Cyclists constantly face danger on right side of road

By Eleanor Blick

Nearly 150 miles of bike lanes and shared routes, 12,000 bike racks, a beautiful lakefront path and bicycle-oriented legislation have helped propel Chicago’s long-standing reputation as a bicycle-friendly city. The League of American Bicyclists ranks Chicago as a silver-level city, and Chicago has consistently ranked in the top 10 of Bicycle Magazine’s annual list of America’s best biking cities. It garnered the top spot in 2001.

But, when I was hit by a bus while biking on Oct. 29, I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

These rankings and awards consider infrastructure, scenery and other tangible qualities more so than accident rates, perceived safety or the attitude of citizens who share the road.

The most dangerous situations often occur on the right side of the road where cyclists should be positioned. Car doors fly open and drivers turn right, crossing the bike lane without signaling or checking mirrors. Cyclists and buses have to co-exist while merging in and out of one another’s way.

The collision I was involved in occurred during morning rush hour on Milwaukee Avenue, a major route for bicycle commuters. While riding in the bike lane, a bus passed me in order to pull up to the next stop. It quickly merged to the right at a sharp angle, cutting me off. Although illegal, this happens to cyclists all the time.

The problem occurred because a semi-trailer was parked in a no-parking zone. The bus cut me off and there was nowhere to go—the bus’s back wheel hooked my handlebars and pushed me into the semi-trailer. If I were another foot or so forward I would have been pinched between two 12-ton vehicles.

Luckily, this all happened at a speed of about five miles an hour, and I came out unscathed. I quickly ran up to the bus door to tell the driver how I had been knocked over, with no intent to file an accident report. But the driver’s reaction shocked me, as well as the passengers.

The driver shouted at me and slammed the doors shut onto my shoulders. While I had one foot in and one foot out of the bus he attempted to pull away from the curb. Passengers screamed at the driver to stop.

At that point I changed my mind—I was calling the police. Other passengers helped me obtain the driver’s number, which he refused to give me. As the bus pulled off, a friend and fellow bike commuter passed and stopped. Shaking with anger, I explained what happened and we called the police.

Both police and Chicago Transit Authority officials came to the scene and I walked them through the accident, step by step, wanting to make the report as accurate as possible. I explained the altercation with the driver, and they quickly took the necessary steps to intercept the driver on his reverse route. He was promptly suspended, and I plan to follow through to make sure he is properly penalized.

The most disconcerting moment of the event was when the driver  yelled “I saw you, I saw you in the bike lane!” To think this driver thought I could or should stop on a dime is an ignorant and reckless perspective.  A cyclist barely has a chance against a mid-sized sedan, let alone a city bus.

Perhaps the driver was at his breaking point. Surely he has to maneuver around hundreds of cyclists every day, and many of them do not yield, signal or stop as they should. But I am not one of those cyclists. I had the right of way. I think no less of bus drivers since this incident, and I hope the driver thinks no less of cyclists.

But even if that is not the case, when is the penalty for a traffic violation death? This driver seemed to have no qualms about throwing me under the bus, quite literally.

Cyclists and pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users. It is every road user’s responsibility—drivers, cyclists and pedestrians—to put that vulnerability first and make safe decisions accordingly.

Please view the video the Chicago Bicycling Program released on how cyclists and buses should safely share the right lane: