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Open Letter

Yes, yes, we know: You're better than us. You care about the planet. You have a vast wardrobe of colorful biking outfits that you imagine make you look like you're racing up an Alp in the Tour de France rather than the gentle slope of a paltry Lake Shore Drive overpass. You assume the people you leave in your two-wheel wake are marveling at the reds, greens and oranges, envying you.

We're not. We're thinking that most of you are a bunch of smug, self-satisfied, frequently dangerous jerks. We're thinking you should lose about ten pounds before subjecting the world to those bike pants again. We're wondering how you manage to keep on that ten extra pounds if you're so damn active and healthy and wonderful.

That's just a small part of what makes Mayor Daley's proposed new ordinance for fining cars that even come close to bikes so incredibly annoying.

I think I understand why you bikers believe traffic rules are only for fossil fuel-using geeks. You're above it all! Or rather, I wish you were above it all, in a pedal-powered jet pack of some sort, so I wouldn't have to worry about accidentally hitting you when you pull another hare-brained maneuver in traffic. Don't you understand that most drivers are terrified of running into you? You think we want that on our conscience for the rest of our lives?

Oh, that felt good. Whew! I really needed to let that out. OK, now I can be reasonable. Wait, no. I feel more coming on, it's like having the flu . . .

My God I'm tired of hearing bikers whine about their lot. They'll ride slowly down the middle of a lane so cars can't go around them, but then when the cars are piled up at a stop sign or traffic light - we motorists have to pay attention to these things - they expect to cruise to the front of the line, no matter how little room is available for them.

Earlier this year I was at a dead stop at a traffic light, and a bike crashed into me. I am not making that up. He didn't want to slow down to maneuver the infinitesimal space between the cars and the curb, misjudged a few centimeters, and smashed right into my passenger side door. And here's the craziest part: I felt guilty. Almost jumped out of my skin, afraid I'd killed someone. Then I remembered I wasn't even moving.

That is perhaps the most laughable part about Mayor Daley's proposed ordinance, which fines drivers for passing a bike within less than three feet. Ha! The vast majority of cars steer as wide around bikes as they possibly can, often veering into the next lane or over the yellow line to do it. It's the bikers who like to squeeze into tight spaces. Then they're surprised when a driver doesn't realize they've materialized inches away.

Yes, I know there are crazy drivers out there too. That just makes typical biker behavior all the more insane. And here's where your holier-than-thou argument breaks down: You are not better than pedestrians, which includes me as often as possible. At most, you are the equal of pedestrians. So why do you treat pedestrians like vermin too? I have literally never seen a biker in my neighborhood stop at a stop sign, and that includes the time I watched a biker nearly run over someone crossing 56th Street, shooting through the intersection as if aiming for the poor bewildered soul, who by that time had seen the danger racing at her and stopped dead in her tracks. She would have been better off as a moving target. At the very last second, the biker made a sudden swerve around her. I thought she was going to drop dead anyway, from a heart attack.

Here's the thing that most royally jacks me off about bikers: I am one of you, too. Spring, summer, fall, I'm out there along the lake. I'm the one who actually slows down to go around pedestrians and says things like "on your left." I'm the only one who does that, I guess - it startles the pedestrians so much, it's almost counterproductive.

Admittedly, I bike the streets less frequently. I usually feel that if a distance is bike-able, it is also walkable, and walking in the city tends to be more attractive to me. Also, I think the current U.S. system for accommodating bikes in the street is nuts. More on that later.

But I cannot defend you, bikers, to people who are solely motorists or pedestrians, because I truly believe you are the worst traffic offenders out there, and your own worst enemy. I understand why your fellow travelers so often can't stand you. I speak especially to you maniacs who ride at night without so much as a reflector, in all-black outfits as if you're on your way to a Matrix costume party.

This is not the way to persuade a recalcitrant, car-addicted America to become more bike-friendly, as it should. It is the way to piss people off. It is the way to get killed.

Two years ago, I was driving down a one-way street with my kids when we all saw a van run into an older gentleman riding his bike in the wrong direction through the upcoming intersection. From his speed, it didn't appear to me that the biker could possibly have even paused at the corner, which would be a four-way stop if they bothered putting stop signs pointing in the wrong direction.

I hit the brakes, grabbed my cell phone and called 911, then parked and ran to the intersection. The older gentleman was laying on the ground, his bike partially on top of him, unconscious. His breathing was shallow. He had no helmet. The van driver was beside himself: he never saw the bike coming. The last time a lawyer called me about the case, the biker was still in a coma.

After the ambulance and police had come and gone, we left, feeling just as badly for the van driver as the bicyclist. Maybe you think that's wrong. I don't.

There's no question that this country needs to become more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. We should take plenty of cues from European cities. Here in Hyde Park, the city's idea of making 55th Street more bike-able was to send a crew of painters out one day to paint little bike pictures at intervals on the ground alongside the parked cars, as if the pictures held some magical power to expand the street or form a force field around bikers.

Why hasn't bike-crazy Mayor Daley figured out a way to start incorporating real bike-only paths wherever new development or streetscaping gets done? I mean bike paths that will actually one day form a biking grid, as in many European cities - a grid that lets people do useful things on a bike instead of just scaring pedestrians along the lake. Maybe because a real biking path system won't fit in Millennium Park. We don't need more bikes to rent. We need better ways for the existing bikes to get around, first.

Since the mayor is all over raising extra revenue through ferocious ticketing, why not start enforcing traffic laws among bikers? That's another handy European trick. And start re-doing intersections to incorporate bike boxes where bikers gather at red lights. Yes, it will annoy some drivers, because the system includes separate traffic lights for the bikers that let them clear the intersection ahead of the cars when the lights turn green. But the upside is that the bikers actually stop at the light.

I can live with that, and more importantly, more bikers would live with that system in place.


Cate Plys


Open Letter is open to letters.


See who else Cate has written to - from Lin Brehmer and The Person Who Let Their Dog Defecate Near The Southeast Corner Of 58th And Kimbark to Fellow Parents Planning Birthday Parties and Macy's - in the Open Letter archive.


1. From Gregory Perkins.
My dearest Cate: I was somewhat taken aback by your lack of professionalism when it came to your Dear Bicyclist article. Please don't pre-judge all bicyclists by the use of phrases such as "a bunch of smug, self-satisfied, frequently dangerous jerks" and "bikers decided en masse." In such, you have succeeded in polarizing our road community. What Chicago needs more than anything in this battleground that you have helped define is to build a sense of brotherhood on the road, not to justify the supposed animosity that you depict. I follow the laws of the road. If I don t, I accept responsibility for my infractions. My payment will most likely be my life, not a mere dent on a quarter-panel or a recurring nightmare.

For this reason, most cyclists are cautious not callous abusers of automobile rights. As far as the "vast wardrobe of colorful biking outfits" is concerned, most cyclists don these garments in an effort to be more visible to our automobile brothers, not to highlight pulsating buttocks. And yet if we are condemned for being too colorful, you also condemn us for wearing "all black" and being on the way to a Matrix party. Which is it? What are we to wear? Your contradiction disgraces the newspaper.

Chicagoans, let us set aside the hateful propaganda designed to create a chasm between us fellow commuters. We all want to arrive safely at our destination. I, for the first time, am fearful that some previously courteous automobile driver will now feel justified to adopt the militant stance of some journalist. I truly hope that my widow won t be in contact with you before summer is up.

2. From Peg Burke.
I'm a bicyclist too, and the only place I'll disagree with you is where you say if it's bike-able, it's walkable. No, no, no.

I'm in the Near Southwest 'burbs, and when it's nice out, I ride my bike downtown (14 miles, give or take) to work. Walkable, that's not.

I should point out, though, that I ride like that only in daylight, and only in nice weather. Suicidal, I'm not.

I rode downtown a couple times a week pretty much all summer. I found that, mostly, cars stayed the hell away from me. Trucks and buses, a lot of the time, would set themselves in such a way that they blocked other traffic when I went by. When I stopped at lights (my ride takes me down Western from 91st to Archer), more often than not, I'd have nice conversations with the folks waiting at bus stops.

In short, for the most part, my rides were a heck of a lot more enjoyable than I expected.

And, by the way, I made sure I was always wearing a screaming yellow shirt, and a yellow reflective helmet. No, these things aren't pretty, but they sure are visible, and when I ride in traffic, visibility is a priority second only to making sure my bike is in good working order.

So, you might ask, weren't there any problems on my rides? Sure there were. I was really kind of surprised at who caused the biggest traffic problems. Not cars, not trucks, not buses. Bikes. Other people on bikes
were the biggest problems. Goofballs on bikes would zoom around, never signaling in any way, cut me off, scare the hell out of me. Cyclists doing stupid things, and not wearing helmets. Cyclists refusing to
signal turns. Cyclists not even slowing down at traffic signs and signals. People who should know better, wearing outfits that made them pretty much invisible in traffic. Dingdongs who think they're Lance
Armstrong, trying to pass while cars were whizzing by a foot or two away. Morons with too much money who think their several-thousand-dollar bikes entitle them to do all sorts of really stupid
things in traffic.

Now, I'm not saying that there were never any fuzz-for-brains drivers who caused problems. I am saying that they were far fewer than the number of idiots on bikes. There are those drivers who don't think bikes
should share the road. About all I can do about them is keep as clear as possible. Even those drivers don't usually do more than yell something obscene out the window.

I agree with you that Daley's got it wrong. The problem isn't cars. The problems are that most bikers are stupid, and that the roads aren't designed to accommodate bikes and cars. You're never going to fix the
first. Fixing the second, if Hizzoner would lay off the TIFs, and lay off making sure his buddies get lots of contracts, would do a much better job of getting us all home safely.

3. From Kenneth Green.
Amen on the bike thing. I ride too, but am fed up with riders who believe the motto "share the road" really means "move out of my way, I'm on a bike and I'm not polluting the environment, pig." And my biggest
disdain is not for the hell-on-wheels bike messengers. It's the idiots who THINK they're bike messengers. Overweight Loop cycling commuters with all of the agility of Tupperware who somehow think that because they're downtown and because they're on a bike, they can conduct themselves in the same manner as bike messengers, i.e., squeeze between cars at a light rather than just stay behind one car like the vehicle they are, cut through stop lights, ride in the far left lane, etc. It's a wonder the streets aren't littered with dead IT-worker carcasses, pants clips and flattened Dasani water bottles.

And to make matters worse, they often alternate between the street and the sidewalk in some schizophrenic dance. Hey, Lance Armstrong: Vehicle or pedestrian? Make a choice and stick with it!


Posted on March 7, 2008

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