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High court hears case on bikes on high road

Published November 8, 2012

The downhill start of the bike ban in Black Hawk. Photo: Steve Frothingham

BLACK HAWK, CO (BRAIN) — Gregory Street is a hilly two lanes, winding between $1.99 prime rib steak houses and old mining buildings turned into casinos in this little Las Vegas of the Rockies, which sits at over 8,000 feet elevation west of Denver.

Cyclists have been fighting for nearly three years to be allowed on this road, and now the case is in the hands of the state's highest court.

The city of Black Hawk — nearly a ghost town before casino gambling was legalized here in the 1990s — banned bikes from Gregory Street in 2010, saying a study showed that bikes and motor vehicles could not safely coexist there.

While Gregory Street might not make for particularly pleasant cycling, riders have long relied on it to reach the southern end of the popular Peak to Peak Scenic Byway; there is no alternate route. 

So when three cyclists were cited for violating the city ordinance in its first year and were fined, they challenged the bike ban in municipal and district courts. And when they lost there, they appealed to Colorado’s Supreme Court, in Denver, where oral arguments were heard Thursday.

Cyclists: State laws have precedence

When a local law conflicts with the state’s and affects non-local residents, the state law must take precedence, Paul Schwartz, the lawyer for the cyclists, told the court's seven justices.

A Colorado law says municipalities can’t ban cycling on local roads unless there is an alternate route within 450 feet. 

Thus the Black Hawk bike ban is “the poster child” for the kind of local law that conflicts with state law and affects nonresidents, Schwartz said.

"You decided that bikes weren’t compatible with Black Hawk’s economic model ..." — Justice Gregory Hobbs

Justice Gregory Hobbs questioned Schwartz on whether that meant Black Hawk had to build “some expensive route” to accommodate cyclists.

“Don’t they have a real issue on their hands?” he asked.

Schwartz replied that there are other ways to balance the needs of cyclists and motorized traffic.

“If there is conflict between safety and the normal movement of traffic, safety always wins,” he said. “It may be that the normal movement of traffic has to give. Cars and buses might have to slow down ... that is just part and parcel of the fundamental Colorado policy of sharing the road.”

‘Prisoner of topography’

After the study found bikes and vehicles could not share Gregory Street, Black Hawk had little choice but to ban bikes from the road, argued Black Hawk’s attorney, Corey Hoffmann.

“It was a difficult and obviously unpopular decision to make,” Hoffman told the court.

He argued that Black Hawk is entitled to make safety regulations on its own roadways, noting that the state reserved the right to regulate state highways but allowed municipalities to set their own traffic codes.

During the one-hour oral arguments, all seven justices questioned the lawyers. But during Hoffman’s argument Hobbs rose to the defense of cyclists, pushing the argument to a place even Schwartz didn’t go: all but asserting that Black Hawk trampled cyclists' rights to accomodate more gamblers at its casinos.

“You decided that bikes weren’t compatible with Black Hawk’s economic model and having casino motor coaches passing through the city ... it looks as though it was in the economic interests of the city to want this kind of traffic and not this other kind of traffic ... tell me why this isn’t so,” he challenged Hoffmann.

Hoffman said widening the road or making an alternative route was not an option. “Black Hawk is a prisoner of topography. The city is not on a grid system ... we would literally have to move a mountain to make an alternate route.”

He said the effect of the ban was minimal. “It means someone would have to walk their bike four-tenths of a mile.”

“I agree,” he told Hobbs, that “the city made a difficult decision. You may take issue with it, but it was not arbitrary.”

Hobbs, however, seemed unconvinced. 

“I’d feel better if there was an evenhanded attempt,” to consider the needs of cyclists and other traffic, he said. 

In closing remarks, Schwartz reinforced Justice Hobbs’ support for cyclists’ rights, while simultaneously tempering his case before the court’s quieter but more conservative members.

“We’re not asking for a preference,” he said. “We are just asking for nondiscrimination against bicyclists.”

The court generally issues a written ruling one to nine months after oral arguments.

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