Thursday, October 29, 2020

Fundamental Change Is Needed To Reduce Driver, Biker Conflict

There is a lot of anger and hostility out there.  I am not referring to the political divisiveness of the nation - although the description applies - but to Illinois's roadways.  Drivers and bicyclists seem perpetually angry at each other, particularly when they meet on congested streets.  Bicyclists become hostile toward drivers for a perceived lack of empathy regarding the dangers faced while riding.  Drivers get steamed at the perceived arrogance and rule flouting by cyclists.  Both often feel that the other is just in the way.  Sadly, each too often view of the other not as a person, but rather as an impediment to their desire to get where they are going.  Why do we too often view our fellow travelers with such suspicion and distain?

The problem is the system, the infrastructure, that the driver and cyclist alike are trying to navigate.  They are each trying to make their way along the same space, yet by very different means and with different expectations.  The motor vehicle is heavy, mechanically powered and slow to maneuver through tight spaces.  The bicycle is light, human powered, quick and easier to maneuver through tight spaces.  In either instance, the operator hopes and expects to travel to their destination without unnecessary hindrance or obstruction.  Place the two in the same space and one or both are bound to have their hopes and expectations dashed, or, worse, see their bodies injured or their property damaged.

A dozen years ago, writer Charles Montgomery wrote an interesting and influential article in Momentum Magazine entitled, Bike Rage.  He wrote,

 “…the driving experience primes car drivers for meltdowns.

They are conditioned by popular culture to see cars as symbols of freedom, yet city driving is a slow-motion trap that subjects drivers to constant restrictions on their movement. Drivers are thwarted from enjoying the promise of motion by traffic lights, by congestion – and yes, by cyclists – and they suffer the natural but impossible desire to escape and move forward…”

He added,

 “…road rage is a symptom of the corrosive effect that modern commuting has on urban culture. Aggressive streets are not just dangerous, they change the way we feel and the way we treat each other, even when we’re not commuting.

… the problem is that city planners have mixed bikes and cars together in ways that offer little certainty about how each should operate, and lots of chances for conflict. Cyclists feel threatened in traffic, just like drivers. Many of us feel hard done by and under attack. I sure do. The average arterial road is an engine of conflict."

This second point resonates strongly with me.  My city, Chicago, has spent quite a lot of money and effort building bicycle lanes.  I use them regularly and I am glad they are there.  However, too many are poorly designed.  When city planners intentionally design streets so that public buses must enter bike lanes to pick up passengers, danger, fear and frustration for the biker and bus driver alike are the natural consequences.  When designated bike lanes on narrow streets are not protected from physical encroachment by motor vehicles with barriers, not just paint, anxiety and injury become too common.  When bicycle infrastructure suddenly ends leaving a confusing and treacherous set of options the bicyclist often feels as if their city does not care about their safety.  When municipal crews fail to survey road construction projects with an eye toward bicycle accommodation, the bicyclist and driver both end up seeing red. 

After years of incremental change to biking infrastructure in the United States there is still far too much regular conflict between drivers and bicyclists.  As a daily city biker and attorney whose practice focuses on representing bicyclists injured on the road, I am in a unique position to observe this phenomenon.  The conflicts between drivers and bicyclists are not going away.  The injuries and deaths continue.  Despite the Vision Zero campaign touted by the City of Chicago, 2020 has so far seen the death of eight bicyclists on our streets, an increase from the average yearly number of deaths between 2012 and 2016 of 5.8, according to Streetsblog.  This is entirely unnecessary.  The City of Chicago's own 2012 Bicycle Crash Analysis states, "with proper street design and behavior change amongst road users, the overwhelming majority of bicycle crashes are preventable."

It has become apparent that fundamental change regarding street design is necessary.   Bike lanes consisting simply of painted lines here and there are not acceptable.  Paint is not protection.  Paint on the street strikes me as a fingers-crossed type of approach to reducing the sometimes deadly conflicts between motor vehicles and bikes.  The era of just hoping that drivers and bicyclists work it out on the road must end, immediately.  2020 has been a year of  profound change.  In aspects of life big and little, many are awakening to the need to fix what has been broken for a long time.  Urban transportation design is one of those broken things.  What drivers and bicyclists need is space.  Specifically, we need bike lanes that are part of real networks that take us places we want or need to go.  Cities should stop designing bikes lanes that just end and instead create safe bike lanes that lead into other safe bike lanes.  We need bike lanes that offer real protection in the form of jersey barriers, planters and the like.  We need streets that belong to bikes only, that are closed to motor vehicles.  Similarly, other streets should be closed to bicycles so that drivers also have places to call there own where they can feel unobstructed by more vulnerable road users like cyclists.  Bicyclists need changes in the law too.  Illinois needs a stop as yield statute that allows people on bikes to yield at stop signs and lights rather than come unnecessarily to a full stop.  This is a year for new thinking about so much.  How we interact with each other on our streets should be on that list.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Video Shows Chicago Bicyclist Right-Hooked In West Loop

Even the feeblest driver can deliver a devastating right hook from behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.  On October 2nd the driver of a grey Jeep Liberty right-hooked a man biking southbound on Des Plaines Street in Chicago.  The collision occurred at the intersection of Des Plaines and Madison Street at approximately 5:52 p.m.  The following video was produced to us by the Office of Emergency Management and Communications during the course of our investigation of the matter:

As can be seen in the video, the roads were dry and there was plenty of daylight remaining at the time of the crash.  The man on the bicycle was riding precisely where he was supposed to be, along the right side of the road.  Wearing a bright red top, he would have been visible to anyone paying attention.  The bicyclist did a darn good job of mitigating the impact by trying to swerve right.  His skillful maneuver meant that he avoided smashing headlong into the side of the vehicle, instead accepting a more glancing blow.  He is expected to recover from his injuries.  The driver never stopped, and instead sped west on Madison.  

Unfortunately, the video does not offer much to help us identify the driver.  If you have information about this incident and/or the driver please contact Brendan Kevenides of Freeman Kevenides Law Firm at 312.629.1901 or via email at

Many Chicago motorists do not look for bicyclists on their right when turning right.  Few city cyclists would dispute that the right hook -- where a motorist turns right in front of you -- is scary and all too common.  It is one of the most feared types of incidents, second only to being "doored."  What duty does the motorist wishing to turn right owe to bicyclists?  A driver may satisfy the duty of reasonable care by doing three things:  (1)  Using a turn signal; (2)  Turning right from the right lane; and (3)  Looking right for bikes before starting to turn.  Drivers are required to perform all three in order to safety execute a right turn.

Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin

Turning right only after merging as far to the right as is reasonably possible and engaging the vehicle's turn signal provide notice to any bicyclist behind you of your intent.  Being predictable while driving (or biking) is very important to prevent crashes.  When you provide roadway users around you with notice of your intent you have given them the information they need to act appropriately.  Making sudden, capricious maneuvers is antithetical to safe driving. Many good and reasonable drivers understand signal use and do merge right before turning right. However, it seems that even otherwise conscientious motorists fail to understand that they must look in their right rear view mirrors before turning right.    In an urban setting it is possible, and even likely that a cyclist will be coming up on your right at an intersection, alleyway or driveway.  Illinois law requires bicyclists to "ride as close as practicable and safe to the right-hand curb" as possible. 625 ILCS 5/11-1505.  Also, most bike lanes in our city are along the right side of the road.  Because Illinois law and urban roadway design tend to funnel cyclists to the right, emergence of a bicyclist from a motorist's right is very likely at any given point of the roadway.  Given this foreseeability, searching right before executing a turn is an absolute requirement for safe driving.

When the driver wishing to turn right sees a cyclist coming up on the right what should he or she do?  Stop, and let the bicyclist pass on the right (as in the diagram above) before executing a turn.  The Municipal Code of Chicago states:
9-16-020(f)  Turning right in front of a bicycle
When a motor vehicle and a bicycle are traveling in the same direction on any highway, street or road, the operator of the motor vehicle overtaking such bicycle traveling on the right side of the roadway shall not turn to the right in front of the bicycle at that intersection or at any alley or driveway until such vehicle has overtaken and is safely clear of the bicycle.
Only when the motorist is well passed the bicyclist, or the bicyclist well passed the motor vehicle, may the driver turn right.  If the cyclist would need to stop or slow to avoid a collision, then he or she should be permitted to pedal by before a turn is executed by the motorist.

Monday, October 5, 2020

A Ride of Racial Reckoning: The 1919 Chicago Race Riot Bicycle Route

This weekend I completed The 1919 Chicago Race Riot Route, a bicycle ride presented by People For Bikes, the Newberry Library, SRAM and ABUS to benefit Blackstone Bicycle Works, a bike shop serving underserved neighborhoods in Chicago.  Aside from raising money to support an important cause, the route is meant to educate about one of the most violent, tragic events in our city's history that remains unknown to many.  The ride took me from the place whether the rioting began along Chicago's lake front and into the nearby neighborhoods of Bronzeville and Bridgeport, home to friction points between white and Black residents.

My impression from the ride, which I did on a sunny, crisp and windy early October morning, was of harsh contrasts offered by what remains, and what does not, from that time long ago.  Many of the landmarks commemorating Black contributions in the area are small, new and/or nonexistent.  On the other hand, markers of white supremacy and out and out racism remain obvious.

The ride begins at the Eugene Williams Marker which notes the approximate location where a white beach goer killed a Black child who was deemed to have come too close to the white bathing area.  The marker, dedicated in 2009, consists of a rock adorned with a plaque.  I had probably passed it many times riding on the path without ever noticing it was there.  When I came to it during my ride this weekend two garbage cans sat next to it, partially shielding it from view.

The Eugene Williams Marker at the start of the route.
The Eugene Williams Marker at the start of the route.

After taking in this spot I continued to the pedestrian bridge at 35th street.  Once crossing the expressway I noticed the tomb of Stephen Douglas, a towering and ornate memorial to the white Illinois politician who famously debated Abraham Lincoln, arguing that the expansion of slavery should be left to the local populations of whites.  He was notorious for failing to find slavery morally repugnant.

From the Douglas tomb, the route directed me to an empty parking lot near 35th Street and Michigan Avenue.  The lot was the location of the Angelus Building, "where four Black men and one white man were killed during the riot."  Now the spot offers parking for the Chicago Police Department's customer service section.  There was nothing there commemorating the tragedy that had unfolded there 100 years prior.

The ride continues like this.  It took me to the office of the Chicago Defender, the Black owned and run newspaper that played a huge role in bringing Black folks to Chicago during the Great Migration, beginning during World War I.  The building now houses a medical supplies shop.  From there I rode to the location of the Hamburg Athletic Club at 3523 South Emerald Avenue in Bridgeport.  I learned that athletic clubs like this one served as sporting and community gathering places for working class whites in the area.  They were also bastions of overt racism where white men would gather and conspire to intimidate Blacks and to plan acts of violence.  I was surprised to see that this club remains in existence, in the same location.  Out front is a sign commemorating the September 11, 2001 attacks.  A house next door flew a "thin blue line" American flag, the presence of which felt a little too on-the-nose.  A search on Yelp after returning from my ride found a listing for the club that seemed to support my suspicions.  One review from 2013 notes that the club is a, "Clean place you must be a member or with a member to get in, keeps the dirtbags out."  Another review from 2016 notes, "The Hamburg Club is a racist Irish-American gang.  That being said, they do not allow non-Whites to enter.  They especially dislike Blacks.  Do not come here as a minority unless you would like to get assaulted..."

The notorious Hamburg Athletic Club at its original location and a house located next door flying a thin blue line flag that many today view as a racist.

On my way to the Hamburg building the route took me to Armour Square Park, a beautifully green spot surrounded by parking lots in the shadow of the home of the Chicago White Sox.  Upon arrival, the route booklet makes note that the rider had crossed Wentworth Avenue, a one-way, three lane street that was the very real dividing line between Black Bronzeville (formerly known simply as the "Black Belt") and white Bridgeport.  That dividing line seems to have only gotten more pronounced over the past 100 years.  Not only does the racial makeup of the area change obviously upon riding west, but the line of demarcation is even more boldly drawn today than it was at the time of the 1919 Riot.  What was once a border marked by Wentworth is now a massive physical divide created by the presence of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Armour Square Park sits near the Black/white dividing line on the South Side in the shadow of the Guaranteed Rate Field.

The promise of dignified work at the Union Stock Yards drew many African Americans to Chicago from the South during the Great Migration.

I rode from there back east to see the spot where the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began.  In 1955, a young boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was savagely murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi after supposedly whistling at a white woman.  Upon his body's return to Chicago his mother made the difficult decision to have an open casket funeral for her son so that the whole world could see what racial hatred had done to her boy.  Jet Magazine published the photos which fueled the start of the push for civil rights which exploded during the 1960s and which led to passage of the Civil  Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964.  The viewing of Emmett Till's body took place at the Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ at 4021 South State Street.  The building is still there.  Today the church not only looks run down, it is run down.  Designated a Chicago landmark in 2006, the building is in such bad shape that there are noted concerns about it's structural integrity.  I imagine that at least the outside of the church looks much like it did in 1955.

A plaque notes the importance of the church to the Civil Rights Movement.

Onward I rode to the next location, a marker commemorating the great journalist, Ida B. Wells.  There was a time when she was arguably the most famous Black woman in American.  She was one of the founders of the NAACP.  During her time in Chicago she helped expose the horrors of lynching in the South and school segregation in Chicago among many other important activities.  Surely, there would be a sizable memorial to her, a tribute that would rival the soaring tribute to Douglas Stephens I had seen earlier on my ride.  It was not to be, though.  The City of Chicago has seen fit to commemorate her incredible achievements and contributions with another rock with a plaque.  It is unimpressive to say the least, and it sits in the corner of a large empty lot that was the location of the notorious Ida B. Wells Homes, a rough and dangerous housing project that existed from 1941 to 2011.

The underwhelming tribute to Ida B. Wells at the corner of 37th and MLK in Chicago.

The final destination on the route lay ahead.  I rode several block north to the Victory Monument at 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive.  This was perhaps the only physically impressive tribute to contributions made by Black people I saw on my ride.  Though placed in the middle of the road, the memorial is apparently the only one in the State of Illinois that commemorates Black service during World War I.  Every Memorial Day a ceremony is held at the monument.

The Victory Monument at 35th and King Drive.

I strongly recommend this ride to anyone interested in understanding the 1919 Riot and the contributions and travails of African Americans in Chicago.  It seems that not only must we learn about what happened 100+ years ago, but we must appreciate how much of that vile legacy continues to this day.  Those who would deny the continuing existence of systemic racism should perhaps consider why it is that the Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ sits in disrepair while the Hamburg Athletic Club remains intact, or why Douglas Stephens in honored with a soaring marble monument while Ida B. Wells is remembered with a plaque on a stone.  The route I rode does not contain answers but the questions posed by the sights, and lack thereof, along the way are numerous.

Search This Blog