

  • Anne A

    Yep. Try Sheridan Road in Edgewater and Rogers Park.

  • Snotty

    There was a lot more to Justin’s post than just that. How about “not as common occurrence on the North Side.” I think he has a point of what I’ll call “at risk” neighborhoods needing stricter and more dense overall law enforcement rings true.

  • Jeremy

    There are plenty of “at risk” neighborhoods on the north side. Drivers speed down Stockton and Diversey in Lincoln Park without stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. They are putting Justin’s grandmother at risk more than cyclists on the sidewalks.

    Last Friday, I tried to cross Dearborn in River North and a white man in an SUV drove in front of me even though I had a walk signal. If his reckless driving isn’t punished, he will surely menace others.

    Why don’t police stop and frisk the 20-29 year olds bar hopping along Clark Street during the summer? They are just as likely to be carrying drugs as people in Lawndale.

  • planetshwoop

    There is so much wrong with this comment I’m not sure where to start.

    I’ll start with the least controversial: it is a waste of police resources to ticket bicyclists unless someone called 911 or come forward at CAPS. Otherwise, it seems like an excuse for an unlawful search.

  • CIAC

    On the north side? My point is that there should be more enforcement of sidewalk bicycle riding in areas where there is significant pedestrian traffic and LESS where there is not, such as probably all of the south and west sides. Yes, it seems to be the case that police are using this restriction as an excuse for illegal searches rather than to actually deal with any problems that actually result from bicycle riding on the sidewalk. I specifically said that it shouldn’t even be against the law to ride a bike on the sidewalk in neighborhoods where there is not a lot of pedestrian traffic, such as all or nearly all of the west and south sides. I don’t understand what you are referring to when you say that “there is so much wrong” with my comment. You appear to be agreeing with me but you don’t seem to realize it. There’s no evidence in the article that there the police are using this as an excuse for illegal stops in wealthy neighborhoods on the north side.

  • **

    It’s worth noting that residents in the census tracts in Uptown around the ticketing hot spot that’s mentioned in the Trib article are majority people of color, though the article describes the neighborhood as white.

    It’s pretty confusing that just a short distance to the east of this hot spot, the new viaduct design will direct cyclists onto the sidewalk—just after they pass by faded signs on Marine Drive all up and down by the hospital that indicate that riding isn’t allowed on the sidewalk.