A Chicago cyclist rides along the Milwaukee Avenue bike lane in Wicker Park on Nov. 9.
A cyclist rides along the Milwaukee Avenue bike lane in Wicker Park on Nov. 9. (Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago)

The Chicago City Council is filling its lame-duck period with a flurry of legislation designed to make the city safer for cyclists, most recently with a measure that would give riders more legal rights to the road.

The ordinance, introduced to the City Council last week by Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), proposes a small but consequential language change in city rules specifying that cyclists “shall be permitted and intended users of all roadways” in the city unless a street is explicitly marked otherwise. The ordinance was co-sponsored by more than 40 other alderpeople.

Whether bikers are “intended” or simply “permitted” users of the public way was the subject of a seminal 1992 lawsuit brought to the Illinois Supreme Court by Jon Boub, who was injured while biking over a loose gravel road in unincorporated DuPage County. The high court narrowly ruled in Boub vs. Wayne Township that the local government was not responsible for the man’s injuries because cyclists are not “intended users” of roadways, meaning localities can’t be held responsible for making road infrastructure safe for bikes.

“The only way the courts will conclude that a cyclist was an intended user is if they’re in a marked bike lane — and even that’s pushing it,” said Colin Cameron, an attorney who represents injured Chicago cyclists.

In 2019, Cameron sued the city of Chicago on behalf of a client who was severely injured after riding her bike into a pothole on the city’s Near North Side. The lawsuit was dismissed because she was not riding in a marked bike lane, meaning she was not an “intended user” of the street, Cameron said.

Cameron and other critics say the 1992 Supreme Court ruling removed an incentive for cities to keep all its streets safe for bikers. It also created a disincentive for cities to mark clear bike lanes, because marked lanes became the only paths where the city can be held liable for bike injuries.

“If [Vasquez’s] ordinance goes through, they’d have incentives to make sure that streets are, at least, reasonably safe for cyclists,” Cameron said. “It’s a great step forward for cyclist safety, and I’m glad they’re doing it.”

Chicago leaders have long lagged in their promises to build out a reliable network of bike lanes to let cyclists use the streets safely, and traffic deaths and injuries remain common. A recent Illinois Answers Project investigation found that drivers crashed into cyclists more than 400 times in Chicago between January 2020 and July 2022.

But momentum has been building in the City Council for policies designed and accelerate the city’s push for bike safety. The movement was boosted by a cluster of traffic deaths last summer, including the deaths of a 2-year-old boy and a 75-year-old man who were killed by drivers within weeks of each other and in the same neighborhood.

During the same meeting when Vasquez introduced his proposal last week, the City Council approved an ordinance requiring city transportation officials to consider bike and pedestrian safety upgrades every time they move to repave an arterial street. The measure was accompanied by a separate ordinance creating a “Smart Streets” pilot ordinance directing the city to step up its ticketing of drivers who block bike paths and dedicated bus lanes.

Vasquez called his ordinance a natural progression in the city’s move to make cyclists feel safer on city streets.

“This is part of a larger acknowledgment that we have more cyclists using the road,” said the alderperson, who won reelection to a second term last month. “We’re looking at how to pivot into what the future of multi-modal transportation looks like.”

Jim Merrell, advocacy director for the Active Transportation Alliance, said he was encouraged by the overwhelming City Council majority that signed on to co-sponsor Vasquez’s proposal. He noted that both mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson have committed to building out bike safety improvements, and he said he’ll work with like-minded organizers to expand new initiatives like the “Smart Streets” pilot after the new City Council is seated in May.

“During the election, a lot of promises get made,” Merrell said in an interview Tuesday. “Our job is to make sure that whoever wins will follow through on the commitments they’ve shown … to make sure safe streets remain a key part of the conversation.”

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Transportation declined to comment on Vasquez’s proposal but noted that the department has added about 100 miles of new bike lanes to city streets since 2019.

Alex Nitkin is a solutions reporter conducting investigations on efforts to fix broken systems in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. Before joining Illinois Answers, he worked as a reporter and editor for The Daily Line covering Cook County and Chicago government. He previously worked at The Real Deal Chicago, where he covered local real estate news, and DNAinfo Chicago, where he worked as a breaking news reporter and then as a neighborhood reporter covering the city's Northwest Side. A New York City native who grew up in Connecticut, Alex graduated Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a bachelor’s degree.