Study: Chicago police issued some bike tickets at higher rates in Black and Latino neighborhoods

By Sarah Freishtat

Chicago police issued sidewalk cycling tickets more often in Black and Latino areas in recent years, even as they issued fewer tickets overall, according to a recent study of bike ticketing practices.

The findings highlight policing practices in Black and Latino neighborhoods in the city, and the unequal distribution of the city’s bike lanes and resources, said study author Jesus Barajas, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis.

In the neighborhoods most affected, high cycling ticket rates could put a damper on jobs, residents’ health and efforts to reduce violence, said Olatunji Oboi Reed, president and CEO of racial equity-focused nonprofit Equiticity, which partnered on the study.

“There’s a role for cycling to play in improving our neighborhoods,” he said. “And when these types of inequities are in existence, from lack of infrastructure in our neighborhoods to enforcement inequities by (the Chicago Police Department), they serve as a dampening effect on more Black and brown people turning to bikes as a form of travel, as a form of recreation, as a form of physical fitness.”

The study raises questions about where and why police stop and cite cyclists. Its publication comes as the Chicago Department of Transportation is expanding bike lanes and resources amid a surge of interest in biking during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, published in September by the journal Transportation Research Part D, found that between 2017 and 2019, Chicago police issued tickets for cycling on the sidewalk in majority Black neighborhoods at eight times the rate in majority white areas. In Latino areas, they issued tickets three times as often.

Many areas with the highest ticket rates were near North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, and East and West Garfield Park, according to Barajas’ data. Other areas with the highest ticket rates were near parts of Uptown, Bronzeville and South Chicago.

Barajas analyzed citations issued by Chicago police for cycling on the sidewalk, which made up 90% of all bicycle-related infractions, combined with other data, including street infrastructure and neighborhood characteristics.

His findings build on a 2017 Chicago Tribune investigation, which found that between 2008 and 2016, police wrote more than twice as many citations in African American communities as in white or Latino areas.

A bike ticket is an administrative, not a criminal, violation that generally carries a fine.

The September study also found Black and Latino neighborhoods had less bike infrastructure, such as bike lanes, though police were less likely to issue tickets on busy streets that had the lanes. And there was little connection between the places cyclists were often injured in crashes and the places most tickets were issued, suggesting ticketing was only “weakly associated with safety needs, if at all,” according to the study.

The findings reinforced Barajas’ and biking advocates’ belief that cycling infractions can be a tool police use to stop someone and check for warrants or other violations. Barajas advocated for rethinking enforcement but said adding bike lanes can also help cyclists stay off sidewalks and avoid an encounter with police in the first place.

“In neighborhoods where there’s a lot of policing going on, one more excuse to stop people is the fact that they’re riding their bike on the sidewalk where there’s no bike lane,” Barajas said.

Cyclist Elihu Blanks thinks he was stopped by police using that approach, though he wasn’t riding on the sidewalk.

Blanks, 45, said he was stopped by a police officer several years ago blocks from his South Shore home after taking a wide turn while cycling fast in the street. The squad lights came on, and he pulled over.

He voiced his displeasure to the officer and said the situation became intense, but ultimately he handed over his ID. The officer let him go with no ticket, he said.

Blanks thinks he was pulled over because the officer was hoping to find something more, like drugs or an outstanding warrant, and he was easier and safer to stop on his bike than someone in a car might be.

As a cyclist and a citizen, he was upset by the encounter. But he wonders if the policing tactic might have merit if it ends up turning up drugs or weapons.

“I want the police to do their job, but as a citizen, as a regular bike rider in my community, I felt wronged because all I did was turn a corner,” he said. “But if (someone) were running drugs or trying to do something illegal and I was in my house watching this guy get pulled over and then they find a gun or find drugs or find something wrong, if (he) was on the other side of the coin, would I appreciate the cop doing things that way?”

Chicago police said officers can ticket or take other enforcement action when necessary to protect pedestrians, drivers and residents.

“The Chicago Police Department is committed to treating all individuals with fairness and respect,” spokesman Tom Ahern said. “CPD works with residents in our communities to identify areas where bicyclist and vehicular traffic safety could be improved. We do not target individuals based on race or community.”

To Reed, from Equiticity, the ticketing patterns highlighted by the study are an example of “overpolicing.” He pinned the disparities on Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

“Coming into office, riding the wave of racial equity, expressing full-throated support, full-throated commitment to racial equity, I would have expected that she would have clamped down on (the Chicago Police Department) and removed these inequities around how they are enforced in our city,” he said.

Equiticity was among the organizations that recently worked with the city Transportation Department to make equity a focus in the department’s planning, and also works with other community groups. But the Chicago Police Department’s ticketing patterns and missing cycling infrastructure work against efforts to grow cycling, said Reed, who lives in North Lawndale.

Reed says that could be a lost opportunity to transform neighborhoods. Bike-riding can improve residents’ health, and can help both attract businesses and provide a cheap way to get to work, he said. He is also attempting to use cycling to build regular community events, which can build trust, lower perceptions of violence and help make streets more vibrant, he said.

“White people are encouraged to bike,” he said. “They have the infrastructure. They don’t have the overpolicing. There’s a culture that exists. So they’re encouraged to bike. We don’t have that, leading to a widening gap in life outcomes.”

The Department of Transportation recently announced it was spending $17 million from the city’s capital plan to add and upgrade 100 miles of bike lanes across the city in 2021 and 2022, in what it called the city’s largest two-year bike lane expansion, as the Divvy bike-share program also expands.

That includes 45 miles of bike lanes in Austin, Belmont-Cragin and North Lawndale, and 13 miles on the Far South Side.

In 2020, the city added 30 miles of bike lanes, and 17 were on the Far South Side.

Addressing past inequities in biking infrastructure is a focus for the department, which is working with community groups and leaders to put in the new bike lanes, city transportation spokesman Mike Claffey said.

Bike lanes, improved crosswalks and measures to lower traffic speeds could be part of a solution to ticketing patterns and helping cyclists feel safer on the streets, said Kyle Whitehead, spokesman for the Active Transportation Alliance. He also called for changing police enforcement policies and rules banning biking on sidewalks.

“We need to be creating a culture where people feel safe and comfortable (cycling), and this enforcement policy by the police is the opposite of that,” he said. “It’s damaging the biking culture in these communities.”

Blanks also said bike lanes could be key to creating change. While simple painted lines on the road might not prevent a cyclist from being injured or killed in a collision, they can change the culture around cycling. They can help both police and drivers to expect to see bikes and understand cycling habits.

“Bike infrastructure can help adjust the culture of transportation,” he said. “So people can see bikes and not kill them or ticket them and take them to jail.”

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