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EDITORIAL: When a bike rider is killed on Halsted Street

Video by Rahul Parikh

Hannah Strong was riding her bike through the intersection of Halsted and Madison less than an hour after another bike rider had been hit by a truck.

Strong, who lives in Bridgeport and was on her way to work, stopped and asked a police officer if the rider was OK. The officer could only say that a woman had been taken to the hospital.

But Strong saw the mangled bike lying on the street, police lights flashing off the chrome. She knew there was no way the rider was OK.

EDITORIAL

“I think about it every day,” Strong told us on Friday, stopping to talk before riding through the intersection again. “You really have to fight for space with cars.”

Chicago is not a bicycle-friendly city, whatever City Hall might say. Not yet and not enough.

Not as long as there are dangerously chaotic intersections like Halsted and Madison, where the sprawl of a building under construction can shove a bike rider, without warning, into the middle of a busy street or up against a concrete wall.

Video by Julia Dourgarian

“There’s no safe bike lanes, there’s no express lane, and there are a lot of blind spots, so if a car is taking a right, you really have to get in front of the car,” Strong said. “You’re dodging obstacles.”

On Aug. 9, an experienced bike rider, Angela Park, 39, was killed at the intersection. This was the accident that Strong had asked the officer about.

Park was cycling north on Halsted, next to a construction site that bulged into the street, when she was hit and killed by a dump truck making a right turn onto Madison.

A week later, on Aug. 16, another bike rider was hit by a vehicle at the same intersection. Fortunately, the rider was not injured.

In the last year, according to CBS 2 News, there have been 28 reported vehicle crashes within 100 feet of the construction site, which is on the southeast corner of Halsted and Madison. This compares to just 10 crashes in 2016, and 12 in 2015.

It doesn’t take a professional traffic engineer to see the problem. Just hang out on that corner, in the heart of the booming West Loop, for a couple of hours.

The intersection is jammed with traffic much of the day. Buses jostle for position with cement trucks and 18-wheelers. Pedestrians dart around cars stuck in crosswalks. Bike riders squeeze alongside a temporary construction-site wall intended to protect pedestrians.

“Any time there’s construction, the bike lane disappears,” Louis Reynoso, another bike rider on Halsted, told us on Friday. “You have to take a lane or get pushed into the cement wall.”

If you are a bike rider approaching the intersection from the south, nothing gives you fair warning of what’s ahead — no signs, no suggested detours, no traffic cops. South of Monroe Street, a white bike lane symbol is painted on the street, like an invitation. North of Monroe, the whole lane disappears, swallowed up by parked cars and the construction site.

Adding to the confusion, a second temporary pedestrian walkway bulges into Madison Street, wiping out a full lane. This means that any big truck making a right turn off Halsted onto Madison — such as the truck that collided with Park’s bike — faces a narrow and more difficult turn.

We can’t comment on the specifics of the accident in which Park died. The police and lawyers are investigating. We can say, as a general observation, however, that the intersection of Halsted and Madison is not sufficiently safe for bike riders. And it is by no means the only unsafe intersection.

“Every day,” the Active Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group for bike riders, “hears about” streets and intersections in Chicago not safe for riders, says Kyle Whitehead, a spokesman for the Alliance.

A bicycle rider on Halsted at Madison Street. A construction site on the left has crowded out a lane of Halsted to make way for a temporary pedestrian walkway. | Photo by Rahul Parikh / Sun-Times
A bicycle rider on Halsted at Madison Street. A construction site on the left has crowded out a lane of Halsted to make way for a temporary pedestrian walkway. | Photo by Rahul Parikh / Sun-Times

Too often, construction sites fail to comply with city rules requiring a certain minimum space for pedestrians and bike riders, Whitehead told us. It also may be, he said, that the city should put tighter restrictions on big trucks making right turns at busy corners.

Last year, the City Council, at the urging of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, passed an ordinance requiring city-contracted trucks to have side guards — a big panel between the front and rear wheels — to prevent bike riders from being caught beneath the wheels. The ordinance, modeled after ones in Boston and San Francisco, applies to large vehicles working on city construction contracts worth $2 million or more.

A better rule, which would require action by the state Legislature, would be that all trucks of a certain size and make — even those used on private construction projects — be required to have side panels. All such trucks also should be equipped with convex and crossover mirrors, which eliminate blind spots.

More immediately, though, the city could improve signage, letting bike riders know well in advance that their lane is about to end, or that a sprawling construction site is just ahead.

In the specific case of the intersection of Halsted and Madison, the city might consider banning valet parking spots on the east side of Halsted Street, south of the construction site, until the construction work is done. That would allow northbound bike riders to see the crunch ahead sooner.

And, if nothing else, post traffic cops until the last dump truck leaves that construction site.

“We’re prioritizing construction over people’s safety?” Strong asked. “I don’t know.”

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