Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Looking Back At Chicago's Biggest Bicycling Stories Of 2011

Once again it's time for the obligatory end of the year round-up of the top cycling stories of 2011 in the Chicago area.  It must be noted that there were several reported serious injuries and deaths of cyclists in Illinois this year. Of course, any one of those is the biggest story of the year.  That grim point duly noted and respectfully put to the side, here are the top five stories of the past year:

5.  Bicyclists were banned from texting and other mobile phone usage by the Chicago City Council in early October.  This was something of a no-brainer really.  No one using the roadway, neither motorists nor cyclists, should be focused on anything but, well, the road.  Yet, there was something that felt odd about the passage of this ordinance.  Sure, some bicyclists text while riding, but it never seemed like a problem widespread or serious enough to warrant the attention of the City Council.  Other cities even seemed interested in the ban.  I received a call out of the blue from a reporter at The Washington Times requesting a few words about what I thought about the new ban.  The Washington Times?  The passage of the ordinance and the interest in it from odd corners of the country struck me as sour grapes against bicyclists who have elbowed their way into a share of the road over the past few years.  My sense is that motorists are also sick of being told that much of what they do behind the wheel is wrong:  texting, talking, nail painting; even getting behind the wheel at all.  The ordinance felt like a bit of push back from motorists toward what some perceive is the snugness of we health conscious, no emissions producing, lycra/skinny jeans wearing, skip-to-the-head-of-the-traffic-line bicyclists.

4.  Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill into law that, as of January 1, 2012, will permit bicyclists to proceed through traffic signals that fail to turn from red to green.  The new law will only apply outside of Chicago.  Cyclists will need to come to a complete stop at red lights, but will be permitted to pedal through after waiting a "reasonable period of time" for the light to change and only when the coast is clear.  This is important.  Why?  Because Illinois lawmakers seem finally to be taking into account how real bicyclists ride in the real world.  My assumption is that Illinois cyclists probably were not waiting for faulty lights to turn, sitting idly for long stretches with no cars in sight before traversing uncontested intersections.  But, before the new law goes into effect, failure to do so would be illegal.  Criminalizing how real bicyclists behave is bad for cycling.  It reinforces the notion that bicyclists are social mavericks, rather than regular people trying to get from one place to another, or getting in a bit of exercise.  The new law is a step in the right direction toward considering the road from the bicyclist's point of view.


3.  So many of the bicyclists whom I represent have been injured by motorists carelessly throwing their doors open without looking.  These "dooring" incidents are a serious problem in our city.  In April, the State of Illinois for the first time began tracking such incidents by requiring local police departments to note them on traffic crash reports.  The collection of information about where doorings happen and how often they occur is no mere academic exercise.  Addressing the issue -- with either infrastructure changes or law enforcement initiatives -- requires state and/or federal funding; money that cannot be acquired without data.  Therefore, this rule change is a big step toward reducing these dangerous incidents.


2.  In June there was a seachange in how bicyclists saw Chicago and how Chicago saw us with the opening of the city's first ever protected bicycle lane along Kinzie Street between Milwaukee Avenue and Wells.  Now, bicyclists could experience riding into and from downtown without fear of encroachment into their space by motor vehicles.  The effort seems to be a whopping success.  I have ridden the Kinzie lane a lot, and it is great.  Aside from being protected from vehicle encroachment and doorings, the lane just feels welcoming.  The first few times I rode it I felt like I finally had a space where my bike and I belonged, rather than a patch of rode I constantly had to fight for.  Many other bicyclists seem to have agreed.  By my observation, even in bad weather the lane is well used.  But what really made this such a big deal in 2011 is that it was only the beginning of a new attitude, and a new infrastructure.  The Kinzie Street bike lane was followed by protected bicycle lanes along Jackson Boulevard and 18th Street.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised 100 miles of protected bike lanes during his first four years in office.  So far his administration is well underway toward satisfying that ambitious goal.


1.   “I am a bike enthusiast — somebody who likes biking myself. But, my principle enthusiasm [is] I want Chicago to be the bike-friendliest city in the country.”  That was what Chicago's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, had to said when he presided over the opening of the city's first protected bike lane.  His taking office in May was without a doubt Chicago's biggest cycling story of the year.  What Mayor Richard Daley started, Rahm Emanuel has committed to taking much further, making Chicago a truly bicycle friendly city.  His appointment of Gabe Klein as Transportation Commissioner, who led a bicycle safety initiative in Washington D.C., demonstrated a commitment to changing our infrastructure in a way that benefits all Chicagoans.  Making our city truly bike friendly encourages more people to ride our streets, reducing motor vehicle congestion.   This promises to make riding, walking and plain living in the city better.  Reduced congestion is also better for motorists by increasing drive times and the overall hassle of getting around.  From the bicyclist's perspective Mayor Emanuel's first year has been a good one.

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