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Chicago Has a New Way to Stop Drivers Who Block Bus and Bike Lanes

Editor's note: How many times have you seen drivers decide that the bike or bus lane would be the perfect place to idle in their cars — even if it forces cyclists out into dangerous traffic, or slows down what's supposed to be a rapid bus route? Chicago has a great idea to stop that — and Streetsblog Chicago wrote a great piece exploring the nuances of how to deputize parking aides to help. If you think your city should try the same thing, share this article with your local leaders.

It’s great that the city of Chicago has been building more bike and bus lanes in recent years, but the fact that motorists often drive, stand, and park in them with impunity makes them a lot less useful. And with the rise of ride-hail and the on-demand economy, it’s becoming increasingly common for Uber, Lyft, and delivery drivers to illegally use the lanes for picking up and dropping off passengers and packages. So the city’s January announcement that traffic aides would ticket motorists in the new bus lanes on Western and Chicago avenues during rush hours was an encouraging development.

Today there was more good news, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced an ordinance that would allow parking enforcement aides to photograph vehicles parked or standing in bus and bike lanes and mail a ticket to the owner, even if the scofflaw drives off before there’s a chance to give them the ticket in person. As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman, Lightfoot is pitching the legislation as a strategy to help relieve downtown congestion, speed buses, and stop transit ridership bleeding. That’s exactly what this initiative would do, although surely city officials won’t mind getting the additional ticket revenue. (While parking meter income generally goes to Chicago’s hated parking concessionaire, the city keeps parking violation fines.)

This new initiative might raise concerns that it could contribute to the problem of Chicago traffic tickets disproportionately impacting lower-income residents. According to WBEZ/ProPublica investigations, in the past, citations, late fees, and driver’s license suspensions have trapped many poor and working-class Chicagoans of color in a debt spiral that has led to job loss and bankruptcy.

However, last month Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, with Lightfoot’s support, signed a law banning license suspensions for non-moving violations and reinstating 55,000 licenses suspended for parking violations. Chicago City Council has also passed legislation to reduce driver fines and expand payment plans for parking infractions. Those changes will help mitigate any negative equity impacts of the additional bus and bike lane enforcement. Income-based fines and diversion programs, such as the option of attending traffic school in lieu of paying a fee, would further improve equity.

An illegally parked SUV blocks the Kinzie Street protected bike lane. Photo: Steven Vance
An illegally parked SUV blocks the Kinzie Street protected bike lane. Photo: Steven Vance

According to the Sun-Times, as it stands a driver can avoid the $60-to-$150 fine for parking in a bus or bike lane by driving off while the ticket is being written. The new ordinance would allow aides to photograph the violation and mail the citation and photo evidence to the license holder within 30 days and no later than 90 days after the secretary of state’s office provides the identity of the vehicle owner to the city. That window expands to 210 days for leased vehicles.

“There’s so much of this [bus and bike lane blockage] in the central business district area,” city comptroller Reshma Soni told Spielman. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to curb congestion. And it’s a safety issue as well. People are opening doors in bike lanes. Also in bus lanes. Accidents are happening. We’re trying to rectify that.” She added that keeping bus lanes clear will help buses stay on schedule and encourage more transit use.

“We have a safety issue,” Soni told the Sun-Times. “We have a congestion issue. We can’t make it easy for people to just run away from this and commit the same offense over and over again. People are not inclined to come downtown if you have all of these congestion issues. We’re hoping this will curb some of that.”

Kudos to the mayor for taking this step to help keep people on bike safer, and make bus travel more efficient and appealing. Assuming the ordinance passes the full City Council, the next step is for Lightfoot to follow through on her campaign promise to “work with state legislators to permit fair camera enforcement of bus lanes,” as cities like New York have been doing for years.

Read the full Sun-Times article here.

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