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Chicago v. biker

By: Marybeth Beitzel (mbeitz2@uic.edu), Copy Editor

“Sit up!” the unknown voice declared to Ian Voakes as he loosely gripped his knees, drifting into unconsciousness while his leaking head bobbed before him, coating his clothing and pavement with blood. Awaking in the bed of an ambulance was Voakes’ second memory after closing the door of his friends’ cab and fetching his bike to ride home. At three in the morning Voakes was discharged from the hospital. Bandages patching his body, pants moist and crimson, a tear shaped blood drop still dangling off the tip of his nose, frozen in motion, he stumbled into a cab, unsure of the extent of his injuries or the details of his accident. After a morning of jarring pain, days of doctors’ calls and visits, Voakes discovered his clavicle, scapula, and orbital bone behind his left eye to be broken; most likely the result of being doored by a car somewhere in Lakeview while biking home- details he was only able to gather from his hospital reports.

After months of ice and blustering winds, the blooming Midwestern summers arouse the restless, enticing Chicagoans onto the pavement, who pedal through the risk of sharing the streets with the city’s notoriously aggressive drivers. Chicago’s streets are flooded with cyclists, the mode of transportation that becomes more popular every year. However, safety in numbers may not apply to these bikers, who are the frequent victims of injury.

According to the City of Chicago, however, Chicago is known for being one of the most biker-friendly large cities in America, with 170 miles of buffered and shared bike lanes, miles of off-street paths, and more than 13,000 bike racks. Still, the Illinois Department of Transportation reported 1,757 biking crashes in 2011 alone, 353 involving doorings.

Fred Copeman, a lifelong biker and Chicago biker for six months, was T-boned by a car in Wicker Park after securing eye contact with the driver. The collision dislodged him from his bike and caused his head to smack the pavement. “I am extremely lucky that it wasn’t worse,” Copeman said of the accident. Wearing a helmet, a practice he nearly always executes, saved his head from suffering any injury worse than a concussion. The logic is simple for Copeman, who  cycled frequently with his dad growing up in Boston and experienced his father’s life preserved twice because of his helmet. “I absolutely encourage everyone to wear a helmet,” said Copeman.

Voakes’ injuries caused him to miss a week of work. Now he is back as a chef at Jam, cradling his arm in a sling that he must wear for six weeks. Of all his injuries the bruising on his brain consumed the bulk of his concern. “I wasn’t worried about my arm, I was worried about my mind,” said Voakes, who wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time of his accident. Luckily, the loss of memory of the accident itself and a heightened reverence for life and the mind’s immense abilities to process thought seem to be his only brain-related consequences.

Chicago can not convince all bikers. Nick Pasteur, an emergency room doctor in Chicago, moved to Logan Square a year ago with his wife to complete his residency. As a lifetime resident of Florida, Chicago’s bike scene shocked Pasteur, “I used to bike everywhere in Gainesville, but I will not bike here, it’s too unsafe. Seeing so many bike injuries, it sways you from wanting to get on a bike.”

Biking in Chicago demands alertness and self-defense. Sales Assistant at Kozy’s Cyclery and Chicago biker of four years, Maggie Moore, said, “Cars aren’t looking for you, you have to be aware of your surroundings.” Moore experienced her first biking accident in the city last week. A car collided with her while she finished a left-hand turn, fortunately damaging only her bike, which she had to completely replace.

Voakes considers himself to be an extremely alert biker, “I ride with my head on a swivel,” he explained, and until recently his tactics have proven to be successful. After six years of biking in Chicago this is his first accident.

Yet, despite careful and diligent biking, wearing lights, reflectors, and other protective gear, the probability is that something will eventually go wrong. Accidents happen, and in the match up between car and cyclist, bikers have the losing hand.

So, what is it that keeps bikers on the streets? A combination of exercise, money, convenience, control, and perhaps the most appealing- freedom. Where CTA dictates the exact route one will take, designating the streets you will travel, the view you will enjoy, and the time it will take to arrive, biking allows the individual to maneuver around the city with no limits. With a bike, there’s no need for bus trackers or the headaches of delayed trains.

Control is desirable, but it isn’t a guarantee for bikers. “You can’t control if someone runs you over from behind, you can’t control if someone opens their car door; even if you wear a helmet, bike safety in the city is out of control,” said Pasteur who agreed that the liberty biking grants is appealing. He remarked that even with the injuries he faces at work some of his colleagues still bike, though for him, the risks outweigh the benefit.

In spite of the potential dangers, bikers bike because they love it. “It’s freeing; it’s exhilarating,” said Voakes, whose accident will not deter him from hitting the roads in full cycle once his injuries are healed. Aside from wearing a helmet, the one choice he regrets about the night of his accident and now vows to always do, he doesn’t plan on making any significant changes in his biking behavior. “If I quit biking now, biking would have a lasting negative affect on me. I don’t want that. I want biking to have a lasting positive affect.”

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