Two wheels vs. four wheels
Published August 10, 2006
This is the time of year when you hear a lot about the rules of bicycling, but no, this isn't about the annual Tour de France doping scandal. It's about bikes and cars (and minivans, SUVs, delivery trucks, CTA buses and the occasional pedestrian) co-existing on urban streets. Or failing to.
Motorists complain that cyclists ignore traffic laws. They ride too slow, blocking cars, or they ride too fast, blowing through stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic and otherwise behaving unpredictably. They wear headphones, but not helmets. They curse and make obscene gestures at drivers whose only sin was the failure to anticipate the biker's unlawful behavior.
Cyclists complain that motorists drive or park in the bike lanes, refuse to yield to bikes, open their vehicle doors in the path of an approaching bike and are generally oblivious to two-wheeled traffic. They curse and make obscene gestures just to protest the inconvenience of sharing the road.
Despite all this, Chicago is the second-best place in the country to bike, according to Bicycling magazine. We have more than 120 miles of bike lanes, a lakefront bike path, thousands of bike racks, and a downtown bike station with 24-hour secure parking (and showers!).
Because Chicago is also the third-worst city for bicycle theft, the city brokered a deal with local bike shops this summer to offer a 25 percent discount on locks.
All of this is designed to encourage more people to ride bikes, which sounds like a great idea until you get stuck behind one on a crowded two-lane street when you're already late for work. Or until you nearly run over a cyclist because one of you wasn't paying attention.
Bikers who run red lights, ride against traffic or speed down the sidewalk are breaking the law, as are motorists who shoulder bikes off the road or refuse to yield to cyclists. But many car vs. bike conflicts aren't so easy to adjudicate. In general, the same traffic laws that apply to cars apply to bikes--except when they don't, which is common in city driving situations.
On a two-lane, two-way street, for example, a car would drive in the center of the right hand lane. A bike, which is typically slower, would stay to the right if the street is wide enough for cars to pass on the left. But on a narrow street--or one with cars parked along the curb--it's safer for everyone if the bike is closer to the middle, where it's more visible. Seasoned cyclists understand such variables (or ought to), but motorists might not. The city's Department of Transportation has an excellent publication, Safe Bicycling in Chicago, available at www.chicagobikes.org or by calling 312-742-BIKE. For motorists, it's an excellent field guide to cyclist behavior; for bikers, it's a guide to survival.
Cycling is great exercise and cheap transportation. It reduces congestion, pollution and gas consumption, and it frees up parking spaces. It's good for motorists and bikers alike. Let's try not to kill each other.