CHICAGO — As the city vows to make roads safer for cyclists amid an uptick in traffic fatalities, advocates are wondering why a driver was allowed to park in a busy bike lane for nearly a week without being towed away.
Earlier this month, the driver of a Toyota Highlander parked in a North Milwaukee Avenue bike lane near Kinzie Avenue — and stayed there for days. The situation forced bicyclists into car traffic as they avoided the SUV, endangering their lives.
Cyclist Cheryl Zalenski, a Northwest Sider who uses Milwaukee Avenue to commute to work in River North, reported the obstructed bike lane to the city Aug. 2. She thought it’d be gone by the next day.
The SUV was ticketed multiple times, and multiple cyclists called 911, 311 and area aldermen to report the blockage, they told Block Club. But it stayed put until it disappeared Aug. 6 — and a city spokesperson said it was not towed.
Zalenski said dispatchers she spoke to that week were mostly “professional,” though one dispatcher hung up “after making an annoyed sound” when Zalenski said she was calling about a car illegally parked in a marked bike lane.
“The city simply just doesn’t do anything about bike lanes being blocked,” said Christina Whitehouse, local cyclist and founder of cyclist advocacy group Bike Lane Uprising.
Whitehouse said Bike Lane Uprising received seven reports of the Toyota Highlander on Milwaukee Avenue from three sources between Aug. 2-6.
“How many city employees do you think have passed by that vehicle illegally parked in the bike lane in that many days? It’s probably a lot,” Whitehouse said.
Incidents like the SUV are “not unique,” Whitehouse said.
“This happens all over the city, every day,” she said.
‘Too Many Things’ To Enforce
The complaints come as some aldermen are calling for stiffer penalties for people who block bike lanes.
On June 9, 3-year-old Lily Shambrook was killed on her mother’s bike when a ComEd truck parked in an Uptown bike lane forced her mother into traffic.
After the crash, Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) proposed an ordinance to City Council that would allow the city to tow a car blocking “the free-flow of traffic on a street path or lane designated for the use of bicycles,” similar to how the city already tows cars that are blocking a fire hydrant.
The City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety will consider the ordinance at its next meeting in September.
The trouble is finding officials to enforce those kinds of rules, cycling advocates said.
Rony Islam, an organizer with local bike advocacy group Bike Grid Now, said he and other organizers took a shot at trying to get the SUV on Milwaukee Avenue towed.
Islam called Ald. Walter Burnett’s 27th Ward office, and a staffer told him they would report the car for towing, he said. Another organizer called 911 and was hung up on by a dispatcher.
Islam also called the 12th Police District, but the officer he spoke with said there was nothing they could do and instructed him to call an officer the next morning, Islam said.
That officer told Islam the district doesn’t have the resources to request a car be towed, though he’d ask if a bike unit could be sent, Islam said. Organizers were also told a driver blocking the bike lane is “extremely low priority” as the district — which is “short-staffed, and it’s only getting worse” — deals with other calls, Islam said.
“People can and have died from a result of blocked bike lanes, and the officer was understanding,” Islam said. “[But there are ] just too many things for them to enforce.”
Who Can Cyclists Turn To?
The Department of Transportation started work this week on adding concrete barriers to protected bike lanes and creating more concrete-protected lanes, which will make it more difficult — though not impossible — for drivers to obstruct the lanes.
Milwaukee Avenue between Kinzie and Ohio streets — one of the busiest stretches for cycling — is expected to be protected by the end of the year.
Until then, the city is urging cyclists to call 311 with blocked bike lane complaints. As of now, that does not appear to lead to a tow, just a ticket.
Drivers have hit and killed at least 20 pedestrians and five bicyclists this year, and the time to step up enforcement of driving infractions is now, Amy Rynell, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said earlier this summer.
“This is not the time to me to let people off the hook,” she said.
Zalenski said towing is more effective when a car is left in the lane for an extended period of time.
Erica Schroeder, a Chicago Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said ticketing and towing are handled separately.
“Parking enforcement is handled by the Department of Finance, which issues tickets” and “towing is conducted by the Department of Streets and Sanitation,” she said.
But Streets and Sanitation said the Police Department would be the agency arranging the tow in these situations.
Don Terry, a Police Department spokesman, said officers issued $300 in tickets to the SUV, but towing doesn’t automatically happen. City code says vehicles obstructing bike lanes “can be towed, but that’s not necessarily ‘has to be towed.'”
“It’s a discretionary decision, it’s not mandatory to tow it,” Terry said.
The new ordinance proposed by Vasquez and backed by other alderpeople would streamline process of clearing vehicles from the bike lane by giving the Department of Finance, which issues tickets to vehicles parked in the bike lane, the power to also tow those vehicles.
But for now, Chicago Police Sgt. Michael Malinowski urged cyclists to be as specific as possible when calling 311 — not 911 — to report an obstructing vehicle — and explicitly ask that it be towed.
“If it’s a commuter that’s using that bike lane every day, they should realistically explain, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve called multiple times it’s not moved, or it’s still here — can we get it moved?’ And that’s where the discretion within the law comes in,” Malinowski said. “If this thing has been here for so long and is really causing a nuisance to a number of people and they asked for it to be towed, if everything has been done the way that it should, it’s well within the frame of the law to then have that thing towed and that’s what would happen.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: