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Is Illinois Bicycle Friendly?

Over the past decade, sparked by changes in technology, increases in the cost of fuel, and pushes towards renewable energy, bicycling has become more and more popular, but Illinois still doesn’t seem very bicycle friendly, which puts riders at a bicycle safety risk. It is not uncommon to see bicyclers riding in all types of weather during the spring, summer, fall, and sometimes even winter months. Some towns have designated bike trails and paths alongside the roadway. Yet, most cyclists would be surprised if they found out that, according to an 18- year-old Illinois Supreme Court precedent, they are not necessarily intended users of public ways, including popular riding paths and trails.

Bicyclists are permitted users of roadways, but not intended users

In Boub v. Township of Wayne, which took place in 1998, the Illinois Supreme Court held that a cyclist is only a permitted user of a roadway, not an intended user. The court pointed to precedents in the past that indicated that while while intended users are also permitted users, permitted users are not necessarily intended users. The court found that, if no signs or other markings specifically indicate that the roadway is intended for bicycle use, then cyclists are not intended users of the roadway. One of the justices dissented, claiming that the majority’s holding was, as a principal of public policy, both irrational and dangerous. The majority holding in the Boub case discourages municipalities from making roads safer for bicyclists.

Unfortunately, Illinois has not kept up with the growth of bicycling since 1998.

Is Chicago Becoming More Bike Friendly?

Many cities across the state have been taking steps to become more bicycle friendly. Chicago, for instance, is one city that has seen a surge in the number of cyclists, but has taken steps to become more bicycle friendly. Currently, Chicago has more than two hundred miles of on-street protected, buffered, and shared bike lanes, and miles of off-street paths.  Chicago has plans to build up to 645 miles in bike lanes by 2020. These bike lanes will help citizens of Chicago feel safe and comfortable while bicycling on the streets.

Three principles guiding Chicago’s plan to become more bicycle friendly

  • Provide a bicycle accommodation within ½ mile of every Chicago resident
  • Provide a greater number of bikeways where more people live
  • Increase the amount of infrastructure where ridership is high, while establishing a strong backbone where ridership is currently lower, but has the potential to grow.

The goal is to make Chicago one of the best places for cycling in the US, and they are well on their way.

Time for a change?

Chicago is not the only city that has become more bicycle friendly. Other urban cities in Illinois have also been recognized as being bike friendly. Some of these cities include: Urbana, Naperville, Evanston, Elmhurst, and Warrenville. While Chicago and other cities have made clear markings and trails that show that bicyclists are intended users, the law is still the same in these cities. If a city has signs, markings, bike paths, special traffic lights for bicyclists, or anything that specifically states that the intention is to improve access for bicyclists, then a bicyclist is an intended user of the roadway, and municipalities are more likely to be liable if a bicycler is injured by a defect in the roadway. If there are no signs, markings, or anything that specifically states that a bicycler is the intended user of the roadway, then a municipality is immune from liability since the bicycler is not an intended user. The problem is that it is impossible to mark every area as an area designated for bicyclers, and if a bicycler crashes in one of these unmarked areas, the municipality is not responsible. There is no uniformity.

What can be done?

If a person driving a car or motorcycle crashes because of a defect in the road, they will be treated differently than a cyclist who crashes because of a defect. This approach does not make a lot of sense, since a lot of municipalities focus on bicycle safety, putting good public policy at odds with the law. A relatively simple solution exists that would level the playing field and solve this problem: the Illinois legislature should pass legislation that declares bicyclers are both intended and permitted users of roadways.

Different advocacy groups for bicyclers in Illinois have tried to propose legislation in the past,but they have not been successful. The legislature could clarify the duty owed to bicyclers and this would encourage more people to use bicycles. And in the end, this could reduce the number of bicycle accidents in Illinois.

R.F. Wittmeyer

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