Time to stop spinning wheels on punishment for rogue cyclists

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It's heartbreaking to see how the little bicycle people treat their benefactor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

He offers them kindness. Yet some of them respond with insolence and contempt for the law, running red lights, for example, without getting traffic tickets. For this outrage, they must pay, and pay dearly.

As many in the sustainable transportation movement know, the Rahmfather is a big supporter of bicyclists commuting into downtown. To make them happy, he's been putting Chicago's streets on a diet.

Good for bicyclists. Bad for automobilists.

He's squeezing out lanes of car traffic, installing new signs, buying untold gallons of expensive paint for the new bike lanes on Dearborn Street. Sure, there's less room for cars, and less room for drivers who actually pay the freight, but more room for the little bike people to ride to and fro.

So how do they repay him?

Well, some of them ride like barbarians, ignoring traffic signals, weaving across the lanes, hopping up onto the sidewalk while narrowly missing elderly pedestrians and innocent children. They drive the wrong way on one-way streets. They're completely above the law. You've seen it. I've seen it. They don't even get tickets.

It's bike anarchy, the neatly groomed little bike people with their cute spandex outfits and matching helmets and flashing red breast reflectors, and those grungy ones in their tattered jeans, looking like homeless bums on wheels, iPod earbuds in their hairy ears.

And if you dare ask them about their heedless ways, many offer only a two-word phrase, the second of which is "you."

(If you'd like to share your lawless little bike people stories, to chronicle their abuse of traffic laws in the hope of finally creating some equality between the bicyclists who pay nothing and the car drivers who pay so much, please send them to my friend Old School at wlee@tribune.com.)

Before the bicyclist lobby shrieks and gets its spandex shorts in a knot, let's say right here that there are many conscientious bicyclists who obey the traffic laws. They're the good little bike people. Unfortunately, my informal research suggests that the evil ones outnumber the good.

Every morning after Jake Hartford and I do our fill-in talk radio gig on WLS-AM 890, we stand for a few minutes on Lake and Dearborn to witness the bike anarchy. We think about making citizen's arrests, though we're far too dignified to give chase.

"I'm stunned, shocked and saddened at this wanton and disrespectful display," Jake said Wednesday as another bike hooligan whooshed through a red light on Lake, going the wrong way.

"To think of all the mayor has done for them, and this is the way they treat him?" Jake said. "It's an outrage!"

Just try taking your car up on the sidewalk in Chicago (forcing old ladies to jump out of the way) or speeding through a red light. Then see what happens. You'll get hit with tickets. And you'll be sad.

At the Tribune, we asked the Chicago Police Department and City Hall to tell us how many traffic tickets are issued each year to bicyclists. At first, it was the old story. Nobody knew a thing.

The police said they don't keep the records. City Hall said it thought the police were keeping the records. Finally a city official said that last summer, police stopped about 5,000 bicyclists for traffic violations during their special "Share the Road" traffic stops.

And how many tickets were issued?

Thirty-eight.

The rest were "warned."

"We do know that we do have an issue — whether it's people walking into intersections while they're on the phone, people on bikes running red lights and stop signs, or cars running lights — it's definitely a problem," city Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein (and big-time bicyclist supporter) said the other day on the radio program.

Yet here's the thing: Car drivers pay. Little bike people don't. And it's about time the bicyclists dig into the pockets of their skinny jeans and provide revenue like everybody else.

Chicago residents pay about $85 for a city vehicle sticker, more for a large car. The state license plate fee for cars is about $99. What do bicyclists pay? Nada. Tipota. Zilch. Nothing.

City traffic tickets cost car drivers $25 to $200 for each violation, while lawbreaking bicyclists generally pedal past the law scot-free. And now the city is taking out lanes of traffic to accommodate bike riders.

With all the uncollected fees, and all the unissued traffic tickets, the city is losing out on millions of dollars that should be flayed from the hides of those two-wheeled lawbreakers.

Attorney James M. Freeman, a good and careful bicyclist who represents riders struck by autos, says it's time bicyclists obey traffic laws.

"Let's have evenhanded enforcement," he said. "Bicyclists don't get pulled over for blowing red lights. I'm not saying let's lower the hammer on bicyclists, but let's hand out some tickets once in a while."

Not once in a while, Mr. Freeman. How about every single day and night, thousands and thousands of tickets, and state license and city sticker fees, too.

Increased enforcement is "good for everybody," Freeman said. "It's better for pedestrians. More than anything, it's irritating for motorists to see citizens violating the law. When I see it, it irritates me."

It irritates drivers who pay, compelled to watch free-riding bicyclists get political favors from City Hall, even as they disobey traffic laws.

But there is a way to soothe the irritation.

Bicyclists and drivers should be treated equally under the law. And that means the little bike people should pay up, like everybody else.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

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