Tag Archives: safety

Helmet obsession not helping

Today I received in the mail the new issue of Yes! Magazine. The prior issue featured me to illustrate bicycling as a resilient idea for a future without oil. As I munched on French bread and sipped wine in a delightful mood, Mr. Dottie handed me the magazine and pointed to the Letters to the Editor section with no comment. Uh-oh.

Wear a Helmet

My husband bikes to work year-round and I tote our two girls (one and three years old) in our bike trailer all around town. I was pleased to see Resilient Idea #3, a full-page picture of a stylish and burly biker in the snow, but wouldn’t a helmet be wise?

Lesley W., Newberg, Ore.

I’m sure Lesley is a lovely woman, but she ruined my appetite.

First, “burly?” – adjective: large in bodily size; stout; sturdy. Ahem, inaccurate description! Painful to vanity!

Second, it’s a portrait. I’m standing next to my bike. In fact, my helmet was in my basket. Context, people.

Third, it’s obviously off road, “along Lake Michigan.” When I ride on the lakefront bike path on my Dutch bike, I often go without a helmet. Free of the fear of getting creamed by a car does that to a woman. The studded tires and lights on my bike are much more important to my safety.

Finally and most importantly, a fixation on helmets does not help bicyclists. In any discussion about bicycling in mainstream or bike-specific media, some bicyclist always chirps about helmets. Helmets! Helmets! HELMETS! And the focus of bicycling instantly moves to danger – not fun or positivity or a damn smart way to get around.

Boooo, hissssss!

I wear my helmet most of the time. I wish the streets were safe enough for me not to feel like I have to. Sometimes I do not wear a helmet. Many bicyclists swear by helmets, while many others swear against them. But we all keep riding our bikes. Life goes on.

Fact is, bicyclists are losing the discourse battle and we are our own worst enemy (like the poor, beleaguered Democrats). Never underestimate the power of discourse. If every mention of bicycling is dragged into the ditch of “danger” and at the same time never gets around to mentioning, hey, motor vehicles and their drivers are the ones that create the danger – well, we’ve all lost.

Portandize said all of this much more eloquently and fully in his recent post, “The Downside to our Safety Obsession.” I suggest you check it out and then everyone stop chirping about helmets at every opportunity.

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More Ups and Downs – and Doubling Up

I’m going to continue with my “ups and downs” theme from Tuesday because it fits so perfectly.

On my way home from work last night, taking busy city streets, I rode by a group of people giving out free lights to cyclists. Up!

Dressed for 35 degree biking (thanks for the belt, Trisha!)

Not a half mile later, a driver passed me and then immediately swerved hard to the right to go around another car waiting to turn left. The maneuver put his speeding car dangerously close to my front wheel, causing me to scream and slam on my brakes. Soon the driver was stopped behind 10 other cars waiting for a red light. As I rode by, I looked in and saw a 30-something guy tapping away on his iPhone. This was too much for me to bear, so I tapped on his iWindow. He looked up with surprise and rolled it down. I said, “That was very scary back there.” He reacted with complete cluelessness and I calmly informed him that he very nearly hit me when he sped around the car just a few seconds ago. He apologized profusely and said that he never saw me.

Holy hell!! If that’s even true, it does not make me feel better. I kindly suggested that he pay attention to the road and then I turned onto a side street, anxious to get away from the rush hour madness and allow my hands and voice to stop shaking. These drivers are totally out of control. DOWN!

La Oma

But wait! Don’t give up on humanity yet: this is an overall positive post.

After that debacle, I met my friends and fellow oma-owners, Janet and Dan, for hard apple cider and sweet potato fries at a neighborhood pub. Up!

Afterward, this amazing husband-wife team demonstrated doubling up on a bike, with Janet sitting side saddle on the back rack and Dan pedaling. They made it look so easy and elegant! Then I got a chance to ride on the back rack – my first time doubling up. It was so much fun! Learning this skill is now high on my to-do list. Janet has graciously offered to be my trial passenger this weekend. Stay tuned for more detail as this progresses. There will be video. UP! :)

What have your ups and downs been lately?

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Ups and Downs of Bike Commuting

I’ve written before about the ups and downs of bike commuting. A year later, I’m revisiting the theme based on the ups and downs I experienced during the past two days.

Down: Last night, as I was riding up Lincoln Avenue, a major bike route, a woman in a van yelled, “Ride in the bike lane, retard!” Wow, really?? For the record, I was riding on the outside line of the bike lane because otherwise I would be in the door zone. Regardless, anyone who would yell such awful and ignorant words at anyone is a miserable person. Incidentally, wouldn’t Chicago be so much better if everyone felt safe to ride their bicycles, including the developmentally disabled? I think so!

Up: Tonight, a woman standing on the sidewalk whistled and called out, “Hey, I love your bike!” while the men with her nodded in appreciation. The fact that they were outside a cool live music venue and not a tool-central type of bar doubled the impact of the compliment. I smiled and called out, “Thank you!” :)

I’m pretty sensitive, so I can’t help but be affected by such incidents, but really, no matter what someone may or may not yell at me, I always prefer my bicycle over any other form of transportation. If someone offered me free daily door-to-door Towncar service with complimentary muffins and NPR, I would turn it down without hesitation.

If you doubt me, check out the scenery from my ride this morning.

The temperature was in the high ’30s, but with a dress, a wool sweater, tights, boots and gloves, I was set.

For some reason, a lot of the “citizen cyclists” seem to have packed it in for the winter already, leaving me and a bunch of guys on road bikes. Just as I was thinking, “Gosh, everyone out here is in spandex going really fast,” my friend Dan rode by on his WorkCycles Oma and stopped to chat. (You may recognize him as top hat guy from the cocktail ride.) I love that in a huge city like Chicago, I still run into people I know regularly via the Lakefront Path and bike lanes.

A little later, a guy on a WorkCycles Opa rode by and rang his bell. I don’t know if he’s a reader (hi!) or merely a fellow Dutch bike appreciator, but it was great to see!

Back to the “ups and downs” of bike commuting. This I know for sure: I’m totally enjoying the up of autumn before the down of a long winter. Oh, who am I kidding? I kinda love winter, too!

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Collision on the Lakefront Path

For the first time in 2.5 years of daily riding in Chicago (that’s at least 10,000 miles) I had a collision with a person today – as opposed to train tracks or ice. Both parties involved are fine, although my knees are a bit banged up.

While riding on the Lakefront Trail after work, I saw a skateboarder ahead of me and I slowed to make sure he was not doing anything squirrely. Once I saw that he was maintaining a straight line to the far right of the path, I moved to the opposite lane to pass. I did not ding my bell as I usually would because I saw that he had headphones on and I felt comfortable that he would maintain his line. Just as I got directly next to him, without warning he turned sharply to the left, crashing into me. I felt like I was tackled from the right, as he and his skateboard pushed me and Betty Foy sideways for a few feet, before I bailed/fell, landed on my knees and caught my upper body with my hands.

As this happened in apparent slow motion, I first thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” and then “Control the fall, control the fall, control the fall.” I think I did a good job of preventing worse injury. I was not in danger of hitting my head – or my teeth! – and two skinned knees isn’t so bad.

The college-aged skateboarder was very sweet afterward. He was perfectly fine and wanted to make sure that I was okay. He apologized over and over again and said that it was all his fault because he did not look before turning. I also apologized to him and said that I should have rang my bell or something before passing. He continued to insist that it was all his fault. Although technically that is correct, I should have been even more cautious before passing, maybe by calling out and making sure he knew someone was behind him, regardless of the fact that he had headphones on. I have a hard time understanding how someone could make a maneuver like that on a crowded multi-use trail without signaling or even looking, but the fact is – this guy did. I need to remember to expect the unexpected. As the least vulnerable user on the trail, I have the most responsibility to watch out for other, more vulnerable users (although it seemed like a pretty fair fight between burly skateboarder guy and me).

My gut reaction to the situation was kinda goofy: I was concerned primarily with reassuring the guy that I was totally fine and getting back on my bike and away from the situation. With the adrenaline pumping, I did not take the time to examine myself or my bike, instead jumping back on and finishing my ride several more miles to my destination before taking stock. I’ve heard from others who have had the same type of instinctual reaction after a collision. Luckily, everything was fine, except my bloodied knees and torn tights. Sadly, no one other than the skateboarder stopped to ask if I was okay, not even the cyclists going by.

On to the positive stuff about my day.

Oma group at Sunday's brunch: me, Samantha and Janet

My destination was dinner and drinks with three cycling ladies, Janet, Molly and Samantha, two of whom also ride WorkCycles Omas. Nothing cures the jitters of a collision like steamed mussels, garlic frites and Belgian beer, plus having an understanding group with whom to rehash the events. It was nice not to have to contend with any tsk-tsking about how dangerous cycling is. That’s certainly a huge bonus to having bikey friends.

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The macho discourse on city cycling

How much does the bike community’s own discourse on city cycling negatively affect the number and type of people who are willing to give life on two wheels a try?

This question has been swirling around my head since last week, when I read a guest post on Commute by Bike that offered 10 Rules for Urban Commuting. The rules are full of advice such as disobeying stop lights, being aggressive and never signaling. There is also solid advice about avoiding the door zone, not waiting to the right of stopped traffic and taking the lane. I disagree with a lot of the rules, but that’s fine: it’s not my list and I’m sure the style of riding works for the author and many others.

However, the macho tone of the article is endemic of a problem of the greater discourse on bicycling in the bike community. This wild west approach contributes to the fringe status of transportation cycling, both by repelling everyday people, especially women, and by reinforcing a culture that pits cyclists, drivers and pedestrians against each other.

When I first started bike commuting, I eagerly searched the web for tips and information, and this is the kind of advice I found everywhere – the kind that increased my apprehension about riding in the city and made me feel like I was not the type of person who should be attempting this. While I would have learned something from the “10 Rules,” the net effect may not have been helpful.

Me, a happy city cyclist {photo (c) Martha Williams}

I must not have been the only one who felt this way. The comments following the “10 Rules” post argued passionately both in favor of and against the rules. In response, the author followed up on his own blog by posting an 11th rule:

“I was struck by one curious and oft-repeated theme: the idea that those who ride bikes should assiduously avoid breaking traffic rules, because doing so makes motorists think badly of us.

For those afflicted with this way of thinking, I offer Rule 11:

If your priority is being seen as a “cycling role model” by drivers, you should not ride in the city.

Leaving aside the notion that riding safely and not making motorists think badly of us are mutually exclusive, I have a problem with this statement. I am not comfortable with advice aggressively telling people they should not ride in the city if X, Y or Z. I have enough experience with city cycling now to know what’s what, but this macho instruction would have been very off-putting to me when I was a beginner. What is a new bike commuter to take from such a statement: that to ride a bike in the city, one must abandon a lifetime of lawful behavior and reconcile oneself to pissing off drivers in a never-ending struggle to make it home alive? Sign me up!

Since new bike commuters are presumably the intended audience for these rules and other similar advice columns around the internet, I worry about how many potential cyclists are scared off by this kind of rhetoric. Someone kicking around the idea of bike commuting is already going out on a metaphorical limb and is likely hearing from family and co-workers that riding a bike is crazy and dangerous. It may not take much to push someone away from the notion completely. Certainly, safety is important and a new bicyclist must learn the rules of the road, but there is a way to broadcast that message without alienating most of the audience (I highly recommend the article, “How not to get hit by cars”).

Hopefully, some who are initially put off keep digging around the web and find advice that speaks to them and their situations. In the two and a half years since I first started my research as a new bike commuter, the number and quality of alternative resources has grown. Although the discourse is still largely controlled by the hardcore contingent, I am optimistic that as city cycling becomes more popular, the discussion will become more moderate.

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Gale Force WIND-y City Commute

Since I took public transportation instead of riding my bike during the two-day windstorm, I bring this story from my intrepid reporter/friend E A.  If there’s ever a day when I don’t ride due to weather conditions, I can be 95% sure that E A rode anyway.


With the gusty weather predictions for the Midwest and Chicago on Tuesday, I debated the safety of venturing out on two wheels for my morning commute. A high wind advisory and tornado watches had been alerting me all Monday evening and Tuesday morning about the potential dangerous weather that is plaguing many areas of the U.S. as October nears its end.

At 7am Tuesday rain was pouring down and traffic reports showed the results of jack-knifed semis and cars in ditches. Luckily the worst of the storms moved over Chicago quickly and I found myself staring out into an eery calm after the storm by 8:30am. Shortly after 9am I was on the road with a light wind breaker for a dry commute into strong (but not gale force) southerly winds. Along my route, I bike down Wells Street – which to me is always ridden with cyclonic type winds – and my commute on Tuesday (or Wednesday) did not disappoint.

So… from my commute, I offer you some cautionary advice for dealing with such gusty wind storms:
* Keep both hands firmly gripped on your handlebars
* Tuck your upper body down more so less of you is exposed to the brunt of the wind
* Forge ahead
* Don’t be ashamed to bail out to use public transportation if the conditions are not safe – put your own safety first

Especially when the cross-winds come, I find it particularly challenging to keep my line and not be blown into parked cars or traffic speeding by. But I know my route well and that high level of familiarity helps me know just when and where I’m most exposed and where I can seek shelter or alternate transportation if need be.

I rode both ways Tuesday and Wednesday despite the high wind advisory. Going home both days the winds should have be at my back, but some of those gusts whipped at me from every direction…  The best part was when the wind literally did PUSH me home – “Look Ma – No pedaling!”

At least the these are the warm winds. It’s when these winds turn blustery that I start to shudder.

Stay upright out there! And please share your stormy/windy commuting adventures and tips.

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Your City: A Bicycling Survey

I love Chicago. I moved here 3 years ago for a job and because I wanted to live in a big city. I stay because there’s so much to do and I enjoy walking, biking and taking public transit everywhere.

Chicago’s bike infrastructure and sizable bike community are huge pluses. Compared to most North American cities, Chicago is advanced in this aspect, but the bar is not set very high. What I really want is serious European-style infrastructure with separated and protected bike lanes.

I’m optimistic about Chicago’s future as a bicycling city, but real progress lies in the far future. In the meantime, I wonder if a quiet town with light traffic would be better for bicycling, even if there is absolutely no infrastructure. And while I’m wondering, how about cities like Portland, Boulder, Minneapolis and Davis, those shining bike-cities?

Thinking about Chicago – what I like and don’t like and how bicycling plays a role – makes me interested in how others view their cities or towns. We’d love to hear about your experiences, if you feel like sharing.

1. What city do you live in?
2. What brought you to your city originally?
3. What is keeping you in your city?
4. Do you ever think about moving to a city that is more bike friendly?
5. Does the bike infrastructure (or lack thereof) play a major role in whether you will stay in your city?
6. Are you optimistic that your city’s bike infrastructure will improve?

Please leave your answers in the comments! We can all compare notes and learn more about each other’s experiences.

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First Suburban Critical Mass a Success!

The Critical Mass ride that Melissa organized was a huge success! Fifty people showed up for the first Critical Mass ride in Aurora, a town about an hour from Chicago. There was a mixed group, including families with children, city employees, young hip guys, lycra racers, older riders, chic cyclists and even a tall bike.

The ride was definitely a Critical Mass in all the best ways.  We had lots of cheery balloons, smiles, waves and “Thank You” signs. The reaction from drivers, pedestrians and other on-lookers was overwhelmingly positive.  Motor vehicle traffic was very minimally obstructed, as most of the route had two lanes going in each direction, making it easy for cars to go around the group.  (I did not witness any negativity at all, but if some drivers were upset by the ride, that is their problem. No progress is ever made without upsetting some people who prefer the status quo.)

Check out these pictures, which describe the ride much better than my words can.

…and there was the press.

Resulting in the third positive article about bicycling in one week in the local paper, “Fifty turn out for Sunday (Critical) Mass.” The next ride will be October 31.

Go Aurora!

Anyone out there living in other a smaller town or the suburbs should consider starting their own movement. All it takes is some people, bikes and passion.

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A Critical Mass: bicycling as a social movement and the importance of working together

If you ride your bike, you are part of an important social movement.  Regardless of your level of involvement in any organized effort, this movement would be impossible without your participation.  We, as people who ride bikes, are the only ones who will look out for the interests of bicycling as a viable form of transportation.  Most people who drive everywhere never give bicycling a second thought, and I’m not holding my breath for politicians lobbied by oil and car companies to take proactive steps.  Therefore, bicyclists working together and agreeing at least on the very basics (bikes = good) is essential.

Melissa rides her bike

The issue is on my mind this Friday morning because of great efforts that our friend Melissa has taken to create positive change in her suburban town of Auroral, Illinois – and the subsequent blowback she’s received from a sport cycling club and vehicular cyclists.  Melissa is not some political strategist, she’s a woman who rides her bike, feels that the roads should be much safer and is doing something about it.

There will be an organized ride in Aurora on Sunday afternoon that Melissa and others have publicized as a critical mass ride, Aurora’s first.  This ride has already garnered much attention, including an article in the town’s newspaper and a follow-up article today.  Both articles are pretty positive about the event and bicycles.  Unfortunately, the response from subsections of the bicycling community has not been as positive.

First, she received a message from a certain suburban cycling club, stating that they would never participate in or support an event that carried the Critical Mass name and did not follow all traffic laws.  They also suggested she get a permit from the city of Aurora – a permit to ride bikes in the street.  Then, in the follow-up article a vehicular cyclist is featured to give an argument against bike lanes.

“It’s not that Klenke doesn’t support better access for bikes, but he says, “Lanes don’t address education, training and attitude for cyclists and motorists to coexist. They’re a feel-good panacea that likely worsen the problems instead.” He referred me to the book “Effective Cycling” by John Forester, who, according to Klenke, “cites studies that suggest bike lanes lead to increased car-bike accidents and are inherently destructive to traffic management.”

On top of this, there are the typical mean-spirited comments at the end of the article from drivers about bicyclists.

I understand where anti-Critical Mass cyclists are coming from.  The event can create hostility in drivers and sometimes, with a big enough crowd, lead to unruly behavior.  However, the ride on Sunday will be a group of cyclists exercising their right to the road in a lawful manner – nothing more, nothing less.  If the ride were not called “Critical Mass,” would anyone have paid attention?  Would the newspaper have written two articles about the ride before it even took place?  A critical mass is an appropriate description for the purpose of the ride.

I understand where vehicular cyclists are coming from.  Bicyclists should be empowered to ride in the street with the rest of traffic.  But bicycling will never become a widespread mode of transportation in America without bicycling infrastructure.  Vehicular cycling may work for a very small minority, but telling a parent toting kids or an elderly woman to get out in the street and fend for herself will not work.  I feel even more strongly about this after visiting France and seeing the bicycling infrastructure – and people on bikes – in every city.

People who ride bikes – and people who want to ride bikes but do not feel that the roads are safe enough – have to work together for change.  Debates within the bicycling community are both important and inevitable, but there comes a point where rifts stall progress and play into the hands of those already-powerful groups working to maintain the status quo.

So I have a simple request.  Could we all in the “bicycling community” agree that people riding bikes lawfully down the street in the hopes that others will note their presence is a Good Thing?  Otherwise we are stalling our important social movement.

Sunday.  2 p.m.  West Aurora High School.  I’ll be there.

{If you would like to thank the writer of today’s column, Deena Sherman, for bringing attention to this issue, you can reach her at deenasherman@att.net.}

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Accepting Fault

No one likes to be wrong. Some take this so far that they automatically refuse to accept fault, even if they make a mistake that endangers another. During my ride home on Tuesday, I experienced two opposite reactions from drivers in this situation.

1) As I took my turn riding through a four-way-stop intersection, a BMW perpendicular to me went through at the same time. The driver eventually saw me and slammed on his brakes. Immediately he threw up his hands, as if to say, “Not my fault! Not sorry! Screw you!” Then he drove off.

2) Fve minutes later, as I was riding in the bike lane, a sedan in front of me suddenly pulled to the right to nab a parking spot.  I had time to stop and yell, “Bike!” The driver slammed on the brakes, then completed the parking maneuver. As I passed, the driver opened the car door and called out, “I am SO sorry!” I gave her a wave and replied, “It’s okay,” even though it really wasn’t.  She sounded so distraught, I almost felt sorry for her.

This is my "give me a break" look (clean version)

Both situations were unsafe and whether a driver accepts fault does not change that fact.  But it sure does make me feel better about the world!  What has your experience been?

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Another side of biking safety

Chicago is a big city, which presents some unique challenges when bike commuting. Usually, heavy traffic is the biggest problem, but sometimes – rarely – the problem is dangerous people.

Greg (Mr. Dottie) is working in the far suburbs this week, so yesterday morning he rode his bike to Union Station, took the train and on the other end rode his bike to the worksite. While still in Chicago, almost to Union Station, he was stopped at a red light behind a cab when a goth-looking street guy with a big cart walked into the road to his left. The guy asked him if he was an undercover cop and then started ranting that no one was going to stop him from getting to Detroit.

Greg was boxed in on three sides by the guy, the cab and the curb. The light turned green, but the cab did not move, probably watching what was going on behind him. The guy was still more than an arm-length’s away and before he could get closer, Greg started backing up to turn his bike around. Just then the guy pulled out a knife, the cab finally moved forward and Greg rode off, informing the police of the guy when he got to Union Station.

Downtown Chicago is rarely dangerous, but there is crime. Although my initial reaction is “never ride in that area early in the morning again,” Greg’s reaction is, “never stop for a red light behind a car in that area again.” Also, be aware of your surroundings, don’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt, and don’t let anyone get near you. Although someone on a bike is less protected than someone in a car, at least it’s usually easier for a bicyclist to get away.

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A Typical Tuesday

My commute to and fro today was lovely, other than having to yell “JERK” at some jerk, who honked at me for being in the road and then cut me off to turn right.  I guess I should not be surprised, since some people (*cough* men *cough*) are often jerks in general.   The anonymity of driving naturally magnifies this tendency.  They should get their ridiculous testosterone under control and stop bringing me down.

Anyway, my ride really was (mostly) lovely.  There is finally some relief from the oppressive heat and I can feel autumn trying to break though.  Although I know it’s too soon to get excited, I can’t help it – I love autumn!

How’s everyone else doing?  I’ve been so busy lately, I feel a bit disconnected from my fellow bike commuters out there in internets land.

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LGRAB Safety Tip #1

Witnessed this morning on my way to work while waiting at a red light:

  • Guy zips by on fixed gear; screeches to halt in front of crosswalk.
  • Performs track stand, showing off bike tattoos on each calf.
  • While our light is still red, inexplicably jets into intersection of busy 4-lane road.
  • Makes it across one lane before coming thiiiiis close to being creamed.
  • Slams on brakes inches from car.
  • Driver going through intersection with green slams on brakes.
  • I stare in horrified shock.
  • Bike guy throws middle finger high in air in indignation.
  • I am even more horrified.
  • Every driver and pedestrian who witnessed the scene now hates bicyclists.
  • Five seconds later, light turns green and I continue on my merry way to work.

LGRAB safety tip #1: before riding, remove head from arse.

LGRAB safety tip #2: stop at red lights.

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Friendly Commute

This morning I rode further than usual to attend a conference.  While waiting at a stop light, my friend Elizabeth magically appeared next to me.  What a fun surprise!  There are few surprises better than meeting a good friend in an unexpected place.  Turns out she was on a long morning ride (being much sportier than I).  Gotta love the social aspect of bike riding.

Elizabeth brightening my morning

Soon afterward, a grouchy guy tried to mar my morning.  As I rode 8 mph on the nearly empty bike path (trying not to sweat my ass off before work), he said sarcastically while passing me, “Nice place for your helmet,” indicating the helmet hanging from my handlebars.

Helmet-carrying contraption, aka handlebars

Why, thank you!  I agree; that’s a brilliant place for my helmet, as I can easily take it off and put it on as I transition from the streets to the bike path.  Perhaps if he slowed down occasionally (to, say, 8 mph), he would notice that riding a bike is not always an extreme sport requiring protective gear. :)

Really, I ride so slowly and cautiously when I take off my helmet on the bike path – if anything, I am safer.

My ride was otherwise nice and relaxing, though almost 90 degrees and humid. Nothing a wet washcloth and deodorant couldn’t handle.

And now for something completely different. In one hour (9:00 central) Trisha and I will be interviewed live on Bicycle Radio. You can – and totally should! – listen at http://bicycleradio.com. If you miss the show, you can download the podcast. While you’re at it, check out their awesome archives, which include guests such as Ray LaHood and Gary Fisher!

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Bike Commuting in a Severe Storm

A severe storm hit Chicago unexpectedly late yesterday afternoon. Hurricane-force winds up to 77 mph, torrential rain and hail blew out windows in the Sears Tower and downed trees and powerlines. Guess where I was when this happened? Yup, riding my bike home from work.

When I heard about the approaching storm, I decided to leave work a little early to beat the storm home. Soon after I set out, rain began falling. The further I rode, the heavier the rain and winds became. I could feel a little hail. Stubbornly I pushed on – soooo close to home, I kept telling myself. Half-way home the wind and rain were so strong, I had to slow considerably. Then I rode on the pedestrian-free sidewalk in case the wind blew me over. Two-thirds of the way home, the wind and rain became literally impossible to ride in. I realized that trying to ride my bike was pretty crazy and dangerous. My stubborn nature is usually an asset when it comes to biking around Chicago, but sometimes it makes me stupid. As I locked my bike outside a (conveniently located and cozy) pub, lightening and thunder hit so closely that I screamed.

Safely in the pub, I commiserated with some other stranded folks, emptied the water out of my shoes and rung out my skirt and shirt, and ordered a pint. Nearly an hour later the rain and wind calmed down enough for me to ride the final 1.5 miles home. That’s when I took these photos. A similar storm hit around 10 pm but I was tucked safely inside.

The moral of this story is: don’t try to beat a severe storm home or at least have a cozy pub to duck into if necessary.

I have lots more to say about this day, which included the Bike to Work Week rally, David Byrne’s bicycle forum and hanging out with bikey friends.

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Dottie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Commute

Wanna hear my story? Don’t worry – no dotties or bicycles were harmed in the making of this commute.

Monday and Tuesday I had to work at a satellite office on the west side instead of my office downtown. From my starting point the satellite office is four miles straight west on one street, Belmont Avenue. See the yellow line highlighted on the bike map below? That’s it.

This should have been a simple commute. However, as shown on the map, I had to cross a river and an expressway. No side streets cross both, only arterial streets. I avoid arterial streets due to the heavy and relatively fast traffic. I tweeted for route advice and the general consensus (thanks!) was to avoid Belmont Avenue. After studying the bike map, I decided on a circuitous route to stay on quiet neighborhood streets most of the way, riding on arterial streets only to cross the river and the expressway.

The ride started fine and I crossed the river fairly easily, although mixing it up with the fast traffic got my blood pumping. Back on the neighborhood street, I rolled along happily for a couple of miles, but when I tried to cross the expressway, I kept coming upon dead ends. I had ridden too far and backtracked down several side streets – all dead ends – until finding the big street again.

Time for the next obstacle. Traffic entering and exiting the enormous expressway is fast, aggressive and not looking for bicyclists, so I cautiously road on the sidewalk until I safely crossed over. Not only did I ride on the sidewalk, I also went against a red light. I saw that no one was coming and knew that as soon as the “walk” signal appeared, the cars waiting to my left would turn right onto the expressway with absolutely no regard for lil’ ol’ me. Something about expressway ramps makes drivers insane.

After crossing I had to pull over to get my wits about me. I couldn’t remember which side street I was supposed to take next and called Mr. Dottie for directions, grumbling about traffic and the time. Soon I found the side street that I thought would take me straight to my destination.

Wrong!

The street suddenly ended and dumped me back on the arterial street. By this time I was already late for work, so I sucked it up and pedaled as fast as I could with traffic, an activity not for the faint of heart. Also not for the faint of heart: stopping in the middle of an arterial with no turn lane while waiting to turn left.

Finally, I arrived at my destination – stressed, sweaty and 15 minutes late. But alive!

For the ride home I decided to take a more direct route down a nearby arterial, Diversey Avenue. This route was simple and better than the morning nightmare, but called for some serious vehicular cycling, moving fast and taking the right lane. I was the only bicycle out there, making me long for companions, regardless of whether they stopped at the red lights. This street is busy and relatively fast, but has a bike lane for part of the way and is a marked bike route on the Chicago map.

Just as I was thinking positively about the route, two SUV’s almost hit me while I was crossing the river, one right after the other. They were stopped in traffic in the left turning lane, I was going straight in the right lane and they did not look before impatiently gassing it out of their lane and straight into my path. That was it for me – bike car traffic city sensory overload for the day.

The next morning I took the Belmont Avenue bus, which carried me straight to work with no stress. I stared out the window and read Anna Karenina. I did not regret my decision.

The city needs to do some serious work to make safe east-west routes, because the current set up is absurd. Lucky for me, I can now return to my usual commute downtown.

After I returned home from my bus commute, I set out on my bike to a board meeting a few miles away. En route, rain started pouring. I pushed on until thunder and lightening showed up, then I admitted defeat, turned around and attended my meeting over the phone. Sigh.

So this brief period of time will go down as the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad commute. I guess everyone has bad commutes sometimes.

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Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Yesterday morning, I fell in with a group of cyclists commuting to work, about six in all. Half-way to work I lost them, as they ran all the red lights and I stopped for all the red lights. As I was waiting for one red light by myself, the group already far ahead, three guys on bikes zipped by me, barely pausing for the light. A woman in a small SUV waiting beside me (about my gram’s age) said, “It’s so nice to see one bicyclist follow the rules of the road – and look so cute doing it. I love your basket!”

My gut reaction was to protest and stick up for cyclists. I could have said, “And it’s so nice to have one driver be nice to me.” But I did not want to be snarky with the well-intentioned woman and, really, there was not much I could say in defense of bicyclists, given the display witnessed moments earlier.  Instead I answered, “Thanks!  I wish more cyclists would.”

We as cyclists need to shape up. There are too many of us in Chicago to continue ignoring traffic laws, especially red lights. I understand the argument that sometimes it’s safer to jump a light instead of idling among trucks, and I’m not going to pretend that I never treat a red light as a stop sign (and don’t even get me started on stop signs). However, there are too many safety, legal and PR reasons not to ignore red lights and general traffic regulations in the city.

On the bright side, lots of bicyclists ride safely and conscientiously. This morning’s commute was totally different from yesterday’s, as the mini-pack of female cyclists I fell in with stopped at all red lights and fostered a calm and happy atmosphere. However, the bad apples are the ones who stand out the most, be they bicyclists or motorists.

What do you think about your city – is it reaching a critical mass where lawless cyclists are embarrassing? Is it time to start putting more pressure on other bike riders to embrace both the rights and the responsibilities of the road? And if so, how do we avoid playing into the hands of the crazed, mouth-foaming masses who use cyclists’ red-light-running to excuse the most abhorrent driving behavior?

Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know.

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Deep Breaths

Riding in Chicago rush hour traffic can really raise my blood pressure, especially when it seems that every person drives a huge SUV while fiddling with a blackberry and passing within inches of me. Even after two years of daily riding, this still gets to me a bit too much sometimes. Today during my evening commute, I had to pull over for some deep breaths and springtime appreciation.

A few minutes later I returned to the road feeling calm and refreshed. I can’t control how others drive and I can’t control the appalling lack of bicycle infrastructure, but I can control my own moods. Sometimes I literally have to stop to smell the flowers.

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Getting Serious About Bicycling Safety

How much of the push for bicycling is about encouraging people to be braver, rather than actually fostering a safe and welcoming environment for cyclists?

An editorial in The Times (UK) by Janice Turner, which Copenhaganize brought to my attention, has me pondering this question. My observation is that there are more cyclists on the road now than before, but the cyclists are overwhelmingly of the type expected to engage in perceived risky behavior – young males.

An Example of Chicago's "Bicycle Infrastructure"

Chicago's Bicycle "Infrastructure"

This morning a pack of cyclists accompanied me on my commute. They resembled a rag-tag peloton, shuffling for position, weaving around traffic and speeding through intersections. Of the dozen or so cyclists in my proximity, not one was a woman and not one appeared to be wearing regular work clothes. The evening commute featured a few women. (You can read more about my regular commute here.)

Mind, I am not criticizing this group. I appreciate them and their presence on the road. My criticism is for a transportation system that fails to accommodate a more diverse – and risk averse – group of people on bikes.

As individuals, Trisha and I don’t have the power to build infrastructure or enforce traffic laws. Therefore, the best we can say is that, despite the awful state of cycling infrastructure in North America, the U.K., Australia, et al, you should ride your bike and enjoy yourself. While we show that cycling is not as difficult and dangerous as it seems, mixing it up with cars every day still takes courage. For every woman who tells us that our blog inspired her to bicycle regularly, there must be several others who were inspired to try, but gave up due to fear.

Even the most conscientious and experienced cyclist is not immune to danger. For example, last week my husband Greg was taking the lane to pass a stopped bus safely, when a car driver squeezed around him, hitting his arm with the car’s side mirror and causing his body to bang against the passenger door. The woman sped away. Thankfully, he was able to regain his balance and escape injury. The responding police officer was respectful, but said there was nothing they could do without a full license plate number and witnesses. That woman cared so little for the man I care for the most, apparently knowing she could behave this way without legal consequence. Even if the police could have tracked her down, we would be lucky if she received a warning ticket.

Of course, no one is immune to danger. Life can be risky, and certainly I would not put bicycling on a list of high-risk activities. If I thought otherwise, no way would I be out there on my bike every day. I am risk-averse. However, there is so much that could be done to make bicycling safer, both objectively and subjectively.

I love bicycling. I usually feel safe riding in Chicago. I hope this blog helps counter the negative and ugly rhetoric that so often accompanies bicycling discourse in media and society at large.  But every now and then, inevitably, I am frustrated and disappointed by the failure of governments to provide a safe place for all road users.

Many citizens have answered the call to be braver, and in the process have found themselves healthier and happier. There is a beautiful momentum of regular people on bicycles, and failing to acknowledge our growing numbers with a comprehensive plan to foster a safe and welcoming environment would be criminal.

I worry over Ms. Turner’s conclusion in the Times article that “a big fat flaw at the heart of democracy is that politicians will never invest in the long term if voters’ initial inconvenience and expense are not rewarded with results before an election.” If that is always the case, we will never move forward.

As of now, we are here. Whether in dresses or lycra, on Dutch bikes or fixies, we are all getting around in a way that benefits ourselves, society and the environment. Will the government embrace us or desert us?

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I Must Be Invisible

I must be invisible. Invisibility is the only explanation for a pedestrian walking out in the street in front of me and for a car turning left across my path on the way home today. Except not invisible to other cyclists, since a guy on the other side of the intersection shook his head and said, “He didn’t even see you,” as I rode past.

One of the golden rules of transportation cycling is to assume you’re invisible. Good advice.

Other than this not-so-minor problem, my ride today was lovely. The temperature was warm enough for a t-shirt and the sky was blue. A Diana Mini shot from my lunch break walk conveys the feeling of the day.

Ah, the ups and downs of life on two wheels.

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