Paint is not protection: Chicago cyclists want barriers between bike lanes and roadways

Hundreds of cyclists are involved in traffic crashes in Chicago each year. Most of them suffer injuries, and some have even been killed.

Chicago cyclists advocate for safer roads
On Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, cyclists lined up with their bikes, side by side, and stood on a bike lane’s painted line on Chicago's North Side to separate cars on the street from fellow cyclists using the bike lane. The cyclists held the demonstration to demand city officials provide physical barriers between bike lanes and roadways. Jessica Alvarado Gamez / WBEZ
Chicago cyclists advocate for safer roads
On Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, cyclists lined up with their bikes, side by side, and stood on a bike lane’s painted line on Chicago's North Side to separate cars on the street from fellow cyclists using the bike lane. The cyclists held the demonstration to demand city officials provide physical barriers between bike lanes and roadways. Jessica Alvarado Gamez / WBEZ

Paint is not protection: Chicago cyclists want barriers between bike lanes and roadways

Hundreds of cyclists are involved in traffic crashes in Chicago each year. Most of them suffer injuries, and some have even been killed.

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On his way home, on Sept. 15, David Teeghman was biking through the 1800 block of North Halsted Street after attending a Pat Whalen show at The Wiener’s Circle. He was on the phone with his parents as he took in the warm summer night, debriefing a recent fundraiser he and his parents had attended for a local nonprofit where Teeghman serves as political chair.

“I was talking to them actively, when suddenly, at least from their telling, you just hear like a bunch of thuds and smacks and the call eventually disconnects like mid-sentence,” Teeghman said.

A car had swerved into the painted bike lane Teeghman was riding in, smashing into his back tire and completely separating it from the bike.

The car did not stop, leaving Teeghman on the ground with a mangled bike, a broken phone, pain in his spine and several injuries to his back, left ankle and both elbows.

Teeghman remained in the street, trying to regain his composure after the shock of the incident. Nearby residents urged him to get off the street, and promptly dialed 911 to report the hit-and-run they had witnessed, Teeghman said.

Soon after, paramedics arrived on a fire truck, but Teeghman declined an ambulance and medical care at the scene of the crash. He said it wasn’t because he didn’t need medical attention, but he worried about the costs, and he was unsure if ambulances were covered under his health plan.

Teeghman said police told him that officers stopped by a half hour after the crash. However, Teeghman said he did not see them that night, though he was there for roughly an hour after the crash, until his parents drove in from northwest suburban Arlington Heights to take him home.

“I’m shocked that I am alive. I’m shocked that I was able to walk away from the situation, you know, as painfully I was able to do so,” Teeghman said.

As soon as paramedics and the fire department departed the scene, Teeghman was confronted with his emotions.

“I was just breaking down and crying. I was like this is such a perfect encapsulation of like the failures of our transportation system, the failures of our healthcare system [and] the failures of our law enforcement system,” he said.

David Teeghman bike crash injuries
A hit-and-run crash left David Teeghman with a mangled bike, a broken phone, pain in his spine and several injuries to his back, left ankle and both elbows. Courtesy of David Teeghman, @Teeghman on X
With an average of five crashes a day, Teeghman’s was just one of the more than 1,600 cyclist-involved crashes in Chicago this year. And like Teeghman’s, more than 400 of those crashes have been hit-and-run incidents.

Many of the cyclists are left dealing with thousands of dollars in bike repairs and medical bills and suffering from injuries such as lacerations and broken bones — some have even been killed. WBEZ interviewed a dozen cyclists — all of whom had been involved in one or several crashes — and many said these crashes can be prevented if the city redesigns its bike infrastructure to prioritize the safety and needs of both cyclists and motorists.

“I just felt so lonely, so isolated, and just struck by how unfair all this is that I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t. I didn’t do anything to him. I didn’t do anything to deserve this,” Teeghman said.

“I’m the one that’s going to be bearing the price,” he said.

Assessing the costs for cyclists

Four days after the crash, Teeghman noticed his condition took a dramatic turn. His left forearm had turned a shade of bright red and had swollen to over half its usual size due to an infection that developed from a scrape on his elbow.

On the morning of Sept. 20, Teeghman went to urgent care and was told to visit an emergency room. Teegham went to Northwestern Memorial and was later admitted to the hospital.

The next day, Teeghman found himself in need of an emergency surgery to address his arm infection, as the antibiotics administered to him were not working effectively, he said.

“Riding a bike in Chicago should not be a death sentence,” Teeghman said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It should not leave you maimed on the side of the road. It should not leave you with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.”

David Teeghman
David Teeghman poses for a photo in his home with his dog Leo, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Jessica Alvarado Gamez / WBEZ
Injuries suffered in traffic crashes can become expensive for cyclists, according to Colin Cameron, an attorney, who is a partner at the Chicago Bike Law Firm.

“For the cyclist, it often means expensive bike repairs, as well as any medical bills that aren’t covered by insurance, which can add up,” Cameron said.

“An ambulance trip to the hospital will run about $5,000 minimum without either health insurance or a claim against the driver’s insurer. We sometimes have clients [with] bills that add up to six figures for more serious injuries.”

And there are additional costs for cyclists, like Sam Wight, who use their bikes as their primary means of transportation. In February, Wight was involved in a hit-and-run crash that left him with a broken wrist.

Unable to ride his bike while recovering from the crash, the next three months were infuriating for Wight. “I had to rely on the CTA, which is a lot more unreliable, or spend a lot of money on Ubers to get me to appointments to avoid late fees and stuff like that,” he said.

Cyclists are considered among the most vulnerable participants in mixed traffic, according to a 2022 study from Vanderbilt University.

“When you compare the safety for a person sitting within a cage-like structure and a person who is on a light bicycle, where you are more exposed to the elements and more exposed to the force — you are at a higher spectrum of getting seriously injured or even you could face fatalities,” said Ishita Dash, the lead researcher on the Vanderbilt study, who specializes in traffic safety.

Roughly 60% of cyclist-involved traffic crashes this year have resulted in injuries to the cyclists, according to city data. Most have been non-incapacitating injuries such as bruises, abrasions, minor cuts or lacerations. However, just under 10% of the crashes this year have led to incapacitating injuries, those severe enough to prevent an accident victim from continuing normal activities.

In collisions between automobiles and cyclists, “speeds above 20 miles per hour increase the risk of severe road injury or fatality,” according to the Vanderbilt study. “Heavily utilized urban corridors, therefore, impose a potentially significant danger to cyclists, if not provided with adequate safety measures.”

Of the nearly 140 cyclist-involved crashes this year that have resulted in incapacitating injuries, 86% of them occurred in areas where the posted speed limit was 30 mph or higher, the city’s traffic crash data show.

Since 2019, there have been 38 cyclists killed in traffic crashes — including 14 fatalities in hit-and-run crashes — according to the city’s vision zero data and Chicago Police Department.

More than half of these fatalities occurred in the roadway. However, a recent fatal crash brings into focus the persistent concern cyclists have about painted bike lanes.

On Oct. 23, 59-year-old Donald Heggemann was traveling northbound on a painted bike lane in the 5100 block of North Damen Avenue in Lincoln Square when he was hit by a driver who was driving under the influence of alcohol.

According to the case incident report, obtained from the Chicago Police Department, several witnesses flagged down a police car explaining that the driver, a 30-year-old female driving a 2015 Volvo, continued heading northbound on Damen Avenue after hitting Heggemann. Shortly after, police were able to stop the driver and detain her.

The driver consented to a breathalyzer test and her blood-alcohol concentration came out to a .20, according to the incident report. That level is more than two times the legal limit of .08.

Heggemann suffered multiple injuries and was taken to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Such tragedies are not easily forgotten. Cyclists who have been killed in these crashes are often memorialized with ghost bikes, which are painted all white and locked to street signs near the crash sites, accompanied by small plaques and flowers.

Ghost bike in memory of Broderick Adé Hogue
Cyclist Broderick Adé Hogue, 32, was hit by a woman driving a van as he traveled through Grand Avenue just west of Navy Pier on Oct. 27, 2021, according to an incident report obtained from the Chicago Police Department. He died two days later at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Jessica Alvarado Gamez / WBEZ
Ghost bikes are meant to honor the memory of cyclists who’ve lost their lives and to draw attention to the need for improved infrastructure and safety measures.

“I don’t want to be a ghost bike,” said Patrick Birden, a cyclist born and raised in Chicago, who has been in several cyclist-involved crashes and near-hits. “Almost everywhere I drive in the city of Chicago, I see a bike attached to a pole with flowers or painted white — and it breaks my heart because that’s a dead person that probably wouldn’t be dead if common sense infrastructure for bikes existed.”

Bike safety roadblocks

According to a 2020 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, protected bike lanes with heavy separation — those consisting of tall, continuous barriers or raised roadway surfaces — were associated with a lower risk of crashes.

In addition, studies show that bike infrastructure with more protected and separated bike facilities is significantly associated with fewer crashes resulting in cyclist fatalities. From 1990 to 2010, fatal crash rates in Chicago dropped by 38% by adding bike infrastructure to roadways, specifically lanes that were protected and separated, according to a 2019 study in Volume 13 of the Journal of Transport and Health.

In Chicago, the West Town, Near North Side, Near West Side, Lake View, Logan Square and Lincoln Park community areas have experienced the most crashes involving cyclists since 2015, according to the WBEZ analysis of city traffic crashes data.

Stretches of Milwaukee Avenue, Halsted Street, Clark Street and Damen Avenue have witnessed the most crashes involving cyclists this year, the analysis shows.

Cameron pointed out, while there have been some improvements in bike infrastructure along streets like North Milwaukee Avenue, the continued prevalence and popularity of these routes mean that the risk of accidents remains relatively high due to the large volume of cyclists and motorists using them.

“Milwaukee [Avenue], for example, there are some stretches now that have protected bike lanes, but for a long time, that wasn’t the case,” Cameron said. “Not putting a barrier between the cyclist and vehicles, you know, obviously contributes to the problem.”

As of Sept. 2023, there are stretches of bollard and concrete-separated protected bike lanes along North Milwaukee Avenue — from West Kinzie Street to North Ogden Avenue; from West Chicago Avenue to West Division Street; from North Western Avenue to North California Avenue; and from West Addison Street to West Irving Park Road — according to a map of Chicago’s bike network.

However, there are miles of gaps in protected bike lanes between these stretches. In particular, there’s a stretch of North Milwaukee Avenue — roughly from North Kedzie Avenue to North Avers Avenue — that has no protected bike infrastructure, at all, according to the city’s bike network map.

Additionally, the map shows North Halsted Street with significant gaps in protected bike lanes.

The WBEZ analysis shows that crashes involving cyclists occurred mostly because drivers failed to follow traffic regulations. This year, through Sept. 30, the top two traffic violations drivers committed in crashes with cyclists have been failing to yield right-of-way and disregarding traffic signals.

“I don’t want to speak in hyperbole, but like, pretty much every single time I ride my bike, someone sacrifices my safety for their convenience,” Birden said.

According to the 2023 version of Illinois Bicycle Rules of the Road, motorists must yield to bicyclists when turning left or right on the roadway and should be prepared to move safely around cyclists, if they need to ride outside a bike lane.

In addition, among the several different causes for cyclist-involved collisions in the city, Cameron said dooring is the most common issue among his clients. Since 2015, there have been more than 1,500 dooring incidents involving cyclists, according to the city’s traffic crashes data.

“Dooring” is a type of traffic accident where a person inside a vehicle, typically a parked car, opens their door into the path of an oncoming cyclist.

Dooring can occur in a door-zone lane, which is the 4-foot area along the side of a parked car where an opening door can hit a cyclist in a bike lane.

“If I look around I see a lot of lack of bike lanes and even if there are bike lanes, a lot of them are door-zone lanes, which is incredibly dangerous [and] deadly at times, where a car door could swing open and push a cyclist into the street and in front of a car,” said Rick Rosales, a cyclist and volunteer for several cycling organizations.

Out of the 38 cyclists killed in traffic crashes since 2019, two cyclists suffered serious head injuries in dooring crashes that contributed to their deaths, according to city traffic crash data and police reports of the incidents.

Rosales said that having door-zone lanes and painted bike lanes as part of the city’s bike infrastructure design puts people at risk and is not acceptable.

“I think a lot of accidents would be stopped, if people were more disciplined in checking their rearview mirror, and blind spot just quickly, before they get out of their vehicle,” Cameron said.

Cameron said one way drivers can decrease the number of dooring incidents is to try the “Dutch Reach” Method, which is a technique where a driver uses their right hand when exiting a vehicle. This method turns the driver’s body toward the vehicle door, forcing them to look for oncoming bicyclists or other traffic.

Based on city traffic crashes data, through Sept. 30 this year, cyclists have been involved in crashes on roadways four times more often than in bike lanes.

“It’s difficult to control human nature, if you are not providing physical barriers,” Dash said.

Next steps and a call for immediate action

Many of the cyclists WBEZ interviewed said that Chicago’s streets are not designed with cyclists in mind.

“I mean, we have about 40 miles of protected bike lanes, but like even the protected bike lanes we have, are really bad. Like, there’s huge gaps in between the concrete barriers,” Wight said .

John Morrison, a cyclist who has been doored twice in the city, said he understands and respects that not every street is going to be appropriate for bike lanes but the city really needs a connected grid of safe streets for cyclists.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes so many deaths, and it takes some knee injuries to get people to care,” Morrison said.

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) plans to upgrade all existing delineator-protected bike lanes, those separated from the roadway with bollards and a buffer space, to concrete-protected by the end of 2023, according to CDOT Director of Public Information Erica Schroeder.

But even then, only 9% of the city’s bike network will have physical barriers.

The city has a total of 41 miles of protected bike lanes, consisting of delineator-protected lanes or concrete separated lanes.

As of Oct. 11, CDOT has upgraded about 10 miles of delineator-protected lanes to concrete, according to CDOT data of bikeway installations. Work is currently underway on another six miles, and there are plans to complete about another 10 miles later this year.

Along with protected bike lane upgrades, CDOT plans to expand and install the next 150 miles of bikeways in the next few years, the vast majority of which are protected bike lanes, neighborhood greenways and off-street trails.

A painted bike lane in Chicago
A painted bike lane on West Lake Street, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Jessica Alvarado Gamez / WBEZ
These projects, which are in different stages of completion, will result in 70% of Chicagoans living within a 1/2 mile of a protected bike lane, neighborhood greenway or off-street trail, according to Schroeder.

“2023 is on pace to be the biggest year for bike infrastructure expansion in Chicago’s history, with more miles of protected lanes and low-stress bikeways installed than ever before,” Schroeder said in an email to WBEZ.

Several projects where new protected bike lanes will be installed, like those for stretches of West Augusta Boulevard and West Belmont Avenue, are currently underway.

Additionally, protected bike lanes are also planned for key corridors throughout Chicago — including Clark, Division, and Halsted streets, as well as Belmont, Damen, Kedzie, and Milwaukee avenues — according to the 2023 Chicago Cycling Strategy.

On Sunday, Sept. 24, after he spent five days at Northwestern Memorial, Teeghman posted that he was medically cleared for discharge from the hospital.

Teeghman shared details of his crash and his recovery on X.

Teeghman said the road rash on his lower back was healing well, and he thanked others for their outpouring of love and support.

“I am more committed than ever to using this deeply terrible … traumatizing experience,” Teeghman told WBEZ in an interview. “I gotta find the positive here, man. I gotta turn this lemon into lemonade.”

On Sunday, Oct. 8, Teeghman and several active transportation groups — including Chicago, Bike Grid Now!, Better Streets Chicago, Active Transportation Alliance, Chicago Family Biking and Urban Environmentalists Illinois — joined together on Halsted Street to create a human-powered, protected bike lane at the site where he was hit.

Cyclists form a human-powered protected bike lane
Cyclists formed a human-powered protected bike lane as fellow cyclists rode through the lane on North Halsted Street on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. Jessica Alvarado Gamez / WBEZ
Cyclists of all ages and diverse backgrounds lined up with their bikes, side by side, along the painted bike lane. Cheers, applause and the chiming of bike bells filled the air as fellow cyclists rode through the bike lane on the cloudy afternoon.

By standing on the painted line, the cyclists used their own bodies to create a physical barrier between cars and their fellow cyclists using the bike lane. Their intent was to advocate for more bike infrastructure that physically separates cyclists from cars not solely on Halsted Street but throughout the city.

“I hope that the Chicago Department of Transportation and our elected officials hear loud and clear that we need a physically protected bike lane on Halsted,” Teeghman said.

“Paint is not protection. We need to have physical protection 24/7,” he said.

To view CDOT’s current projects on bike infrastructure, check out Chicago Complete Streets and

To find your ward and alderperson, visit here.

Jessica Alvarado Gamez is a Roy W. Howard Fellow for WBEZ. Follow her @AlvvJess.