In 2016, Christina Whitehouse, then a master’s student at Northwestern University, was biking in the Loop when a commercial truck veered right, veering into the bike path and nearly crashed into her. The following year, after realizing how pervasive the problem of drivers not respecting lanes was, she launched the app Bike Lane Uprising. It allows cyclists to record location and submit photos of vehicles parked in bike lanes, which is illegal in Chicago. National data is sortable, allowing users to spot trends. Whitehouse provides the information to city officials and businesses employing drivers so they can identify problem areas and repeat offenders.
Still, it’s been a tough climb to improve bike safety in Chicago. In the first seven months of this year, there have been five cyclist deaths here. That’s above 10 in 2021, according to local transit website Streetsblog. In June, 3-year-old Lily Grace Shambrook was killed by a tractor-trailer while riding on the back of her mother’s bike in Uptown. A truck parked on a bike path forced her mother to maneuver into traffic, where the semi-trailer hit the bike. This and other recent incidents have led to renewed calls from cyclists for safer streets and more towing of vehicles blocking lanes. The Chicago Department of Transportation will install concrete barriers on all protected bike lanes by the end of 2023.
Bike Lane Uprising data is outsourced. Why take this route?
I come from the design world. And I come from the idea that the more you know about a problem, the more opportunities you have to solve it. How can we filter, sort, and visualize the issue in a way that gives you a quick idea of what’s going on? By creating this aggregate, we can show a more complete picture. We try to identify concrete opportunities to make things safe.
How exactly is the data used to make changes?
In the street, it becomes a bit of a psychology of the boost, that the cyclists no longer support it. When I started, a lot of cyclists said, “I didn’t even realize it wasn’t okay to park on the bike path. It was used for infrastructure, to identify places that have problems. [The Chicago Department of Transportation] has the guerrilla traffic study we did on DuSable Lake Shore Drive after Gerardo Marciales was killed there [in February]. Within a week, bollards were installed. Do I think we were the only reason? Probably not, but that’s another voice saying yes to infrastructure. You can look at the pictures [on the app] and see what the actual location looks like and how people park. We saw, with Lily’s death, that there was a driver of a ComEd vehicle illegally parked in a bike lane. [ComEd’s drivers] are repeat offenders of cycle lanes. But there are other companies that, when they find out, say, “We’re going to fix this. Some even attach performance measures to it.
Unfortunately, it often takes a death to create change. How would you rate our progress in improving infrastructure for safe cycling in Chicago?
It’s so incredibly slow, it’s stagnant. [Consider] the fact that our mayor is trying to introduce NASCAR and free gas cards, and that no one is using public transportation. Whenever you see a trendy neighborhood in quotes in any city, they always show cyclists. But for some reason, our mayor has taken a stand to just double down on showcasing car culture. It was reckless, and it was dangerous.
Are our problems here unique?
Parking in bike lanes seems to be quite common. Gravity is where it starts to separate, and driving habits, tone. I’ve traveled quite a bit across the country, and I get caught off guard when I go to other places, because it’s just cold. The drivers seem happier and they’re not trying to hit me on purpose. The situation here recently, the drivers are so incredibly aggressive, so incredibly reckless. There are a lot of people who say, “I rode bikes in Chicago for 10, 15, 20 years, and it was the worst I’ve ever been on.
How do we fix this?
Political will. You have city officials who fear they won’t get elected or re-elected if they take away street parking from someone. Unfortunately, we place conduct on this pedestal as if it were a God-given right. Some areas of Chicago do not have the same level of public transit access as more affluent neighborhoods. Instead of giving away gas cards and parking spaces, we should focus on building our public transport and bike lanes. Safe cycle paths are a way to provide access to opportunities at lower cost.
There seem to be more people demonstrating for safer streets for cyclists. You even literally sat down to block motorists parked in bike lanes.
You see this growing momentum – kind of uplifting, right? The cycling community is growing. We saw it during the pandemic, the bike exploded. With that, there are more people who have a vested interest in that. There are many people who are no longer going to sit idly by and allow their lives to be put in danger. There are so many different niches in the bike world: fixie kids, cargo bike mums, the Rapha team, commuters with milk crates. Cycling in general is very segregated. Chicago is very segregated. But what you see is that we are overlapping now. We create this group dynamic. This strengthens our political will and moves the needle.
What hope do you have right now for the city to become better for cyclists?
We just want safe spaces to cycle. Most of the time, cyclists do jujitsu to figure out how they are going to get somewhere based on safety. There will always be people trying to drive on the trail by the lake, and something has to be done about that. But for 90% of other problems, a good, secure and solid infrastructure can solve it. And the more we make cycling safer, the more people are going to cycle, and we’re going to have a culture change.