Friday, July 20, 2012

City bike riders and Tour de France competitors have little in common

by Michelle Stenzel

The Chicago Tribune printed an opinion piece recently by John D. Thomas (you can read it here on Chainlink), who expresses anger about seeing what he perceives to be "egregious driving infractions by cyclists". These include failing to stop at red lights, and appearing alongside his car when he's trying to turn right. 
I don't think Tour de France competitors face potholes
like those on Lincoln Avenue.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
What he doesn't seem to understand is that one's perception depends on one's viewpoint. To Mr. Thomas driving a car, he may see a bicyclist going through an intersection on a red light and perceive her to be breaking the law. The bicyclist, however, may have entered the intersection just as the light turned yellow, and due to the enormous size of the intersection, was in the middle of it on red. To the bicyclist, the signals are unfortunately timed only for the benefit of cars, and she's not given enough chance to cross safely.

To Mr. Thomas driving in his car, a bicyclist may seem to appear "out of nowhere" just as he turns on his signal and begins to turn right. The bicyclist, however, perhaps rolled up to the intersection on red, and was just trying to stay close to the curb while intending to go straight. To the bicyclist, the bike lane disappeared 10 yards ago, and Mr. Thomas was "suddenly turning right" and nearly T-boning him.

What really struck me in Mr. Thomas' essay was that in order to make the argument that he is sympathetic to people riding bicycles and presumably understands the issues they face, he cites his personal history of road bike tours and mountain bike racing in his youth. His more recent experience with bicycling seems to be limited to watching the Tour de France for hours at a time. He never mentions riding a bike in Chicago.

I don't believe that riding on rural highways for leisure or watching Tour de France provides the same experiences as riding a bike on our city's streets to get to work, or to bring a child to an activity. An entirely different problem set faces each rider, and causes them to behave differently. I worked up a Venn diagram, to illustrate.

(Much more after the jump!)

Chicago residents riding a bike:  Middle-aged me riding a heavy tandem bike three miles on Chicago’s north side to get daughter to theater rehearsal:
Note that we do not ride on the sidewalk: This was just posing for the pic. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Tour de France competitor:  Youthful male riding his super-lightweight road bike in a closed-road competition 200+ miles to get international fame and prize money:
(Photo credit: Flickr user philguinto)

Not much overlap! Flat tires and excessive heat. I don't think Alberto Contador ever had to veer around a taxicab blocking the way as he made his way down through Chartres.

Toward the end of Mr. Thomas' piece, I was glad to read his words that "All great cities embrace cyclists, and more Chicagoans are biking on our city streets all the time. … Bike lanes and more places to park and lock your bike are great advancements… ."  

I sincerely wish that Mr. Thomas would go for a few bike rides on the city streets, maybe to the grocery store or to dinner, to see if his experience helps him understand the bicyclist behavior that he sees. I may have to e-mail him to invite him on a ride.


  1. Don't want to comment much. Just a bit about them potholes. I doubt anyone riding in France, not only the Tour de, has do deal with them. Just like any cyclist in Germany (I haven't been much in other European countries to compare). I'd say that if any German mayor would allow the streets of his town to disintegrate like the streets here in Chicago, he'd be, at least, kicked out of office, if not shot in the city square.

    I was born, raised, and lived in the former USSR. Russian country roads are notoriously bad, especially in wet weather. But I've never seen paved streets in Odessa, where I lived, or in other cities I visited then, in such bad shape. Until a couple of years before the Soviet Union started to fall apart.

    Hmm . . . Has it always been that bad in Chicago?

    1. Thanks, Saumacus. Let's just say that Americans in general have not been very diligent about planning and funding the maintenance of infrastructure in general (see the Strong Towns blog for great essays and information on that issue). In Chicago specifically, I believe there were a number of years preceding the current administration in which our street planning, paving, striping and signage went from middling to terrible. Luckily, there's a clear recognition of that and there are definite signs that things are now turning around, but it will take a long time to make up for years and years of neglect. -- MS

  2. If the city ticketed all the bikers who blow through stop signs we could balance the budget. As a biker, I've almost been wiped out trying to cross the Wells St more times than I can count. Cars are not the threat because they OBEY the rules of the road. I noticed all the comments about the pedestrian cross walk signs are pointed at cars. BIKES NEED TO STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS IN CROSSWALKS TOO.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kim. I agree that people on bicycles need to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, too. The order of priority for users of the street should be pedestrians - bicyclists - motor vehicle drivers, in accordance with the order of their weight/size, speed and ability to cause bodily harm to other users. -- Michelle Stenzel