Pedal at Your Own Peril

Seven cyclists were killed by automobile collisions last year in Chicago, up from three deaths the previous year. Despite the city’s harsh winters, plenty of cyclists still take to the streets to ride every day. Has Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivered on his promise to make Chicago the most “bike-friendly” city in the nation? Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld and Melody Geraci, deputy executive director of Active Transportation Alliance, discuss the uptick in cyclist fatalities and injuries, as well as what can be done to increase bike safety in Chicago.

Rebekah ScheinfeldRead an interview with Commissioner Scheinfeld.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes by May of 2015. Are we on course for meeting that goal? How many miles of barrier-protected bike lanes, which seem to be the preferred bikeway, does the city currently have?

We’re definitely on track to meeting that goal in the spring of this year. We’re at 85.5 miles of protected bike lanes currently. That leaves us with 14.5 miles that we plan to install this spring. The start of that work is weather-dependent. Last year, we installed 36.5 miles of barrier-protected bike lanes  –  the most we’ve done in any year.

Do fatalities tend to happen more so in the winter?

Not necessarily. It’s spread out throughout the year. We did do a bicycle crash analysis and we found that the most severe crashes happen in the late afternoon into the evening, or nighttime and during certain days of the week. Thursdays was one of the peak days for some reason. It’s not exactly seasonal.

Illinois doesn’t have a law requiring cyclists to wear helmets. Is there any plan for one?

Chicago doesn’t. We do encourage helmet use through various educational outreach programs. We have a bike ambassador that goes to different schools to talk to kids. We’re making efforts to make sure helmets are readily available to everyone.

A RedEye Chicago article quoted you as calling the 2014 uptick in cyclist fatalities “significant” at a Bicycle Advisory Council meeting in September. Can you elaborate?

From our perspective, any traffic fatality is one too many. Any death is significant. If you look at the historical trend of cyclist fatalities, the 2014 numbers are in line with the trend prior to 2013. We launched a “Zero in Ten” campaign that will seek to eliminate traffic fatalities by the year 2020. With respect to bike facilities, our investment in barrier-protected bike lanes is an important investment for safer traveling conditions. We also target enforcement to make sure everyone’s doing their part towards safer streets.

--Graphs by Kristen Thometz

A 2014 ruling in Pattullo-Banks v. The City of Park Ridge found that Illinois municipalities can be held responsible for injuries to pedestrians or bicyclists forced into the roadway by snow piled on bike lanes or sidewalks by city plows. There’s a concern about what happens to bike lanes when the streets are plowed, especially protected bike lanes. Is the Department of Transportation working with the Streets and Sanitation Department to alleviate this issue?

We coordinate our snow removal efforts carefully with the Streets and Sanitation Department. They generally plow the bike lanes that don’t have barriers. Our department (CDOT) is responsible for lanes with barriers. Every year, we launch campaigns so that everyone knows their responsibilities, whether you’re digging out your alley as a motorist or clearing out the sidewalk in front of your business. We have highlighted outreach to make sure people don’t shovel into the bike lanes. We educate businesses if they’re found to be shoveling snow into the bike lanes.

The Department of Finance handles any parking violations like cars parking in the bike lane. For example, if there’s an area where there’s a new protected bike lane, we do outreach and education, like posting fliers. We’re educating people on how to utilize the newly designated space, but we will also use enforcement if there are infractions.

We also have a maintenance program to remove snow from bike lanes as needed. CDOT has equipment that is narrow enough to go through the bike lanes. Our snow program is initiated when there are projected levels of snowfall.

credit: TrippAld. Ariel Reboyras (30th) has introduced an ordinance that would allow senior citizens to ride bikes on sidewalks. Kids under 12 are already allowed to do this, except in business districts. Do you support this proposal?

That ordinance was just recently introduced and we need to review the proposal. We haven’t endorsed it at this time. We have a Complete Streets policy and are looking to make sure that there’s safe passage for everyone, including pedestrians. That’s a big reason why we’re making a push to install more bike lanes.

Pardon the pun, but this is a two-way street – does cyclist behavior need to change?

With traffic safety in general, it’s my feeling that everybody has to do their part. It takes two to have an accident in most cases. Whether you’re a motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian, you need to be aware of your surroundings and respect the rules of the road. Enhanced facilities for bicyclists are an important aspect. Bicycle signals have been helping with giving those cues. That is encouraging. We’re looking for more opportunities to include these signals on the most heavily-trafficked routes.

How does the Department of Transportation finance bicycle infrastructure?

A lot of our funds come from the federal government. We also have local funds that have provided support for bicycling facilities. As part of our Complete Streets mission, we always look to enhance facilities for all modes of transport.

How has the Divvy program shaped up so far? Expansion has been delayed since spring, correct?

The Divvy program is going great. It’s exceeded people’s wildest expectations since we launched the program. The expansion was slowed by bankruptcy issues within the supply chain, but those have been settled. Expansion is on course for the spring.

What is the single most dangerous thing that cyclists and motorists do while riding?

The key thing is to be aware and use good judgment. Follow the rules of the road. No one – pedestrians, cyclists or motorists – should be texting. We all need to do our part.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

There are currently 18.5 miles of barrier-protected bike lanes in Chicago. View a map of some routes below.

Check out the city's Streets for Cycling Plan 2020.

Check out Jay Shefsky's 2010 story on Winter Biking.