Adam Paradis remembers waking up in a hospital, surrounded by strangers. His neck was broken, a doctor told him, and he might never walk again.
Paradis was the victim of a 2015 hit-and-run incident in Hyde Park while riding his bike home one evening after screening a film at the University of Chicago. He underwent reconstructive neck surgery, but that wasn’t the end of his troubles. The evening he was discharged from the hospital, he suffered a small stroke.
“People say, ‘Oh! You’re fine now,’ and you’re like, ‘No…there is no ‘fine’ moving forward,” he recalls. “I can live a normal life, but [the pain is] there every day.”
In recent years, Chicago has received national attention for its bike-friendly initiatives. In 2016, Bicycling magazine named Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the country, up from tenth place in 2010. But the same month the city was commended, a sixth cyclist was killed while riding on the city’s streets, making 2016 just as deadly as previous years.
Soon after that (by coincidence, not in reaction), Chicago released its Vision Zero Action Plan, calling for an end to traffic fatalities, including cyclists. This added to a series of bicycle safety plans dating back to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s formation of the 1991 Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council. That was followed by the Bike 2000 Plan, Complete Streets, Mayor Emanuel’s Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, Chicago Forward, the Bike 2015 Plan, and Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, all aimed at making bicycling safer in Chicago.
Logan Square is one of the many bike-friendly neighborhoods. With bike shops at almost every corner and bikers zipping down the streets, the community is a popular cycling area and is increasing bike safety. The Chicago Department of Public Transportation is working with neighborhood organizations to add more bike lanes and safety to Milwaukee Avenue between Logan Square and Belmont. CDOT is active in bicycle safety, co-sponsoring some of the bike plans and providing a Chicago Bicycling and Safe Route Ambassadors program for schools and communities.
Today, Chicago boasts more than 200 miles of on-street bikeways, including bike lanes with and without barriers or buffers between cyclists and cars, and lanes marked as “shared” between bikes and cars. Bicycle commuting doubled in popularity between 2000 and 2010, and has only increased since then, particularly with the addition of Divvy, which makes bicycle commuting available to people without bikes of their own. In Logan Square alone, there are more than 20 Divvy stations.
It all sounds very encouraging, but it begs the question: For all Chicago has done—and it has done a lot—what will it take to reduce the number of cyclists killed on city streets, and those who, like Paradis, are seriously injured?
Laying the Groundwork
The largest issue in bicycle safety is how to share the road with motorized vehicles. Chicago’s latest bicycle-friendly blueprint, Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, was developed with input from cyclists across the city. It proposes a 645-mile network of bikeways on streets throughout Chicago. These include:
• Barrier-protected bike lanes that provide a physical separation from vehicle traffic.
• Buffer-protected bike lanes, located between the curb and parked cars, that offer a larger barrier between cyclists and traffic.
• Marked shared lanes encourage cars to share the road with cyclists.
• Neighborhood “greenways” — quieter routes that may include traffic-calming measures like speed bumps.
Of these, only the lanes with barriers and buffers are genuinely protected, and even on those lanes, bicyclists need to negotiate unprotected intersections.
“We’ve been working really hard with our community-based partners and thousands of members and supporters throughout the city to make sure as different projects are proposed and built, that there are strong visible community support for having those projects move forward,” says Jim Merrell, advocacy director for the Active Transportation Alliance, a local bicycle advocacy organization helped develop the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020.
But bikeways alone don’t help cars and bikes share the road. Education is also essential to the effort.
“People are getting used to interacting with cyclists,” says Lauren Crabtree, manager of CDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian safety and education program. “But as far as bike safety goes, I think that there are a lot of folks that aren’t familiar with bike laws in Chicago.”
One of those laws is designed to prevent “doorings,” which occur when drivers open their car doors without checking for cyclists, who then ride at high speed into the open door and may be thrown into traffic. “The law requires all drivers to look before they open their car door to prevent situations like that,” says Jonathan Rosenfeld, managing attorney at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers in Chicago, who represents bicyclists in cases against drivers. “The city is making some improvements, but just putting bikes lanes on existing streets is not enough to protect cyclists; they need to get the word out and get drivers to be mindful of the fact that there are people biking on the same roads.”
There is a solution to doorings: the “Dutch Reach.” In the Netherlands, drivers are taught to open their door with the hand furthest from it, which causes them to swivel toward the door and see if a cyclist is approaching. But that has not been adopted in drivers education courses in the United States.
Other local laws may decrease bike safety. Illinois requires that bicyclists observe all the same traffic laws as cars. By contrast, several states permit bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs—the so-called “Idaho stop.” A 2016 study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University recommends legalization of the Idaho stop because it allows bicyclists to conserve momentum and shortens the time they are exposed in intersections, promoting safety. But in Chicago, bicyclists can be ticketed for rolling through a stop sign.
Bicyclists can also be ticketed for riding on the sidewalks in Chicago—a law that Rosenfeld says some motorized vehicle drivers don’t know, so they resent having to share the road with bicyclists. “That resentment, while most of the time it doesn’t manifest itself into an accident, the attitude is out there and it causes a lot of close calls and tension on the streets,” Rosenfeld says.
Crabtree hopes that as more people bicycle on the streets, their presence will make drivers more careful and aware. In fact, bike commuting has increased in recent years. According to a census taken by the Illinois Department of Transportation, 1.8 percent of commuters rode a bike to work in 2015, up from 1.3 percent in 2010.
“The perception is that it’s scary to ride a bike on the street if you’ve never tried it before or you’re not used to it,” she says. “It’s really just about getting someone open to the idea of trying it. Because a lot of times if you try it, then maybe it’s not so bad.”
And as for the times when it is bad? “It’s also our philosophy that crashes are not accidents,” she says. “So we don’t use the word accident.”
As Chicago increases the number of bikeways, we can expect more cyclists in more parts of the city. But that doesn’t necessarily mean safer cycling. “Getting drivers to be more mindful of cyclists is something that the city can and should do as they start building out their cycling infrastructure,” Rosenfeld says.
John Greenfield, a contributer for the Reader and editor of Streetsblog Chicago, a daily news and advocacy website, agrees. “We are trying to keep people up-to-date on the latest education and news on city initiatives,” he says.
Greenfield, who is an avid cyclist, applauds the city’s creation of bike paths on some of the busiest cycling streets, including Milwaukee Avenue, Washington Street and Monroe Street, but says there needs to be a more “cohesive” network of bikes lanes throughout the city.
“We need a better system where an equal amount of bikes lanes are going to all parts of the city,” Greenfield says. “Especially in the lower income neighborhoods that can really benefit from the mobility, health and economic benefits of cycling.”
Another benefit of cycling? Less vulnerable roadway users. According to data from Vision Zero, the more bikers and people walking there are on the streets, the less fatalities towards them occur because safety and commuter awareness has increased.
“We do a lot to make any kind of transportation in the city as pleasurable, safe and efficient as it can be for any type of user no matter what mode,” Crabtree says. “We still have work to do.”
Ariel Parrella-Aureli, Erik Island, Frank Healy and Mike Altergott contributed to this story.