Monday, May 13, 2013

Proposed changes to city laws mostly favor bicyclists

by Michelle Stenzel

You may have read that last week, Mayor Emanuel proposed some changes to the laws pertaining to bicycling and driving in the city. Most of the coverage in the large media outlets of the changes was focused only on the increased fines for both bicyclists and drivers, and those are indeed part of the proposal. But after reading the full amendment (it’s only a four-page PDF, which you can download yourself from the city clerk’s website), I found there are many more changes that are interesting and important to people who ride bikes in the city, so here’s my round up:

If a person opens the door of a motor vehicle into the path of a bicyclist, there is a fine imposed of $300. If a person opens the door of a motor vehicle into the path of a bicyclist and thereby causes a collision, there is a fine of $1,000.

These fines are double from what they were before. In order to help raise awareness of how important it is to look to check for oncoming vehicles before opening a door, the city will also be requiring taxicab operators to place anti-dooring stickers on windows for passengers. 
Large-scale markings and signs reinforce the message that bicyclists are allowed to use the full lane, here on Wells Street in the Loop. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
People of any age are allowed to ride on a sidewalk if it is marked as a bicycle route, or if they are riding on it to get to a bike share station, or if they are using the sidewalk to enter the nearest roadway.

This is obviously in preparation for the bike share stations that we’re going to see installed in the city in the next few weeks. Due to our unfortunate parking meter lease deal, I expect that many (maybe most?) stations will be on the sidewalk, instead of on the street, and people should be able to ride conveniently to and from the stations on the sidewalk to the nearest curb cut, to get onto the street. 

This also reflects the reality that except for a handful of bike corrals that have been installed in the city, almost 100% of city bike racks are located on the sidewalks, sometimes in the middle of the block. Access to the street is often prevented by parked motor vehicles, so this change also makes it more convenient to access bike racks and the street via bike. (Confession: The only time I have ever been given a warning by a policeman for doing something illegal on my bike was when I rode approximately 15 feet on a sidewalk to get from a bike rack to a curb cut. Though I’m grateful to live in a part of the city where the policemen have the time to crack down on middle-aged women riding bikes slowly for a few brief seconds on the pavement, I’m nevertheless glad that my action will no longer be considered illegal behavior.)

A clause was eliminated that previously made it seem that when a bike lane was provided, a bicyclist was not allowed to ride on other parts of the street instead.

This is likely to clarify that even when a separated bike lane is provided on a street (like the Kinzie or Dearborn protected bike lanes), a bicyclist can choose not to use it. Personally, I’ll always be using the protection, but I know there are some bicyclists who feel otherwise.

Bicyclists should stay toward the right side of the roadway when possible, but they are allowed to move left (and use the full lane) under various specified circumstances. 

These include when:
  • the lane is too narrow for a bicyclist and a motor vehicle to travel side by side;
  • they’re passing another bicyclist or other vehicle;
  • they're preparing to turn left;
  • the bicyclist needs to avoid parked or standing cars, pedestrians, animals, garbage, potholes (OK, they don't actually use the word "potholes", but that's definitely what they mean);
  • they’re approaching a designated right turn lane.

These were already known to be exceptions to the “stay toward the right” rule for bicyclists, but it’s good to see them spelled out in the code. Sometimes when I’m in a conversation with a driver, they complain that bicyclists “weave all around the place” on the street, which makes the driver nervous. I tell them that I’d certainly rather not weave at all on my bicycle, but there are many situations that force me to move to the left, or into the middle of the street, and this new list covers many of them. 

Bicyclists are allowed to pass on the right side of a slower-moving or standing vehicle.

Again, there was confusion in the way the law was previously phrased, and it made it seem like a bicyclist wasn’t allowed to proceed if there was a long line of cars backed up at a red light, for instance, because passing on the right was not allowed by any “vehicle”, and a bicycle is a vehicle. That would bring about a ridiculous situation in which a bicyclist would not be allowed to ride forward between a row of parked cars and a row of cars that were not moving forward for any reason, even when they were on a marked bike lane! This change clarifies that indeed, bicyclists can “pass” a slower-moving or standing vehicle on the right, when it's safe to do so. 

When people are getting out of a vehicle, the bicyclist must stop for the people or pass the vehicle on the left.

This is obviously meant to protect people getting out of taxi cabs. Bicyclists should always anticipate that someone may be about to exit the cab, even when they’re getting out onto a bike lane, and be prepared to stop for them, or pass the taxi on the left.

Bicyclists must use designated hand and arm signals to indicate right turn, left turn, and slow or stop.

This is a new law, so any bicyclist who doesn't already use the signals should brush up and start practicing now.  I didn’t know that it wasn’t actually already required by law to use these hand signals. They’re printed on the Chicago Bike Map and other bicycling-related literature, and I guess I assumed it wasn’t optional. But I certainly use signals already whenever I’m changing direction in the least bit, as it's a great way to communicate with all other street users. In fact, I’m so used to signalling with my arms that I’ve reflexively (and embarrassingly) stuck out my arm when walking on a busy sidewalk in the Loop before turning in front of other pedestrians. 

Bicyclists are allowed to ride side by side on paths or bike lanes, and also where their doing so doesn’t impede the normal movement of motor vehicle traffic.

Previously, riding side by side was only allowed on “paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles”. That makes no sense at all because before the protected bike lanes were put in in the last year, there was no roadway part that was only for bicycles except for traditional left-of-parked-cars bicycle lanes, and those are only about 4 feet wide -- not wide enough to ride side by side. Also, we have no "paths" that are exclusively for bicyclists. The original writers of the ordinance may have been obliquely referring to the Lakefront Trail, but that’s actually a multi-use trail for pedestrians and other users as well. In any case, this proposed change makes it clear that the sociable act of riding side by side is not a ticketable offense in many situations.

Fines for bicyclists who violate the city laws used to be $25, but now the range of penalties is $50 to $200. 

This change doesn’t bother me, personally. I’ve never been fined for a bicycling violation and don’t expect to be. As with any other fines, if you act within the law, you’re not affected. 

Note that the city council still has to vote on these proposed changes before they take effect, but I expect they’ll pass.

You can read the full current bike laws at this link, and I recommend that you do, as there’s always something new to learn. 

I've done my best in summarizing the proposed changes, but if you believe I've interpreted any of these points incorrectly, I welcome you to provide your comments below. (Or if you want to add any other points of interest, of course, feel free!)

It was interesting to notice that most of the media coverage of the proposed changes seemed to have the tone that this is a "crack down" on bicyclists due to the doubling (or more) of fines, but as you can see, most of the changes actually de-criminalize or reinforce the lawfulness of common maneuvers already undertaken by bicyclists. These changes reflect the reality that bicyclist are neither motor vehicle drivers, nor pedestrians, and therefore the law should accommodate them as unique and legitimate users of the street.

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  1. Thanks for the additional details on this ordinance! I had previously only heard about the fee changes. It's good to know that some of the gray areas in city code are being cleaned up.

    1. Thanks for reading, Kevin, and sorry for the late reply! - MS