Chicago Bike Backlash?

OK… I’m only just now getting caught up with the world around me… seems I was operating in a ‘bubble’ when this article first broke. And ignorance was bliss… but my mom called and had questions about my reaction to the latest bike news – that the mayor plans to implement bike tolls and fees and licenses…. making Chicago truly the most expensive city! (not nickel and dimed – but rather dollared to poverty) Someone’s gotta pay for painting those bike lanes… right? STOP!

First – let’s get to the article that started it all…. published by columnist John Kass for the Chicago Tribune: “Introducing bike tolls and the Rahm-PASS and the follow-up Taxing bikers: The wheels begin to spin“. (sadly you must be a subscriber to view)

So, here are the highlights before we continue. It starts with:

Here’s what could be coming for the bike-to-work crowd:

•City bike tolls and city bike vehicle stickers, which could bring in millions upon millions of much-needed revenue to City Hall, allowing the cash-strapped government to add new police to its woefully undermanned force.

•City stop-sign cameras to automatically ticket bicyclists who cruise past the signs without stopping, infuriating those of us in cars.

•Hefty city bike parking fees, like the city parking meter fees, easily enforced as bikers “park” in city bike racks. No sticker = big tickets. And if you don’t pay, there’s always the bike boot.

•And my personal favorite: the Rahm-PASS. Fixed to the bike’s handlebars, the Rahm-PASS transponder would be like the I-PASS for cars on state tollways. Cyclists would cruise underneath strategically situated girders over street corners with heavy bike traffic, and they would bypass (or Rahm-PASS) the bike tollbooths run by grumpy political workers.

It concludes with the following allegation:

Call me what you will, Mr. Joe Bike Guy, but the facts are that the city is spending $4.7 million on 34 miles of bike lanes this year — and could spend tens of millions on some 450 miles of new bikeways planned by 2020.

The follow-up article features a series of questions supposedly submitted by readers and Kass’ responses, including:

I’ve been walking to work from the train for seven years. I don’t need one hand to count the number of bicyclists that have stopped for a red light at a crosswalk out of the hundreds I’ve seen. We need to ban bicycles so the streets are safe for pedestrians. Save us, Rahmfather! Paul G.

Dear Paul — We don’t want to ban bicycles. We just want to tax the heck out of them, because A) bike riders during rush hour are annoying, and B) they’re an untapped revenue source, and our politicians have needs too.

In response to this article, a couple of journalists were quick to write responses, including Chuck Sudo of and Whet Moser of Chicago Magazine’s Staff Blog.

Moser’s article points out:

“Minneapolis has a more active bike-commuter culture than Chicago, and the state tried something like this, but abandoned it for obvious reasons: ‘The administrative costs were more than the revenue generated,’ according to that state’s Department of Transportation.”
and “Los Angeles tried it recently, too, at least until police chief William Bratton—of zero-tolerance broken-windows fame—said it was a bad idea”

I especially like the last two paragraphs by Moser’s Chicago mag piece:

“There are legitimate discussions to be had about whether separate bike lanes actually make for more and safer cycling. There’s an even better one to be had about cyclist education and enforcement—in an excellent post, Brent Cohrs discusses a point I’ve made before, that driver education in America essentially ignores cycling to the detriment of cyclists and drivers. Compare that to the Netherlands, where bicycle road tests are mandatory.

That doesn’t seem to have cut down on cycling there, as education makes people more confident, and if my experience is any guide, Americans are less likely to bike because of fear and inexperience. Marginalizing the entire form of transportation does little more than scare newbies off the streets, leaving them to the minority of aggro bikers.”

On a side note, I’ll be taking the League Cycling Instructor class this fall specifically so that I can learn to teach others how to ride a bike and how to do so safely.

Sudo’s Chicagoist article also points out:

“What [Tribune columnist] Kass failed to mention were the funding sources for the bike lanes. Thanks to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Peter Scales, we have those: tax increment financing; state and federal transportation dollars; and CDOT’s own general obligation funds. None of that is money that could have gone to hiring more cops.”

He also points out that Rahm is following his predecessor’s – Mayor Richard M. Daley’s – precedent of being a champion of bikes and bike lanes and infrastructure in Chicago.

There’s already chatter among the Chicago bicycling community via the online community The Chainlink. As commenters (and cyclists around Chicago) are quick to point out – this article by Kass is just a “joke” and no actual plan is in place for any of his proposed measures to have bike tolls or mandatory bike stickers or bike parking fees.

Joke or not, Chicago’s local bicycle advocacy organization – Active Transportation Alliance – wrote a letter to the editor in response to Kass’ column – to set the facts straight:

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey, 24 percent of Midwesterners ride a bike at least once a week; and 71 percent of Americans would like to bicycle more, but fewer than half feel that their community is designed for making biking safe. Most Chicagoans avoid riding on city streets for fear of their safety. We need safer streets for biking in order to access jobs and basic services in our communities. Biking also provides a rare opportunity for healthy physical activity in our busy daily routines.

The 100 miles of protected bike lanes that Mayor Emanuel is adding will enable thousands more Chicagoans to get out of cars and onto bikes and, by giving bikes their own space, will make streets more orderly and safer for everyone. But 100 miles is less than two percent of our street network, and cars still get to use streets with protected bike lanes.

For about the same cost as just one mile of freeway, Chicago can build an entire city-wide network of protected bike lanes. This could provide safe and easy access to a healthy, affordable and convenient form of transportation that our neighborhoods need. It’s a wise investment for Chicagoans and our neighborhoods.

My question is – does Kass really believe the rhetoric he writes or is his column a journalistic ruse to generate controversy and talk for days?

I’ll have you know I thoroughly enjoyed my bike commute riding primarily on roads with bike lanes to and from work on Friday, and I took photos along the way to highlight Life in the Chicago Bike Lanes, including a view of a federally funded roadway project and peeks at a few cars that should be ticketed for being in “my” lane…

Federally funded Clark Street project

Bike Lane re-striped along Clark Street during street resurfacing

car parked in the bike lane (bike backlash?) - no ticket???

Cyclists forced to merge into two-lane traffic to avoid cab in the bike lane

Clearly the battle for the road surface continues and there is a perceived “backlash” here in Chicago. We’ve written about backlash before in a number of articles. It seems that once a city really starts getting a lot of infrastructure in place, and people using those facilities, the backlash begins. Is it jealousy from other road users (those stuck in traffic jams as we cycle commuters happily zoom by)? We’d sure love to hear your thoughts about what you think is the motivation behind these backlash attacks against bike/ped infrastructure.


  1. Suzanne S.

    There goes “bike-friendly” if this stuff gets enacted…what ridiculous proposals! I knew nothing about the Tribune article and am hoping it is just sensationalistic, editorial-type manuever. I’m not sure about where this biking backlash is coming from but I would be interested in halting it. I live in North Chicagoland and part of the reason my family lives here is because it is so bike-friendly. Any suggestions for getting bike-civically-involved?

  2. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @Suzanne – rest assured, this article is just one journalist’s perspective. Active Transportation Alliance wrote a great letter in response (also highlighted in this post) and they would be a great organization to start getting involved with; they support biking, walking and transit in Chicago and its suburbs. Plus, plenty of communities have their own bike clubs – some of which do advocacy.

  3. JeffS

    Typical conservative logic in their search for equality as they understand it.

    They have to sit in traffic. They have to pay gas taxes. They have to have a car registration, license and insurance. They feel victimized, and the only way to ease their pain is to inflict the same punishment on others.

    That the schemes are obvious money-losers creating more “big government” is apparently of no consequence as long as it punishes “them”.

    My only real comment is to state that the author is delusional if he thinks that stop sign cameras would primarily ticket cyclists. I’m not sure that I have ever ridden with someone… anyone… who did not break at least one traffic law with their car. Traffic violations are nothing more than a dishonest justification given by motorists for the overall contempt they feel for cyclists.

  4. Robert Guico

    Here’s my response: I’m canceling my Chicago Tribune subscription.

    The last thing this town needs someone who just wants government money to fund streets for single-purpose uses, masquerading as a “conservative”.

  5. Lee

    The key is, as you said, “perceived” backlash. I think the most significant part of Kass’ column was his marginalizing of people who bike, whether it was part of some satire unrelated to biking or not. His “plan” doesn’t warrant any response, but pretending only “elitist” “hipsters” — “one percenters” — use bikes, does warrant a response. It’s part of creating a false story line of “backlash” by “the people.” The most important part of Active Trans’ response was that it was signed by AARP-IL and community organizations. People like Kass might like to think of biking as some privileged activity just for hipster neighborhoods, and that “the people” will rise up against it — but the reality is that all kinds of people ride bikes and want complete streets that are safer for biking and walking.

  6. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @Lee – very well put – “the reality is that all kinds of people ride bikes and want complete streets that are safer for biking and walking.” Indeed. 🙂

  7. samanthaH

    I completely agree, I would prefer bike friendly place too. I think there’s no need for total irradiation of bikes. In fact, bikes are useful in emergency cases like Catherine Baucom, a doctor in Baton Rouge, LA, recently got around a traffic jam by ditching her car in place of a bicycle belonging to the daughter of a friend. Pedaling the pint-size pink bike, she got through traffic and arrived promptly to slice and dice. Thus, Catherine Baucom, surgeon, beats traffic with kiddie bike.

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