Bikes and the City

Accident 1, up close.

In January my car was banged up in a hit and run accident while parked on the street outside my building. Overnight someone hit the car parked in front of mine which in turn slammed into my car. Bummed but undeterred by the risks of street parking, I paid the insurance deductible and had the car repaired.

Three months later it was hit again while parked on the same street. This time the insurance company declared the car totaled. My car was just shy of being nine years old but only had 41,000 miles on it, which averages out to about 4,500 miles per year. Although, in recent years I suspect I drove about 3,000 per year. While driving so little, I justified having a car because it was paid for. But how can I justify having a car that I only drive to the market, the gym and to yoga and have a car payment? It’s not even about the money. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s ironic that the two places I drive to the most are for the purpose of exercise—each about one mile from home. I could easily walk or bicycle to both.

Accident 2. The end.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So two police reports and two insurance claims later, I decided to tuck away the insurance settlement and re-evaluate my carless situation in September. Until then I’m going to walk, bicycle and use public transit as my main modes of transportation, with an emphasis on bicycling more.

I didn’t have a car from 1998-2002 when I lived in the Lakeview neighborhood. It was easy not having a car. I could walk everywhere because everything was within a few blocks of my apartment. When I moved to Rogers Park, I found that was not the case. Desperate for four wheels, I purchased a car after one test drive. I remember my friend, Nancy, saying after the test drive, “Now you can go home and think about it.” In my head I already own the car. I needed four wheels. I didn’t even own a bike. I had a bike when I moved to Chicago in ’95 but didn’t ride it once. Not once. It stayed locked up for two years before I set it out in the alley for some lucky soul to find. Why? Fear of riding in an urban jungle. I know I’m not alone here. I have talked to others who are also fearful of riding on city streets.

In 2007 I gathered the courage to ride in the city, so I bought a bike. I had big plans. I would ride it to do errands and for exercise, and I would ride it a lot. I recall vividly my first ride. I slowly wound my way through Edgewater and Rogers Park on low-traffic streets. I was in heaven. I felt like a kid again. Then not long after that first ride, there was the door—that almost chopped off my head. As I bicycled by a parked semi-truck on a quiet neighborhood street, the truck’s door opened at eye level. I ducked just in time. In an effort of full disclosure, I was riding with a friend and gabbing away. I wasn’t paying attention like a responsible cyclist should. Ever since, I have only ridden my bike for pleasure and mostly on bike paths. But now I’m moving back to the streets. The fear of being “doored” is still on my mind, which is a good thing. It keeps me focused and alert.

Riding to work last summer on the lakefront path.

I have hopped on my bike a lot in the past few weeks since being carless. Bicycling is fun! It’s way more fun than driving a car. And, it counts as exercise too, so I can skip the gym. Recently after a late night yoga session, I had planned to ride my bike home. But since it was cold and late, I texted my boyfriend to ask for a ride. Wimpy, I know. Of course he would take me home but it meant I would have to wait. Not know for my patience, I instead jumped on “Zippy” and rode home. I was so happy the whole way and could have continued riding for miles.

I know there are others out there who fear riding in the city just like I did and I hope to inspire at least one person to give bike riding a try this Summer. I promise that if you give it a try, you will love it. And if you don’t, then you probably need a different bike. (I’m on my second bike since 2007 after realizing the first one was just too heavy.) As a new rider, the key is to start small and expand your boundaries as you feel comfortable on a bike you like. I have only had a bike in the city for four years. Every year I get a little more confident and a bit more courageous. I asked Lisa Ward*, who has been using a bicycle as her main mode of transportation in Chicago for four years despite her husband working for a car company and always having access to a brand new automobile, for some bicycling tips:

  • Bike defensively. Let your head be a swivel and be aware of your surroundings in all directions.
  • When you’re travelling past a bunch of parked cars, pay close attention to the driver’s side. Look for movement. If there’s someone sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car, it’s a good bet they are going to fling the door open and into your path, usually without looking.
  • Don’t be shy about using the entire bike lane. Cars are supposed to give cyclists three feet of space when passing a bicycle, per the new Chicago Bike Safety Ordinances (CBSO). See link below.
  • If you’re sitting at a red light and getting ready to go straight when the light turns green, resist the temptation to “get out of the way” of cars behind you who want to turn right on red. They may honk and tailgate, but stay put—you’re a vehicle like any other vehicle. If there was a car in front of them who was proceeding straight through the intersection, they’d have to wait—not to mention, it’s illegal for them to go around you to make a right turn, also per the new CBSO.

Sources of Information for Urban Cycling

Joyride: Read this for inspiration

Active Transportation Alliance (Chicago): Great site for tips and safety info

Traffic Skills 101: Online bicycling course

Chicago Bike Safety Ordinance (CBSO)

People for Bikes

Ride the City: Android App for bike routes

Bikenomics: Excellent series of articles on bicycling

*Lisa Ward is my friend, a fellow vegan who inspired me to go vegan, and committed to finding homes for homeless cats in Chicago. Please visit Feline Friends Chicago to learn how you can help homeless cats too. Feline Friends Chicago is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. You can help by making a tax-deductible donation, adopting a cat and/or providing a foster home. Cats are cool. Help them!

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6 Responses to Bikes and the City

  1. Cathy May 29, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    Great article and, as I don’t live in an “urban jungle” but just a small town, you have inspired me to ride my bike this summer as it has been collecting dust for a few years now. My small town of Petaluma, CA will be the better for one less car on the road.

    • vegan girl next door May 29, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

      And, Cathy, you will have a lot more fun!

  2. VegansRule! May 29, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    Oh my gosh, Vegan Girl Next Door, I read this and thought we must be leading parallel lives. Living in Wicker Park and parking on the street, about once a year I’d come home and find my car totally smashed up. It was like Demolition Derby on my street. I took the ‘L’ to work and only used the car for errands. One day I returned from work and couldn’t find my car at all. It was stolen. I found it a few days later a couple blocks away parked in an abandoned garage, stripped down. That’s when I called it quits on car ownership.

    • vegan girl next door May 30, 2011 at 10:29 am #

      I think car hit and runs and theft are much more prevalent in the city than I thought. Stinks! But, I’m beginning to think it was a blessing in disguise. I’m so much happier riding my bike and I’m doing that more. Plus, I see more nature riding my bike. Saturday morning I saw a deer in Rogers Park. I’m sure a car would have scared it off before I could spot it. And this morning I saw a yellow bird. Not sure what kind it was but it was unusual. It’s fun seeing the world from a different perspective. Thanks for commenting, VegansRule! :)

  3. veganactivist June 10, 2011 at 5:06 am #

    I bicycle-commuted for five years in a medium-sized urban area (Victoria, BC). Your advice to new cyclists is excellent. Even though cyclists SHOULD have the right-of-way in certain situations, one has to pay constant attention to scenarios that can lead to a crash. Drivers are predictable enough from a cyclist’s point of view. Many are impatient, many will cut off cyclists at 4-way stops, try to make right turns around them, sometimes force them onto the curb, or open a driver’s-side door into oncoming cyclist traffic. Deal with that reality, and as an urban cyclist you should be fine! Learn to watch drivers to see if they are looking at you.

    Some years before that, I got passed and then cut off by a car turning right. I ran right into the trunk of the car with my bike and was thrown to the ground. It happened on a street where cyclists have a history of fatal accidents, and an ambulance, a fire truck and police cars were blocking off the street within minutes. I didn’t break anything – except the bike – but it taught me to cycle defensively and try to predict the stupid things that drivers may do to put a cyclist’s life in danger.

    Despite all this, cycle-commuting was one of the nicest things in my life at the time. The fresh air in the morning, the sight of birds and other early-rising animals, the sunrise, the sweat and pulse and lung action, and the sweet synergy of bicycle + human, this was magnificent. And in the evenings, I could cycle off whatever frustration I may have accumulated at work, and come home in a new frame of mind.

    The only reason I’m not cycle-commuting right now is that I’m living in the countryside!

    Happy trails, and happy rides!

    • vegan girl next door June 10, 2011 at 5:22 am #

      I love seeing the animals in the early morning hours! Thanks for your advice, vegan activist.