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Bike Laws in Chicago


Following up on Keith’s recent post on bike safety, I will stay on topic with something safety related. That something is Bike Laws. ‘Wait a minute, there are laws for biking?!’ you say? Yes, although it can seem like a complete free-for-all out there on the roads there are actual laws on the books that pertain to biking.


For obvious reasons I’m focusing on Chicago here. Hopefully the non-Chicagoan crowd will find it interesting too. Maybe you can compare with your local laws and share your thoughts with us. Do you have better laws? Are they actually enforced? Do you think they help? I guess those last two questions are for the Chicagoan’s as well.


Besides the more important aim of protecting the most vulnerable road users (bicyclists and pedestrians), these laws attempt to create a blueprint of appropriate behavior for motorists and bicyclists alike. We all have places to go and these laws are trying to help us get there as safely and efficiently as possible.



The idealist in me wishes we lived in a utopia filled with kind and considerate people who respected their fellow citizens regardless of their preferred mode of transport. A world where people follow the golden rule and common courtesy abounds, thus making these laws completely obsolete and unnecessary. Heck, maybe even bike lanes wouldn’t be necessary because we would all be so good about sharing the road with one another. Ok, back to reality Jon!


During a recent internet search nerding out on bike stuff I came across this list of Chicago bike laws and found it to be rather interesting. The optimist in me thought- these laws are great, they legitimize bikes and make a strong statement that we belong.


Almost every bicyclist has been there before. Riding along with a smile on your face enjoying your day and out of nowhere Grumpy Pants McGhee rolls down his/her car window to tell you to ‘get on the damn sidewalk (insert insult of choice)!’.


Feeling like you are accepted and belong is empowering and I think very helpful for those ‘on the fence’ ‘interested but concerned’ potential bicyclers to gain confidence knowing that they do in fact belong on the road.


My gut tells me there is a high probability these ‘bikes don’t belong’ motorists are also in the climate change denial crowd. My post here is not intended to convince these folks otherwise. They will learn bikes belong as our numbers continue to grow just the same they will learn climate change is real when they see more people swimming in Lake Michigan in early November.



I’m not just pointing fingers at motorists as the only ones who need to behave themselves. I’m also looking at you bicyclists and to some extent pedestrians, we have plenty of responsibility and culpability.


A handful of years ago I would argue the percentage of bad bikers is the same as the percentage of bad motorists and that the bad bicyclists just stick out more because we are all so used to bad motorists and these bad bicyclists are new on the scene.


I can’t make that argument any longer as the proportion of bad bikers seems to be skyrocketing especially in the past few years as popularity of biking has shot through the roof.


But, let’s be real, at the end of the day a vast majority of the shitty behavior exhibited with alarming regularity by bicyclists only puts them at risk. Very rarely does it physically, or even more rarely lethally, harm others.


This compares starkly with the consequences involved when motorists behave badly.


Bad bicyclists and bad motorists both are a huge nuisance when their bad behavior is on display. However, at their worst when a crash occurs the odds of a bad bicyclist severely injuring or killing another human are negligibly low. Especially when compared with the disgusting carnage happening on a daily basis at the hands of motorists and their cars.


This doesn’t excuse us non-motorized folks from acting with civility and consideration for the rest of our community trying to safely get somewhere.


Enough of the blame game (for now…), let’s get back to the topic at hand…


Bicyclist safety laws


9-52-010 a,b,c and d – Bicyclists must obey all of the rules of the road; penalty: $50-$200.


A lot of well deserved flack is given to bicyclists who recklessly blow through stop signs and stop lights. I do feel it’s a bad apples situation but lately the bad apples population seems to be growing at an alarming rate.


As a matter of self preservation I think a majority of bicyclists do follow the rules, myself included. Where I stray from this would be my practice of what’s known as the Idaho stop which essentially converts stop signs to yield signs and stop lights (only when there is zero cross traffic) to stop signs.


This is pretty straight forward, when I approach a stop sign I will slow down and if there is a car or pedestrian with the right of way I’ll come to a complete stop to let them through. Otherwise I will proceed without coming to a complete stop as long as I feel safe that no motorist is approaching the intersection at a dangerous speed and potentially not going to stop.


For stop lights, that’s easy, I stop on red and don’t go until it turns green. However, if it’s a quiet street with no cars coming from either direction, I will come to complete stop first and then go through after I check for traffic or pedestrians.


9-4-025 a,bPenalty for motorists who violate bicycle safety provisions: $150 to $500


Not much to comment on here. I guess this just relates to fines associated with each violation. Only thing worth noting is $500 seems light considering the consequences involved when motorists violate these laws and bicyclists safety (read lives) are at stake.


9-16-020 eDrivers, when turning left, must yield to bicycles


9-16-020 fDrivers, when turning right,  must yield to bicycles


Pretty clear cut, bicyclists have the right of way in both circumstances. These laws clearly are referring to the all to common crashes known as ‘left hook’ and ‘right hook’ that Keith described in his post.


9-36-010 eDrivers must pass bicycles with at least 3 feet of clearance when passing



Getting buzzed by a two ton car traveling double your speed is not fun under any circumstances and happens way too often. I believe this is a newish law on the books. Hey motorists, I really hope you didn’t need a law to know it’s not cool to get within 3 feet of a cyclist when you are passing them. A little courtesy and compassion please!


9-40-060Drivers must not park, stand or drive a vehicle in any bike lane


This one even has a hashtag #enforce940060 and twitter handle @enforce940060.


9-40-160Drivers must exercise due care to avoid crashing with any bicyclist or pedestrian on the roadway


Pretty cut and dried.


9-52-020 a-cBicycling prohibited on Lake Shore Drive and on sidewalks, exceptions.


There have been a couple documented cases of lost Divvy riders who accidentally found themselves on LSD but both of them were able to get off without incident. Then there was an incident of an intoxicated Divvy rider who made it onto LSD and was struck by a car and luckily survived. These are rare exceptions.


As for sidewalks, unless you are 12 or under, you are not allowed to ride on them. I see this more often than I care to admit, especially with Divvy riders who may be out of towners unfamiliar with our local customs. We as bicyclists need to respect pedestrians space, plain and simple.


There is one new exception to this law which allows adults to ride on the sidewalk if they are starting or ending their ride. To give an example, say your riding to visit J.C. Lind Bike Co. you are allowed to ride from the nearest driveway up to our door assuming you yield right of way to pedestrians.


9-52-030Bicyclists must operate at a safe speed


No person shall operate a bicycle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing.


Very vague. My suggestion- ride slowly, you will be much safer and more capable of reacting when the sudden unexpected happens. Also, it’s much more enjoyable to ride at a slow comfortable pace and take in the scenery. Just because a lot of the commuters you see out there look like they are racing doesn’t mean you have to too.


9-52-040 a,bBicyclists’ required position on the roadway, exceptions.


Couple of these are worth commenting on.


Section c:   any bicyclist upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride as near as practicable and safe to the right-hand side of the roadway, except in the following circumstances:


(3): when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.


This covers what is known as ‘taking the lane’.



Section d: Any bicyclist upon a roadway is permitted to pass on the right side of a slower-moving or standing vehicle or bicycle, but must exercise due care when doing so.  


This is another newer law and clearly one that was needed. Cyclists often pass cars this way during rush hour, when long lines of cars tend to get backed up.


Back to the idea of speed; it’s important in this situation to proceed at a reasonable pace due to a greater chance of right and left hooks as well as dooring.


9-52-045Bicyclists must signal when turning, provisions.


Didn’t know this was the law and just assumed it was common courtesy. Makes sense since the same applies for motorists as well.



Side note- I’ve never quite understood the left arm bent upwards as a signal for right hand turn. My feeling is most motorists and bicyclists will understand your intentions of turning right when you stick your right arm out horizontally.


9-52-050Bicyclists must ride single file, exceptions; bicyclists may ride two abreast when not impeding other traffic.


Law or now law, riding two abreast in my mind is only a good idea on a really wide and open road with plenty of space for two cars to pass each direction at the same time.


If I’m reading the language correctly this law allows for riding two abreast in a bike lane. I wouldn’t advise doing this especially if there are parked parked cars next to the bike lane as to avoid getting doored.


9-52-060Bicyclists may not carry items that prevent them from operating with at least one hand on their handlebars.


This one is easy, come to J.C. Lind Bike Co. and get a sturdy city bike with a rack or a cargo bike and we will keep you compliant with this law.


9-52-070Bicycles parked on sidewalks must not block pedestrian traffic.


Not sure this one is a common bad behavior. If it is I haven’t heard much gripping about it.


9-52-071It is illegal to abandon a bicycle in Chicago. Bikes left for one week may be considered abandoned, and can be removed by City crews after having a removal notice affixed to them for one week.


This is nowhere near the issue that it is in Holland. Occasionally you will see a bike that has been picked over for it’s parts.



Removing these bikes is certainly helpful, especially in areas where bike parking is in high demand. But, all in all I don’t think we have a major issue with abandoned bikes here in Chicago.


9-52-080At night, bicyclists must use a front white headlight and rear red reflector or red light.


Ahhhh, bike ninjas, one of my biggest pet peeves, besides people who say pet peeves…


In Holland, their law requires front and rear lights at night and it is enforced with regularity (especially in the fall when it starts getting darker earlier) and bicyclists are hit with a 50 Euro fine per light. This prompts most Dutch bicyclists to purchase super cheap and not very bright lights from the HEMA (their version of Target). But, the result is a vast majority of bikes have some illumination which is way better than nothing.


Bike ninjas are a serious problem here in Chicago and I would really like to see this law get enforced. Active Transportation Alliance’s Jason Jenkins recently put together an awesome video which gives you the perspective of what it’s like driving at night with bike ninjas.


Even though our law only requires having a front white light and rear red reflector, why take the risk of not being seen? Get yourself a nice set of lights, no excuses.


9-52-090Don’t ride a bicycle without a seat; don’t carry passengers on your bicycle without the proper equipment.


Don’t ride without a seat, check!


For the part about carrying passengers my eyes perked up since we sell Cargo bikes. Here is what the law says:


(b)   No bicycle shall be used to carry more persons at one time than the number for which it is designed and equipped.

‘Designed and equipped’ to carry passengers, we’ve got that covered in spades.


9-52-110It is illegal to talk on the phone or text while bicycling, penalty: $20-$500.


Good law and well worth enforcing. I would also be in support of a law that prohibits riding with your earbuds in. I guess I can be a little bit of a Grumpy Pants McGhee myself.


9-80-035It is illegal to open a vehicle door into moving traffic, unless it is reasonably safe to do so and only long enough to load and unload passengers.


Full text:  No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so, and can be done without interfering with the movement of other traffic, nor shall any person leave a door open on the side of a vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.


Adding the term bicyclist somewhere in the language about movement of other traffic in this law would be nice.


This is a very serious issue as inattentive motorists clearly don’t get how lethal their actions can be when they swing their doors open haphazardly.


I think a massive PSA about this is needed. I also think that our drivers education programs should dedicate a lot of attention to this issue. Lastly, parents can set the example to their kids and teach them to look out for bicyclists before opening the door.


In Holland, you are taught to open driver side doors with your right hand which forces you to cross your body with your hand and automatically turns your shoulders to do an over the shoulder check.


It’s also worth pointing out that in Holland it is pretty much a certainty that each motorists also rides a bike which helps them treat each other with more respect.


9-120-020, 030, 040Bicycles must be registered with the Chicago Police Department


I did not know this was required by law. Seems this sort of takes the bite out of the other laws as the likelihood of anyone following this law is pretty low. Not saying it’s a bad idea to register your bike, we do want to stay compliant with all these laws after all.


Wait a minute, I just noticed section 080 of this law:  Every person engaged in the business of buying or selling new or second hand bicycles shall make a report to the commissioner of police of every bicycle purchased or sold by such dealer, giving the name and address of the person from whom purchased or to whom sold, a description of such bicycle by name or make, the frame number thereof, and the registration number, if any, found thereon.



Say What?!


In closing, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I have not had an incident where these laws have come into play. Unfortunately there are a number of cyclists, many close to me, that this is not the case.


I think it speaks volumes that there are a handful of lawyers in Chicago whose practice is focused completely on representing cyclists.


Please drive and ride safe and be kind to your fellow humans everyone.



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