This story was produced by the Illinois Answers Project, an investigations and solutions journalism news organization, and Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit newsroom focused on Chicago’s neighborhoods.
CHICAGO — An ordinance that aims to make Chicago streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists by ticketing drivers who block bike lanes, bus lanes and loading zones downtown is receiving a mixed response from cycling advocates.
The ordinance, which was introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a group of alderpeople earlier this month, is meant to “discourage drivers from illegally parking in places that put our most vulnerable users at risk: folks on bikes, folks walking, folks in wheelchairs,” transportation commissioner Gia Biagi said.
Under the measure, the city would install cameras on city vehicles and street poles in two pilot areas downtown to identify parking violators and mail them a ticket. The pilot areas are bounded by Lake Michigan and Ashland Avenue and North Avenue and Roosevelt Road.
The ordinance, which is likely headed to the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety next month for approval, covers just 1.5 miles of Milwaukee Avenue’s 11 miles, the city’s most dangerous cyclist route.
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A joint investigation by Block Club and Illinois Answers Project found that the Milwaukee Avenue bike lane has seen 50 reported cyclist crashes and three cyclist deaths since 2020.
Transportation spokeswoman Erica Schroeder said the city chose downtown as the pilot area because it has the “the highest concentration of people walking, biking, driving, and riding transit, and a significant amount of designated bus lanes.”
“By using new technology to enforce parking and standing violations — such as drivers parked in bikes and bus lanes, bus stops, and crosswalks — this ordinance aims to create safer streets and more efficient public transportation,” Schroeder said in an emailed statement.
“Initially limiting the size and scope of the program will allow the city to evaluate how this initiative can be implemented most effectively on a citywide scale.”
The ordinance was co-sponsored by Alds. Daniel La Spata (1st), Brian Hopkins (2nd), Gilbert Villegas (36th), Andre Vasquez (40th) Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Matt Martin (47th).
Some cycling advocates and proponents say the pilot program, even with it only applying to the downtown area, is a step in the right direction and will be expanded to other parts of the city if proven successful.
La Spata said the measure includes an “incredibly challenging” portion of Milwaukee Avenue between Kinzie Street and Chicago Avenue.
“I frequently see vehicles blocking the bike lane in that stretch, in part because they’re such wide bike lanes,” La Spata said. “There’s cars that see that kind of width and it almost feels like a protected parking lane for them.”
RELATED: Drivers Caught On Camera Blocking Bike Lanes Downtown Could Soon Be Ticketed
Jim Merrell, managing director of advocacy for the Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit cycling advocacy group, said the trial measure, even with its limited scope, will help the city determine what works.
Merrell noted that the Milwaukee Avenue stretch contained in the pilot area includes the congested area between Elston Avenue and Chicago Avenue where Lisa Kuivinen was killed in August 2018 by the driver of an 18-wheel flatbed truck while riding their bike in the bike lane.
Just south of that crash site, Sam Bell, 44, died in September after he was hit by a driver of a car in the bike lane.
“I think it is a good step forward, especially in the most dangerous places where we know these crashes are happening, to have a new way to protect the spaces and hold drivers accountable,” Merrell said.
According to the New York Post, New York City’s bus lane cameras issued about a million tickets to drivers for parking in the bus lane from 2019 through 2021. Bus mounted cameras issued another 108,000 tickets to offenders from October 2019 through November 2021.
The story said that 8 out of 10 drivers did not get caught committing a second bus lane violation after receiving a ticket.
In Chicago, the ticketing ordinance comes as the city experiences a surge in drivers killing cyclists and pedestrians. At least four children were killed in crashes last year alone.
The ordinance is just one approach to boosting safety on city streets, proponents said.
“For Chicago, this is a very new thing for us to do,” La Spata said. “We’re trying to all understand how this system functions with a limited geography, with the intention of expanding this geography as soon as we have good data and we have the opportunity.”
But not everyone agrees the ordinance should move forward as-is.
Christina Whitehouse, the founder of Bike Lane Uprising, said the measure is light on the details and its proponents failed to communicate with the cycling community prior to making the announcement.
The ordinance also doesn’t address pressing concerns for cyclists, such as dangerous construction zones and poor maintenance of city streets, Whitehouse said.
“It feels like the timing of it was reactive to the press conference for Lily Shambrook and the mayor not doing well at the polls,” Whitehouse said of Lightfoot, who is running for reelection. “Because there wasn’t any communication [around the ordinance], it doesn’t feel like it’s genuinely about safety. It feels like it’s about trying to get votes for reelection.”
Lily, 3, was killed last year while riding on the back of her mother’s bicycle in Uptown. Her mother was squeezed between an “illegally parked ComEd truck” in the bike lane and a Mondelēz semi-truck, they both fell and Lily was trapped underneath the truck. The 3-year-old died at the hospital.
Lily’s parents are suing the city, Commonwealth Edison, Penske and Mondelēz in their daughter’s death.
Courtney Cobbs, co-founder of Better Streets Chicago, said while enforcing the laws of driving “is a good thing to an extent,” the ordinance doesn’t do anything to improve shoddy bike lanes, which is the root cause of cyclists’ safety concerns.
Cobbs added that fines should be scaled to a driver’s income so low-income people aren’t disproportionately impacted by the law.
“If someones making $100,000, they’re going to see that ticket differently from someone who’s only making $20-30,000 a year,” Cobbs said.
“Some bike lanes aren’t always clear, so I’m concerned that someone who’s not making a lot of money and didn’t understand that this was a bike lane is going to receive a $250 fine. It goes back to the larger issue that bike lanes are not being designed well.”
After it’s reviewed by the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, the ordinance will go to the full City Council for final approval. If approved, the program will last for two years, proponents said.
Along with improving safety, the ordinance is designed to reduce congestion and speed up bus service, according to the ordinance. The fine amounts will be determined by what’s called a Traffic Compliance Administrator and could vary depending on the time of day.