A Thin Line

If Chicago is "the most bicycle friendly city in the United States", then why am I scared to death every time I bike to work? Is it me? Is my terror unfounded? Am I wrong to give my wife and daughter one last kiss goodbye before I brave the bike lane on Lawrence Avenue?

I never felt this way when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin.

Perhaps I was simply young and out-of-touch with my mortality back then, but I felt so comfortable riding in the bike lanes there—and I think that Madison's protected bike lanes had something to do with it. Next to the lane was a big, fat median, separating my flesh and blood from the cars' steel and glass.

Here in Chicago, bicyclists are protected by nothing more than a coat of paint: a thin, white line that separates the bike lane from car traffic. Quite frankly, I’d feel better if that paint were applied to me and my bicycle—at least then I would be more visible to drivers.

Protected bike lanes haven’t just been adopted by hippy-dippy college towns like Madison. In the last couple of years, I've seen similar lanes in New York, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Rome, and that bastion of progressive politics and enlightened urban planning: Indianapolis, Indiana. In Our Nation's Capital, I noticed an absurdly simple, and seemingly inexpensive, method of creating protected bike lanes: the District of Columbia places the bike lane between the parked cars and the curb, separated by a light barrier; so that the wall of parked cars gives the cyclist a sense of security.

I know what the experts say: it's a false sense of security. Their statistics show that accidents are more likely to happen in the intersection, beyond the barriers of the protected bike lanes. They say that these barriers can even increase the likelihood of an accident, by hiding a cyclist from the view of drivers.

But I contend that a sense of security—justified or not—goes a long way in encouraging people to use their bicycles. And the more people use their bicycles, the more visible their presence on the road, the more motorists become accustomed to sharing the road.

The City of Chicago does plan to build protected bike lanes—or at least it says so in its Bike 2015 Plan. But as 2015 is 4 years away now, they better hop to it. Until then, I will continue to ride my bike to work, so all of you motorists on Lawrence keep your eyes out for me. I'll be that physically-fit, carbon-neutral, nervous wreck on the other side of the thin, white line.

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