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.
  • Anonymous

    If there were a bike lane would that change the “intended vs permitted” argument?

  • Anne A

    Exactly. Designated bike facility means cyclists are “intended” users.

  • Yes, the argument would change. Attorney Brendan Kevenides wrote,

    “The bottom line is this: a bicyclist may not maintain a lawsuit against a local governmental entity, such as a city, town or municipality, for injuries sustained due to hazards or defects in the roadway unless there was present at the time of the accident some signs, markings or other clear indication that the roadway was intended for use by bike traffic.”

    That this is a marked shared lane (“sharrows”) changes nothing because those have no legal implications. Those are indicating what is already true for all streets: every lane (except bike lanes) are “shared lanes”.

    There’s way more info on MyBikeAdvocate.

  • Erik Swedlund

    Best wishes for Katie’s speedy recovery.

  • I took a similar fall when my bike tire caught in the gap between the pavement and a stretch of no longer used rail that crosses Cermak just west of Peoria. If traffic had been going a little faster, I would’ve been squished by a semi.

  • Pat

    Same wide gapes on the grates on the right lane westbound Upper Wacker Dr.

  • Anonymous

    Not sure if this part–“That this is a marked shared lane (“sharrows”) changes nothing because those have no legal implications. Those are indicating what is already true for all streets: every lane (except bike lanes) are “shared lanes” “–is your interpretation of the law or the attorney’s, but I’m not quite sure that’s true under Boub.

    No clue how lower court’s have ruled on the issue of things like “sharrows” or street signs indicating an otherwise unmarked street is a suggested bike way, but pretty sure the Appellate Court hasn’t addressed whether something like sharrows would reflect that bicyclists are intended users.

    Boub holds “that bicyclists are permitted, but not intended, users of the roads, in the absence of specific markings, signage, or further manifestations of the local entity’s intent that would speak otherwise.” I would argue that sharrows would seem to qualify as “specific markings, signage or further manifestation of the local entity’s intent” to have cyclists be intended users of that stretch of roadway considering they have often quite literally painted a bicycle on the road.

  • A sharrow is an advisory symbol to tell drivers to expect more bicyclists on this road and to tell bicyclists where to position themselves in regards to the door zone. They have the same meaning as the sign “SHARED LANE – YIELD TO BIKES”.

    It’s obviously not my legal opinion. I’ll see if I can get Brendan or Jim to weigh in or point me to a post they’ve already written.

  • Can you photograph it?

  • Sharrows aren’t facilities, though. Riding in the line of the sharrow is no different than riding in the middle of the 14+ feet wide lane.

  • Totally an issue, and all over the city. Write it down and tell the alderman, if it’s abandoned rail the city can either cover it with asphalt or initiate abandonment procedures that would eventually have the rail removed. Alderman Solis – alderman for that spot – got some rails removed along Peoria between Cermak and 18th this year.

  • Anonymous

    Funny enough, I did a search on Google for Boub and Sharrows on Google just to see what others had written, and the scone result is a grid article you wrote where Jim Friedman notes sharrows can change the Boub analysis and indicate a city is liable on that stretch of roadway.

    Not trying to be a pest here, but as an attorney myself that experienced a pretty serious injury on an unmarked road that does fall under the Boub, I think it’s import ant to really understand what that case does and does not say. Boub does not say only cyclists in bike lanes are intended users.

  • Anonymous
  • Brendan Kevenides

    In my opinion, if the grate, or other road defect, were in close proximity to the sharrows designation, the city may be held liable. What “close proximity” may mean is obviously the rub. The closer to the painted arrows the better. In this case, the sewer cover is in the middle of the street, making it less likely that a court would permit a suit against the city to go forward. This specific situation has not been considered by our courts. I suspect the city’s attorneys would make the same argument that Steve has. I think they would also argue that the area along the right side of the roadway, where there are sharrows on the street, is intended for bike traffic, but the middle of the road is not. Sounds silly to someone who actually rides a bike in the city, I know. Then again the Boub, in my view, is a silly decision.

    Our firm is presently litigating a sewer grate case. In that matter the grate is located in a dedicated bicycle lane.

  • Thank you @brendankevenides:disqus and @rohmen:disqus for having this discussion with me.

  • Anonymous

    At least Justice Gordon in the 1st District is on the cyclists’ side with regards to Boub, though he couldn’t sway the majority that Evanston’s practice of placing signs up prohibiting bicycles from certain streets indicated that it intended cyclists to use the streets not marked accordingly. His dissent does show that at least some Judges will read some flexibility into when Boub should apply given the chance, though.


  • Rich S

    There are similar grates like this all over UIC. I don’t ride fast through campus anyway but a guy took a fall right in front of me just a couple weeks ago.


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