Bowrey Boys, NYC Archives

At the turn of the 20th century, with the clickety-clack of hoof beats waning and the chug of the automobile fast approaching, bicycles ruled city streets. As the number of cars increased, etiquette on how to share the road began to emerge.

In some cities, “street sprinklers,” who tamped city streets with water to keep down the dust clouds kicked up by cars, left four to six feet along the curb dry so cyclists didn’t have to wheel through mud. They were the first bike lanes.

But city life wasn’t all informal bike lanes and smooth cycling, according to Chicago magazine:

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During the midst of the bicycle craze, the [Chicago] Tribune could report that “woe follows the trail of the bicycle,” with 100 accidents logged by police in the course of two summer months in 1897: 10 pedestrians run down by cyclists, three caused by clothing catching in the bike, and one poor soul who rode into the river.

“Woe follows the trail of the bicycle.” Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz would heartily agree. While our current national love affair with hulking SUVs and tendency toward road rage present new challenges for bicyclists, as biking booms, history seems to be repeating itself, even as it pedals by on two wheels.

Luckily, a plethora of efforts aiming to keep the bicycling and car worlds from literally colliding are springing up in cities across the U.S. and Europe: bike lanes and paths, traffic-slowing devices, sharrows, and safety warnings written on crosswalks, to name a few.

One of the biggest challenges has nothing to do with infrastructure, however, and everything to do with the way we behave when we’re behind the wheel. Put another way, drivers need some education on how to coexist with all these bicyclists.

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On that front, Gabe Klein, a bike enthusiast who heads the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), is trying some particularly innovative tricks. Last month, his department plastered stickers reading “Look! Before Opening Your Door” to the back passenger-side windows of the city’s 7,000 cabs. The initiative is designed to reduce the number of dooring accidents (numbering 250 last year) in the city. CDOT officials anticipate expanding the sticker initiative, possibly affixing them to city parking meters.

And this week, CDOT mailed out 1.5 million leaflets to car owners along with their registration renewal forms, with pointers on how to carefully navigate streets with bicyclists and pedestrians. Here’s a taste of its suggestions for drivers:

  • Pass cyclists at a safe distance, leaving at least three feet of clear space when passing cyclists.
  • Never park in bike lanes. Parking in the lanes forces cyclists to move into faster traveling traffic.
  • When turning right, check behind you for cyclists. Wait for cyclists to pass before turning. Turning in front of a cyclist is illegal and could cause a serious crash.
  • Look both ways at a stop or red light near intersections before continuing and crossing.

CDOT’s Share the Road initiative sends “bike ambassadors” from the Active Transportation Alliance to public events to teach residents about bike safety. And later this month, the League of Illinois Bicyclists, a cycling advocacy group, will begin a campaign to get residents to take its free Bike Safety Quiz that educates both motorists and bike riders on rules of the road. Last year, the league introduced a bike safety license plate, with Illinois joining several states nationally that have adopted similar programs. Money from the plates is funneled back into safety education.

In case all these messages fail to sink in, the Chicago City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s bike safety ordinance last week, raising fines for cyclists disobeying traffic laws and doubling certain fines for motorists causing bike accidents. Fines jumped from $500 to $1,000 for motorists who cause a crash by dooring and from $150 to $300 for leaving a vehicle door open in traffic.

bike ruler

Yellow Bike

Meanwhile, across the pond in London, many riders are purchasing clothing that looks and reads somewhat like police gear in an effort to gain some road respect. Other riders fit their bicycles with an extended ruler that keeps drivers at an appropriate and safe distance. British driving schools are making bike safety part of their programs. In the Netherlands, drivers are taught to reach with their right hand to open car doors; the movement turns their body slightly to see oncoming traffic — mainly bike riders.

Stateside, taxi drivers in San Francisco are now receiving training on how to share the streets dense with bike riders. Many driving schools now teach clients how to share the street with bikes, and bike advocates are calling for a revamp of state drivers-education programs.

Of course, this is a two-way street. Bike riders, too, can make the streets safer. Ethan Spotts, a spokesperson for the Active Transportation Alliance, suggests if you’re riding a bike you should treat it as if you’re driving a car. Ride with traffic, not against it. Obey all traffic laws, signs, and signals. Communicate with other people who are driving, walking, and riding by signaling your intentions. Don’t ride on the sidewalk if you’re over 12 years old.

But perhaps the best thing you can do, says Klein, is bike a mile in another’s shoes. Unless drivers know what it’s like to bike on city streets — and unless cyclists remember that driving a car comes with its own set of distractions — these worlds will continue to collide.