Bikes vs. Cars

We know who wins the battle – physically and generally as a matter of policy throughout the U.S.

I hesitate wading into this as it is not normally my area of expertise. Caveat: my professional focus is public transportation. And yet, I feel the need to weigh in because there has been some very good writing done recently on bike laws and infrastructure and I have my own recent personal and professional experience to bear.

I’ll start off by saying that I am an occasional bike rider who commutes mostly to work, to pick up the kids from school and other local trips. I also live in Chicago – a city known for its traffic as well as its aggressive expansion of bike infrastructure recently.

My neighborhood, Jefferson Park, has been in the middle of a fairly dramatic fight over a complete streets proposal for Milwaukee Avenue, one of the major road arteries through Chicago’s northwest side. Ostensibly, the proposal follows the City of Chicago’s Complete Streets guidelines which state clearly that:

The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, freight, and motor vehicle drivers shall be accommodated and balanced in all types of transportation and development projects and through all phases of a project so that even the most vulnerable – children, elderly, and persons with disabilities – can travel safely within the public right-of-way.

To adhere to this policy a pedestrian-first modal hierarchy of road users has been developed in which “all transportation projects and programs, from scoping to maintenance, will favor pedestrians first, then transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles.”

So why am I focused on the bottom two modes in the hierarchy? Because this is where much of the fighting over street use takes place.

In Jefferson Park, the complete streets proposal is to reallocate space on a 5-lane arterial road which sees annual average daily traffic counts between 15,000 and 19,000 vehicles. One potential idea is to reallocate space from this:




to this:



Of course, the road diet cross-section does not show blocks where parallel parking will still be allowed nor does it show the potential for street bump-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, transit lanes, and other features of complete streets, all of which are being examined.

So you might imagine the public anger that has erupted from seeing such a proposal. Because traffic actually moves well (really!) in this corridor, people don’t want to change its existing conditions – which also include gross violations (due to engineering design) of the speed limit, typically in excess of 1.5 times the posted 30 MPH limit or the fact that there have been 1,000 vehicle crashes in this mile long corridor over the past 5 (five!) years alone. Clearly the road is working well. So the road diet brings the accusation that the City will “take” space for cars and “give” it to bicycles (which have an existing painted 5-foot lane). This is what is truly unacceptable to many people (drivers) because roads are for cars, right?

Which brings me back to the fight over street space and bicycle use of that space. recently wrote about why cyclists should legally be allowed to roll through stop signs and red lights (which is illegal in Illinois as in many other states but also which is commonly ignored by both police and bicyclists). I won’t get into the physics about why bicyclists do this only to note that it pisses car drivers off to no end who want to see enforcement of the law (like speed enforcement, right). But, as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, who has provided me with significant insights on urban planning, has stated:

Stop signs weren’t designed for cyclists. In fact, very little of our built environment was designed with cyclists in mind. What we have done – as I pointed out way back with the video on the diverging diamond – is developed a tolerance for cyclists, and that only with some heroic effort. Engineers now generally accept cyclists and have even created checklists to help us accommodate them – at least the skilled ones – at a minimal level in our current transportation system. Tolerating cyclists, and sometimes even attempting to accommodate them, is a far cry from designing systems based on their needs.

We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people. It is people that create value. It is people that build wealth. It is in prioritizing their needs – whether on foot, on a bike or in a wheelchair – that we will begin to change the financial health of our cities and truly make them strong towns.

So my response to my neighbors in Jefferson Park is that as long as we continue to design Milwaukee Avenue for the benefit of drivers, our community will always lose. We will not get the economic development we seek, for who wants to walk down a 5-lane arterial road with cars blasting through at 45 MPH? And our bicyclists, along with our pedestrians and transit riders will lose.


  1. says

    I lived in Chicago for many years and in my opinion anyone riding a bike down Milwaukee is risking life and limb. That can be said for most of the street, big or small, in Chicago. Even the lake front is a danger zone for bikes and their riders. Chicago like to think, from a governmental point of view, that turning the city into a bike friendly one is good for all; it’s not. At least not until bike riders understand and obey the rules of the road. Until that point a feud will exist because quite frankly bike riders do not see the road as a place where rules and etiquette apply to them; only cars and motorized vehicles.

    That said I know Milwaukee to be a huge street of massive importance for Chicago commuters. To reduce any street in Chicago at this point in time seems ludicrous to me since to travel from Lincoln Park to Bucktown can take easily 1/2 an hour and it’s only 3 miles. Then there is summer when all the road construction starts. Cars are backed up, frustration is everywhere, traffic is jammed; it’s a nightmare. Reducing the width of any street in Chicago to accommodate bikes is a BAD idea.

    • says

      Tim, you’re right in that there are definite risks involved in urban bicycling. The key is to mitigate those risks and that’s where bike lanes, protected bike lanes, and the like come in. The Lakefront Path itself is a victim of its own success: too many varied users – bicyclists, walkers, and runners. It essentially is over capacity.

      My point is precisely about the rules of the road, however. Those rules created for cars – designed for places where autos are the number one priority. Given the City of Chicago’s policy shift towards favoring pedestrian and bike modes over cars, motor vehicle rules ought to change as well.

      The problem in a city like Chicago is that you can’t really build more capacity in an environment largely built out before cars were in mass use. Land costs are too high and most people don’t want their city bulldozed for more auto capacity. Therefore, you need to find the way for existing streets to handle people more efficiently. And cars are by far the most inefficient way to get around a city.

      • says

        I agree that a city like Chicago needs to be more efficient as build out is impossible. That said though, efficiency will not come at the expense of reduced auto capacity. To be honest I have no idea what the answer would be in a city like Chicago…maybe bikes lanes alongside the El so you can ride over the top of the city.

  2. Paul Graham says

    Ryan, I haven’t studied Bikes vs Cars to any great extent and only know Chicago as a visitor,but enjoyed your observations. I don’t find the economic argument persuasive as economic activity is less created than diverted in this scenario. That said, over the long haul we will need a way to accommodate more riders for a number of other reasons that ARE persuasive.. Planners are caught in a difficult situation as they will be criticized for acting before the majority want it, yet vilified for having failed to act when society sees the need.

    • says

      Paul, thanks for reading. I’m not entirely sure what you mean when you say that economic activity is diverted under this scenario. I do agree that our streets need to accommodate more people in the existing space. In a city like Chicago we can’t just bulldoze neighborhoods to make streets wider (incidentally, we actually did this on a number of streets in the 1920s!). As a planner I definitely see cases where we need to put the cart before the horse – but that is what planning is all about – anticipating for the future. Right now, trends show more people moving into cities again while infrastructure costs continue to climb. We need to balance this. That will be this generation’s challenge, I suppose.

  3. Carl Hedinger says

    I’ve really admired some of the things being done in countries outside the U.S. After seeing these things and asking friends involved in infrastructural jobs, the answer has always been that the development would cost too much. But really, does it cost too much? I feel that our local and federal governments are letting our future down by worrying too much about up front costs. Surely, other things CAN be cut to make room for spending on our infrastructure. Great post!

  4. says

    I think the answer to your problem is for city planners to go check the bike/car situation in Europe. I’m originally from Holland were bikes and cars have co-existed for years and the same is true for many other European countries. Maybe that’s where they should start – studying systems that are now in place.

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