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Chicago Cannot Deny Responsibility For Bike Lane Hazards

Wabash-BBL

In a hearing last week in the Circuit Court of Cook County the City of Chicago sought to have all of the bicycle lanes installed throughout the City declared “recreational facilities.”  The effect of this creative legal maneuver would have been to immunize the municipality for injuries to bicyclists caused by the City’s failure to keep its bike lanes safe for riders.

The matter arose from a lawsuit filed against the City where a Chicago bicyclist was severely injured when she struck a large water filled hole located in the middle of a marked bike lane at 1124 North Damen Avenue.  The suit alleged that the City was aware of the hole for some time and that it had a tendency to fill with water, creating a hidden danger for bicyclists.  It also alleged that despite this knowledge it failed to take measures to fix the hole.  Generally, the law requires the City of Chicago, like any other owner of property, to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition.  This requirement does not mean that the City is automatically liable anytime someone is injured on its property.  But where the City knows or should know, of a hazard on its land it must take reasonable steps to fix it.  This general rule does not apply to what are known as “recreational facilities,” such as “parks, playgrounds. . . or other enclosed recreational facilities.”  For these types of places, an injured person has the burden to show that the City willfully and wantonly failed to maintain its property in a safe condition.  This is a much harder burden to meet.  An injured person would need to prove that the City showed a reckless disregard for his or her safety, a showing very close to intentional conduct.  The practical effect would be to immunize the City from any negligence on its part to properly maintain its bicycle lanes.

It is not unusual for Chicago to fail to respond to dangerous conditions that develop in its bike lanes.  It is important for the City to recognize that, just like anyone else, it must fix dangers to reduce the chance of injury.  If it does not then there must be consequences.  Fortunately, last week a Cook  County judge denied the City’s attempt to free itself of responsibility under such circumstances.  The City’s law department strenuously asserted that Chicago’s bike lanes are akin to playgrounds and should therefore be declared recreational facilities as a matter of law.  On behalf of the injured bicyclist our law firm argued in response:

A part of a street designated for bike traffic is no more a recreational area than that part of the same street designated for motor vehicle traffic or pedestrians. . .  Bicycle lanes in Chicago, while sometimes enjoyable places in which to travel, have been installed to facilitate basic transportation.   To hold otherwise as a matter of law would be to sanction the degradation of the bicycle as a mere toy for those with excessive leisure time, instead of a simple tool that may be used to cheaply, efficiently and healthfully transport residents of Chicago from point A to point B.

Importantly, the City could cite to no legal precedent in support of its novel position that a portion of the street may be deemed a recreational area.  Its position on the matter was not supported by law.  More than that, however, the City of Chicago’s effort in this regard may be viewed as a slap in the face to all bicyclists.  It communicates that those of us who choose to travel by bike are not to be taken seriously.  Would the City ever seek to have motor vehicle lanes declared recreational areas?  How about pedestrian crosswalks?  I doubt it.   Apparently, the City feels that people traveling by bike to work or school are not worthy of the same protections afforded to drivers and pedestrians.

To be fair, I know some of the people that work for and with the Chicago Department of Transportation, the department responsible for designing and installing our city’s bike lanes.  Many them are transportation cyclists themselves and are committed to seeing biking grow as a viable means of transportation in our car-clogged metropolis.  I have to wonder whether any of them were consulted about or even knew of the position being taken by the city’s law department.

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