Taking it to the streets

By Meha Ahmad

They proudly dress in red or orange T-shirts that read “Safety in Motion”-and, of course, don helmets-to bring the word of bike education to Chicagoans.

These emissaries are Chicago’s own bike ambassadors.

The group, officially called Mayor Daley’s Bicycling Ambassadors, sets out to educate Chicagoans about the correct way to ride a bike in the city, increase trips made by bicycle and prevent related injuries. They also offer tips to increase bike safety.

On Aug. 19, ambassadors stood on Chicago’s streets at Milwaukee and Damen avenues and offered to attach free front headlights on riders’ bikes, lighting their way by saving bicyclists about $10 each.

Emily Willobee, the Ambassadors’ program director, said that though the group has independent events, they can usually be found at other functions.

“The way we target people is face-to-face,” Willobee said. “We piggy-back on

existing events throughout Chicago like the Taste of Chicago, cultural festivals and block parties.”

The ambassadors will be at the Boulevard Lakefront tour, performing pre-ride bike-fixing for the participants and general outreach and education on Sept. 7.

No matter what the event, the Ambassadors will do what they can to keep others safe. Their training, which takes place in the beginning of March, includes three weeks of hands-on, in-the-field training, safe urban riding and some bike mechanics training, Willobee said.

Ambassador Carlos Ginard began in April and said he has only good things to say about the Bicycling Ambassadors and calls it one of the best jobs he’s ever had.

“It gives me an opportunity to reach out to thousands of people who are getting started on bikes or even motorists who are frustrated with the amount of people riding their bikes today,” Ginard said.

Ginard and his fellow ambassadors love their job and try to get the word out on bike laws and the consequences of breaking them.

“In Chicago you can’t ride on the sidewalk unless you’re under 12 years of age,” Ginard said. “You can get a ticket of up to $250.”

Bicyclists stopped for violating stop signs can get a ticket for $25 and $50, he said.

But Ginard thinks the easiest rule to follow is wearing a helmet.

“The helmet is the cheapest life insurance policy you can ever buy,” he said.

But despite the increase in enforcing these laws, some bicyclists remain rebels.

Albert So, an employee at Cycle Bike Shop, 1465 S. Michigan Ave., said he used to wear safety equipment but doesn’t anymore.

“I don’t wear a helmet because there is no helmet law,” So said, insisting he’s still safe. “And if there was, I would say ‘Screw it.'”

While there is no existing law that forces riders to wear a helmet, 62 percent of bicycle-related fatalities are due to a head injury, according to a study by the CDC.

In Chicago, four bicyclists have died this year in bike-related collisions, but some riders don’t seem affected.

“I don’t usually stop at stop signs,” said Rayn Shua, a DePaul student who rides about three miles to the college’s Loop campus. “I look around to see if the coast is clear, though, to be on the safe side.”

Brian Bloomberg, on the other hand, is a Chicago rider who follows the letter of the law. Once a bike messenger, his bike has red reflectors on his back tire and white lights on the front of the bike. He always wears a helmet and sometimes even elbow pads. He said he rides a bike like he would drive a car.

“I definitely stop at intersections and stop signs,” Bloomberg said. “Because I just know that the day I decide not to stop, that’ll be the day I hit somebody or somebody hits me. For me, it just makes more sense to add a minute or two to the commute by stopping at the lights and signs and yielding and all that [rather] than rushing and maybe getting hurt.”

Bloomberg said he’s seen the Bike Ambassadors in the city and thinks they provide a good example.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of the everyday biker just not knowing,” he said. “And the Ambassadors are good about being friendly and polite about informing them.”

While the Bike Ambassadors’ mission is to educate Chicago on proper bike habits, motorists should watch out for the Ambassadors too. They remind drivers to watch where they park and want motorists to know that bike lanes are off limits and violators can be fined up to $100. According to state law, a car found parked in a bike lane can be towed, too. It’s become a particular problem on streets like Wells Street, ambassador Ginard said.

There is a need for more education for motorists as well as bike riders, Willobee said.

Even with the new enforcement of bike laws, riders aren’t deterred from the benefits of riding a bike.

“No [speeding] tickets, you get exercise, you get a sense of independence,” So said. “Plus, it takes a minimum amount of time to park your bike.”

Willobee said she thinks there are some basic tips that all riders should know but might not.

“Be visible and predictable so motorists can avoid you,” Willobee said. “You should ride your bike like you would drive your car.”

That includes following traffic lights and signs, signaling when turning, yielding to pedestrians and staying off sidewalks, Willobee said.