A Guide to Bike Safety in Chicago (and everywhere else)

By , April 2, 2012 12:30 pm

Originally posted at In Our Words, crossposted with permission.

It’s that time of year: When the weather in Chicago fluctuates madly–80 degrees one day and 40 degrees the next. Shorts and tank tops are quickly pulled out from that box under the bed and worn to the beach, only to be put away when it snows twenty-four hours later. It’s also the time when most people decide to pull their bike out of storage or the garage or that street sign where it has been locked since October. (For those of you who have been biking all winter, I salute you. This piece still may have some tips for you, though.)

A few weeks ago, I rode my bike for the first time this year. I’m one of those obnoxious bikers who always wears a helmet, and bothers her friends to do the same, uses hand-signals while turning, and doesn’t blow through stop signs without first slowing way down to check for traffic and pedestrians. I’ve also been doored (when a driver opens their door into the bike lane, hitting a biker), flipped off my bike, skidded out when an asshole in a sedan turned without signaling, and generally been knocked about. Yet I still hop on my bike regularly, for transportation and exercise, and feel safe doing so. Let’s talk about what’s keeping me safe: three rules that apply to everyone, anywhere, and a fourth that’s slightly more Chicago-specific.

Get a helmet (even if you only ride in trails)

The first thing, the obvious thing, the thing everyone has told you all your life and I’m going to tell you once again, is to wear a helmet. PLEASE WEAR A HELMET! Your head is full of delightfully squishy and fragile brains, encased by a solid-but-not-invincible layer of bone. Helmets are usually boring (although they don’t have to be) but they are literally the only thing between your head and going splat on the pavement.

Most people don’t wear helmets properly. “Properly,” in this case, means “tighter than you think, and tilted to cover your forehead.” If you have the straps buckled but they’re flapping around down by your chest, the helmet won’t give you its full protection if you get hit by a car. Likewise, if you wear it tilted way back, the helmet is not able to do its job. This is from KidsHealth.org, but applies to adults, too:

Your bike helmet should fit you properly. You don’t want it too small or too big. Never wear a hat under your bike helmet. If you’re unsure if your helmet fits you well, ask someone at a bike store.

Once you have the right helmet, you need to wear it the right way so it will protect you. It should be worn level and cover your forehead. Don’t tip it back so your forehead is showing. The straps should always be fastened. If the straps are flying, it’s likely to fall off your head when you need it most. Make sure the straps are adjusted so they’re snug enough that you can’t pull or twist the helmet around on your head.

Take care of your bike helmet and don’t throw it around. That could damage the helmet and it won’t protect you as well when you really need it. If you do fall down and put your helmet to the test, be sure to get a new one. They don’t work as well after a major crash.

If you get into an accident or your helmet gets dropped from that cool rooftop party you had and lands on the pavement, GET A NEW HELMET! Helmets are designed to survive a single impact, not a bunch over and over. Pretty please with gumdrops on top, get a helmet.

For those who grew up in Evanston in the 80s and 90s, you may remember “bike helmet guy.” This was a man who walked around downtown Evanston with clear cognitive and physical disabilities. He’d talk to anyone on their bike, and explain that he hadn’t been born with disabilities, but had gotten them after a bike accident where he–you guessed it–wasn’t wearing his helmet. “Oh, Rebecca,” you say, “but I’m a good biker! I only bike on trails and don’t need a helmet!” Bullshit. You can be distracted and flip off your bike. Someone else can be distracted and run out into your bike or crash into it or an escaped polar bear from Lincoln Park Zoo could swipe at your bike with her giant claws and send you flying into hard, unforgiving pavement. Please, pretty please with delicious ice cream and sprinkles on top, get a helmet.

Be Seen

Now that I took longer than anticipated to talk about helmets, I’m going to assume you either have one now, or are uncaring of your personal safety that you’re ready to go skydiving without a parachute. Either way, the next step to bike safety is to be seen. In the daytime, this just means stay conscious of your surroundings. It also means don’t bike on the sidewalk, unless it’s specifically meant for bikes. Biking on the sidewalks means pedestrians aren’t prepared for you, and cars won’t always be expecting fast bikes in the crosswalks.

Night biking requires a bit more effort. Bike lights can be found pretty cheap on Amazon – skip the latte for a few days and get a bike light. Ideally, you should have a bike light in the front and the back, but at the very least get one for the back. This helps drivers who can’t see you from behind. Headlights are still important, though, particularly for drivers pulling out of dark driveways or at intersections. If you’re biking where there aren’t good street lights, you may also want to invest in some reflective gear or lights for your spokes. This helps drivers coming at a right angle see you.

General Biking Rules

The next step to biking safe is also one that applies wherever you’re biking. In short, BIKE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD OR TRAIL. A lot of people don’t like this rule. “I’d rather see incoming traffic,” they say. Lets do some math. If you’re biking with traffic, the speed at which a car would hit you from behind is effectively their speed minus your speed. (MATH!)  So if you’re on Clark biking at 15 MPH and are hit from behind by a car going 30 MPH, you’ve effectively been hit at 15MPH (30-15=15). If you’re going the other direction, the speeds are combined, so you’re effectively hit by an oncoming car at 45MPH. (30+15=45.) Which would you prefer?

You should also bike in the right lane for the same reason all cars go in the same direction: it gives cars more time to see you, and a better chance at avoiding you.

Most people don’t use hand signals, but I’d still recommend checking them out. The most important is the left turn, which is simply extending your left arm straight out in the direction of the turn. This lets cars, bikes, and pedestrians know to expect the turn, and to watch out for you crossing traffic. At big intersections, a hand signal could mean the different between a car hitting you or slowing down to avoid you. Likewise, traffic rules apply to you too! Lights, stop signs, one-way streets,  a lot of bikers (myself included, far too often) view these rules as optional. But please make a conscious choice about when to ignore them, and consider the peril you put yourself in when you do.

Where to Bike in Chicago 

This last tip can be summarized as “know where you’re biking.” Before venturing out into bike nirvana, it’s worth investigating your options for getting from Point A to Point B. Chicago has lots of bike lanes, but not all of them are (in my opinion) well thought out.

To start, avoid big, congested streets which don’t explicitly have a bike lane. I worry for people I see biking on Ashland or Michigan, because there isn’t enough room for them and cars are moving so much faster, relative to the bike’s speed.

There are some nice bike maps of Chicago, both in print and online. Chicagoland Bike Maps has a comprehensive list of the Chicagoland area, all available for download. The City of Chicago also has a mediocre-but-functional bike map online. The problem with these is they don’t always align with reality. For example, the Chicago bike map lists Clark as having “recommended bike lanes” (those biker graphics on the pavement with the arrows, but without a demarcated bike lane). This means you should be able to bike on Clark safely, but I’d much prefer to bike a block east, on Glenwood. Glenwood is also listed as a recommended bike lane, but if you didn’t know the neighborhood you might not know that one was better or safer than the other.

Which is to say that you should do some research before venturing into an unknown neighborhood. Or, at the very least, think about your route ahead of time: Which streets are busy? Any one-way streets I need to think about? Am I close enough to the lakefront to take the lake trail? On the topic of the lakefront trail, it’s awesome. It’s beautiful. It’s shared. Don’t bike in the middle of the trail, or swerve back and forth, or be one of those obnoxious bikers that everyone hates. Just don’t.

Also keep in mind using the El and CTA busses for your bike. Busses have no restrictions on when you can load your bike, but the El restricts bike carrying during rush hour. (Boo!) This is a nice way to bike somewhere and then take the CTA home, or the other way ’round.

You should be ready to stay safe, but let’s review:

  • Please, please, please get a helmet
  • Be seen
  • Be a respectful and courteous biker
  • Know where you’re biking


Other resources:

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