As Chicago police ramp up their ticketing of bicyclists, more than twice as many citations are being written in African-American communities than in white or Latino areas, a Tribune review of police statistics has found.
The top 10 community areas for bike tickets from 2008 to Sept. 22, 2016, include seven that are majority African-American and three that are majority Latino. From the areas with the most tickets written to the least, they are Austin, North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, South Lawndale, Chicago Lawn, West Englewood, Roseland, West Garfield Park, New City and South Chicago.
Not a single majority-white area ranked in the top 10, despite biking’s popularity in white areas such as West Town and Lincoln Park.
African-American cyclist Patric McCoy, 70, said he’s experienced the heightened enforcement firsthand.
McCoy had just left his Kenwood condo on a frigid January evening to go to dinner when he was stopped by two Chicago police officers in an unmarked car. The white officers told McCoy repeatedly that he could be ticketed for riding on the sidewalk and even arrested, and McCoy said he waited in the cold while they ran his driver’s license to check for warrants. Eventually, they let him go without a ticket.
McCoy, who said he was only on the sidewalk in front of his own building and a neighboring building and already off the bike when he was stopped, supports enforcing the rules but said it cannot be “arbitrary and capricious.”
“It’s so unfair,” said McCoy, a retired Environmental Protection Agency enforcement official. “It creates a situation where you get a dislike for the police because they’re not doing what they should be doing. They’re messing with you for nothing.”
Police say the citations are in the interests of public safety. African-American bike advocates say the higher number of tickets in some South and West side areas could be caused in part by the lack of bike infrastructure like protected bike lanes, leading cyclists to take to the sidewalk to avoid traffic on busy streets.
But some bike advocates and an elected official expressed concern that police may be unfairly targeting cyclists in black communities while going easier on law-breaking cyclists in white areas. Blacks, Latinos and whites each make up about a third of the city’s residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The differences in enforcement were stark — for example, between Jan. 1 and Sept. 22 of last year, 321 bike tickets were issued in the majority African-American, low-income area of Austin, compared with five in white, wealthy Lincoln Park. Austin, on the West Side, also ranked high for citations issued to motorists parking or standing in bike lanes, with 309 tickets in 2015, compared with 30 in Lincoln Park on the North Side, according to city Department of Finance figures, which keeps parking records.
Enforcement for bike citations has shot up citywide in recent years — from 468 total tickets in 2010 to 3,301 in 2015, or about seven times higher. In the majority black area of North Lawndale — the increase was 23 times higher, from 8 to 185. The increase comes as the city encouraged biking, by providing more bike lanes and more Divvy rideshare stations, including in lower-income neighborhoods.
The most common cyclist citation citywide was riding on the sidewalk, which is not permitted for riders 12 and older.
“I don’t know what possible rational explanation there could be for the police to write more bike infraction tickets in neighborhoods that have less — less money, less businesses, less bicycle infrastructure than in other communities,” said Brendan Kevenides, a lawyer who specializes in bike cases. He referred to the issue as “biking while black.”
“There is definitely a perception in these neighborhoods that there are better things for the police to be doing,” said Chris Willard, owner of Small Shop Cycles & Service in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood in the Douglas community area.
Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police are concerned with the safety of all Chicagoans.
“Where bicyclist and vehicular safety has been an issue of concern, officers have been working with the community to enforce applicable traffic and safety laws,” Guglielmi said.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, a former police sergeant whose ward includes part of Austin, said he has never gotten a complaint about people bicycling on the sidewalk.
“I find that to be incredible, to have such a disparity like that,” Taliaferro said. He wondered how many cyclists were stopped but not ticketed in Lincoln Park, compared with those stopped and ticketed in Austin.
Stops and bike lanes
A bike ticket is an administrative, not a criminal, violation and carries a fine that generally ranges from $50 to $200, to be determined by an administrative judge, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey. But it also can offer a reason for a stop, which could allow police to check warrants and possibly lead to an arrest. The Police Department said it did not have records on whether any arrests followed stops for bike citations.
Dan Black, project coordinator with Slow Roll Chicago, which promotes biking in African-American and Latino communities, said he believes that some bike stops are meant to target something else. “They are stopping this individual in the hope they’ll get something else, a bigger thing,” Black said.
Juanita Rutues, of the South Austin Coalition Community Council, who like Taliaferro said she has never heard residents complain about cyclists on sidewalks, speculated that police may be targeting drug dealers on bikes.
It also is possible that since there is a greater police presence in high crime areas, there are more opportunities for police to observe unlawful biking and give out tickets, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Black said the South and West sides of Chicago do not have as robust a biking culture as the North Side, and some education is needed on how to properly use the road. Taliaferro said he plans to distribute bike rules and safety information in his ward.
“It requires education, it requires partnerships, it requires being there to show people how to use that space,” Black said. He said that on Slow Roll group rides he has spotted cyclists illegally riding against traffic and warned them that they could be stopped.
“I said, ‘Hey, you know that’s probable cause,’ ” Black recalled saying to one cyclist, who immediately turned his bike around and joined the Slow Roll ride.
Cycling advocates say one reason more cyclists in minority neighborhoods ride on the sidewalk is because they don’t feel safe.
“In my area, we have absolutely no bike lanes,” said Deloris Lucas, 61, of the Riverdale neighborhood on the Far South Side. She represents the South Side on the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, which meets quarterly to discuss a range of bicycle issues. “You take a risk riding anywhere.”
A Tribune analysis found that protected bike lanes — those set off by barriers or extra road space for greater safety — are missing from many African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Some residents have resisted lanes for fear they will limit parking, cause traffic jams or speed gentrification.
Peter Taylor said that he and other cycling advocates have been pushing the city to put bike lanes on big arterials like 79th Street as well as Cottage Grove and Stony Island avenues. Two cyclists were killed on Stony Island in 2015.
“You’d think someplace like Stony Island would be wide enough for people to ride their bikes, but cars go so fast it’s extremely dangerous,” Taylor said.
He noted that low-income people often bike for economic reasons.
“They have no better way to get around,” Taylor said. “You can go to any strip mall, and you find two or three bicycles chained up behind every business. For people working minimum wage, that’s how they need to get to work.”
Todd Rucker, 55, said he bikes daily to his job as a custodian at a day care center in the Far South Side’s Washington Heights area. He mostly bikes on the street but takes the sidewalk along 95th Street during rush hour. He said he would use a bike lane if there was one, but until then, a ticket would not deter him from riding on the sidewalk if he felt it was necessary.
“I try to be careful,” said Rucker, adding that he stops if he sees pedestrians.
“I ride on the sidewalk because people will run you over,” said Dennis Williams, 56, of Austin. Austin does have bike paths — along Lake and Madison streets and Washington Boulevard — but when Williams was interviewed he had been riding on the sidewalk along unprotected Chicago Avenue.
McCoy said he supports ticketing cyclists for sidewalk-riding in areas where there are many pedestrians — he helped develop bike safety pamphlets in the 1980s as a member of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, now the Active Transportation Alliance. But he said when he was stopped by police, the sidewalk was empty.
‘Broken windows’ and Vision Zero
The issue of the higher number of bike tickets given in African-American and Latino areas also was noted in New York City by a 2014 City University of New York study and in Tampa by the U.S. Department of Justice, the latter following a 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation.
If reckless bike riding endangers pedestrians and creates a climate of fear, it could be seen as a problem falling under the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement, said Northeastern University’s Fox. This theory holds that ramshackle buildings, graffiti and other examples of disorder give the appearance that no one cares, and addressing these issues can help reduce criminal behavior.
However, the practice of targeting petty offenses has been criticized for leading to some fatal police encounters — such as the 2014 death of a New York man during his arrest on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.
In Tampa, the Department of Justice issued a report last year finding that though bike stops were intended to reduce problems in areas with high crime rates, the disproportionate citing of black cyclists was perceived as harassment, even if it wasn’t. The report also found that the stops did not reduce crime.
The Justice Department issued a report last year calling for reforms in the Chicago Police Department, which among other issues identified the department’s failure to address racially discriminatory conduct by officers.
How enforcement can improve bike, motorist and pedestrian safety is among the issues that must be addressed in the city’s “Vision Zero” plan, a blueprint for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries.
Vision Zero is an idea that began in Sweden and has been rolled out in other cities. Working with multiple agencies including police, transportation and public health, the city is expected to release its three-year “action plan” by the end of March.
The city’s transportation department said it plans to target resources in 14 communities disproportionately affected by severe crashes — Austin, Belmont Cragin, West and East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, West Town, Near West Side, Near North Side, the Loop, West Englewood, Englewood, Washington Park and Grand Boulevard. These communities represent 20 percent of Chicago’s geographic area and 25 percent of its population, but 36 percent of severe crashes.
Transportation department deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton has said the city wants to be careful not to create a situation where enforcement is considered “inequitable and punitive” in low-income areas.
Ahead of the Vision Zero plan, the city said it is increasing enforcement against parking in bike lanes.
The Active Transportation Alliance, which advocates for cyclists and pedestrians, believes enforcement is an important tool for traffic safety, said campaign director Jim Merrell. But it needs to be employed strategically in areas that see the worst crashes, and not used to harass people, Merrell said.
“It needs to be data-driven and targeting the kind of behavior that does the most harm,” Merrell said. “(The Tribune’s) findings raise questions as to whether that’s been the case. … It’s a huge equity issue.”
The Tribune’s Kyle Bentle contributed.
ABOUT THE ANALYSIS
Police-issued bike citation data are from the Chicago Police Department, and parking citation data are from the Chicago Department of Finance. The addresses provided to the Tribune often did not contain a street type (street, avenue, boulevard, etc.). For citations where there is both a street and place (for example 71st Street and 71st Place) the address was plotted on the street. Bike citation data were generalized to the block level. Those citations were mapped to the center of the block. If the mapping software failed to locate the address, the citation was discarded, which amounted to fewer than 3 percent of all citations not being shown.