Awkward Silence & The Politics of Keeping Cyclists Safe


Awkward Silence

It was Christmas dinner and things were going surprisingly well. The food was good, people were laughing. So good, in fact, that the topic of cycling came up naturally (okay, okay… it was to fill some awkward silence), and I announced enthusiastically that we had heard about a big project going on in Chicago to improve conditions and safety for cyclists. It’s called Bike 2015 and there are comprehensive plans to add protected bike lanes throughout roads in Chicago! Sweet! We talked about how we checked out one of them the day before (on Kinzie Ave by Ashland for my Chicagoland readers) and how awesome it was! Then my sister chimed in.

Spoiler alert! Her response was not of the positive, encouraging kind.

She began ranting about how inconvenient these bike lanes are for her. About how they “took away” her “shortcut” and now she can’t commute to work using that road anymore. She continued like this for some time, arguing about how rude and annoying those bike lanes are for her. A giant ball of rage swelled within my stomach as I looked across the table at J. He was giving her the stink eye and we shared a glance. My sister’s partner grew silent, embarrassed at her obnoxious behavior. I looked down and blew up my mashed potatoes with mind bullets.

That's telekinesis, Kyle (source)

That’s telekinesis, Kyle (source)

My mother, next to me, felt the heat rising from my body. Wiping the exploded mashed potatoes from her face, she quickly changed the subject. And we all moved on.

Chicago Bike 2015

I did not engage my sister in a fight. It would have been an inappropriate moment to do so and, frankly, I was not in the mood. But her reaction has been bugging me and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Not just because she’s my sister, but because I think her attitude reflects a common one that drivers have about this issue–cyclists and bike lanes are an inconvenience to me and I don’t want them on my road.

So what’s all the hubbub about? Let me show you–here are some pictures we took while driving around at night.

Bike Lane, protected, Kinzie in Chicago

Bike Lane, protected, Kinzie in Chicago

In this first picture you can see a number of things. All the way to right is the bike lane. Then a protected area, with the white lines and plastic poles–with reflectors–to create a barrier. The middle area is for parking and the lane on the left is for cars.

I have not ridden it yet, but this seems like pretty amazing design to me. First, all the lines, barriers, and reflective material alert everyone that this is an area where there may be cyclists around. Second, Cyclists and moving cars are separated by (a) parked cars and (b) an extra little space with stick barriers. Finally, dangerous swinging parked-car doors are separated from cyclists thanks to the barriers.

Bike Lane, protected, Kinzie in Chicago

Bike Lane, protected, Kinzie in Chicago

This is a picture of an intersection. I like this because the lines are painted through the entire intersection, alerting drivers and pedestrians that this is an area where there may be cyclists.

Bike Lane, intersection, Kinzie in Chicago

Bike Lane, intersection, Kinzie in Chicago

Bike Lane, left turn, Kinzie in Chicago

Bike Lane, left turn, Kinzie in Chicago

And this last picture shows a painted box area for bikes, so that cyclists can safety make left-hand turns through intersections. Maybe drivers will be annoyed that this “slows them down” a little bit, but this way the cyclists is clearly visible, has no need to dart around, and will be out of your way in a few seconds.

Not all bike lanes will be like this in Chicago, but other measures are planned to make the lanes as safe as possible for cyclists.

Why Are You So Mad?

Here is a quick rundown of common justifications for being anti-bike lane:

Spoiler Alert! Sarcasm-Sally comin’ through…

  • Cyclists don’t follow the law! Right…because, you know, I don’t know any drivers who have ever broke any law while driving. I’ve never seen anyone run a red light, roll a stop sign, or speed. But if I did, well I sure as heck would want to border up all those “car lanes” so that no one could ever drive there again! It just makes sense. When individual people of a group do something wrong, then we need to prevent any infrastructure changes from happening. I mean, it’s just simple logic, people. 
  • They get in my way! Seriously! This is sooo annoying. If only there was something we could do about that…if only they had their very own space to ride so they wouldn’t be in my way! Hmm…how can I get on that?
  • They don’t need a whole bike lane to themselves here, I hardly see anyone on a bike riding down that road! I know, right! There’s, like, no way you can increase the number of cyclists using a road! I know for a fact that adding in more paved roads, a separate bike lane, and increasing safety for cyclists will have absolutely no impact on how many use the road.

I find the backlash from drivers confusing. Drivers will simultaneously complain that cyclists are in their way while complaining when they have their own bike lane. To these drivers, compromise is not an option. The sidewalks are for pedestrians, streets are for vehicles. Sorry bike-people, there’s just no place for you in our world!

A better infrastructure (e.g., protected bike lanes) really seems like a win-win to me (I ride my bike and drive a car, so I can see the perspective from both sides). Drivers grumbling about cyclists “in their way” or “slowing them down” don’t have to deal with it–cyclists get their own lane now. Cyclists terrified about being hit from behind, from the side, or from a door get their own lane now.

What I find to be even funnier is that my sister was complaining because the road used to be two lanes, but it is now one lane. That is her big problem, and why she “lost” her short-cut. But, here’s the thing…

  1. As safe cycling infrastructure (e.g., bike lanes) are built, commuting via bike lanes will increase.
  2. As less people commute via car, there will be less car traffic.
  3. When there is less car traffic, the need for more than one lane becomes unnecessary.
The amount of space needed for 60 people: By car, bus, or bike (source)

The amount of space needed for 60 people: By car, bus, or bike (source)

Whose Life Counts More?

The hardest part, for me, to cope with in this argument is that drivers are arguing that their convenience is somehow more important than the safety of cyclists. I’m sorry, but if one group has to give up a little convenience in order to protect the safety of another group, then we really should be on board with this as a society.

And when it comes to a car-bike collision, it’s the bike that loses.

Ghost Bikes

While driving around downtown Chicago at night, admiring the quiet beauty of the city, J pointed out the window and said:

“Look! I heard about these–they’re memorials for people who were killed while riding.”

Neil_OldTown_Ghost Bike_Chicago

And that’s exactly what it was. A Ghost Bike for Neil located by Old Town. Even though the movement started in Chicago over six years ago (the earliest one I could find is Isai Medina from 2006), and even though the overall movement started in St. Louis in 2003, this was the first I had ever heard of it.

According to ghostbikes.org:

Ghost Bikes are small and somber memorials for bicyclists who are killed or hit on the street. A bicycle is painted all white and locked to a street sign near the crash site, accompanied by a small plaque. They serve as reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of cyclists’ right to safe travel.

I tried to look up information for the bike that we saw, but it was not online. It looks like the website has not been updated with this type of information since April 2010.

Ride of Silence

While looking up Ghost Bikes, I came across the Ride of Silence. Every year, cyclists get together and take a ride in silence, like a procession.

The ROS started in 2003 and their mission statement is:

The mission of the world wide Ride of Silence is to honor bicyclists killed by motorists, promote sharing the road, and provide awareness of bicycling safety.

The next one for Illinois/Chicago is May 15 2013. Information can be found here. And you can bet that we will both be there.

Every Bicyclist Counts

While reading about the Ride of Silence, there was a link to Every Bicyclist Counts–a memorial to cyclists by the League of American Bicyclists. This website also holds a database for cyclists that have been killed. According to their website:
We envision this site as a virtual ghost bike; as a continuation of the annual Ride of Silence; as a voice speaking up on behalf of all cyclists. Thank you for joining us here. This site is attempting to capture all U.S. cycling deaths starting from January 1, 2012.

Change is Possible

Humans are clearly not perfect, and we can become overwhelmed with all sorts of social problems–substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, sex trafficking…and so on.  These problems are incredibly complex and will require us to dismantle oppressive systems that are embedded in our culture.

But the safety of cyclists should be a priority, just like the safety of vehicle passengers currently is (think: airbags, seat belts…these were not always standard in cars).

And building an infrastructure so that those who would like to ride their bike to and fro can do so safely? This is something that is possible right now.

But How?

Yes, but how? What can one do so that we can get this show on the road?
  • Actively support bike lanes. This can be as simple as counteracting a complaint from a friend to participating in advocacy events.
  • Respect bike lanes. Don’t park in them. Don’t drive in them. Just leave them be.
  • Participate in mass riding events. Events like the Ride of Silence, for example.

What Do YOU Think?

  • What do you think of bike lanes? 
  • What is commuting like in your area?
  • What are other ideas for supporting bike lanes and cyclist safety?
  • Have you mastered the dark art of mind bullets? If so, what have you thus far destroyed?
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14 responses to “Awkward Silence & The Politics of Keeping Cyclists Safe

  1. This is a great post and I wish non-riders would have a look at this and think. I have seen too many ghost bikes on my rides and 50% of my cycling buddies have been hit by cars. The sad fact is a crash between a car and a rider mostly results in some form of physical injury for the rider only. If the speed differential is more than 25mph then the injury will be very serious. Most riders are also drivers too, so the loss of road infrastructure that non-riders feel entitled too is only lost if you are in a car. The infrastructure here in Chicago is fantastic, and the city should be applauded for taking care of riders and drivers, because I am sure most drivers would prefer not to cause injury to their fellow townsfolk.

    • Thanks so much, I appreciate that! 🙂 and thanks for commenting!

      Yea, exactly! It’s just like if a crash is between a car and pedestrian–the person is going to be the one hurt. That’s why they have their own space.

      I could not agree more–better infrastructure efforts should be applauded. Exactly–I do not think that most collisions between car-bikes have a malicious intent. For example, if I am coming up on a cyclist in a car where we have to share the road…imagine if a parked car door swings open in front of the cyclist. The timing could be so horrible that I hit him/her because I’m trying to pass and they have to swerve. Even careful, respectful drivers could find themselves injuring a cyclist. Let’s just keep everyone safe!

  2. Bike lanes rock. Our city is creating more and more of them. It’s just a shame they don’t always bother to sweep them so all the stones and glass from the road ends up in the bike lanes. It’s particularly problematic in local council areas where the government opposes the State government.

    Here in Australia, if a driver hits a cyclist from behind, the driver is at fault as though the cyclist was a car. There’s loads of advertising campaigns and cyclists are slowly taking over the roads. It’s just a shame some drivers are still rude, obnoxious and dangerous (driving at a cyclist is plain dangerous for everyone involved).

    • I know what you mean! I get sad when I see nicely snow plowed roads, with banks of left on the bike lane. And, in the summer, they still have glass, trash, and road kill. Maintenance is another important issue, and I have wondered how Chicago will be able to keep them clean with the barriers, and what it will be like in the winter with heavy snow.

      I think the laws in terms of determining who is at fault are similar here, but the punishments aren’t always (in my opinion) just for fatalities. Although, I don’t think that is unique to cycling.

      Anyway, I agree that bike lanes rock! Thanks for commenting!

  3. I like bike lanes as I am a cyclist too. The most common complaint about them here in Australia is that they take up car parking spaces. Well, if more people rode their bikes we would not need so many car parking spaces. Great post!

  4. Great post.

    Bike lanes rock. The ones in Finland are really good. They are completely separate from the road and function as proper routes from town to town without silly road crossings or junctions and are clearly signposted. Plus they are gritted or kept clear of snow in winter. Finland does have mini snow ploughs for pavements and bike lanes which is necessary but awesome..

    Germany too has wonderful segregated signposts paths that ARE actually viable and fast. Most countries could really learn a lesson.from them.

  5. Great post. I can only dream of bike lanes like this here in London. One of the problems, of course, is that the streets here are nothing like streets in many cities in the US. Many of them are narrow and winding, single lane each way and there’s simply no room to add in a bike lane. But even on the ones where there is ample space for a separate bike lane, there often isn’t one. And if there is one, it’s often not well-though out – put in as an afterthought, really. I think this is because, for a long time, road design has prioritised vehicle traffic over bikes – although this is beginning to change, albeit very slowly.

    For me, the one saving grace of London’s streets is that there’s an extensive network of bus lanes which we’re allowed to cycle in. OK, we have to share them with buses and taxis, but they’re still much, much better than being out with the rest of the traffic.

    • Thank you!! I’ve heard about the narrow and winding roads before, and I can imagine how that creates a major barrier for any type of changes to the road. And it makes sense that you’re happy at least about the bus lanes. When it’s compared to nothing, I know I get excited even when there is just a little extra strip of shoulder with an actual line. Hopefully everyone continues to see improvements across the globe!

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Great post. It seems to me that if cycling were made safer them more people would cummute by bicycle. That in turn would reduce automobile traffic and give the the complainers nothing to complain about. On second thought, complainers will always find something that irritates them.

  7. Pingback: The Advantage of an Obsessive Partner | women.cyclists·

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