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Chicagoist's Bike Etiquette Tips

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jun 14, 2013 4:40PM

Chicago Bike Week is coming to an end today with the annual Bike to Work Rally in Daley Plaza. But every day is bike to work day for many Chicagoans. I used to work at a law office in Evanston and relished my 30-mile round trips from Bridgeport to the north suburb. I made good time, saved money, lost weight and found I was very tranquil by the time I clocked into work.

That tranquility takes work. I also used to be that asshole cyclist who would respond to a motorist cutting me off in the street by taking out his tail light with my u-lock. (That's only the tip of an iceberg of bad behavior I'll regret to my dying day.) Evolving to become a (mostly) law-abiding bicyclist took time and effort. What's I've found is the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.

Yet I'm committed to sharing the road with motorists, other cyclists ignorant of traffic laws and pedestrians. We have to share the streets, even if John Kass feels otherwise. To that end, here are some tips to being safe on the streets and being a better bicyclist.

Photo credit: Bob Segal

- Use headlights and tail lights. A headlight and red rear reflector are required under city ordinance and state law. Section 9-52-080 of the Chicago Municipal Code states:

(a) Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a head lamp which shall emit a white light visible from a minimum distance of 500 feet from the front and with a rear red reflector capable of reflecting the head lamp beams of an approaching motor vehicle back to the operator of such vehicle at distances up to 200 feet or a rear lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of at least 200 feet from the rear.

This language mirrors the language from the Illinois Vehicle Code:

Lamps and other equipment on bicycles. (a) Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the Department which shall be visible from all distances from 100 feet to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. A lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector. (from Ch. 95 1/2, par. 11-1507)

Streetsblog Chicago's Steven Vance encourages the headlight and tail light combo. If you wind up in an accident at night and don't have a headlight or reflector, you will almost certainly be found at fault.

- I don't wear dark clothing at night. You want to be seen on the streets and the combination of wearing dark clothing, riding a dark bicycle with no headlights or reflectors is asking for trouble. Vance doesn't advocate either way on the subject of bright clothing

- There's no such thing as a soft stop in Illinois, so you're required to stop at traffic lights and intersections. I can't count the number of times a bicyclist has nearly caused an accident by racing through a four-way intersection. Until soft stop laws are passed in Illinois, stop, wait for the traffic that reached the intersection before you to pass, then go. Lorna Juett adds, "If you're not going to come to a full stop at a light or stop sign, you should give the riders ahead of you the benefit of the doubt. Assume they are faster than you until they start moving. If they're not, feel free to pass. I hate having to pass people over and over again because they're too lazy to stop or slow down at intersections with stop signs or traffic lights.

Vance said, "If no one's coming, there's not much point" to stop at intersections. "Maybe for some moral reason, or to appease all of those who rant about what kind of message it sends to people not riding bicycles." Until there's a soft stop law in Illinois, we'll err on stopping at intersections.

- Announce your presence. If you're passing a slower cyclist it's best practice to say "passing on your left" so as not to startle them. Streesblog Chi's John Greenfield recommends buying a bike bell, because screaming "passing on your left" can be perceived as aggressive and can render you hoarse.

- Lorna has this advice for drivers: If a cyclist has taken the lane, ie, they've ridden outside of the bike lane or the area designated as a shared lane, there's probably a good reason. Do not try to pass them on the left, just wait for them to pass whatever obstruction was in the lane, and then pass them within your own lane. I'm so sick of getting buzzed at a high rate of speed because I'm avoiding a potential open door or a pothole. Which of course, brings to mind the fact that drivers should give cyclists three feet when they pass. If that's not possible, don't pass at that time. Wait until you can give the distance.

- Although you can legally ride bikes side by side on shared paths like the Lakefront path, it's probably safest to ride in single file due to the sheer volume of people using it, especially between Oak Street Beach and Belmont Harbor where the congestion can rival rush hour on the Dan Ryan at times. Let joggers, walkers, rollerbladers (yes, they're still around) and let slower cyclists know you're passing them and only pass on the left.

If you must take the Lakefront path, Greenfield suggests "cruising at a mellow pace, maintaining a Zen attitude, and keeping an eye out for stray toddlers. If you want to haul ass, you’re better off taking an inland alternative like Clark Street, or riding on the south lakefront, where the path is generally wider, better maintained and less populated, and the views are just as breathtaking."

This is a no-no. (Photo credit: jerry0984)

- Lorna has this advice on turning: A cyclist who wants to turn should use the same lanes as a car driver who wants to turn. However, if it is too dangerous, the cyclist can choose to use the crosswalk to get to the side of the road he or she wishes to travel on. In order to do so, they must get off the bike and walk it through the crosswalk. I have only seen someone legally complete this maneuver a handful of times, and just today I saw one of the more stupid utilization of the riding-through-the-crosswalk-to-turn-left tactics yet. Dude nearly got smoked by a car trying to turn right, and then by cars trying to turn left. It wasn't an incredibly busy intersection at 11 a.m. (Lincoln, Diversey, and Racine), and using the left lane would have made the most sense. I wish I could have yelled at him, but it seems to do no use. I try to use left turn lanes whenever possible, but many drivers don't seem to think I belong there, and since I am slower than them, are pretty angry when it takes me "a long time" to traverse the expanse of a six way intersection. This anger is typically manifested in honking and rapid acceleration once I get safely to the other side.

- Put down the phone, whatever is going on out there can wait. Don't try to carry that coffee or smoke that cigarette and keep both your damned hands on the handlebars unless you're signaling to turn, or adjusting/scratching your junk. Lorna said, "I once saw a dude riding casually down Sheffield with both hands under his butt. He went for at least a mile like this. I was riding in a car, and it was so terrifying. I kept imagining him getting doored or hitting a pothole and having absolutely no way to control his body or bike."

- Don't put headphones or earbuds in your ears. You're on a street moving with traffic. You want all of your senses available to you, which includes the ability to hear shit around you. You can’t react to a delivery truck blaring its horn and bearing down on you when you’re bobbing your head to the new Daft Punk album playing through noise cancellation earbuds in your ears —CS

- From Lorna: Scooters are not bikes and do not belong in bike lanes, whether they are shared lanes, or designated lanes. When I hear one behind me, I do my best to get really wide.

- I've been doored a couple times. One crash left me with a little tremolo when I talked for weeks after. Greenfield says, "the easiest way to avoid a dooring is to get in the habit of riding four feet away from parked cars. When you’re riding in a bike lane, this means you’ll want to keep to the left side of the lane. I’ve been biking regularly in Chicago for decades, and I daydream a lot, but by using this technique I’ve avoided getting doored since the 90s." You can also look in a driver's mirror to see if they're making any sudden movements to leave the car.

For help finding bike-friendly routes, pick up a free copy of the Chicago Bike Map at your local bike shop. Google Maps’ bike directions and the are also pretty reliable for finding good routes, or an interesting alternative to your beaten path. —Greenfield

Forget your lock? Some businesses, like corner stores, usually don’t mind if you bring your ride inside for a minute. Just be sure to poke your head in the door to ask first. —Greenfield

Photo credit: Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist

- Locking your bike. Here's another area where Vance and I differ slightly. Vance recommends locking your front wheel through the lower bar of your bike frame with a u-lock to a bike rack, then locking the two wheels together with a chain. I use quick-release hubs, so I prefer to remove the front wheel and lock both wheels together through the back of the frame. We both recommend registering your bike with the Chicago Police Department.