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Is Chicago Bike-Friendly?

By Karoun Demirjian

Randy Neufeld, chief strategist for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, had disappeared into the chaos of Wells Street, leaving me perched on my 3-speed bike, stranded in a right-turn land with a black sports car crowding me from behind in an attempt to beat the light.

Then Neufeld’s voice penetrated the din of the late-afternoon rush in the Loop: “Over here!’ His face appeared to my left, peeding around a maroon SUV with a white box truck on his other flank.

Over there? Across two lanes of traffic? Cars were honking at me and I desperately wanted to jump to the sidewalk.

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But Neufeld was following the city’s traffic plan to a T: The bicycle lane we had been following had suddenly disappeared from under my tires and re-appeared in the middle of Wells, where it would lead us into an eastbound lane for bikes and buses on Washington Street.

The good engineering sense inherent in this traffic plan was not obvious to me at the time.

“Signal to the left as we turn, but we want to end up over to the right,” he said as the drivers around us began to rev their engines. “Ready? Let’s go!”

Mayor Richard Daley, the great champion of bicycles, wants to launch a new fleet of as many as 1,500 rental bikes in Chicago. Based on programs in the French cities of Paris and Lyon, the bicycles would be available to pick up and drop off at locations around the city, available to subscribers at a minimal cost.

To tout the plan, Daley appeared last week at a photo op in Paris, pedaling down the street with hardly a crease in his suit and not a car to be seen.

But the proposal raises a question: Would it be a good idea to put 1,500 more bicycles on the streets of Chicago?

The city has miles of dedicated bike paths and dozens more miles of bike routes striped along city streets. But those streets are crowded. And, as demonstrated by the death last week of a bicyclist who collided with a turning garbage truck in Logan Square, the usually bicycle-friendly city can turn deadly in a moment.

In an effort to get a feel for what is at stake, a small caravan of two-wheelers set out on a sunny afternoon last week to sample different options on the North Side and in the Loop: Neufeld, our guide; Margo O’Hara, a recent convert to cycling who now works with the Federation; Tribune photographer Abel Uribe, his road bike loaded down with camera equipment; and me—whose previous best pedaling days were spent on a Big Wheel in my childhood driveway—atop a rental bike, with a video camera strapped to my helmet.

What we found was a patchwork of easy-pedaling stretches, crowded but manageable passages, and moments of harrowing unpredictability. There were surprises too—pretty, little side streets often presented obstacles more daunting than the Loop’s dense traffic.

Neufeld said he believes Chicago is fairly safe for bicyclists, both in raw numbers and compared to other big cities. But cars still outnumber bikes 40-1, Neufeld estimates, and all you have to do is compare the size of the machines to know the bikes are not the ones in control.

Throw in cell phones, iPods and the wandering attention of both riders and drivers, and the situation can turn fatal. Though the overall number of cycling deaths is not large— roughly 22 per year statewide— bike safety has caught the attention of lawmakers, who recently passed a bill requiring drivers to give bicyclists 3 feet of clearance in traffic, among other changes.

Our tour began on the shore of Lake Michigan, a refuge for pedestrians and cyclists. Neufeld had warned me, though, to keep an eye out for fellow travelers with headphones in their ears and sunny glints off the lake in their eyes.

Talking to Neufeld and soaking in the scenery, I did not realize I had begun to veer over the yellow line until a gust of wind and another bicyclist’s shrill voice nearly knocked me over.

“You’re going to cause an accident,” she yelled, passing me. Sheepishly, I looked up—and saw she was wearing headphones.

As we left the path to explore the side streets of Chicago’s Near North Side, a taxi rolled up from behind. The cabby’s eyes were on the house numbers. As he pulled alongside me, his car wandered closer, leaving me acutely aware of the diminishing space I inhabited between the moving and parked vehicles.

Farther down the street, two car doors flew open in rapid succession, forcing me to swerve, white-knuckled. Both car owners remained absorbed in their Blackberries.

They probably wouldn’t have killed me. There are really only two situations, Neufeld said, where the stakes are often that serious: high-speed suburban roads, which are avoidable, and intersections, which are not.

The Loop, congested as it may be, is not all that dangerous for cyclists, Neufeld said, because cyclists are forced to become part of the traffic. When we got downtown, cars—moving quite slowly themselves—often had to treat us as if we were other cars taking up space, like any vehicle, in the travel lanes.

Still, as I tried to cut across Wells, my bike broadside to thousands of tons of mechanized steel, I was all too aware of the flimsiness of my conveyance. Moreover, I was breaking Neufeld’s rule for staying alive: behave predictably.

Recalling his words, I flashed apologetic smiles into the rear-view mirrors of the SUV and box truck as the light turned green, figuring this could only help my overall visibility. And, doing my best car impression, I rode in the flow of traffic in a more-or-less graceful left turn.

The lane-switching fiasco safely behind me, I still had to make a left-hand swing onto Michigan Avenue and a right around Grant Park.

Now wise to the mercurial shifts of bike lanes, I pulled into the center of the road, next to a yellow sports car, at a red light. The driver, noticing my inexpert bobbles, offered to give me more turning room. I happily accepted. I, in turn, passed on the generosity by letting a gaggle of pedestrians cross before I turned into the bike rental station on Randolph Street.

“The truth is that there’s a lot of nice people driving and a lot of nice people bicycling—and a lot of mean people driving and mean people bicycling,” Neufeld said. “That’s just the way a city is.”

Posted on Sunday, September 16th, 2007 at 7:09 pm. Filed under: Chicago Tribune RSS 2.0 feed.

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