I'm an experienced bicyclist who has been cycling since I was 6 or 7. Admittedly, I don't cycle as much as I used to as I'm in a different stage of life but based on my experience, once you've acquired the key skills to cycling, that skill doesn't necessarily leave you.
In terms of how cyclists and motorists interact, whenever I spend anytime in Chicago, my attempt is to see how this plays out.
Yes, many cyclists use the paths along beautiful Lake Michigan for exercise and commuting purposes, although there's just so much bandwidth these trails can hold. Even if many of these cyclists avoid motorists by pedaling along the lake, there are still joggers, walkers and fellow cyclists in an attempt at a peaceful co-existence. For those who don't have the option to cycle on bike paths or away from motorists, cycling in the concrete jungle becomes more hazardous. Overall, how dangerous is it to bicycle in America?
According to Wikipedia in the United States, 818 cyclists lost their lives in 2015, 840 in 2016 and 777 in 2017. An average of 812 for the last 3 years. That doesn't account for those who were injured on a bike. From 1998 through 2014, bicycle fatalities averaged 710. Why the increase in fatalities between that period and 2015-17? Are cyclists less cautious about traffic laws and overall safety? Are motorists less cautious too about cyclists? Have some motorists lost respect for cyclists because some cyclists ignore most traffic laws?
I don't have the exact answers to these questions; however, because cyclists in such a congested urban area of Chicago are a lot more vulnerable, it's incumbent on them to protect themselves as much as possible. Based on my experience and observations over the years, to protect oneself on a two-wheeler, there are some things cyclists can do based on our current road infrastructure.
My advice to those who bicycle (especially in an urban area):
1. Assume that you are invisible to motorists and you need to always be aware of the environment around you.
2. When cars pass you, assume you have disappeared in their mind. This means, anticipate those motorists who immediately turn in front of you once they've passed you. Your speed can determine whether or not you can stop in time.
3. Never wear headphones or do any audio listening as your ears are key sensory protection while on the bike.
4. Try wearing yellow, especially for bicycle commuters as it's the brightest color and makes you more visible.
5. Look around a lot, pay attention to motorists and pedestrians as they may not be paying attention to you. Additionally, that movement, especially in dark conditions makes you more visible.
6. Equip your bicycle with front and blinking lights. Blinking lights make you more visible, the blinking makes it clear that you are a bicycle. For your safety, equip the bike with a strong headlight to help you see the road and its surroundings.
7. Look for people in parked cars (as they are not looking for you) to avoid being doored (especially on a busy street).
8. Be courteous and a defensive cyclist at all times. Don't make this political if you are wronged. You'll never win a battle against a heavy steel contraption barreling down the road.
9. Don’t get competitive about “beating your best time” home from work or the train station. Safety is always more important than competitive games you may conjure up in your mind to get home quickly.
10. Don't put your guard down when using bike lanes in the city. You still need to watch for trucks, cars, and pedestrians.
11. Respect traffic lights as much (if not more) than motorists. Ignoring stop signs or traffic lights is a dangerous precedent and sets a poor example for cycling.
12. Learn your roads so you can watch out for potholes, park cars (where drivers frequently come and go), knowing where pedestrians typically cross. Become more familiar with your environment helps you anticipate potential issues.
13. Use hand signals on a bicycle, regardless of what motorists do or don’t do with their turn signals. You're setting a good example and also conveying to motorists that you are a confident and competent cyclist. (one comment about hand signals, I was taught that you point left when turning left and when turning right you use your left hand and extend your forearm at a 90-degree angle. Having spent some time in Berlin recently, they extend their left hand when turning left and extend their right arm when turning right. Simple to use for most folks and easier for motorists to comprehend. Perhaps this could be adopted here as a standard.)
14. Never daydream while cycling. Focus on transporting yourself safely from Point A to Point B.
15. Wear a reflective helmet and reflective clothing whenever possible.
16. Be careful about toe-clips or click-on bike shoes. Yes, they improve the amount of energy being transferred from each pedal revolution to the distance traveled but you can’t “tie yourself up," especially during urban cycling which can potentially cause you to lose control of your bike.
17. Making eye contact with motorists conveys that you notice them and are paying attention to their next moves.
18. Regularly test your brakes to ensure they are functioning correctly. This safeguard can certainly make a difference in city traffic or on wet roads.
19. Regardless of all these tips and safeguards, you'll still need good luck and fortune while traversing the urban jungle and rural roads. Safe traveling indeed!