Bicycle Diaries: <i>Clash of the bicyclists?</i>

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Clash of the bicyclists?

The following article from the online edition of Columbia College's Chronicle describes an incident I witnessed last month on the Chicago Critical Mass. It involved Jimmie the Saint and an angry cager in a SUV up on Lincoln Ave. While corking he was cited by the police for failing to ride single file.

I'm posting it (with my usual BiG Grafix) because I've been doored three times in as many years. But for each of these I've had a dozen good encounters with drivers. The most recent was last Friday as I was going north on Franklin a little before leaving the Loop. I was waiting at a stop light with an SUV to my left, another car in front of him, and cars parked to my left. Unfortunately both the cager and I decided to enter the slot to our left to move up to the light. He essentially squeezed me and would have pinned me if I hadn't yelled hey while Dave behind me cursed, Motherfucker!!!

The cager stopped so I could back out as the light turned green. He pulled up to the next block, stopped, and got out. Shit, I thought, he's big, really, really big. Later Dave told me he was reaching for his U-lock. Then something happened, rather unexpectedly I might add ... the driver apologized! He asked if I was alright, continuing that he was a regular biker up in Evanston and had been squeezed several times. I was shocked. All I kept saying was, no worries man, the fact that you are saying this is really appreciated. And then, he drove off leaving me a bit more optimistic about sharing the road with motorists.
Motorists, bike riders vie for street space while following laws.
James Ewert, Co-City Editor
18 September 2006

As Chicago’s bicycling scene grows, so does the dichotomy between cyclists and motorists, and many cyclists believe it is as divisive as ever.

The Chicago Police Department does not keep statistics on any type of bicycle-related altercations or bicycling-related citations. Chicago’s bike oriented laws, however, are broken routinely by cyclists, often putting drivers in a tough situation.

Jimmie the Saint, who requested his real name not be printed, said altercations between him and motorists are becoming a regular occurrence in Chicago, especially the downtown area. Jimmie, who has been cycling for a decade, said most motorists are usually antagonistic toward him and other cyclists he knows.

“Just about every day someone says something to me or cuts me off or is openly hostile,” Jimmie said. “I’ve been yelled at, given dirty looks out the window; I’ve been spit on; I’ve seen people go absolutely ape-shit with their kids in the car.”

Last month, during the Aug. 25 Critical Mass, the monthly ride where cyclists join together to overtake city streets and show off Chicago’s cycling presence, Jimmie said he had an altercation with a motorist that left him with a cycling citation.

About halfway through the ride, Jimmie said a car pulled out from a side street into the flow of the mass and almost hit a few cyclists. Seeing this, Jimmie positioned his bike in front of the car, a maneuver Critical Mass riders call corking, effectively stopping cars from traveling through the group.

“I was standing there and the driver started yelling out the window at me,” Jimmie said. “I tend to ignore drivers that are angry when I’m corking, but then I heard the car door open behind me.”

Jimmie called over a few friends to help cork the car and they told the driver to get back in the car and that the ride was almost over. While doing so, Jimmie noticed a police car moving through the mass.

“At that point I knew things weren’t going to work out too well for me because if the cop car was driving in the path of the cyclists, they probably weren’t too hip to our cause,” Jimmie said.

What happened then, according to Jimmie, was the police officers pulled him to the side of the street, throwing down his bike and pulling out a sheet of violations to see what he could be charged with.

“I eventually was ticketed for failing to ride single file, which is a ridiculous ticket because I wasn’t even riding,” Jimmie said. “I was actually off the bike and there was absolutely no way for him to see me failing to ride single file.”

Jimmie’s incident is a paradigm of two major problems cyclists are facing as biking popularity continues to grow and more rights are demanded on the road—motorist hostility and bicycle regulations.

Martin Hazard, a former bike courier and avid biker who has also been ticketed for cycling violations and been hit so many times he has lost count, said he and many of his cycling friends believe altercations with motorists are becoming more common.

Less than a year ago Hazard said he was hit by a car while riding near his home in Logan Square. He suffered a dislocated shoulder and a concussion, but said he didn’t file a police report because the driver fled and he had no information on the vehicle.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever bothered filing a report,” Hazard said. “Most of the time I get hit it’s not noteworthy unless I get injured, so I don’t even remember how many times I’ve been hit. Usually the driver leaves and if you don’t have any information, what would be the point?”

Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, a bike advocacy group based in Washington D.C., said he hasn’t seen anything pointing to a significant rise in altercations between cyclists and motorists. Clarke said although drivers are becoming aware of cyclists while driving, there are probably more distractions for drivers than ever before, a factor that many times leads to altercations, verbal or physical.

Whether it’s because of cell phones, neon signs or in-vehicle navigation devices, Clarke said, there are many distractions out there. Clarke, who has biked for more than 20 years in many U.S. and European cities, said most problems occur when drivers are distracted.

“They don’t realize how fast you’re going, they don’t see that you’re there and they turn across in front of you or change lanes into the one you are in,” Clarke said. “In a lot of cases the [drivers] immediately realize they’ve done something wrong, they were distracted by something, and it doesn’t become an altercation. It usually ends in with a wave and them saying sorry.”

Clarke said in his own experiences with altercations it seems to be a very visceral reaction on the part of motorists, something he said stems from a basic misunderstanding of the motorist that bicycles are entitled to and required to follow the same rules of the road.

According to Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association cyclists disobeying traffic laws puts both drivers and the cyclists in danger because the laws are meant to protect everyone, including bicyclists.

Mosher said hostility arises when anyone breaks the law and that altercations between motorists and cyclists shouldn’t be viewed as one versus the other.

“People expect the laws to be obeyed when they’re out there on the road and the laws are in place to keep everyone safe,” Mosher said.

Clarke said he makes it a point to follow the laws, but added that there are numerous examples of times when bicyclists are in a gray area where it’s safer for them to not obey the exact laws all the time. He said that lack of clarity is a challenge to bicyclists who try to stay within the law.

“There are definitely some unique characteristics with bicyclists that argue there should be some differentiation in the way that we are treated,” Clarke said. “But does that mean that cyclists should go around running red lights? no, but I think there are some areas where we need to take a closer look at the way cyclists are regulated and acknowledge that they are different vehicles.”

Clarke cited examples in Europe where many streets are designated two-way for bicycles and one-way for automobiles as well as Virginia where cyclists, because of the inherent thinness of bicycles, are allowed to ride through and between traffic.

Some cyclists however, like Jimmie and Hazard, believe traffic laws should be changed entirely to better accommodate cyclists on the road. Both said that although it rarely occurs, if the law enforcement were to begin actively trying to apply the very same rules of the road that motorists follow to cyclists, it would put riders at a disadvantage.

Jimmie said always stopping at red lights and stop signs is a major obstacle when riding in Chicago because cycling is all about momentum. He said side streets are ideal for riding, and having to, by law; stop at every block for a stop sign greatly slows him down.

“I think there should be a different attitude toward cyclists on the road because the laws that are written for traffic control were written to control 2000 pound vehicles that are not human powered, where all you have to do is hit the brake and hit the gas,” Jimmie said.

Copyright © 2006 The Columbia Chronicle. All rights reserved.

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