DOWNTOWN — Little is being done to prevent motorists from striking cyclists on Chicago streets, bike advocates have said — so volunteers are taking matters into their own hands.
On April 21, about 20 cyclists and their supporters did a guerrilla-style traffic study at DuSable Lake Shore and East Balbo drives, near where a driver hit and killed bicyclist Gerardo Marciales in late February as he was going through a crosswalk. They hoped to document driver behavior on the busy street, raising awareness of the dangers pedestrians and bicyclists face.
What they said they saw: People running red lights and driving at pedestrians in the crosswalk, drivers threatening the volunteers and other concerning behavior.
Dubraska Diaz, Marciales’ sister, said in a tweet that she saw a driver use the same maneuver — going straight when in a turn lane, ignoring a red light — that led to her brother getting killed. When she complained, the driver swore at her, she wrote.
“I do not want other families to experience this tragedy,” Diaz wrote on Twitter.
It was not a scientific study, said Christina Whitehouse, founder of Bike Lane Uprising, a bicycle advocacy group that organized the study. But she asked volunteers to submit their photos and videos from the event so they can be aggregated to show what they saw and experienced. They’re reviewing the findings and plan to send them to officials so they can see the dangers pedestrians encounter and make change.
Tour guide Michael Perrino — who has gained a following as Segway Batman — volunteered during the study. He has also made a similar, individual effort, documenting traffic obstructions online at the same intersection.
“There’s always been problems here,” Perrino said. “I’ve always had my tourists stay further behind me at this particular intersection.”
The traffic violence at Balbo Drive appears to be getting worse, said Perrino, who estimates he’s crossed DuSable Lake Shore Drive at that spot more than 1,000 times in four years.
Just this year, Perrino has had five close calls where a driver almost hit him or one of his tourists near Balbo Drive. He’s changed his route and now crosses DuSable Lake Shore Drive at another point, he said.
An average of five to six bicyclists were killed every year 2012-2019 in Chicago. But nine bicyclists were killed in 2020 and 10 were killed in 2021, including 16-year-old Jose Velásquez.
This year, drivers have killed at least three bicyclists: Marciales was killed in late February. Paresh Dinesh Chhatrala died in late April after a driver hit him in the West Loop. And a driver hit and killed Nick Parlingayan as he rode on Milwaukee Avenue, the bike highway, last week.
Knowing the danger he faces riding his segway on a daily basis, Perrino sports full-body pads and a helmet equipped with a “BAN CARS” sticker on the back.
On the day of the guerrilla traffic study, Perrino counted 1,827 drivers entering the pedestrian crosswalk against a red light 1:50-7:15 pm.
But that particular issue is not new: A resident spoke to officials during a February 2018 Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting, warning them drivers on DuSable Lake Shore Drive were going through the red light and into the crosswalk near Jackson. The resident said it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt.
Just a few years later and only two blocks away, the driver who killed Marciales committed that traffic offense, police said.
Volunteers recorded hundreds of drivers committing the same traffic violation during their study, only a few months after Marciales was killed.
“It’s just complete do whatever you want,” Whitehouse said.
One volunteer, who said he has biked in Chicago since 1985, set up a camera on a tree near DuSable Lake Shore Drive and recorded drivers 1-4 p.m. The traffic violations near Balbo Drive are “far worse” than he imagined, he said.
“It’s depressing,” he said.
The city could make simple changes — like altering the length of the lights so drivers don’t pile up at the intersection and pedestrians get more time in the crosswalk — to protect people, he said.
Perrino said she thinks something more — ideally a bridge or tunnel — is needed to protect pedestrians. The intersection is near Buckingham Fountain and the southern end of Grant Park, popular areas for people to visit and walk around.
“This is our business district and our tourism district,” Perrino said. “A lot of people commute along the lakefront trail [or] they want to get from their hotel to the lakefront, and it is just so difficult to do so without risking your life.
“For the residents of the city, it’s incredibly frustrating to endure this every day.”
The traffic violations pose an even greater risk for tourists, Perrino said.
“They do not know what happens here — this is all new to them,” Perrino said. “They do not know what to expect, and that can make it even more dangerous for them to cross.”
Whitehouse plans to share their findings with the Chicago and Illinois departments of transportation. Her “hopes are high” the agencies will make a chance, she said, but she’s also trying to be cautious and realistic.
Bicycle advocates have taken safety matters into their own hands before: They have long lobbied the city to create safer biking infrastructure. In 2019, after a driver killed bicyclist Carla Aiello as she was in a bike lane with faded markings, they lined up and formed a human bike lane to protect other travelers. They donate their time and resources to create ghost bikes that memorialize bicyclists who have been killed and raise awareness of the need for pedestrian protections.
For the recent study, some volunteers took time off work to participate, Whitehouse said. The work it takes to “actually move the needle at all” is a full-time, unpaid job safe streets advocates are taking on to protect themselves and others, she said.
“I don’t know about traffic — that’s not my job,” said Alec Schweng, a volunteer who lives in Ravenswood. He works at Trader Joe’s. “I just want to get around safely.”
Earlier this month, Schweng was at the intersection to help prepare it for Marciales’ ghost bike when he saw a driver run a red light from the turn lane.
“It’s just bad design,” he said. “I don’t know what is a better design, but there’s gotta be something, because clearly this isn’t working.”
Whitehouse said she hopes to have results from the study finalized soon.
“We were literally painting Gerardo’s bike when the news of Paresh’s death was released,” Whitehouse said. “We can’t finish one person’s death before the next person.”
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