Last Friday, I had the honor of standing twenty feet in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel as he dedicated the new Dearborn Street protected bike lane in the heart of Chicago’s Loop.
I was very impressed with the Mayor’s comprehensive understanding of bicycling infrastructure and his conviction that this comparatively small public investment will benefit all the citizens of Chicago. Put simply, the Mayor gets it.
He acknowledged that it is no small coincidence that Chicago has moved up the ranks in both bike friendliness and the number of new business start-ups. Portland and Seattle – two bike-friendly and tech-heavy cities – are now publicly expressing envy for the bicycling improvements Chicago has put in place. The ever-competitive Rahminator even joked that he’s coming for their high-tech jobs!
A post last week by DRW Trading Groups’ Don Wilson at Crain’s Chicago Business mirrored the Mayor’s sentiments. Wilson stated that quality of life – which includes access to cleaner, greener, alternative transportation – is a significant factor in recruiting younger, environmentally-conscious tech workers. These workers can play a critical part in our city’s future economic success.
But all of this planning for the future doesn’t impress regressive thinkers like Tribune columnist John Kass.
In Kass’ most recent rant – or shall I say his repeated rant – he can’t seem to get past the fact that some city cyclists run red lights. To him, this is a problem that has reached epidemic proportions. “Little bike people”, as he so condescendingly refers to us, are a threat to the safety of every man, woman, and child in Chicago and the Mayor’s perpetual pandering to this group of pampered scofflaws will ultimately bring about the city’s financial ruin.
Each time Kass mutters “but I stop at red lights”, he may as well be sticking his fingers in his ears and chanting “la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you”. I’m hoping that his readers haven’t regressed quite so far and are willing to listen to the benefits bicycling provides - whether or not each personally chooses to ride a bike.
Let’s talk about public safety and acknowledge that protecting the lives of every resident in Chicago is an expensive proposition.
Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein informed John Kass in a recent interview on WLS radio that traffic accidents cost the region $11 billion annually. That’s a staggering figure.
As citizens, we pay these costs both individually and collectively. There are direct payments for medical treatment and property damage repair, as well as insurance premiums that cover our own actions and those of uninsured and under-insured motorists. Then there are our tax dollars that pay for traffic enforcement, litigation, and a whole host of expenditures that aren’t picked up by insurance claims. Each and every one of us subsidizes the many external costs associated with America’s car culture.
Some of us pay with our lives.
Driving into the city on Friday morning, the IDOT sign flashed 925 fatalities in Illinois so far this year. We have already surpassed last year’s 918 and we still have two weeks left to go. Think about this for a moment.
That’s 925 people that won’t be celebrating the holidays with friends and family like they did last year. It’s the number of all the graduates in a large suburban high school or the entire population of many downstate towns. For every million people in Illinois, 74 will lose their lives in an accident with a motor vehicle.
14% of motor vehicle fatalities nationwide are pedestrians (up 3% from the previous year). 2% are bicyclists (up 8.7%). Sadly, we’ve come to accept these statistics as the price we pay to live in our modern society.
But other countries don’t pay this high of a price for transportation dependence.
In the Netherlands, where population density is 7.5 times that of the US, motor vehicle fatalities are 54 per million citizens versus 103 per million in the US (nearly half). Bicycling fatalities are 1.1 per 100 million kilometers traveled versus 5.8 for the same distance traveled in America (less than 1/5). Pedestrian fatalities in the Netherlands are one-tenth the US total per billion kilometers walked.
The Netherlands’ secret for greater safety for all citizens is complete streets.
Dearborn Street in Chicago’s Loop is fast becoming a complete street. The new, two-way, protected bike lane on this one-way northbound thoroughfare separates cyclists from other road users. Bicyclists are physically buffered from the opening doors of parked cars and protected from left-turning motorists by dedicated traffic signal phasing. Motorists making left turns will not encounter cyclists in the bike lane or pedestrians in the crosswalk as they follow their own left turn signals.
Separation by travel mode is but one aspect of complete streets. Traffic calming – lowering the travel speed for user safety - is the other.
Dearborn Street prior to the new bike lane had the capacity for 40,000 vehicles per day yet it saw only 13,000. The result was too many travel lanes which encouraged speeding between traffic lights. Of the more than 1,000 crashes reported between 2006 and 2010, 66% of serious injuries were to pedestrians and cyclists despite these two road users being involved in only 14% of the accidents. Eliminating one lane of traffic for the bike lane and door buffer zone will slow the street down, making it safer for everyone who uses it.
When Gabe Klein shared his stats about Dearborn during his radio interview with John Kass, Kass immediately jumped on Klein’s remarks. Kass opined that under-capacity means that we need more cars. Klein corrected him by saying “more vehicles of different types, like buses and bikes.”
Somehow, I don’t think the concept of moving more people, more efficiently while burning less fuel and generating lower emissions is a benefit that critical thinking-challenged individuals like Kass can get their heads around. It’s far easier to de-emphasize bicycling benefits to society and exaggerate the more divisive meme of "menace to society".
While I have already answered Kass once about cyclists being scofflaws and addressed the imaginary “war on cars”, it's important to stay focused on the many benefits trips by bicycle provide to all Chicagoans. We all want to be safe, whether we choose to walk, bike, drive, or utilize public transportation (or any and all combinations thereof).
I’ll comment more about Kass' other beefs in future posts.
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Keep riding and be safe.