Despite what you may have heard, I am not prejudiced against urban bicyclists.
Not even the hipsters who ride antique Schwinns — at least not all of them.
I have bicycling friends.
My pal Crystal rides everywhere. Every day. She doesn’t even own a car — on purpose.
Members of Chicago’s underground bicycling scene know her as “The Girl With The Blue Wheels.”
She’s pretty hard-core and readily admits to blowing stoplights, but not without looking both ways. She rides like a madwoman on wild overnight rides through the city. She loves protected bike lanes — though she doesn’t always use them. Just the other day she came home bloody after taking a spill on her fancy road bike.
“I’m one of them, but I try to be safe,” she said. “I’ve been doored. I’ve been screamed at. You face a lot of jerks with road rage when you’re riding a bike in Chicago.”
The Girl With The Blue Wheels is a fine lady — and she doesn’t hate me for pointing out her flaws.
Still, certain bicycle advocacy journalists — and there’s more than one — have pegged me as a bicyclist hater, the kind of guy who would celebrate Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to increase fines for reckless cyclists who disobey traffic laws.
They also lumped my take on Chicago’s bike lane craze with the musings of John Kass of the Tribune. (They really know how to hurt a guy’s feelings.)
Last year, I became hated by much of the bicycling community for suggesting “drivers are the new smokers” in the city’s fight to get more cars off the road and more bike riders peddling around the city.
All I did was point out the obvious: protected bicycle lanes have emboldened the most radical urban bicyclists — and certain business commuters — who refuse to be slowed down by traffic signals and don’t think the rules of the road apply to them.
Everyone, even The Girl With The Blue Wheels, knows I’m right.
I also mentioned that the city and state have both recently increased license plate and sticker fees for drivers. Parking rates are through the roof. And, thanks to county and city gasoline taxes, filling up in Chicago is more expensive than anywhere else in America.
Meanwhile, the mayor and his quirky transportation guru, Gabe Klein, plan to spend millions to install miles of protected bike lanes all over town.
I dared to question whether it's fair for drivers stuck with paying the bulk of fees, fines, traffic tickets and taxes to foot the bill for it.
That really got the strongest bicycling advocates all worked up.
Bicycling is a better, cleaner and healthier way to get around, they say. Protected bike lanes keep the peddling set safe. Spending cash on encouraging cycling and keeping biking commuters safe should be free.
But this is Chicago, where nothing that’s free ever lasts.
Think about it: Remember when Chicagoans got to visit the Field Museum for free?
Or when you could park in the Loop late at night for free?
Or when senior citizens rode on the CTA for free?
Gone. Gone. Gone.
For now, traveling Chicago on a bicycle remains tax-free.
But on Wednesday, Mayor Emanuel unveiled a plan aimed at targeting traffic law-breaking cyclists by hitting them with stiff fines for blowing stop signs and such.
Bicyclists aren’t happy. Neither am I.
Chicagoans already get nickeled-and-dimed to death with fees, exorbitant street parking rates and hefty fines for silly violations for minor things — peeing in an alley for instance. (That’ll cost you $1,000 and possibly jail time if you don’t pay up.)
But that’s the city we live in.
The mayor wants to make Chicago a more bicycle-friendly city — and he’s trying.
Under his plan, fines for bicycling traffic violations could go from 25 bucks to as much as $200. And fines for drivers who open their doors in the way of a bicyclist would double to $300.
The goal, they say, is to make our streets safer for bicyclists, pedestrians and lowly drivers.
I support safer streets — even for bike-riding hipsters.
And the city-funded, pro-bicyclist lobbying group Active Transportation Alliance agrees with me, of all people.
ATA boss Ron Burke said he backs the mayor “100 percent.”
And when the measure eventually passes the City Council, cyclists and drivers will be treated equally.
If we don’t get caught breaking the rules of the road, the city won’t pick our pocket.
But like I said, anything “free” is temporary in Chicago.
And then, dear bicyclists, you might find yourself as frustrated as us drivers.
If the city budget gets tight, you might see an ordinance calling for bike license plates to make it easier for the city to catch you with its Big Brother camera system and mail you tickets for blowing red lights or peddling too fast in a school zone.
And can we really rule out that some time in the future a city leader might sign off on a contract with a foreign company that wants to put a pay box at every bike rack — fancy high-tech bike racks, mind you — for the right to charge a few bucks an hour to lock up your antique Schwinn?
But until that day comes, pedal freely and safely my biker friends. That means you, Crystal.