Biking in Chicago: What you need to know to be safe!


elston bike lane

With the Bike Commuter Challenge beginning TOMORROW, moss is ready and raring to go.  The moss team ranges in dedication to the cycling gods.  We’ve got  Chris, who bikes a 36 mile round trip to work most nice days, and Matt, who regularly sets out in the rain for client meetings or errand runs on his wheels.  Della, on the other hand, has pretty much mothballed her college beater for the unsophisticated convenience of the Divvy system.

We all share a commitment to bike safety though.   If you’re just getting back on a bike in honor of this bike-to-work week, or if you haven’t done a lot of city biking … here are a few things you should keep in mind to keep yourself … and others … safe on the road.

BE CLEAR … Use your hand signals.

Bikes don’t come equipped with a set of turn indicators but we still have a responsibility to let the other bikes and cars around us know what we’re planning.  Its easy to signal turns using these hand signals.

Point of interest – you can signal a right turn with either hand.  The more intuitive gesture – point right with your right arm – might be clearer but you can also use left hand signal – make a right angle with your arm (point to the sky).  This alternate is a throwback to the early days of cars (long before mechanical turn lights) when a driver needed to be able to signal all their intentions with the left arm stuck out the open drivers’ side window!

hand signals

BE SEEN … Use lights and reflectors for safety.

Lights and reflectors are a good idea, even in daylight, and at night they are required by law and common sense.  Remember that the front light on your bike is less about seeing the road than being seen by other cars.  You should equip your bike with a front light (white) that can be seen from 500 feet ahead and a rear reflector or light (red) that has a visibility of at least 200 ft back.

If you’re going to be parking your bike on the street in Chicago, you’ll want a light that you can detach and take with you rather than leaving as a temptation to passers by.

Chris’s favorite light .. the Nite-rider Mininewt has a remote battery pack which gives it a high energy kick of brightness that makes it good for his vision and visibility!  The latest model has a USB charger (power up during the work day while you compute!) but Chris’s older model is five years old and still shining brightly.  Alternately, grab a little easy-on, easy-off LED model that you can toss in your pocket when you leave your bike locked on the street.

FOLLOW THE RULES OF THE ROAD … You’re operating a vehicle, so act like it.

This is good common sense (as well as the law).  If we want to share the road with cars and get their attention and respect, we need to play by the rules.  Bikes have the same rights (protections and rights-of-way) that  cars do wen we’re on the road and for that we’re expected to follow the same rules.  So don’t make illegal turns, ride the wrong way on one-way streets, or zip onto the sidewalk with your bike any more than you would when driving a car.  Just as you should expect cars to yield to you (although you’ll still want to be ready to stop or swerve if they don’t), bikes should yield to pedestrians as needed.

In Chicago it is illegal to bike on the sidewalk unless you’re under 12 years old.  Its also illegal to bike on Lake Shore Drive (except for the Bike the Drive weekend event).

If you need to get up on the sidewalk, hop off of your bike and be magically transformed into a pedestrian (SHAZAM!) and then obey the appropriate rules and social conventions for walkers.

TURN LEFT IN STYLE … Two different safe ways to cross traffic.

The Chicago Complete Streets safe cycling booklet (very informative and filled with the ugliest clip art since 1996) recommends two turning methods for crossing traffic in the city.

Turn Lane Turn: If you have enough time and space to manage it safely, signal your intentions and “take the lane” by joining the stream of car traffic, then go into the left turn lane to make your turn like a car would, using any left turn arrows and yielding to oncoming traffic as needed.

Box Turn: If you don’t have time or space to cross your lane of traffic to the left, stay right and cross the intersection next to (but not inside of) the pedestrian cross walk then turn your bike and wait with cross traffic for the light to change.  Its appropriate to set up your bike either behind the pedestrian cross walk (with waiting cars) or in front of  the walk in the area you just crossed through but don’t cut off or block pedestrians with your bike.

STAY OFF THE BEATEN PATH … Choose your route carefully.

The best way to get somewhere by car may not (probably isn’t) the best way to travel by bike.  The City of Chicago has over 200 miles of protected bike lanes in place – why not use them.  Seek out consistent bike routes and stick to them – knowing the road conditions can help you bike more defensively as you navigate the city.  Choosing the best routes with good bike lanes, wide streets, safe and clear intersections (and a minimum of potholes) can make every trip safer and more pleasant!

STAY ALERT … Be ready to think on your wheels.

Did you know that the Chicago Municipal Code prohibits using your phone while riding?   Exceptions are made for hands-free devices but, really, anything that is distracting you from the environment around you is taking your safety down a notch.  When you’re paying full attention to the road, you’re not just listening for a car horn but sensing possible movement coming up behind you, noticing cross traffic or pedestrians in your vicinity … in short, you’re keeping your mind on the road.

THINK AHEAD … Avoid accidents before they happen.

Check out this really thorough article on 10 types of bike crash and how to avoid them.  If you pull up to the right of a stopped car at a light make sure they see you (pull out in front of them and go immediately when the light changes) OR stay back until they’ve started moving to make sure they won’t turn right and cut you off.

Most particularly … watch out for the Door Prize.  One in five Chicago bike accidents is a “dooring” and even thought the door opener responsible is risking a $1000 fine it’s YOU who can pay the real cost if you get into one of these accidents.  Door crashes can occur in one of two ways:

Door Number One: you see a door open at the last minute, swerve left to avoid it and end up getting hit by a car coming up behind you.

Door Number Two: you don’t see the door open in time, crash right into it and fall over into traffic on your left, possibly getting run over and killed.

Either is potentially a killer but the second option is actually worse.  Both can be avoided by staying far left of parked cars.  While a new city biker’s instinct might be to stay as far right as possible to be clear of parallel car traffic you should actually do the opposite.  Sticking to the left side of the bike lane not only protects you from doorings – it makes you more visible to cross traffic at intersections – drivers glancing over to see if there is anyone else in the intersection will likely be looking at the middle of the driving lane for movement.  The closer you are to that area, the more likely you are to catch their eye.  Stay alert while riding beside parked cars – look at the seat back and side view mirror to see if there is a person in the driver seat.


PRO TIP: Watch the Wheel.   Here’s one Chris swears by: if you’re not sure if a car is starting to move, check the front tire rather than the front bumper.  Small movements will be obvious in a rotating tire that might not be clear as you move past other vehicles.  This is also a good way to see if cross traffic is slowing to a stop or likely to ignore you and roll right on through an intersection.

KEEP YOUR HEAD … Stay cool after an accident and get everyone’s information.

If you do get into a bike accident (we sure hope you don’t) make sure you handle it well.  Try do do all of the following:

Don’t try to brush yourself off and walk away from the scene – the adrenalin rush following an accident may mask any symptoms of injuries that will show up later in the day or week.

Do call the police.  An accident is an accident.  If you’re in a hit an run, you need to report the driver.  If everyone is present and accounted for you may need a police report to get properly compensated by insurance companies.

Do get the insurance info (or the license plate number) of the car involved.  Get names and addresses for any witnesses.  Get the name, badge number and police report number of the cop (who should be called to the scene of an accident).

Do protect your bike.  Check it for damage after a crash – even a “fender bender” with a car may bend spokes and misalign brake lines.  Make sure you know what the damage is before you let the driver leave.  If you have to leave your bike behind, make sure its locked up securely.

So there you have it, cats and kittens.  Strap on your helmet and get out there!  Its a beautiful day to bike in Chicago.  Tell us about your trip in the comments!