Redesigned Roads, Better Enforcement, and Changing Driver Mindsets: Cyclists Demand Changes to Make City Roadways Safe for All

Just hours after a walk-and-roll rally for cyclist and pedestrian safety prompted by the deaths of two toddlers hit by drivers, police say a motorist struck and killed a 75-year-old man crossing Irving Park Road in North Center. 

47th Ward Ald. Matt Martin, who represents the area, shared the news on Twitter, saying the man was a regular volunteer in the community.

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“I am devastated,” Martin wrote. “He was a kind and compassionate spouse, friend, and neighbor — someone who was deeply invested in his family and in our community, and who believed passionately in holding government accountable so that it could better serve the public.”

Police say the driver was cited for hitting a pedestrian in the roadway and not having insurance.

The man’s death brings the total number of pedestrians killed this year to 15, according to police information and Streetsblog’s fatality tracker. Four cyclists have been killed so far in 2022.

The recent deaths have sparked passionate calls to make Chicago’s streets safe for all road users and de-emphasize the primacy of cars.

“Many people who ride a bike in this city leave their house every day hoping and praying that they won’t become the next fatality,” said Courtney Cobbs, co-founder of the group Better Streets Chicago.

Complaints About CPD

On Thursday morning, 3-year-old Elizabeth Grace “Lily” Shambrook was riding in a carrier on her mother’s bike down Leland Avenue approaching Winthrop Avenue in Uptown, with her father biking behind them. A ComEd truck was illegally parked in the bike path, forcing Lily’s mother to move into the road. The driver of a semi-truck struck the bike, throwing Lily from the carrier and underneath the truck. 

The initial narrative of the crash released by the Chicago Police Department said the girl’s mother “lost control and collided with the truck’s cab.” But that description of events was quickly challenged by witness accounts and from the statement Lily’s father made to Chicago Police, which said the woman was forced to enter the traffic lane because the bike lane was blocked and was squeezed between the two large trucks approaching a stop sign.

Only the driver of the ComEd truck was cited, for parking in a bike lane and within 30 feet of a stop sign, according to police.

Avid cyclists say police tend to describe crashes in a way that encourages “victim-blaming.”

“They … tend to use very passive language and take the responsibility off of drivers,” Cobbs said. “When police put out these victim-blaming narratives, it’s very easy for people who already have a bias against cyclists to say, ‘Well, there you have it. Another person who wasn’t acting responsibly. It was their fault.’ These things have repercussions.”

Cycling advocate Christina Whitehouse agrees.

“The police are so incredibly biased against the biking community. … They show it through their actions every single day,” Whitehouse said. She said police are frequent offenders when it comes to illegally parking in bike lanes, citing their Training Division on Jackson as a place where CPD vehicles regularly block lanes meant for cyclists.

Whitehouse is the founder of Bike Lane Uprising, a user-submitted database of bike lane obstructions. The database has nearly 2,000 reports of police and other municipal vehicles blocking lanes.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to questions about “victim-blaming” in its narratives or about the frequency with which its officers block bicycle lanes.

Questions of Enforcement

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Advocates also say drivers idling and parking in bike lanes is a chronic and drastically under-addressed problem in Chicago.

“Cars don’t understand why that’s so bad. But cyclists understand that when they get forced into mixed traffic, they could die,” said Audrey Wennink of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “There just seems to be absolutely no enforcement of cars parking in bike lanes.”

Blocked bike lanes are enforced by both the Department of Finance and the Chicago Police Department. According to city records obtained by WTTW News, those departments issued 4,548 citations for blocking a bike lane in 2019; 2,678 in 2020; 3,661 in 2021; and 683 as of April 2022. (This year’s number may be larger, as CPD did not yet have March and April data compiled.)

That comes to a total of 11,570 citations. During the same time period, Bike Lane Uprising received 21,535 submissions of blocked bike lanes. (Fifty-three of those were complaints about ComEd vehicles obstructing a lane, as was the case in the crash that claimed Lily Shambrook’s life.)

According to a Bike Lane Uprising data analysis, between 2018 and 2021 three out of 22 fatal bike crashes in Chicago happened within 100 feet of a location that had previously been submitted to its database as an obstructed lane. Ten out of 22 fatal crashes occurred within a block of a reported obstruction.

Cyclists have also received mixed messages about how to report bike lane obstructions. WTTW News has previously reported on complaints about how lane obstructions are processed in Chicago’s 311 system, but city officials asked cyclists to continue submitting them.

Cobbs says when she used to call 311 to report a driver obstructing a bike lane she was told to call 911, which she now does.

“I don’t enjoy calling the cops on people, but I also don’t enjoy having 10, 15 vehicles parked in a bike lane with zero consequences,” Cobbs said. “There’s also a financial component – 10 vehicles parked in a bike lane is $1,500 in revenue.”

But she says police often don’t respond to the calls, and when they do, rarely issue a citation to the driver.

CPD also did not respond to a question from WTTW News about how often it responds to calls for blocked lanes and whether it regularly issues citations.

Some cyclists have started taking matters into their own hands by deliberately obstructing drivers in bike lanes until they move their vehicles.

On Saturday, Whitehouse posted a Twitter thread of a USPS truck illegally parked in a bidirectional bike lane on Clinton Street at Van Buren Street, forcing cyclists into mixed traffic or onto the sidewalk. Whitehouse sat down in the street and refused to move until the driver backed his car out of the bike lane and left, later being joined by other cyclists who’d seen her posts.

When two Chicago Police officers arrived, Whitehouse informed them it was illegal for the USPS employee to park or drive in the bike lane and asked them to help the man back up and vacate the lane. In a video posted to YouTube, officers appeared frustrated by the group’s efforts to get the bike lane cleared.

“You think you’re helping the situation by sitting right here on the ground?” asked one of the officers. The driver said he parked in the bike lane because it was next to a mailbox on his route and that USPS should move the box. Officers eventually helped the USPS driver back up and leave.

In the absence of what they see as adequate enforcement, some people have advocated for allowing residents to submit videos of obstructed bike lanes so the city can issue tickets. Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) and Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) expressed interest in the idea on Twitter earlier this year.

Vasquez told WTTW News that Reilly is spearheading the effort, and that his bigger focus is on further enforcing the portion of the municipal code that calls for immediate towing of cars blocking bike lanes. Reilly did not immediately respond to a question about the status of a potential ordinance.

In 2020, the City Council did change the law to allow parking enforcement aides to take pictures of drivers illegally parked in bike lanes and mail them a citation. The move was designed to prevent drivers from speeding away before aides can issue a ticket.

According to the Department of Finance, 22 drivers were cited via photo evidence in 2021 and 21 have been issued as of April of this year. The Chicago Police Department told WTTW News it does not have a department-wide system of tracking how many tickets it issues via photo evidence.

Another proposed change to the law: requiring large trucks to have side guards designed to help prevent the kind of fatal crash that killed Lily Shambrook. A spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not respond to a question about whether the mayor supports that regulation.

Calls for Redesigned Roads

Video: Rebecca Resman, founder and a lead organizer for Chicago Family Biking, and Amy Rynell, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, discuss what more the city can do to make streets safer. (Produced by Blair Paddock)

Safety advocates say enforcement is an important element, but Chicago also needs to redesign its roadways to ensure they’re safe for all road users.

At Sunday’s walk-and-roll rally, Henry Cardenas – father of 2-year-old Rafi, killed by a driver while crossing the street on a scooter in Lincoln Square – told the crowd that “it’s evident that our streets are not safe.”

“This is our home. This is where we should feel safe, where our children should be able to play, where we should be able to raise our families, where anyone should be able to take a stroll or a bike ride or ride their scooter without fearing the worst,” Cardenas said.

Rally attendees chanted “paint is not protection, we want concrete!” For years, cycling advocates have called for the city to create an equitably distributed, well-connected network of bike lanes delineated by a concrete barrier or other means of physically protecting cyclists from drivers.

A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson told WTTW News in a statement that “the City will soon have more than 400 miles of on-street bikeways and off-street paths. By the end of this year, CDOT will have added more than 125 miles of new bikeways to the system since 2020 surpassing Mayor Lightfoot’s goal of 100 new miles of bikeways in her first term.”

The statement also said the city is “installing more miles of protected bike lanes year over year.”

“We need to be accelerating protected lanes,” said Wennink. She and others want to see additional cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly roadway upgrades like “bump-outs” at intersections, raised crosswalks, and narrower traffic lanes to encourage slower driving.

“I think the future is in designing our infrastructure so that drivers get signals to slow down. All too often, roads seem open to them, and especially during COVID we saw that when there’s any reduction in congestion, drivers will speed up,” Wennink said. “Our roadway network is built to prioritize cars, and has been built to prioritize speed over safety.”

In late 2020, the city released a five-year plan to upgrade its infrastructure. The first two years were funded by $1.4 billion in borrowing, and $49 million of that funding was dedicated toward traffic safety improvements, with a focus on vulnerable road users.

“Any tragedy is one too many and the City of Chicago takes a multi-dimensional approach to keeping our streets safe,” a CDOT spokesperson told WTTW News in a statement. “Mayor Lightfoot's administration was the first to create a dedicated funding stream to create safer streets … In the last two years, we’ve installed more than 750 pedestrian safety projects across the city: bump-outs that shorten the distance to cross the street, wider turn angles at intersections, pedestrian refuge islands in the median to give people a place to wait while crossing wide and busy streets. Since 2020, we’ve built bikeways at the fastest pace in the city’s history.”

Some cyclists have expressed frustration with CDOT amid the spike in roadway deaths. The Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, whose meetings were organized by CDOT, has not met since March 2020.

“We will have news this week about a new public forum that will take the best of the former Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (MBAC), Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee (MPAC), and Vision Zero Advocacy Committee and reset as a new committee that will look at our infrastructure system more comprehensively,” a CDOT spokesperson told WTTW News.

Others say the problem lies more with the city’s political leaders, including the perennial question of aldermanic privilege.

“I think you have to decouple CDOT’s effectiveness and … what resources they’ve been given to do their job,” Whitehouse said. “(CDOT staffers) have their heart in the right place. They understand what good design is. They understand what needs to be done. And I do feel that they are limited with what they are able to do.”

Whitehouse also wants to see the mayor put safe roadways front and center.

“The mayor showed that she had the authority to shut down every single form of public transportation in the city of Chicago with no notice whatsoever and leave people stranded,” Whitehouse said. “Why can’t she use that same level of authority to help make us safe?”

“Chicago is using all tools in the toolbox, including building our local infrastructure better to reduce conflict points between road users, using cameras to deter speeding, strengthening community partnerships to identify and program local safety initiatives, and creating and supporting policies to support the shift toward fewer vehicles and smaller vehicles in our city,” the statement from CDOT said.

Wennink says many politicians over the years have argued the city doesn’t have the money for roadway upgrades that safety advocates call for, but that between the state of Illinois’ capital bill, the city’s capital bonding program and the federal infrastructure package, funding is available.

“I think, as is always the case in transportation, it’s about how we spend that money and how we prioritize it,” Wennink said. “Prioritizing bikes is always a question of political will.”

Cultural Change

Many advocates say it’s also time for a cultural shift – in particular, getting drivers to think about roadways as being for all users, rather than prioritizing cars. After the crash that killed Lily Shambrook last week, organizer and avid cyclist Sz Donnelly said drivers need to slow down and give people on bikes adequate space.

“Being a cyclist who has been close passed, squeezed between two vehicles more times than I want to say and I just happen to have survived it, I know what happened,” Donnelly said. “All the people who don’t bike, they don’t know because they haven’t gone through it. They haven’t had a driver abuse them with their vehicle in that way.”

In Twitter exchanges and online comments, people regularly respond to articles about cyclists being hurt or killed by complaining about cyclists who they say don’t obey traffic laws. Advocates say that overlooks the responsibilities of drivers operating potentially deadly machinery.

“Someone on a bike that is five, 10, even all the way up to 65, 70 pounds, is not going to create the kind of damage as someone in a 3,000, 4,000, 5,000-pound vehicle,” Cobbs said. “Unfortunately, with electric vehicles, cars are only going to get heavier, and this presents even more danger to people who are walking and biking.”

Many cyclists, in particular during the last two years, say drivers are behaving more aggressively than ever.

“I’ve had people curse at me, intentionally swerve over and try to hit me,” Cobbs said. “I’m not the only one who has faced these sorts of things. I think they would scare most people from ever biking again.

“Before people go online and start commenting, get your butt on a bike and go bike around Chicago, and you tell me what you think,” Whitehouse said. “You tell me why you’re swerving because all of the glass and the potholes and the bike lanes that have not been maintained at all even remotely close to the quality of the actual ‘car lane,’ quote-unquote. You’re going to quickly learn how often people are blocking bike lanes. You’re going to quickly learn how often drivers are veering into the bike lane and not looking and cutting people off and dooring and right-hooking cyclists.”

At Sunday’s cyclist and pedestrian safety rally, Donnelly said major change is in order, and that changes to roadway should not be watered down by people who demand car-centric infrastructure.

“Safe streets should not be up to public opinion,” Donnelly told the crowd. “We are not asking anymore. We are demanding our streets for our children.”

Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg

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