Eyes on the Street: The Bike-Catching Sewer Grate That Took Down a Cyclist

The grate seen in a June 2011 StreetView image.

Katie Kolon is a lawyer who races with the Spidermonkeys team and commutes on a bike every day, but a measly sewer grate stopped her homeward trip on Wabansia Avenue last Friday afternoon. She was going west with groceries in her pannier and basket when she stopped at California Avenue, where you must jog right before you can turn left onto the next block of Wabansia. At the stop sign, she waited to make eye contact with a driver stopped at the intersection before proceeding. But Kolon didn’t make it across the intersection because her bike wheel slipped into the long, wide slits of a sewer grate, causing her to crash.

“[The driver] finally saw me,” Kolon said, describing the moment before the crash, “and then I looked down, saw I was headed for the grate, but did not have time to maneuver my heavy bike away.” She had to get five stitches on her chin, and received a large bruise on her leg.

The sewer cover slits are 1.5 inches wide. Photo provided by Katie Kolon.

This grate design is rare, and although it is in the middle of the road, where people are generally less likely to be biking, it seems perfectly aligned for the bicyclist who needs to turn left from California to Wabansia. The slits are 1.5 inches wide, which is wide enough to catch most bicycle wheels that aren’t for mountain biking.

The Chicago Department of Transportation undertook a program in the last decade to eradicate cyclist-tripping grates that were installed on bridges, including Halsted Street over the train tracks and Kinzie Street. As this story indicates, there are still some problem spots out there, and it would be good to see a renewed effort to replace the grate type that caused Kolon to crash with the more typical grate that has smaller, oblong holes.

As for compensation, Kolon is on her own. While the city has a program to reimburse expenses incurred when cars are damaged by potholes, they don’t have a similar program for people biking or walking. Additionally, there is a legal precedent — the Boub v. Wayne case — which says that cities aren’t liable for bike crashes because bicyclists are “permitted” users of the road, not “intended” users. Regardless, being proactive and replacing these and other sewer grates will help the city reduce the number of road negligence lawsuits it has to fight.

Typical Chicago sewer grate

A typical, safe Chicago sewer grate.