Proposal to stop bike lane blocking would increase towing, add new signs

On June 9, 3-year-old Lily Grace Shambrook was riding in a carrier attached to her mother’s bike when she was struck and killed by a semi. Ald. Andre Vasquez believes the accident would have been prevented by his proposal to step up towing of vehicles blocking bike lanes.

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A proposed ordinance aims to crack down on vehicles obstructing bicycle lanes — like these two vehicles in the 800 block of Milwaukee Avenue on Tuesday.

A proposed ordinance aims to crack down on vehicles obstructing bicycle lanes — like these two vehicles in the 800 block of Milwaukee Avenue on Tuesday.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

A North Side alderperson wants to crack down on bike lane obstructions — with sign requirements and stepped-up towing — to prevent a repeat of the tragic accident that killed 3-year-old Lily Grace Shambrook.

On June 9, the toddler was riding in a carrier attached to her mother’s bike when she was struck and killed by a semi-truck driver. Her mother was maneuvering around a ComEd truck that was blocking the bike lane.

The traffic accident — one of three fatal incidents in recent weeks involving children struck and killed on Chicago streets — occurred on a busy Uptown block that had triggered a barrage of complaints from local residents.

Lily’s mother came upon the ComEd truck as she rode down Leland Avenue approaching Winthrop Avenue. She was riding behind her husband, who was also on a bicycle.

As Lily’s mom tried to go around the truck, she was close to a semi stopped at the intersection. When the semi started moving, the mom was knocked off-balance. Lily was thrown off the bike and under the wheels of the semi.

Neighboring Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) believes the tragedy could have been avoided with stepped up towing and signage requirements.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Vasquez plans to introduce an ordinance requiring just that.

It would empower employees of the city’s Department of Finance to ticket, tow and impound vehicles driving, standing or parking in bike lanes.

Those powers are seldom enforced because the process is “too unwieldy,” Vasquez said.

“Imagine if I had to call a district commander to call a cop to go check it out, then file a ticket to get to Streets and Sanitation. Then, somebody from Streets and Sanitation has to identify a vehicle to go tow it. No one’s doing all that,” Vasquez said.

If the process is streamlined, Vasquez said, “You’d have a period where tows would go up. And then, people would learn not to block the bike lane.”

Arguing that bike lane intrusion is dangerously commonplace, Vasquez said: “Cars just don’t care. They’re parking there, waiting there, double-parking there. Even when we had the Department of Finance ticket ’em, they weren’t moving. By giving the Department of Finance the ability to tow ’em, it would incentivize people not to do it so they don’t get their cars towed.”

Whenever a permit issued by the city for work in the public way results in the closure of a bike lane, the ordinance would require that signs be posted at least 24 hours in advance — on both sides of the street facing approaching bicycle traffic — “warning bicycles of the lane closure and warning vehicles of the need to yield to bicyclists.”

The permit holder would be responsible for “maintaining the signs for the duration of the closure unless the city waives the requirement “in the case of a bonafide emergency.” Fines would range from $500 to $1,000 for each offense.

A bicyclist rides by a memorial at North Winthrop and West Leland avenues, where 3-year-old Lily Grace Shambrook was killed in the Uptown neighborhood earlier this month.

A bicyclist rides by a memorial at North Winthrop and West Leland avenues, where 3-year-old Lily Grace Shambrook was killed in the Uptown neighborhood earlier this month.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Had that ordinance been in effect, Vasquez said, he is firmly convinced Lily Grace Shambrook would be alive today.

“The reason that [Lily’s mom] swerved was because there was a ComEd truck in a bike lane. With this ordinance, the ComEd truck would have had to have the proper permits and then would have had to put signage up on that whole block,” the alderperson said.

“So that mother would have seen it as soon as she hit the block. Not when she got closer to the vehicle.”

Kyle Whitehead, a spokesperson for the Active Transportation Alliance, said the ultimate answer to stopping the epidemic of bike lane blockages is to create “protected bike lanes” with concrete barriers that make it “not physically possible for cars and trucks to block the lanes.”

“But until we can build that infrastructure where it’s needed, the city should be doing what they can to keep the bike lanes clear. And this ordinance would strengthen that,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead said there are “lots of reports of construction permits and activity on and off streets” that impact bike lanes.

“These permitted contractors were not necessarily aware of the impact of staging their equipment in the bike lane, what impact it has and what is required of them to make sure they are providing a clear path for people biking,” Whitehead said.

“This ordinance brings more clarity to what is required of the contractor if their work is going to impact bike lanes.”

Tim Shambrook, Lily’s father, has told the Sun-Times he was angry and frustrated that the city doesn’t do more to make its streets safer for bicyclists.

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