WICKER PARK — Despite my very public disdain for Chicago’s rogue bicycle culture, the "dooring epidemic" in Wicker Park — particularly along Milwaukee Avenue — really worries me.
When you think about it, epidemics are bad, right? Like in that Bruce Willis movie, "12 Monkeys," when 5 billion people die from a super virus epidemic.
What if this dooring epidemic pushed the city cycling community — starting in hipster neighborhoods then spreading to the lakefront and beyond — toward extinction?
And if that happened, what might become of all those protected bike lanes and those cute little bicycle stop lights on Dearborn Street in the Loop?
It made me think that if I could go back in time — like Willis in that monkey movie — I could take back all my jabs at rabid cyclists and help them evolve into higher functioning urban travelers able to protect themselves from evil drivers and their reckless use of doors.
Something must be done to save the cyclists from a Darwinian fate, I thought.
Without access to a time machine, I turned to Kathleen Widmer, the Illinois Secretary of State’s foremost bicycle safety expert.
“What can be done to stop the Wicker Park dooring epidemic?” I asked. “Can we save the hipster cyclists from the perils of reckless car-door openers that threaten their existence?”
Maybe I was being a bit overly dramatic and maybe a little sarcastic. Still, my heart was filled with good intentions: Save some hipsters on bikes.
And Widmer said she could help.
“It’s a joint effort,” Widmer said. “Motorists and bicyclists have to work together by following the same rules of the road.”
"But there's so much bad blood between drivers and cyclists,” I told her. “When I dared to criticize protected bike lanes, members of the cyclist mafia called me ‘lazy, fat and stupid,’ among other things. I don’t know if I can let that go."
Widmer said it’s not too late to change.
"Education and repetition," she said, "makes all the difference."
That reminded me of the motorcycle safety classes I took so long ago. Lessons I remember every time I get on my Harley.
Especially how the instructor not so gently explained the reality of riding a motorcycle: Even if it's not your fault that some jerk slams into your bike, that doesn't make the pavement feel any softer when your face hits it.
Same goes for bicyclists.
It's the same as if a lady rushing to a fancy shoe store on Milwaukee wildly opens a Range Rover door right in a cyclist's path. A door to the face hurts more to the guy on the bike than the $1,000 ticket does to the driver.
There's a lot of pressure on motorists to be more careful, but in some ways cyclists have to save themselves from becoming a dooring victim, Widmer said.
She rattled off a few ideas: Wear a helmet. Be aware of your surroundings. And use common sense.
Yes, common sense. That's the key.
I pushed her for more practical examples of bicycle common sense.
"You have to be watching parked cars. If you see red lights, white lights or someone in the car, those are a giveaway that something is happening," Widmer said. “You have to be aware that a door might open. The point is there are a lot of obstacles that bicyclists have to think about. You can't just hop on a bike and ride."
More, I demanded.
"Try not to be distracted. People on bikes can be just as distracted as drivers," she said. "And headphones. No law prohibits a bicyclist from wearing them, but common sense says if a driver shouldn't do it, neither should a bicyclist. That goes for the cellphone, too."
Widmer went on without my prodding.
She encouraged bicyclists to consider planning ahead to take routes that might take longer but avoid dangerous traffic.
"Stop at stop signs and stop lights," she said. "And pay attention when riding in protective lanes. They take some practice getting used to for bicyclists and motorists."
Drivers, of course, need to share the road, too. And look out for bikes when they're parked on streets crowded with bike riders — stretches of Milwaukee and Elston avenues and Dearborn Street, among them.
"There's so many common sense things you can do," Widmer said. "But when you're driving or riding it can becomes a habit, and you don’t focus on the some really important things. … You’re just doing it. Take a step back, rethink things.”
Save yourself … for your own good.