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Despite designated bike lanes, many motorists still oblivious

The Chicago Tribune: Despite designated bike lanes, many motorists still oblivious

By Julie Deardorff
July 31, 2011

My 6-year-old was recently "doored" by a parked car while riding his tiny two-wheeler beside me in a designated bike lane in downtown Evanston. It was a classic low-speed collision: The instant we rolled past, the driver flung his door open.

My son wasn't hurt, but the man in the car took no responsibility for the incident. "I hope you learned a lesson, young man," he told my son after I'd picked him up off the ground.

I waited, wondering what the driver thought the lesson was. According to Illinois law, he was supposed to make sure it was safe before he opened his door. But all he said was, "You need to be more careful."

Cyclists fought for and won the legal right to the road in the late 1880s. But today we're still battling for recognition, in part because no one is sure where cyclists — especially younger ones — truly belong.

Sidewalks are not the answer. Sure, they're a good compromise if you live in a low-traffic neighborhood, but driveways and intersections can be as hazardous as roads. Bikes are banned on sidewalks in downtown Evanston and many other business districts, which makes it tough to ride to places such as the library or the grocery store.

Some suburban communities don't have sidewalks. And in Chicago, children over the age of 12 must ride in the bike lane or the street as close as reasonably possible to the curb, which is also where all the shattered glass, food wrappers and other debris end up.

Park trails and empty parking lots can be good places for young bike riders, but you have to get there. And the streets are simply too dangerous for young children.

That leaves bike lanes, which give bike riders their own precious space and a sense that they really do belong. Chicago currently has 117 miles of on-street bike lanes, including the newly opened "protected lane" on Kinzie Street, which uses plastic posts and a parking lane to physically separate cyclists from cars.

But while bike lanes are thought to increase visibility and safety, they often leave riders with a false sense of security. Most bike lanes were installed after the streets were planned. They're poorly positioned between the parking curb and the traffic lanes; to avoid getting nailed by a door, it's best to ride 3 to 5 feet away from the parked car. That can put you or your child back in traffic.

When you ride in a bike lane, it almost inevitably ends abruptly. They're also frequently blocked by delivery trucks, pedestrians, dog walkers and in-line skaters.

Moreover, some people — including my husband — think inexperienced, impulsive 6-year-olds have no business riding in the road next to 6,000-pound SUVs, even if they're in a bike lane and bikes aren't allowed on the adjacent sidewalks. Six-year-olds aren't looking for brake lights, moving silhouettes or other cues that a car has just parked. They can't judge speed. And mine, at least, thinks he's invincible.

Part of the confusion over a cyclist's rightful place stems from a desire to have it both ways: Bike riders are legally entitled to use the road. But we clearly aren't automobiles and, as a result, often don't feel the need to obey all the same laws as cars.

For example, we often roll through four-way stop signs — a huge source of conflict between cars and bikes — because biking is all about momentum. It's more efficient to treat the stop sign as a yield by slowing and checking the intersection than it is to come to a dead stop, especially if no cars are around. And let's face it: Biking would be too frustrating if you had to stop at every block.

But even if all cyclists followed the rules of the road, "being more careful" only goes so far. The real problem isn't that car drivers overlook bike riders. It's that they aren't looking for cyclists in the first place, whether they're on the sidewalk, the bike lane or the road.

This phenomenon, known as "inattentional blindness," was documented in the astonishing "Invisible Gorilla" study by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.

In the famous study, which is frequently cited by bike safety groups, the researchers showed volunteers a video of people passing a basketball and asked the viewers to count the number of passes. At some point, a student wearing a gorilla suit walks onto the video screen, thumps his chest and leaves. The gorilla is visible for 9 seconds. But only half the volunteers saw it, showing just how much we can miss if we're not looking for it.

The solution, Simons told me, is not to keep people off bikes. Instead, to make the streets safer, we need to get more cyclists on the road so that drivers are expecting us.

So for now, at least, I will be riding in the bike lane or in the road where I belong, always assuming that I am invisible and that every driver is drunk, blind, texting or asleep. When my son is with me, we will ride wherever it seems safest — on the sidewalk or in the bike lane — or we will get off our bikes and walk.

Whenever he's on that bike, I'm nervous, stressed and frequently yelling, "Stay to the right!" But at least he has one lesson under his belt. Perhaps the car's driver learned something, too.