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Drivers are the new smokers in city

Vehicle traffic backs up along Kinzie last month after lanes were reconfigured give bicyclists their own curbside lane. | Scott

Vehicle traffic backs up along the Kinzie last month after lanes were reconfigured to give bicyclists their own curbside lane. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2011 7:12AM

While driving home Tuesday along the Mayor Emanuel Bike Path — formerly known as Kinzie Street — a chubby guy on a bicycle wearing plaid shorts swerved from his “protected lane” in front of my car. I honked. He extended a certain finger in my direction. I got a bit riled up.

I did not give in to road rage and run him down with my station wagon.

Still, that moment was extra irritating because the goofy street reconfiguration project championed by our new bicycling mayor — who probably uses it as a shortcut to the posh East Bank Club — has bugged me for weeks.

From the curb there’s a wide bike lane, then a barrier of flexible plastic posts, spots for parked cars and, finally, a skinny lane for moving automobiles. At the Kinzie and Milwaukee stoplight, there’s a section of green painted concrete for cyclists to wait out red lights. And it’s in front of cars so drivers have to wait for the pedaling to begin.

The whole thing is awkward, if not unnecessary, and probably just as dangerous as cycling on a street without the elaborate and hideous markings.

Besides, the new bike lanes ruin a driving shortcut through River North. This particular stretch of Kinzie now gets inexplicably backed up with cars while a handful of folks on two wheels zoom by unaffected. Parking used to be prohibited on this stretch of Kinzie during the evening rush — 4 to 6 p.m. — so drivers could use both lanes to escape downtown for the expressways.

Now, Kinzie is a parking lot with bike lanes during those hours.

What’s worse is that the Mayor Emanuel Bike Path seems to have empowered cyclists with a sense of lane entitlement. What happened to sharing the road?

The worst of the cyclists — daredevil bicycle messengers, antique Schwinn-riding hipsters and arrogant office workers on hybrid mountain bikes — fly through stop signs, narrowly miss gastro-wagon patrons and swerve instead of stop for pedestrians.

And that’s just while I’ve been watching.

I’m not just being a crank about a minor traffic jam and a jerk on a bike. What worries me is what the great bicycle takeover of Kinzie Street might mean for the future.

Last week, city Transportation Department spokesman Brian Steele put it this way: “The goal behind this is to reduce the amount of vehicle traffic and increase the amount of bike traffic.”

I’ll put it another way: Drivers are the new smokers.

City and state leaders want to snuff us out, too. First with increased fees and taxes, and now with restrictions on where we can drive. Sound familiar, smokers?

In the last few years, the fees for city stickers, license plate renewal, gas taxes and even moving violation fines — which help pay for paving and repairing roads — have significantly increased. If you drive an SUV in Chicago, for instance, the price of your city sticker went from $75 to $120. Now, starting with this section of Kinzie, nearly a third of the road has been set aside for a pesky pedaling minority who take to the streets for only a part of the year.

Radical bicycle-riding advocates certainly will push to expand Emanuel’s segregated Bike Path system — and ruin every side-street shortcut for city drivers.

Some bicycle commuters are drooling at the prospect of a side-street bicycle takeover.

“Give me an entire street and I’ll be happy,” a rabid bicyclist pal of mine said. “They should put these lanes on Elston, Blue Island . . . and every diagonal street.”

What a nightmare that would be for everyone else on the road — commuters, truckers, little ol’ ladies going to the Jewel and guys like me.

Emanuel has said the new bike-path configuration makes riders safer on city roads. I get it. It is dangerous riding a bicycle in the big city. I once got “doored” on the North Side by a ditzy Jeep-driving woman from Ohio. Wear a helmet.

Urban cyclists have a right to co-exist with car drivers. And that’s how it should stay.

But if cyclists want sectioned-off lanes snaking through every part of the city, then the rules must change. They shouldn’t be able to ride freely through stop signs and pedal on the wrong side of the street anymore. Hit a pedestrian, go to jail. And heck, if cyclists need their own lanes, they should pay for it — maybe by requiring a bicycle sticker tax for commuters. And officers on bikes, Segways and ATVs should pinch more rogue cyclists who break the rules of the road.

Because if cyclists got treated more like the rest of us on the road, I might not get so honked off the next time a guy on a bike flips me the bird from his precious bike lane.

Maybe, but I doubt it.

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