Colorado Supreme Court Rules Town Cannot Ban Bicycles for Safety Reasons

This morning, the Colorado State Supreme Court unanimously overturned a law passed by the town of Black Hawk, CO in 2010 which banned people from riding bicycles on town roads.

According to the court’s written opinion, the town passed this law because it identified bicycle traffic to be “incompatible with safety and the normal movement of traffic.” The court ruled that the bike ban violated state law due to the lack of a nearby alternative route for bicycles to travel on.

A key point on which the court based its ruling is that this sort of traffic regulation is not solely a local concern to the town but is a mixture of both local and statewide concerns. According to the court opinion, “The state’s interests include consistent application of statewide laws to avoid patchwork bicycle regulations that may frustrate residents statewide as well as potentially affecting tourism, and interests in improving the state’s bicycle transportation infrastructure.” Because of this mixture of local and state concerns in this matter, the town may not enforce a bike ban that conflicts with Colorado state statute.

You might be wondering why I am writing about this on the PPSP blog. From a big picture perspective, it is certainly good news to discover that the highest court in one of our states has recognized that public roads are open to all vehicles, regardless of whether the vehicle is motor powered or human powered.

But closer to home, the Stevens Point Journal reported in October 2011 that the Town of Hull might consider banning bicycles from certain town roadways. A link to that article is unavailable, but the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin had a wonderful writeup of this situation that can be read here. I attended several meetings of the Hull Public Safety Task Force where this issue was discussed, and I concur with the BFW report that this news story was blown out of proportion based on a not-ready-for-prime-time draft ordinance that got far more attention than it deserved.

That being said, I am also aware that the task force did raise the question about whether  bicycles could be banned from certain town roads for safety reasons. Here is an excerpt from p. 34 of the minutes of the July 21, 2011 meeting of the Hull Public Safety Task Force:

[Task Force Co-Chair John Holdridge]: Dan, do you know, can we ban bicycles and pedestrians from certain roads based on safety? I’m thinking of North Reserve.

[Dan Kontos of the Portage County Sheriff's Department]: Only on certain types of arteries and the Town of Hull doesn’t have any of those type of arteries.

Holdridge: North Reserve; that’s a narrow road and we don’t have hardly any shoulder and it’s dangerous with so much traffic. I’m saying making a case for safety on that.

Kontos: Only controlled, limited access highways and Hull doesn’t have any.

It is unfortunately common to hear talk of banning bicycle traffic when there is a (mis)perception that a public road is unsafe for people riding bicycles. This motivated the law in Black Hawk, and this excerpt illustrates that this same line of reasoning was explored by the Hull Public Safety Task Force.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a bicycle ban for safety considerations is inappropriate. If there is a safety issue, then the option is to implement fixes to the safety problem and provide safe passage for all road users, regardless of their transportation mode.

Every state’s law is different, Colorado’s ruling has no legal basis in Wisconsin, and there is no way to predict how the Wisconsin State Supreme Court might rule in a similar situation. Nevertheless, I feel comfort in learning of the Colorado decision.

In the year and a half since the Hull Public Safety Task Force last met, there has been no public action, to my knowledge, on the draft ordinance which prompted the Stevens Point Journal’s bike ban article. I have no idea if any Town of Hull leaders still have hopes to enact a future bicycle ban on North Reserve or any other Hull road out of safety considerations.

But if there is such a Town of Hull leader, it is comforting to know that the bar for passing and enforcing an ordinance banning bicycles on a town road just got substantially higher. Simply passing such a controversial ordinance would require a great deal of political capital. It seems that few would want to go to that trouble when the Colorado court decision suggests that there is a realistic chance – perhaps even a likelihood – of such a local ordinance being thrown out by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.

People using bicycles for transportation are just trying to get from A to B, just like everyone else. The freedom to use the public right of way for this purpose should be a fundamental right. A high court in our land ruled in favor of this concept, and I feel this is something people interested in making our roads safe for all road users, regardless of transportation mode, ought to be aware of.

You can read the Denver Post story about the court decision here. The full written opinion of the court can be found here.

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