Kansas Supreme Court on the right to travel by bicycle

In 1890 the Kansas Supreme Court issued an interesting ruling upholding the right to travel the public ways by bicycle.

Highlights:
Public streets are highways, and every citizen has a right to use them.

Each citizen has the absolute right to choose for himself the mode of conveyance he desires, whether it be by wagon or carriage, by horse, motor or electric car, or by bicycle, or astride of a horse, subject to the sole condition that he will observe all those requirements that are known as the 'law of the road.' This right of the people to the use of the public streets of a city is so well established and so universally recognized in this country that it has become a part of the alphabet of fundamental rights of the citizen.

There can be no question, then, but what a citizen riding on a bicycle in that part of the street devoted to the passage of vehicles is but exercising his legal right to its use, and a city ordinance that attempted to forbid such use of that part of a public street would be held void, as against common right.

It may be said of bicycles with greater force, as was said of the first use by railroads of public streets, that they are not an obstruction to, or an unreasonable use of, the public streets of a city, but rather a new and improved method of using the same, and germane to their principal object as a passageway.


Full relevant text:
Swift v. City of Topeka, 43 Kan 671, 23 P 1075, 8 LRA 772 (Kan 1890). An adult bicyclist riding on the vehicular portion of a bridge going over the Kansas river was arrested for violation of an ordinance prohibiting bicycle riding on sidewalks and on the bridge. He was convicted. The Supreme Court of Kansas reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss the charges. From the court's opinion: "Section 17 of the ordinance in question reads as follows: 'It shall be unlawful for any person to ride on any bicycle or velocipede upon any sidewalk in the city of Topeka, or across the Kansas river bridge. ...' It was admitted at the trial that the defendant ... was riding upon a bicycle across the Kansas river bridge, situated on Kansas avenue, within the corporate limits of the city of Topeka; that he was engaged in riding his bicycle across the said bridge when he was arrested, which bridge is 900 feet long, and spans the Kansas river between North and South Topeka; that the main part of said bridge is constructed wide enough for teams to pass each other, going in opposite directions, being about 17 feet in the clear; that on each side of the wagon road there is a passage-way for foot-passengers, and that the defendant was riding his bicycle, at the time named in the complaint, on that part of the bridge used for wagons, carriages, and other vehicles; that the bridge just described is the only bridge on the Kansas river between North and South Topeka, and is the only means of communication between those points; that it is used and occupied with a double track by the Topeka City Railway Company, that continually runs its street-cars between the two points named; that there is a large travel across said bridge, between the two parts of the city of Topeka, by vehicles drawn by horses and otherwise, and that teams and other vehicles are constantly passing over said bridge each way. It is further shown by the evidence that a bicycle can be driven at the rate from 2 to 20 miles per hour; that the ordinary and usual rate of speed is 8 miles per hour; that they can be stopped within from 10 to 20 feet, when being driven at the rate of 10 miles per hour, the limit within which they can be stopped depending somewhat on the kind of bicycle and the experience of the rider; that bicycles have been in use in this city for several years, and at the time of this arrest that there were more than 100 in constant use in the city. ...

"It will be seen, by an ordinary inspection of the record, that the ordinance only prohibits the use of a bicycle or velocipede upon any sidewalk in the city of Topeka, or across the Kansas river bridge. It does not, either in express terms or by fair implication, forbid riding upon a bicycle on the road-way, or that part of any of the public streets that are devoted to the use of carriages, wagons, and other vehicles, and, while the ordinance is subject to the construction that it was only along or across the foot passage-way or sidewalk of the Kansas river bridge that persons were forbidden to ride on bicycles, yet for the present we shall adopt the construction necessarily adhered to by the trial court, that the ordinance intended to forbid all riding upon bicycles across any part of the Kansas river bridge. It is an admitted fact in this case that at the time of the arrest Swift was riding his bicycle on that part of the bridge used for wagons, carriages, and other vehicles. A 'bicycle' is defined by lexicographers, and by the courts of England and of this country, to be a carriage. ... A bridge in the city of Topeka is a part of the public street. ... The exact question, then, is, have the authorities of the city of Topeka, by an ordinance, the power to forbid Swift riding upon his carriage on that part of a public street of the city devoted to the use of vehicles? This statement of the question necessarily assumes that the power of the city could be exercised to prevent the use of bicycles along the sidewalks of the public streets (and these sidewalks will include the footways across the bridge) to the same extent as the use of all other kind of vehicles, no matter how propelled, could be prevented. Public streets are highways, and every citizen has a right to use them. Both the sidewalks and roadways must remain unobstructed, so that people can walk along one without interruption or danger, or drive along the other without delay or apprehension. One of the most imperative duties of city governments in this country is to keep their public streets in such a condition that citizens can travel along them with safety, and without any unnecessary delay. Each citizen has the absolute right to choose for himself the mode of conveyance he desires, whether it be by wagon or carriage, by horse, motor or electric car, or by bicycle, or astride of a horse, subject to the sole condition that he will observe all those requirements that are known as the 'law of the road.' This right of the people to the use of the public streets of a city is so well established and so universally recognized in this country that it has become a part of the alphabet of fundamental rights of the citizen. While the tyranny of the American system of government very largely consists in the action of the municipal authorities, this right has not yet been questioned or attempted to be abridged. There can be no question, then, but what a citizen riding on a bicycle in that part of the street devoted to the passage of vehicles is but exercising his legal right to its use, and a city ordinance that attempted to forbid such use of that part of a public street would be held void, as against common right.

"It may be said of bicycles with greater force, as was said of the first use by railroads of public streets, that they are not an obstruction to, or an unreasonable use of, the public streets of a city, but rather a new and improved method of using the same, and germane to their principal object as a passageway. ...

"Hence we say that the true intent and meaning of section 17 of the city ordinance in question is that all persons are forbidden to ride on bicycles upon any sidewalk in the city, or the sidewalks or footways of the Kansas river bridge. Sidewalks are intended, constructed, and used solely by pedestrians, and not for the use of vehicles. ... A bicycle, being a carriage, can properly be excluded from the use of sidewalks, and persons riding on them should be forbidden to occupy the sidewalks and footways of the public streets, at least long itudinally along such sidewalks or footways. They should be permitted to go across them at such public places as other vehicles are permitted. With this construction of the ordinance, it is plain that Swift has not violated its provisions, and his conviction was wrongful. ..."

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