Cycling Scofflaws; Epidemic or Exaggeration?

Cycling Scofflaws; Epidemic or Exaggeration?

Just when I thought cycling was cooling off with the weather, it seems to be heating up in Chicago's City Council.

Apparently, Alderman Mell is concerned with "rule breaking" cyclists and is wondering if a mandatory license might get these scofflaws to straighten up.  The article that referenced this issue in the Huffington Post seems to accept this perceived epidemic as fact and doesn't even bother to challenge the presumption.

With no actual study, no statistics to show an increase in cyclists hitting pedestrians or cyclists causing car accidents, it's difficult to know if "rule breaking" is on the rise or not.  Or could we just be seeing more bikes on the road as of late?  Who can answer these questions with any certainty?

I would say the fact that more people are noticing cyclists is a good thing.  In order for all of us to Share The Road, it's helpful that we see one another.

The fact that cyclists are perceived as reckless scofflaws is a bad thing.  Yes, my fellow cyclists, there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Will a mandatory $2 bike license create safer cyclists?  It's hard to make that connection.  Does a $15 marriage license improve the odds of a couple staying married?

Will a public service announcement make city cyclists more conscientious about obeying the rules of the road?  Or will singling out cyclists just reinforce  the motoring public's perception that cyclists are reckless and don't belong on the road?

Distinguishing cyclists as the only party at fault is the wrong approach to take.  Cyclists are but one part of the equation.  Motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists have to learn to Share The Road together.

Pedestrians are the most vulnerable, to be sure.  Any time one is in the street - even in a designated crosswalk - there is potential for injury by a motorist or cyclist.  Pedestrians need to understand the risk of jaywalking and take responsibility for their own safety outside of a crosswalk.

Cyclists are the next most vulnerable.  Riding side by side with vehicles weighing multiple tons moving at far greater speeds leaves the cyclist with little room for error when an unavoidable obstacle arises.  Cyclists need to respond quickly to obstacles, signal their intentions if possible, and hope that the trailing motorist respects their right to use the entire lane when necessary.

Motor vehicle operators are always responsible for what lies in front of them, be it a truck, bus, car, slow-moving vehicle, pedestrian, or bicycle.  Motorists are required to yield the lane to a cyclist, wait until it is safe to pass, and provide three feet of clearance while passing.  This is the law, yet how many motorists actually know this?

I can't speak for every cyclist out there, just as I can't speak for every motorist.  But from my experience as both a cyclist and a motorist, I can understand the motivation for cyclists to ride in a seemingly aggressive manner.

Cycling is all about maintaining momentum.  The objective is to keep moving forward, staying out ahead of vehicular traffic where you are most visible.  Once momentum is lost and a bicycle stops, the cyclist becomes a sitting duck from behind.

Starting up from a dead stop is also a point of great vulnerability for a cyclist.  As you overcome inertia and seek balance, you are at a greater risk of being toppled by obstacles in front and traffic from behind.  The same is true with motorcyclists.  Notice how many of them avoid making full and complete stops where they actually have to put a foot down and balance their bikes.

This is no excuse, this is physics.

With a slower speed and an elevated view approaching an intersection, a cyclist can quickly assess the pedestrian and motorist traffic situation, slow down, and yield without having to come to a complete stop.  The repercussions of a 200-pound rider on a 30-pound bike traveling at 10 mph misjudging the safety of an intersection is far less severe than a 3000-pound car traveling at 25 mph doing the same.  Yet, we've all seen cars yield at stop signs and enter intersections at the end of a yellow light.

It seems that most of the enmity toward cyclists stems from jealousy on the part of motorists.  "If they can do it, I should be able to do it" or "If I have to stop, they have to stop".  These commonly heard statements demonstrate a level of inequality or unfairness.  These feelings build resentment.  Resentment evolves into a loss of respect.  Loss of respect leads to carelessness and aggression toward cyclists.  In the battle between the 3000-pound car and the 30-pound bike, the safely protected motorist always wins.

I'm not excusing dangerous cycling behavior.  All cyclists are required to obey the rules of the road by riding with traffic, signaling turns, and stopping at traffic signals.  Cyclists that flout the law and jeopardize the safety of others, as well as themselves, should be held accountable for their actions, just as any motorist should be.

Setting up stop sign stings only singles out cyclists (alliteration not intentional).  It does nothing to address the need for cars and bicycles to interact respectfully in city traffic.

As for licensing, I would actually be ok with paying an annual fee, but not as just another General Fund contribution.  If all funds could be dedicated to Share The Road education for pedestrians, cyclists, AND motorists, it would be money well invested for those of us that choose to cycle on public roads.

Implementation could be as simple as requiring all drivers to take an open-book test on sharing the road at the time of driver's license renewal.  As a side benefit, drivers could also be notified of (and forced to acknowledge) all traffic laws that have changed or been added - like the texting ban - since they last renewed.

Other uses for a licensing fee would be for Share The Road signage, dedicated bike lanes, and inter-linking bike paths.  In Wisconsin, the DNR sells a trail pass for use of the state's bike trails and it goes toward keeping them properly maintained.  Use taxes are fair for dedicated and properly maintained trails.

As for bicycles on public roads, there is no need for a tax or fee.  As another article in the Huffington Post confirms, there is a  true public health benefit when more people ride bicycles.  Bicycling leads to a decrease in carbon emissions, a decrease in traffic congestion, and a decrease in damage to road surfaces.  The study doesn't even factor the personal health benefits achieved by bicycling.

More bikes on the roads benefits society.  Bicycling offers part of the solution to our dependence on foreign oil, climate change, traffic congestion, and alarming increases in metabolic syndrome and chronic disease.

Rather than demonize cyclists and keep perpetuating the "car is king" mentality, we need to understand and respect the importance of sharing the road.  It's in everyone's best interest.

Keep riding and be safe!



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    As a cyclist who rides 3,000-6,000 miles most years, I can't agree with much of this. Cyclists are constantly disobeying traffic laws, and the fastest cyclists -- the A club riders -- are the biggest offenders. I've never seen an A ride that obeyed stop signs (they may exist, though I'm skeptical), and many aren't too fond of stoplights, either. They send a very wrong message to the rest of us.
    As for licensing, I'm agin' it. Every cyclist on the street is another car off the road or a vacant seat on public transportation. Not needing a license is a cyclist's reward. If a license is mandated, however, cyclists would be foolish to expect the revenue to be dedicated -- in the long run, at least part of licensing revenues almost always wind up in the general fund. It's politically naive to think cycling licenses would be different.

  • In reply to Larry Rand:

    Larry, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Yes, it is naive to think, in this political environment, that our license fees wouldn't wind up in the general fund. But we do have some very strong advocacy groups - Active Transportation Alliance, League of American Bicyclists, Bikes Belong - that could help us fight for our fair share should this ever come to an actual proposal.

    As for group rides (and group riders) you make a very good point. Seldom do we see groups of recreational riders slowing down and stopping en masse for anything but red lights.

    I tend to ride solo more often than in groups. I do advocate for groups because there is certainly safety in numbers when it comes to being noticed and respected by motorists. Is it more dangerous for a group of 20+ riders to come to a full stop in pairs like so many cars at a stop sign or to inconvenience motorists for a few extra seconds while the entire group moves safely through the intersection like a semi or a small funeral procession? While technically illegal, I believe it is safer for all involved for the entire group to go as one.

    In certain areas - like Barrington Hills - the police can choose to enforce the one-foot-touching-the-ground full stop by every cyclist, technical letter of the law. Or they can choose to let it go for the safety of the group riders. Motorists will bitch about us being on the road regardless.

    Bicycling is an activity that should be actively encouraged. It's good for the environment, it's harmless to the roadways, and it's good for an individual's health. Sharing the road is the key to everyone being safe.

    Sharing means that one person has to wait while another takes a turn. It may not seem fair to everyone, every time, but we're not four year-olds anymore, are we?

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