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Want a ‘Slow and Stately’ Bike Culture? Here’s How to Get It

There are a lot of ways to emulate cities with friendlier bike/car/pedestrian relations. Cutting off bike lanes to spite our face is the opposite of what’s needed.

Look for bikes, check both ways for entitlement   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Another day, another sour op/ed about how terrible cyclists are. Quotas must be met, so I ain’t even mad. As Chuck Sudo magnanimously responds in Chicagoist, it has some inarguable reminders about transit politesse inside its prickly shell. Stop at lights, be cognizant of pedestrians, be respectful of them.

But as is all too often the case, its attempts to take the moral high ground and reach some percentage of the cyclist scofflaws the author pretends to wish to do something about are undermined by a lack of curiosity or desire to learn about how cities and countries have actually addressed the problems he would have us believe he cares about.

For instance:

That sense of entitlement has been given a municipal stamp of approval, at least to judge from a sidewalk sign at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Randolph streets: “LOOK!” it reads, with a stick figure bicyclist perched between the two O’s. “BE SAFE BE ALERT,” it cautions, a message carrying the imprimatur of “CDOT,” the Chicago Department of Transportation. The warning is repeated just off the curb, where the pedestrian-crossing lane intersects a bicycle lane: “LOOK BIKES.”

Logically, a more appropriate warning sign would face the flow of bicycle traffic, reminding bicyclists that they have an obligation to obey the law.

Except there is a warning sign facing the flow of traffic reminding cyclists to obey the law. Here’s the corner of Dearborn and Randolph.

Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

There are two, if you count the stop stripe before the crosswalk. And it’s not just a redundancy meant to get cyclists to do what they’re already supposed to; it runs on a different cycle than the turn signal to prevent dangerous left-hook crashes.

Cyclists don’t always obey it, which is unfortunate, but the immediate effects of the Dearborn lane were dramatic—a 161 percent increase in cyclist compliance in the first six months, from 31 to 81 percent. Far from the idea that “cyclist entitlement” has been given a “municipal stamp of approval,” the city has installed new infrastructure to get them to stop.

Going from 30 percent compliance to 80 percent compliance is significant, but it’s obviously not full compliance, or even as compliant as you could expect given humanity’s fallen state. Infrastructure is a critical tool, but it’s unlikely to create full compliance in a vacuum.

Which brings me to the even more frustrating part of the piece:

Would that I might again walk Chicago streets enveloped in those aromas — without keeping an eye out for bicyclists riding like competitors in the Tour de France. It’s not an impossible wish. Cyclists ride civilly elsewhere. The Dutch ride slowly and stately. I’ve seen New York’s police pull over cyclists for weaving dangerously through slow-moving automobile traffic.

(New York City is not the model I would cite for a city where pedestrians can walk blissfully without fear, given the city’s ongoing problems with the enforcement of fatal crashes and problems with crash data. The city’s Vision Zero ticketing blitz, though it’s early, hasn’t made much of a dent in crashes involving cyclists so far.)

Would that the piece explored why the Dutch ride slowly and stately. It’s not particularly difficult to learn how Dutch cities encourage a safe cycling culture; lots of people in lots of cities have spent lots of time figuring that out, and sometimes spend further effort still trying to import those lessons to America, much to the affront of American op/ed writers who would prefer to yell at cyclists until they shape up.

It’s a very American solution to the problem—increase the rancor, increase the law enforcement. Look, we gave you some bike lanes and you’re still running red lights! Cry havoc! and unleash the dogs of moving violations.

In fairness, one reason the Dutch have an ingrained respect for cycling as a mode of transit is historically unfortunate: poverty and war. As Peter Furth, one of the nation’s experts on Dutch transit, explained to me when I interviewed him last year, the Dutch biked because they had to, as an affordable option in a poor country. When they had to rebuild after World War II—a time when America was building out its immense auto infrastructure—they built bike infrastructure alongside their roadways. Obviously, it’s more expensive and politically more challenging to retrofit streets that were built for automobile traffic, especially when representatives of the establishment are personally offended by basic niceties like LOOK BIKES markings. (One can only imagine the reaction to a “cars are guests” sign.)

But the Netherlands, like most other Western cultures, followed the growth of the automobile; as Furth noted, cycling went into decline from the 1950s through the 1970s as well. Having a more rich culture of cycling to even want to resurrect—hitting bottom for the Dutch meant something like a 20 percent mode-share for cycles—the country stubbornly began a process of getting cyclists back on the streets, with the support of the country’s journalists:

[A] crisis was taking place on Dutch roads. In 1971, deaths by motor vehicles reached record levels, with 3,300 people dead, 500 of whom were children.

One victim of road death at this time was the child of respected journalist Vic Langenhoff, a senior writer on national newspaper De Tijd, based in the south of the country. Langenhoff wrote a series of articles, the first of which used the dramatic headline ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder) and called for children to be taken to school by bus, in order to reduce their exposure to danger from motorists.

But it wasn’t long before more experienced campaigners contacted him and a policy of reducing road danger at source was agreed as the best way to tackle the unacceptable rise in road crash deaths.

New York City, used above as a model, is very slowly trying to get the NYPD to do more than issue a summons for “failure to yield” in fatal crashes, but the law is an immense barrier:

It is possible to charge sober drivers involved in deadly crashes with other crimes, such as negligent homicide, manslaughter or aggravated manslaughter. But that rarely happens, legal experts said, because those statutes require a far higher degree of culpability than the vehicular manslaughter and vehicular homicide requirements that a motorist be drunk or on drugs.

“Stop the Child Murder” became a rallying cry in the Netherlands (note the photos of protests in the link above). The country rolled out specific bike infrastructure designed to separate cyclists from motorists for the benefit of both. And they changed the laws to favor pedestrians and cyclists in the way that New York is only starting to do: “Crucially, the introduction of cycle lanes was allied to other improvements for cyclists, such as widespread reductions in speed limits, as well as changes in the law that gave greater priority to cyclists at junctions. The law of stricter liability became enshrined in Dutch statutes too.”

The theory is not only that there’s safety in numbers when it comes to cyclists, there’s also compliance in numbers. If cycling is perceived to be unsafe, the majority of cyclists will be those most willing to assume risk. And cycling, unfortunately for a lot of reasons, tends to be kind of dude heavy, and it hasn’t improved—the share of cycle trips by women has remained stagnant, according to Department of Transportation data, from 2001-2009, while it’s increased for men. The ratio has increased from about 2:1 to 3:1 in that period. (The demographics for Divvy are quite similar, as are those of the Dearborn lanes.) I’m not aware of any evidence that men are worse cyclists than women, but there’s substantial evidence that men—especially young men—are worse, riskier drivers, and it seems plausible that those tendencies would transfer. In the Netherlands, women are more likely to be cyclists across the majority of age groups.

Part of the reason the Dutch ride “slow and stately” is that kids, the elderly, and parents with kids ride in substantial numbers. Since the 1980s, when the “Stop the Child Murder” campaign began to really bear fruit, cycling by the elderly has tripled. The campaign also benefited its intended target, as Dutch children are likely to bike to school.

Compare that to the U.S. where the percentage of children walking or biking to school has fallen from 50 to 13 percent since 1969.

Of course, the Dutch also educate their children to bike to school—and to be more responsible users of different transit modes:

You need better cyclists, too, and more bike-aware motorists. Universal in-school bicycle education guarantees that every Dutch child can comfortably ride in traffic. By the time they get their drivers’ license, they’ve used bicycles as their primary form of transportation for years — and that habit continues into adulthood.


Heliante Kuster, who has taught at Delft’s Basisschool De Ark, an elementary school, for more than 30 years, says that bike training is a fundamental part of the school experience. In the playground, a miniature bike rack holds dozens of tiny bicycles that the children have used to get to school alongside their parents. Inside the classroom, posters advertise bike riding and bike safety. When the school goes on field trips, they go on bikes — riding down a cycle track in a large group, decked out in matching highlighter-colored vests.

What they learn in school is not just how to bike, but also how to participate in traffic, Kuster says.

As Furth told me, driver education also encourages already cyclist-aware drivers to keep an eye out. When exiting the vehicle after the driving test, the test-taker has to check for cyclists when opening the door, a small courtesy to prevent a dangerous dooring—but one oddly resented by some American drivers.

Perhaps the intensive Dutch model of cycling infrastructure and education is unrealistic given American land-use patterns. But it’s also misleading to imply that they ride “slowly and stately” as if it was an incidental cultural artifact rather than the result of decades of intentional public policy.

Or maybe the situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part, and we’re just the guys to do it!

Why not give pedestrians a similar holiday by periodically closing the streets to bicycles? Maybe not all of them. But arteries like Milwaukee Avenue, Halsted Street and Devon Avenue that knife through the city’s patchwork quilt of ethnic communities.

Streets where walkers can eavesdrop on immigrants gossiping in languages transplanted from dozens of Old World homelands and hear English flavored with an Irish lilt, a Yiddish singsong, or the rolling cadences of the rural South — a joy to the ears, especially if the eyes need not keep watch for approaching bicyclists.

That would be this Devon Avenue:

Due to the frequency of accidents, the city designated the majority of Devon Avenue’s business district as the most dangerous stretch of road on the North Side, according to the Transportation Department’s 2011 pedestrian crash analysis report.

And this Halsted Street:

According to the Chicago Department of Transportation’s 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis, this intersection [Fullerton-Halsted-Lincoln] is tied for 9th in the city for the highest number of crashes between motor vehicles and pedestrians, with 19 crashes between 2005 and 2009.

Devon, Halsted, and Milwaukee all show up on the city’s most dangerous intersections for pedestrian crashes.

It’s entirely possible that they’re hot spots for bike-pedestrian crashes as well, but there doesn’t seem to be good data in Chicago on that. New York City recently began counting those incidents and found 244 pedestrian injuries involving bicycles in 2012, compared to 11,794 involving motor vehicles. An earlier study found about 550 such bike-pedestrian crashes leading to a hospital trip from 2007-2010, or about 138 per year, compared to about 10,000 a year from cars. Certainly there are more that don’t make the tables at the hospital or precinct, but there’s a dearth of numbers beyond that.

Could we ban bikes for a day in Chicago? Sure, I guess. Using New York’s 2012 figures to create a very rough estimate, it would prevent two-tenths of a bike-pedestrian crash serious enough to show up in the statistics. Perhaps it would reintroduce Chicago cyclists to the romance of CTA buses, since bus use has been in decline. There’s no place to be “enveloped” in the “aromas” of Chicago quite like the 66. Maybe they’d see more of the city, especially the ones who don’t live as close to its core as Old Town, leisurely tasting its streets as they walk several miles to their jobs. The ones around the Blommer factory have a particularly rich terroir, and those near the Chicago River, while diminished, emanate with the city’s industrial heritage. When the Array of Things starts to spread, you can even design your walks to avoid concentrations of volatile organic compounds.

Or the city’s core of cyclists would perceive it as a punitive, counterproductive measure, one meant to engender hostility while convincing casual cyclists that they should stay off the mean streets for their own safety and the convenience of everyone else.

Most likely it wouldn’t do much of anything except push 20,000 more people onto the CTA or behind the wheel. So if it happens, be sure to stop your reverie when attempting the crosswalk; there will still be plenty of reasons to look both ways.


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