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Road between drivers, cyclists threatens to widen

The Chicago Tribune: Road between drivers, cyclists threatens to widen

Bike ordinance amendments threaten to fuel cultural clash between drivers and cyclists

May 18, 2013

By Ellen Jean Hirst, Chicago Tribune reporter

One morning as Rick Cunningham drove to work at the Chicago Board of Trade, he signaled to a cyclist on his right that he was going to pass the car in front of him. As Cunningham merged back into his lane, apparently close to the biker, the cyclist did something he did not expect.

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He rode up, struck Cunningham's car with his hand and spit on it, the Wicker Park resident recalled.

"What am I supposed to do about that?" Cunningham said. "I got out of the car and asked him if he wanted to have a conversation … but he rode off."

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration looks to give more liberties and space to cyclists while also holding them accountable for breaking traffic laws, tension on the road between those who prefer two wheels and those who prefer four has grown, both groups said.

For years, drivers have complained that cyclists ignore road rules and ride irresponsibly. Cyclists say drivers hog the road, cut them off and swing open their doors without concern for bikers. Both accuse the other of a false sense of entitlement. And that cultural divide may grow.

Emanuel proposed amendments to the city's bike ordinance this month that would, for example, double the fine for motorists who hit cyclists with their car doors to $1,000. Cyclists' fixed $25 fine for violating traffic laws would increase to up to $200. The mayor also proposed that bikers be allowed to ride side by side if they stay in one lane, leave the right curbside edge to pass other cyclists and ride on sidewalks to get to roads or new bicycle sharing stations throughout the city.

These proposals come at a time when more cyclists are taking to Chicago streets to use the expanded bike paths and widened bike lanes. The increase seems to have revealed a deeper divide between not just transportation preferences, but also identity and the way bikers and drivers perceive each other.

For drivers, vehicles are usually just a mode of transportation. But bikers use words like "freedom," "tyranny" and "identity" when describing their passion for cycling — to bike is to belong to a tribe.

Take Jenny Terlinden, 28, who cycles year-round. The Wicker Park resident spends about 45 minutes a day biking to her two jobs — one at a gym in Lincoln Park and the other as an immigration services representative on the Near North Side. She said biking is a lifestyle choice and part of her identity.

"I don't have a car. I don't like to spend money on a bunch of stuff," Terlinden said. "I like to be self-sufficient. So biking for me is healthy, it's economically a good decision. And it is also a good choice for assisting the environment."

Anne Alt, 50, also an avid Chicago cyclist, has been biking regularly since college.

"It's a part of my identity absolutely," Alt said. "The same is true for a lot of people I know. ... It's a way of getting around without the tyranny of parking spaces and parking meters."

Drivers, who don't necessarily identify themselves as a group, see their transportation as simply a way to get from here to there.

Rebecca Wellisch, 44, said driving doesn't play into her identity.

"I don't think of myself as a driver," Wellisch said. "I kind of feel like depending on what I do, I might be a driver, I might be a walker, I might take the bus. ... Being a driver is truly just a point A, point B thing for me."

Cunningham, 40, said he is not anti-bike but rather pro-safety. With three children to cart around, he said driving is safer and more practical for his children. It also saves time.

"Between trying to have a business at the Board of Trade and three kids in Wicker Park and a lot of friends from where I grew up in Beverly, it's a time management thing," Cunningham said.

He said his choice to drive is only a reflection of his busy life, not a statement of who he is.

"I own a bike, and I'd ride a bike," Cunningham said, "but I usually try to do it not in a city. Maybe on a lakefront. ... Cyclists are younger, and they want to save some dough. I get that."

Terlinden said she loves cycling fast, the wind whipping through her hair and clothes. She and other bikers connect their mode of transportation to freedom, a break from the norm, and a way to be out in nature, all the time.

"It's amazing," Terlinden said. "I see people in convertibles, and I think it's so silly to spend so much money on something when I have a convertible all the time."

But many drivers tend to interpret cyclists' love of freedom as a prerogative to break the rules.

Kevin McNeela, a Chicago driver, said even though he thinks many cyclists downtown are skilled riders, he sees plenty glide through red lights regularly.

"They're supposed to follow the rules of the road like cars are," McNeela said.

Wellisch, who works and drives in Chicago, said it frustrates her when cyclists don't wear helmets. If she ever hit and injured one of them, she'd never forgive herself, even if it wasn't her fault.

"A lot of cyclists don't wear any protective gear," Wellisch said. "It seems pretty unsafe to me, given how people drive in the city."

Cunningham's frustration with bad cyclists sharpened after he said a biker hit his wife as she waited for a metered parking ticket to print a few years ago, and she had to go to the hospital.

"It seems like bikers want it both ways," Cunningham said. "They want the full extent of the law if someone hits them, but if they hit someone, don't police them."

But cyclists said drivers are to blame for their fair share of disharmony.

Cyclist Cory Stephens said drivers don't heed bicyclists' right of way on what are supposed to be shared roads. He takes North Dearborn Street when he can to use the double bicycle lanes, a pilot initiative.

"Other roads are not so friendly," Stephens said. "When cars get stuck behind a slow driver, they're very likely to swerve around them, not looking … or turning right from the far left lanes and going right into the turn lane, just going right across the cyclists' lanes."

While bikers and drivers may grumble about each other, many Chicagoans use both modes of transportation. It's the bad apples, the overly aggressive drivers or bikers averse to the road rules, who fuel the discord and feed negative stereotypes, both groups say.

In fact, Alt said, she thinks the divide between bikers and drivers' attitudes is getting smaller and drivers have started to consider bikers' perspectives.

"Among a growing segment of drivers, there is more awareness of watching out for dooring and watching out for cyclists," Alt said.

It may help if both sides are just more considerate, Alt said.

"We're all trying to get somewhere in one piece," Alt said. "My goal out there is to get where I'm going in one piece and not be the jerk everybody wants to hate."