Breakin’ the Law: What Should We Do About Cyclists Who Don’t Play By the Rules?

This food delivery cyclist in River North did an "Idaho Stop," stopping at the red light, checking to make sure the intersection was clear, and then proceeding before the light turned green. This move is technically illegal in Chicago, but two-thirds of local cyclists ride this way, according to a DePaul study. Photo: John Greenfield
This food delivery cyclist in River North did an "Idaho Stop," stopping at the red light, checking to make sure the intersection was clear, and then proceeding before the light turned green. This move is technically illegal in Chicago, but two-thirds of local cyclists ride this way, according to a DePaul study. Photo: John Greenfield

[A version of this article previously ran in the Chicago Reader.]

I’ve been fielding a lot of complaints about lawbreaking cyclists since my last Reader column on the mayoral election. It mentioned Toni Preckwinkle’s statement during a recent debate that many local bike riders “don’t pay any attention to the traffic laws, which is not only infuriating, but also scary for drivers.”

Recently a Twitter user griped to me about bicyclists “careening recklessly down Diversey or Belmont.”

Another grumbled that “Many many [cyclists] ARE unsafe. Very self-centered, all-about-me-me-me and generally disrespectful.” (Isn’t it great that motorists never act that way?)

“Some bike riders make me nuts,” tweeted a third person. “As a cane-dependent senior, it’s unnerving when a bike rider sees you step off the curb and shoots in front of you as though you’re invisible.”

Let me start out by noting that lawbreaking and/or unsafe cycling is a fairly trivial issue compared to reckless, intoxicated, and distracted driving. The danger posed to others by, say, 200 pounds of bike and rider going 15 mph is insignificant compared to two tons of motor vehicle doing 30 mph or more. I’ve found no record of anyone ever being fatally struck by a bike rider in Chicago, whereas drivers killed 132 people in our city in 2017.

That said, hazardous and obnoxious cycling is a thing. People on bikes have the potential to act like fools and jerks, just like any other kind of road user, even if they are exponentially less dangerous than their motoring counterparts. So I’d like to throw a bone to the “there a lot of reckless bikers” crowd with a look at Chicago should do about bicyclists who break traffic rules.

Let’s classify lawbreaking cyclists into three categories:

  1. Technically illegal, but widespread and relatively harmless, behavior. This includes slow, cautious riding for short distances on sidewalks, or against traffic on side streets. Another example is the “Idaho stop”: Cyclists treating stoplights like stop signs, and stop signs like yield signs, so called because it’s legal in the Gem State. Utah recently considered legalizing it, and Arkansas just did.
  2. Lawbreaking that may be annoying or scary for others, but is mostly a danger to the cyclist. This includes riding for long distances on sidewalks or against traffic on main streets, and riding at night without lights. (People who do the latter are nicknamed “bike ninjas.”) These behaviors may be due to fear of sharing the road with drivers; the mistaken belief that riding into oncoming traffic is safer; or lack of money to buy lights.
  3. Willfully inconsiderate or reckless riding that can terrify or endanger others. This includes hauling ass down crowded sidewalks; failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks (what the cane-using senior described); and mindlessly bombing red lights and stop signs in a way that forces drivers to hit the brakes to avoid a crash.

There’s a racial equity component to the question of what we should do about these behaviors. A 2017 Tribune investigation found that some communities of color saw exponentially more tickets for bike infractions than majority-white neighborhoods. A police rep eventually acknowledged that this was due to officers using bike enforcement as a pretext for searches in high-crime areas. And a Reader analysis of tickets for downtown sidewalk riding during last summer’s Divvy theft crisis found that about three times as many otherwise-innocent black cyclists were cited as their white counterparts.

To get some different viewpoints on the best policies to address lawbreaking by cyclists, I checked in with a few different city agencies and transportation experts and advocates.

I contacted the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association for the hard-right windshield perspective, because their drivers-first stances against automated enforcement, lower speed limits, traffic calming, stricter DUI rules, and even seatbelt laws make the relatively moderate American Automobile Association look like Greenpeace. But I was pleasantly surprised by spokeswoman Shelia Dunn’s fairly balanced response, which stressed that everyone “driving, riding, or walking… should be responsible for their own safety and look out for others on the road.”

Predictably, the NMA doesn’t support legalizing the Idaho stop. Dunn argued that doing so would be difficult for pedestrians and drivers to predict bicyclists’ behavior, and people on bikes might feel empowered to run reds and signs even when the intersection isn’t clear.

Dunn stressed that better and earlier mobility education for kids, covering safe walking, biking, and driving practices, would go a long way towards preventing crashes. “I lived in Germany for a time, and my fourth grader was required to take a bicycling course in school,” she said. “This would be a tremendous help.”

I asked the Chicago Police Department about their enforcement policies towards the three types of lawbreaking. (We didn’t discuss the racial discrepancies, which I’ve written about at length.) But spokesman Howard Ludwig said officers are told to use discretion when writing tickets, differentiating between behavior that is merely unlawful and that which is truly hazardous. For example, he said, a hard-to-see bike ninja on a dark street might get a ticket, but “a cyclists without a light at night in a well-lit, commercial area might pedal away with simply a warning.”

This latitude is likely a factor in why officers often choose to ignore Idaho stops and other non-dangerous behavior. But Ludwig added that the CPD will sometimes conduct “targeted enforcement” stings of bike riders, staking out particular locations where residents or aldermen have complained about bike infractions, or in response to a cyclist-involved crash.

While the CPD’s job is wielding the proverbial “stick” of enforcement against hazardous behavior, the Chicago Department of Transportation provides “carrots” to promote safe cycling in the form of bike infrastructure, education, and encouragement. CDOT has built dozens of miles of physically protected bike lanes over the last eight years, which help make less-confident cyclists feel more comfortable staying off the sidewalk.

The department has also pioneered the use of contraflow bike lanes that legalize “wrong-way” riding on one-way stretches of traffic-calmed side-street routes called “neighborhood greenways.” This has made popular low-stress routes like Glenwood, Berteau, and Wood even better.

In addition, CDOT has installed dedicated bike stoplights on popular routes, sometimes giving cyclists a head-start before drivers get a green. The department credited the bike signals on downtown’s Dearborn protected lane with increasing stoplight compliance by a whopping 161 percent.

Meanwhile, CDOT Bicycling and Safe Routes Ambassadors safety outreach team pedals schools, day camps, senior centers, and community events to spread the gospel. The ambassadors attended 515 events and directly educated more than 75,000 people in 2018, according to department spokesman Mike Claffey.

DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman co-authored a 2016 study on the Idaho stop that found that two-thirds of Chicago cyclists proceeded through stoplights if there’s no cross traffic, and only one out of 25 riders comes to a complete stop at stop signs. The researchers endorsed legalizing the Idaho stop here, although they feel more study is needed.

Schwieterman also recommended allowing bicyclists who are stopped by police for other kinds of infractions take an online bike safety class as an alternative to paying a fine. “It would send a clear message about safety while lessening tension with law enforcement personnel.” It would also mitigate the regressive nature of bike tickets, typically $50 in Chicago, which have been concentrated in low-income neighborhoods.

Active Transportation Alliance advocacy director Jim Merrell stressed that traffic enforcement should target the most dangerous behaviors that data indicate lead to serious crashes and fatalities. “Far and away that behavior is among drivers, especially speeding, distracted and drunk driving, and failure to stop for people walking.”

As for policies towards lawbreaking cycling, Merrell said Active Trans has endorsed legalizing the Idaho Stop for years, although they’ve opted not to focus their resources on actively lobbying for it in favor or other priorities like bike lanes and Divvy expansion. He added that in some cities where legalization has been proposed, like San Francisco, “it’s galvanized opposition against biking.”

Merrell argued that sidewalk biking “is almost always an indication that a person on a bike does not feel safe or comfortable riding in the street,” which should be addressed with more protected lanes, neighborhood greenways, and off-street trails. Free bike light giveaways, which have been done in past by the Bike Ambassadors, and Streetsblog Chicago cofounder Steven Vance’s grassroots “Get Lit!” campaign.

As for Class 3 scofflaws, Merrell doesn’t have a problem with police cracking down on cycling behavior that endangers other people, especially pedestrians. “But it is unclear that this behavior, while annoying and disrespectful, presents a [significant] public safety risk. Reckless behavior among drivers is far and away the greatest cause of serious injuries and fatalities on our roadways.”

Merrell added that as biking becomes a more mainstream transportation mode in Chicago, cultural norms will shift and help reinforce what is acceptable and safe behavior. “That’s why it’s important to build infrastructure for all ages and abilities, remove barriers to bike access, and provide the education and encouragement needed to get more people biking for everyday transportation.”

Indeed, a few years ago when I biked in European cycling capitals like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin, places with universal bike education and seamless car-free cycling infrastructure, I was struck by how orderly and law-abiding the bike culture was. My impression was that, in these cities where bike lanes were totally safe and traffic rules were completely logical, if you didn’t comply you ran the risk of being perceived as a person with poor home training or, worse, an American.

  • Argon

    Injuries from reckless cycling is not a once in a blue moon event. In NYC in 2017, 315 pedestrians were injured in 365 crashes with cyclists, about half of which took place in Manhattan. NYC Seniors are especially at risk:

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, unsafe cycling (or walking) can result in bike/ped injury crashes. But for some perspective, in May 2017 alone, NYC drivers injured 1,250 pedestrians and cyclists, and killed seven.

    I wasn’t able to easily find the total 2017 NYC driver-caused pedestrian and bike injury rate, but if we interpolate that injury number for the whole year, that would be 15,000 injury cases. That would mean drivers were about 48 times as likely to injure a vulnerable road user compared to cyclists. And obviously a car/ped crash is exponentially as likely to be serious or fatal as a bike/ped crash.

    These numbers back up my statement that “unsafe cycling is a fairly trivial issue compared to reckless, intoxicated, and distracted driving.”

  • rwy

    Bikes should come with lights. CPSC created the rules requiring reflectors on bikes before cheap LED bike lights where common.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Not a bad idea — it’s much more common for lights and other accessories to come standard on city bikes sold in Europe.

  • Eric Mathiasen

    We should do to cyclists what is done to drivers: essentially nothing.

  • Frank Kotter

    This is the law in Germany and other countries – with an exception for ‘sport bikes’.

    Although not a big fan of anything making cycling less convenient, it does have a civilizing influence on all road users.

  • Random_Jerk

    This city is broken and has ZERO resources to execute any kind of law. We are wasting our time in here complaining.

  • Courtney

    Building better biking infrastructure leads to better behavior. When I see someone biking on the sidewalk it indicates a policy failure, not an individual failure. Not everyone feels biking on streets with “sharrows” or painted lanes we call “bike lanes”. Build physically protected bike lanes and you’ll see more people biking on the streets.

    In countries with a higher percentage of people who bike they have biking infrastructure that puts ours to shame. Traffic lights and stops signs are a traffic management tool. If everyone got around by bike we wouldn’t NEED traffic lights or stops signs to the same degree we need them now.

  • rohmen

    I’m not arguing that reckless cycling is a more serious issue than reckless driving, but it’s also not as simple as looking at 315 pedestrian injuries total and 1,250 pedestrian injuries a month, and then saying see the unsafe cycling issues are fairly trivial without also discussing cycling in terms of perecent of mode share for NYC.

    I’d venture that the cycling-related injuries were probably more minor in nature, while the vehicle-related injuries were probably much more severe, which I do think is an important point to recognize—car accidents kill and seriously hurt people, and should be recognized as a more serious risk accordingly.

    That said, when you consider cycling’s percentage of mode share, even in a city like NYC where vehicle mode share is probably lower, 365 crashes with 315 injured is actually a lot worse of a number than I expected it to be. That sort of number is not suggesting unsafe cycling is trivial at all. It suggests it’s a real issue in NYC.

  • Alexander Kessler

    Tangentially related but I’ll post here because I’d like to share, ha.

    I was recently driving down Elston south of Goose Island where there is a protected bike lane, separated by a curb AND white bollards.

    It was about 5:15 so traffic was HEAVY. A minivan decided to try hauling ass down the bike lane. They were speeding as they passed me, and as I was still shaking my head about them traffic moved up enough for me to come across the again–this time at a dead stop–because they’re WHEEL WAS COMPLETELY OFF! The bike lane had narrowed and the van got squeezed between the two curbs.

    I bet they’ll leave bike lanes for bikes now.

  • Jolyon Ticer-Wurr

    I think this article misses the point of many drivers’ gripes. I don’t fear being killed by a bicycle rider. I fear killing a bicycle rider who miscalculates and puts themselves where I don’t see them or can’t react in time. And each time I encounter situations that feel too close—a rider that suddenly appears between my car and the next lane of cars just as traffic begins to move then cuts in front of my bumper to the curb, etc.—my heart races and I experience some of the trauma of the sad event that seemed so narrowly avoided and beyond my control. And yes, I feel it ever more acutely as I read about riders killed by cars in city accidents. Respect for me, when I’m a bicycle rider, is about coordinating with drivers, not acrobatically demonstrating my indifference. I guess when fatal accidents occur, the driver experiences the preferable outcome, but for normal caring people who live on, they will carry a deep sadness and trauma for the rest of their lives.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Reckless cycling is a relatively trivial issue in the sense that, does it really make much sense for police to be doing crackdowns on cyclists, which are common in NYC, when drivers are about 48 times as likely to injure a vulnerable road user as cyclists, and driver-caused injuries tare much more likely to be far more severe or fatal. That doesn’t mean that reckless cycling should be ignored, which is why I wrote this article.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “I think this article misses the point of many drivers’ gripes. I don’t fear being killed by a bicycle rider. I fear killing a bicycle rider who miscalculates and puts themselves where I don’t see them or can’t react in time.”

    I think that POV gets sufficient airtime in this piece:

    “Toni Preckwinkle’s [stated] during a recent debate that many local bike riders ‘don’t pay any attention to the traffic laws, which is not only infuriating, but also scary for drivers.'”

    “Riding for long distances on sidewalks or against traffic on main streets, and riding at night without lights… may be annoying or scary for others.”

    “Everyone ‘driving, riding, or walking… should be responsible for their own safety.'”

  • rohmen

    I’m not saying crackdowns are needed or justified, and I do no think it’s where the limited resources should be focused.

    I’m not trying to be overly pedantic, but I’d point out that pedestrian injury by a vehicle is 48 times as likely to happen in part because there are probably 20 times as many “vehicles” (and I’m probably being conservative) on the road as cycles at any given time in NYC.

    People interact a lot more with vehicles than cyclists, which actually proves your point and suggests more resources should be focused on those interactions to make them safe since they’re much more common in the first place. That said, at 365 accidents, somethings going on with cyclist/pedestrian interaction that’s off as well and should at least be considered when working out how to make streets safer.

  • Jolyon Ticer-Wurr

    You mention Preckwinkle’s comment without reflecting on it and, by lampooning the notion that drivers have anything really to fear since you can find no cases of bike riders hurting car drivers, you imply that the “fears” of drivers are selfish and absurd fears for their own safety. A bit of reflection–in writing–about Preckwinkle’s comments would have underlined the rational and compassionate angle of drivers’ fears.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    OK, by your estimate, NYC drivers are only 2.4 times as likely as cyclists to injure vulnerable road users, while being exponentially more likely to cause serious or fatal injuries. My point still stands: Reckless biking is a trivial issue compared to reckless driving.

    Anyway, what are you suggesting needs to be done to prevent bike/ped crashes isn’t already mentioned in this article?

  • david vartanoff

    you write
    “When I see someone biking on the sidewalk it indicates a policy failure, not an individual failure”.
    Berkeley CA’s “finest”ride on the sidewalks all the time–THAT is a policy failure as well as individual police officer arrogance. Insisting on riding on the sidewalk, instead of dismounting and walking is IMHO the same “me, me me”, attitude as the drivers who resent sharing the road ’cause bikes slow them down.

  • david vartanoff

    and required in CA since the 70s–though I still see potential organ donors at night in dark clothing w/o lights.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I said there’s no record of bicyclists causing the death of *anyone* else, including pedestrians, in Chicago. Obviously, cyclists’ actions aren’t resulting in injuries to car drivers, with the possible exception of some extremely rare man-bites-dog incidents.

    Nowhere in this article did I imply that drivers irrationally fear getting injured by cyclists. And I certainly didn’t imply that there’s anything wrong with drivers being afraid of injuring or killing cyclists. On the contrary, that’s a good thing. On the rare occasions when I am piloting a two-ton vehicle, making sure I don’t hurt vulnerable road users is at the top of my mind, so I’m careful to observe the speed limit and give people on bikes lots of space. That way, if anything weird happens, I have time to react, and the chances of a crash being serious or fatal are greatly reduced.

    I certainly have compassion for any drivers who, through no fault of their own, have been emotionally scarred by being involved in a serious or fatal bike or pedestrian crash. (That may be may be a relatively rare situation, however, since the speed you drive and the type of vehicle you purchase — the increasing popularity of SUVs has been linked to the recent spike in pedestrian fatalities –are major factors in the severity of crashes.)

    But I don’t think it was a major oversight on my part to not include a statement explicitly saying, “In fairness, it’s reasonable for drivers to be upset about cyclist behavior that makes the motorist afraid that they might injure or kill the cyclist through no fault of their own.” I think that goes without saying, and it’s implied by the other statements I listed above.

    The relatively rare phenomenon of cyclists injuring other people, and the more common common one of them causing anxiety for drivers, are not laughing matters, which is why I wrote this article.

    Still, I stand by my statement that hazardous biking is a pretty trivial concern compared to the daily carnage caused by unsafe driving — five serious injuries a day in Chicago, and a fatality every three days. So, yes, I’m sorry that unsafe cycling (or cycling that you *perceive* to be unsafe but actually isn’t) freaks you out, but that’s not where we should be concentrating our enforcement resources.

  • Jolyon Ticer-Wurr

    I was only addressing this issue: “I think this article misses the point of many drivers’ gripes.” You seem to be defending against all manner of critique I didn’t offer or intend.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    No, you accused me of “lampooning the notion that drivers have anything really to fear since you can find no cases of bike riders hurting car drivers, [and] you imply that the ‘fears’ of drivers are selfish and absurd fears for their own safety.” I did no such thing, so I defended myself against that critique.

  • Brealut

    The 315 people injured by cyclists certainly wouldn’t find it “trivial” — especially in the case of senior citizens, for whom a fall can be a life changing event, that leaves them unable to walk or live in their home anymore.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I didn’t say unsafe cycling is a trivial issue. I said it’s a trivial issue compared to unsafe driving, which it is.

    If that New York Times article wasn’t about bike/ped crashes but rather motor vehicle/ped crashes, instead of stating that 315 pedestrians were injured in NYC in 2017, it would have said that 101 pedestrians were killed, along with something on the order of 15,000 pedestrians injured.

    Yes, as thoroughly discussed in this article, unsafe biking need to be addressed with infrastructure and education and, when necessary, enforcement. But it makes no sense to pretend that people getting hit by bikes is anywhere near as serious a problem as people getting hit by cars.

    I think you folks are beating a dead horse on this topic, and I’ve addressed it several times already, so further comments claiming that this article doesn’t take bike/ped crashes seriously enough will be deleted.

  • rohmen

    I’m just suggesting that as a cycling community, we not shrug it off, or label reckless cycling as “trivial.” There’s a felling among people that aren’t cyclists that people on bikes at times act entitled and blow of laws (and I’m talking about your 3rd category). Telling pedestrians their concerns are trivial when they’ve almost been hit (or have been hit) by a cyclist doesn’t help. That’s the total sum of my point—we as a group can be more concerned about reckless cycling, and take a stand on it, without that being read as excusing reckless driving.

    My suggestion as a cyclist is that if you see someone acting reckless on a bike, say something. If people get called out, and feel it’s not acceptable in the community, I think things will change over time.

  • Dave Erickson

    The fact that there is a Category 1 at all (Technically illegal, but widespread and relatively harmless) is a problem in and of itself. When laws make it illegal to do things that should be legal is causes contempt for laws in general, confusion, burdens for the people fined for actions that should be legal, and diversion of police and court resources from other more important issues. All of those (Category 1) illegal activities should be legalized, especially the Idaho Stop. The Idaho Stop is so obviously a benefit for both bike riders and motorists alike that I am continually amazed that anyone with an IQ above room temperature is opposed to it. The most frustrating aspect of the Idaho Stop issue is that many bicyclists are opposed to it, for various reasons that are hard to fathom, but I think it is mostly because so many vehicular cyclists are so adamant about pretending that a 200 pound bicycle going 12 MPH is the same thing as a 2-ton SUV going 60 MPH that they will oppose anything that causes bicycles to be treated differently than motor vehicles. Of course, the only way to prove beyond all doubt that the Idaho Stop is beneficial is to make it legal and then check the results. It could be made legal with a sunset provision that it must be reauthorized by the legislature after some period of time (say 3 years). If it doesn’t turn out to be a win-win for bicyclists and motorists alike then the legislature can simply not reauthorize it. (Actually the results are already in for Idaho itself, where the Idaho Stop has been legal for over 30 years, and the accident and death rate is less now than it was before the Idaho Stop was made legal, but apparently that isn’t good enough for a lot of people.)

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  • ChicagoCyclist

    Hear, hear! Bravo! Well said, well thought, and all true! Thanks.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Touche! Thanks for stating the facts and the truth clearly, calmly and compellingly and for holding the line on those who beat dead horses!

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  • decisivemoment

    Also, awareness among cyclists of the benefits of lights. It is WONDERFUL to have a powerful rear light on your bike, for example. I swear drivers think you’re a motorbike, and they certainly give you more space. Mine’s of similar power to a car taillight, and it’s only about 1.5 inches by 2 in size….and that power makes it bright enough for daytime running on roads with a 35 to 55 limit.

  • rwy

    I thought a 60 lumen rear light would annoy drivers and make them more aggressive. Instead to my surprise it seems they give me a little more space.

  • decisivemoment

    My rear light is 200, I think; it was the most powerful one I could find. As long as they’re angled correctly, ever so slightly down, it works out. The reason 60 and above settings work out so well on the road is they finally start to bring your visibility up into the territory of what you’d be getting from a car, motorbike or moped. Where they can cause difficult is on a bike trail where people seem to be expecting a weaker light. This in practice is more of an issue in Chicago at least on poorly lit sections of trail; it can be a bit jarring to encounter, say, a misaligned 400+ lumen headlight on an oncoming bike.


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