Riding fixed gear bicycles has become increasingly popular over the last several years. Fixed gear bikes do not have freewheels so you cannot coast. Instead, the bike's rear cog is fixed to the rear wheel so that if the rear wheel is spinning so is the cog. When the bike is moving, either forwards or backwards, the chain is turning the pedals are spinning and the rider's legs are working. This bicycling phenomenon is very popular here in Chicago where a flat landscape and a large messenger community helped it catch fire. Often these bikes are ridden with a single mechanical front brake consisting of a lever mounted on the handlebars and a caliper attached to the frame which pinches the wheel to stop. There is no need for a rear brake as the back wheel can be slowed by the rider's legs. Perhaps just as often, however, (at least by my observation) fixed gear riders equip their bikes without a mechanical brake of any kind. Part of the point of riding one of these bikes is to enjoy the mechanical and aesthetic simplicity they offer. A brake lever, cable and caliper may be seen as unnecessary and disruptive to the bicycle's design.
The question is often asked, however, are brake less fixed gear bikes legal to ride on Chicago's streets? As posed, this question is not quite right. Bikes in Chicago, and in the whole of Illinois, must have a brake. The relevant Chicago ordinance states:
(b) Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake that will enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement. 9-52-080.
The relevant Illinois statute states:
(c) Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake which will adequately control movement of and stop and hold such bicycle. 625 ILCS 5/11-1507.
Neither law defines the term "brake". Neither states that the required brake must consist of a lever, cable and caliper. As fixed gear riders know, the bicycle's drive train consisting of the fixed rear cog, chain, cranks, pedals and the rider's legs act as a braking system, one that works better than the uninitiated may think. It is quite possible, and in fact common, to abruptly stop pedaling locking up the rear wheel causing the bike to skid to a complete stop. It has been argued that chains can break and legs can cramp. But any braking system can fail. As designed, the drive train of a fixed gear bike will "enable" a rider to bring the bike to a complete and controlled stop. In my opinion, fixed gear bikes without traditional, mechanical brakes comply with Illinois and Chicago law.
There was an infamous case in Portland, Oregon in 2006 in which a bike messenger was ticketed for riding her "brake less" fixed gear bike. The matter went to trial and the judge was not persuaded that the bike's drive train complied with the meaning of the word "brake" as used in the relevant Oregon statute (which had exactly the same wording as Chicago's ordinance). I have never heard of a bicyclist receiving a ticket in Chicago for riding without a brake. That's not to say it has never happened. However, given the shear number of people I see daily riding without a brake, it does not seem that the Chicago Police Department is cracking down on such riders. Even in Portland things are not so cut and dry. In a case brought against a fixed gear rider subsequent to the one described above, the bicyclist prevailed. That case was heard by a different judge, one who was a cyclist himself, who was persuaded that the fixed gear drive train sufficiently complied with Oregon law requiring a brake.
Another important point: In a personal injury case wherein a bicyclist is injured while riding without a brake, whether doing so was legal or illegal will be beside the point. A jury listening to a case arising out of injuries suffered to a fixed gear rider who had no brake at the time of the accident may be unsympathetic to his or her case. The jury may feel that the bicyclist is substantially at fault for the injuries due to not riding with a traditional brake and will refuse to compensate him or her for injuries sustained. Frankly, in an urban setting it is a bit crazy not to affix a front brake. Riding without one requires looking and thinking way ahead, to anticipate the need to stop before it's required. With pedestrians and vehicles and little dogs ready to leap into the bicyclist's path along nearly every city block, it's virtually impossible to anticipate everything. It is smart to have a front brake in case of an emergency. Having it will also help allay any concerns a jury may have, should an accident occur, about whether the bicyclist is himself or herself at fault for causing the sustained injuries.