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The dispute over a Black Hawk bike ban heads to the Colorado Supreme Court

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Tensions between cyclists and motorists on the road seem to be at an all-time high in Colorado given several recent incidents where drivers and bikers have clashed dramatically. Now, three cyclists have taken one fight all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court to protest a controversial ban on biking in Black Hawk. The case involves a municipal ordinance in place for several years that makes it illegal to bike on certain streets. The defendants -- three cyclists ticketed for violating that law -- argue that Black Hawk's policy contradicts state law. This dispute, which has been working its way through the courts since 2010, is interesting because it gets into questions about whether cities can make their own laws like this, as well as the rights of cyclists to use public roads. And for Black Hawk officials that pushed the ban, it's a matter of public safety.

The three cyclists were ticketed in June of 2010; afterward, they partnered with a Boulder law firm to argue that the ordinance violates state law. Attorney Paul Schwartz of Shoemaker Ghiselli and Schwartz explains that Colorado law makes it clear that there are restrictions on how cities can implement these kinds of transportation laws.

"Under Colorado state law, a city can ban bicycling on local streets, only if there is a suitable, nearby alternative bicycling route," he says. "And it's undisputed that there is no alternative route in this case."

Black Hawk is a "home rule" city, which means it does have municipal authority to make laws, but the defendants argue that in the case of bike bans, there are limitations.

"The general rule is that bicycles have the same rights and duties as motorists unless specifically provided for in the traffic code," says Schwartz. "And although there is a provision in the state traffic code that says cities can ban bicycling on heavily traveled streets, one of the requirements of that statute is that there be a nearby alternative."

The three cyclists, from Golden, Denver and Crested Butte, were ticketed on Gregory Street in Black Hawk after the ordinance went into effect -- earning fines which now amount to a little over one hundred dollars each. They were doing a bicycle loop starting and ending in Golden, through Idaho Springs, Central City and then down through Black Hawk.

"Gregory Street...is the only connector," says Schwartz, explaining that for cyclists on this kind of trip, there's no way around the Black Hawk streets that city officials have banned.

The case has gone from Black Hawk Municipal Court, which ruled against the cyclists, to an appeal in the Gilpin County District Court, which upheld the lower court's decision in 2011, saying that the city acted within its authority to enact a bike prohibition.

From there, the Colorado State Supreme Court granted the defendants' petition to hear the case and oral arguments were given earlier this month. That final decision is pending.

The cyclists argue that a ruling in their favor would set a precedent that there are limits on how cities can ban cyclists -- which, they say, would be a major win for bikers.

On the flip side, Black Hawk officials argue that if the court rules in favor of the defendants, it would negatively impact municipalities across the state because it would be a clear statement against local control and the authority cities have to make their own ordinances.

"The larger issue is whether cities in Colorado have the power to pass traffic regulations or traffic rules that conflict with state law, when those ordinances have an impact outside the city," says Schwartz. "We're not aware of any similar bans, but we're certainly concerned that if the ban gets upheld that it could open the door for other cities to similarly ban bicycling."

Jack Lewis, city manager of Black Hawk, which is home to casinos, says that ultimately this case and the ordinance is about safety on his city's roads.

"You'd be surprised at the number of vehicles that come down that hill every day, and many of them are large tour buses," he says. "And if two tour buses approach each other at the same time, I will assure you that there is very little room anywhere."

He says, "This is an issue of safety.... From a mitigation standpoint, it is very difficult, because of the topography here."

In response to arguments that cyclists should have the same rights as vehicles, he says, "I don't believe that anybody has a right over anyone else. When safety is a factor, safety trumps all...and it's just not safe. There is no shoulder. It's a small, narrow two-line country road."

Lewis says he is a cyclist himself but that the city must retain its right to promote safety with its own local ordinances. He argues that there is also an alternative route for cyclists that is very reasonable, though he recognizes that it doesn't fall within the distance set forth by the law, which mandates that bike bans can only be implemented when there are other options within 450 feet. Still, he's confident the court will rule in Black Hawk's favor.

Schwartz, though, says that overall the push from Black Hawk reflects an unfriendliness toward cyclists and that it should be the responsibility of vehicles to safely share the road.

"The city sort of finds it inconvenient for the buses that deliver gamblers to the casino...that they might have to share the road with bicyclists," he says.

Continue for the official court documents in this case. The opening brief of the petitioners. 2012-01-23 Opening Brief of Petitioners

The answer brief of Black Hawk. 2012-02-22 Answer Brief of Respondent City of Black Hawk

The reply brief of the petitioners. 2012-03-15 Reply Brief of Petitioners

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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