Cyclephobia: Fears of Reckless Bike Riders May Be Overblown, but Empathy Is Still Needed

Cyclists on Dickens Avenue in Lincoln Park. Photo: John Greenfield
Cyclists on Dickens Avenue in Lincoln Park. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article previously ran in the Chicago Reader.]

People are capable of acting like irresponsible idiots whether they’re traveling on foot, by bicycle, or in a car. And obviously the potential for causing death and destruction is exponentially greater when you’re piloting a high-speed, multiton vehicle.

But even a cycling advocate like me has to acknowledge that Riva Lehrer, 61, an artist and writer who teaches at SAIC and Northwestern, has had some truly awful luck when it comes to run-ins with selfish jerks on bikes.

“I have spina bifida and I wear giant orthopedic boots, and I walk with a very strong limp,” Lehrer says. “But I try to go for long walks every day.” However, Lehrer’s disability makes it difficult to get out of the way when she encounters adults illegally riding at unsafe speeds on sidewalks in the Loop and along busy north-side streets like Clark, Broadway, and Sheridan.

Lehrer says that over the last 30 years she’s had hundreds of near misses, and that sidewalk cyclists have struck her at least 25 times, resulting in knocked-out teeth, a split-open chin, broken fingers, and even a spinal cord injury. Appallingly, she reports, “not one of them stopped to see if I was OK.”

Drivers have also hit Lehrer. For example, she says, once when she was walking her dog in Rogers Park, a motorist ran a stop sign, knocking her over, and fled the scene. “But with drivers it’s different, because you know you’re in a danger zone.” She adds that because bikes are relatively silent, she’s often startled by sidewalk riders approaching her from behind.

Lehrer says that when she asks people not to pedal on the sidewalk, they’ll sometimes reply that it’s too dangerous to ride in the street, but often will just curse at her. She adds that her experiences with negligent bike riders have left her traumatized and bitter.

Her story is a reminder that, while bike-pedestrian crashes are less common and typically much less severe than the daily carnage inflicted by reckless drivers, they’re no laughing matter. That’s especially true for people with disabilities and seniors, for whom a fall is more likely to have serious consequences like a broken hip.

Riva Lehrer
Riva Lehrer

I learned about Lehrer after I posted on Facebook that, in my experience, many folks who don’t bike regularly seem to have a primal fear of being struck by cyclists that’s disproportionate to the potential danger, relative to the prevalence and severity of motor vehicle-pedestrian crashes.

This was on my mind after I witnessed the backlash to the city’s proposal to build a traffic-calmed “neighborhood greenway” bike route on Dickens Avenue in Lincoln Park. During a hearing on the project, several residents argued that more cycling on the side street would endanger families. They didn’t seem to appreciate that the initiative would also include lowering the speed limit and installing sidewalk bump-outs and raised crosswalks, which would discourage speeding by drivers and make it easier to cross the street.

One neighbor actually argued that people move to Dickens to get away from bike traffic, drawing a round of applause. “How many bicyclists have killed or hurt pedestrians compared to drivers?” shot back another attendee.

While I’ve found no record of a bike rider ever fatally striking a pedestrian in Chicago in the modern era, drivers struck and killed 41 people on foot in Chicago in 2018, as well as five people biking, according to preliminary police data.

It’s more difficult to compare the number of Chicago pedestrians hurt in bike crashes to the number injured in car crashes, because the police department doesn’t track bike-pedestrian collisions. According to the Active Transportation Alliance’s Chicago Regional Crash Report published last year, 2,710 people were injured while walking in the city in 2016. Since, according to Census data, only 1.7 percent of Chicagoans bike to work, it’s a fair assumption that motorists struck the vast majority of those injured pedestrians.

New York City does track bike-pedestrian crashes, and the New York Times recently reported that in 2017 one pedestrian was killed in a bike collision, while 315 people on foot were injured. That same year, however, motorists fatally struck 107 people walking, and injured more than 15,000. Pedestrians were about 48 times as likely to be injured in a motor vehicle crash as in a bike collision.

“The small risk from bicycles pales in comparison to the deadly risk from cars and trucks,” Marco Conner from the NYC advocacy group Transportation Alternatives told the Times. “There is a false picture that has been painted of cyclists pitted against pedestrians, whereas both cyclists and pedestrians are vulnerable road users.”

Conner’s counterpart Heather Schady from Active Trans says she’s not convinced that Chicagoans are disproportionately afraid of being hit by cyclists compared to being struck by motorists: “In our experience people walking are most concerned about getting hit by drivers.”

Schady notes that well-designed on-street bike lanes can improve safety for people walking by helping cyclists feel comfortable staying off the sidewalk. She added that creating separate paths for pedestrians and bike riders on off-street trails, as was recently done on the Lakefront Trail, can help prevent conflicts.

I asked Joe Ferrari, a DePaul psychology professor who studies social interactions, about my hypothesis that noncyclists like the Dickens residents may be unduly afraid of being struck and injured by people biking. “Fear of being hit is a legitimate and real fear,” he says. “It’s fine if it makes you cautious, but don’t base your fear on perceptions or misconceptions, base it on facts.”

Ferrari suggests that the city could reassure the Dickens neighbors by providing before-and-after collision data from existing neighborhood greenways that show safety has improved. A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson said last week that CDOT is currently analyzing the crash stats and will present them at a community meeting later this summer.

Ferrari adds that people who don’t bike may tend to “other” cyclists, as well as view being struck by a person astride a bike as a more personal affront than being hit by a metal box that happens to contain a driver. “People perceive the bicyclist as being the motor, the steering, and the brake, so that’s an understandable emotion.”

The bottom line seems to be, although motor vehicle crashes are a much greater threat to pedestrians than bike collisions in terms of numbers and the potential for serious or fatal injuries, people who bike should take noncyclists’ safety concerns seriously and show some empathy for their fears, even if they aren’t always realistic.

And, of course, we who ride bicycles also need to do our part to avoid endangering others. So if you’re a person who bikes on city sidewalks for any significant distance, at anything much faster than walking speed, please ride like an adult and use the street instead.

“I’m not antibike,” Riva Lehrer says. “Bike lanes are great—they add predictability. For years I even dated someone who did competitive cycling. But at this point, when I see a biker on the sidewalk, all I feel is rage and hatred, and I don’t want to feel that way anymore.”

  • vprima

    In addition to getting off sidewalks, this pedestrian would appreciate it if cyclists would honor crosswalks when a walker is present. I realize that stopping a bike is difficult, but most of the near misses at legal crosswalks I have recently experienced could have been avoided if the cyclist had simply slowed down.

  • FG

    One of my neighbors has a permanent limp caused by a hit from a sidewalk cyclist. So the injuries can certainly be severe.

  • Gary Chicago

    When I ride my bike , I see many bikeres riding wrong way on a one way street . This put drivers , bikers riding the right way and walkers in danger

  • David P.

    Yes, yes, yes. A person on foot is the most vulnerable user of public space and cyclists have the same responsibility to act with care towards them that they expect car drivers to display towards cyclists. Anybody stopping to let a person cross the street (when they have the legal right of way, no less!) is so rare that I am regularly thanked with surprise when I stop on my bike, merely for doing something that I should be doing.

  • rohmen

    Yeah. I find a lot of driver complaints often boil down to being upset that cyclists get away with Idaho stops, etc., but the pedestrian concerns in crosswalks are the ones I find pretty valid. Even if actual collisions are rare, what can feel like scary close calls for a pedestrian aren’t. As a daily cyclist, I’ve witnessed too many of those instances myself where I question what the cyclist was thinking.

  • I think it’s really important to acknowledge the annoyance factor and not just focus on injuries. Earlier this week when I was biking an Uber driver sped up to pass me just to pull over right in front of me 10 feet later. Of course then the passenger nearly doored me getting out. He could have waited 5 seconds to let me pass, like most considerate drivers do. I wasn’t injured, but incidents like that are a large part of why cyclists (including myself) get pissed off at drivers.

    As a pedestrian similar things happen to me with bikers all the time. Try crossing Milwaukee Ave. at the Wabansia or Rockwell red lights. Even with a red light and a pedestrian clearly stepping into the street almost no bikers will make any effort to stop or yield. Behavior like that is a large part of why some pedestrians feel the same frustration with cyclists that cyclists feel with drivers.

  • rwy

    Here is the definition of a crosswalk in Illinois. It’s not just marked crosswalks. It’s any place a sidewalk ends at a roadway and continues on the other side of the roadway. Roadway users seem to be unaware of this fact.
    https://faculty.math.illinois.edu/~dan/Crosswalks/

  • Alexander Kessler

    Bicyclists are vehicles, plain and simple, yet many I see as a driver, pedestrian, and bicyclist myself seem to want the benefits of a vehicle AND pedestrian. I see this all the time, not stopping for red lights or even slowing down at stop signs.

    Yesterday a biker was riding alongside me in the bike lane (fine) went through a stop sign as I stopped (ok, fine) and then when he got across the intersection he stopped, planted his feet on the pavement to turn his bike, and started riding in front of me to cross in the crosswalk. Scared the hell out of me–as far as I knew he was stopped on the side of the road, so when I started to pass through the stop sign and had to slam on his brakes because he had decided he was now a pedestrian he shouted at me “its a crosswalk, a**hole!”

    Yea, so what are you doing riding in it!?

  • what_eva

    I’ll grant it’s different in a spot like Milwaukee with lots of bike traffic, but generally when a pedestrian steps out in a crosswalk, I don’t need to stop on a bike because I’m much narrower than a car. I can *easily* adjust my path a little to not impact the pedestrian. Also because I’m not escased in a cage, I can communicate with the pedestrian, usually saying “go ahead” and going behind the ped.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You can talk to our school crossing guard if you want to get an earful about entitled cyclist behavior, because for some unknown reason many cyclists think they are exempt from her directions to stop to allow freaking kids to safely cross the street. This is the kind of selfish behavior that makes us all look bad.

  • David P.

    Sure, and if a pedestrian is already partway across a street a car in the farther lane doesn’t *need* to stop, by that metric, because it’s a lot narrower than the available road space and it can go on by without, ahem, impacting the pedestrian. But the law says you *need* to stop. And this applies to you on a bike, too. Beyond questions of law, it is basic courtesy. It’s not up to you to tell someone crossing that the street that they *may* go ahead – it is you who should be accomodating them.

  • David P.

    Nearly everyone seems unaware of this!

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Seems to me that what many who are commenting here are concerned and complaining about are reckless sidewalk bicycle riders. Riding on sidewalks for short distances, in a safe, careful, considerate and respectful manner is both legal and not particularly dangerous. Speed and maneuvering and need for communication (voice and/or gesture) depend upon the specific context and conditions. At crosswalks where pedestrians are present (and even more so, where children, seniors, parents with strollers, mobility-challenged, etc. are present, cyclists should of course yield ROW and/or proceed in a manner that is safe and respectful. However, going around / behind a pedestrian in a crosswalk slowly, carefully, and with a smile and a “hello” is not always dangerous or wrong. A jogger might do the same. Cars and trucks — by being larger, heavier, faster, and “isolating” the operator much more radically — are much, much more dangerous, overall, than bicycles. The key is to ride in a manner that keeps everyone safe — you (cyclists), and the pedestrians, and even the drivers of motor vehicles!

    A cyclist is not being presumptuous or dangerous or rude or reckless if, in order to keep themselves and others safe, they say to a pedestrian in a crosswalk (or at another location) something like, “Please, go ahead” or “Hi, I’m just going to go behind you here,” or some such phrase. The key, again, is to do — ride, walk, drive — in a manner that keeps everyone safe. The specific situation and contexts governs what will do that.

  • Anne A

    If you are over age 12, riding on sidewalks (except for VERY short distances, such as curb to bike rack) is illegal in Chicago.

    If one chooses to disregard this, being considerate and stopping/yielding when needed is critically important.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Here’s what the ordinance says.
    http://library.amlegal.com/nxt/gateway.dll/Illinois/chicago_il/title9vehiclestrafficandrailtransportati/chapter9-52bicycles-operation?f=templates$fn=default.htm$3.0$vid=amlegal:chicago_il$anc=JD_9-52-020

    9-52-020 Riding bicycles on sidewalks and certain roadways.

    (a) Unless the prohibition imposed by subsection (c) applies, a person may ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district, but only if such sidewalk has been officially designated and marked as a bicycle route, or such sidewalk is used to enter the nearest roadway, intersection or designated bicycle path, or to access a bicycle share station.

    (b) Unless the prohibition imposed by subsection (c) applies, a person 12 or more years of age may ride a bicycle upon any sidewalk in any district, but only if such sidewalk has been officially designated and marked as a bicycle route, or such sidewalk is used to enter the nearest roadway, intersection or designated bicycle path, or to access a bicycle share station.

    (c) Bicycles shall not be operated on Lake Shore Drive or on any public way where the operation of bicycles has been prohibited and signs have been erected indicating such prohibition.

    (Added Coun. J. 7-12-90, p. 18634; Amend Coun. J. 6-5-13, p. 54983, § 1; Amend Coun. J. 9-11-13, p. 59827, § 1)

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