By RYAN J. STANTON Political Reporter Comment Now
Posted on Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.
It’s early afternoon on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor and a bicyclist is riding down the sidewalk past Jolly Pumpkin, cutting through the gap between the restaurant’s front door — which is starting to swing open — and the outdoor diners seated an arm’s length away.
The bicyclist keeps pedaling as he splits the group of pedestrians ahead. Scenes like this have ended badly before, but all parties escape unscathed this time.
Sydney Loomis, the Jolly Pumpkin server exiting the door, says she’s on alert knowing bicyclists are cruising up and the down the busy downtown sidewalk.
“It is dangerous because our door comes out and so we have to wait, and then we smash into them accidentally sometimes,” she said. “So it is kind of annoying. We just come out really slowly.”
In an effort to make downtown a little more pedestrian-friendly, Mayor John Hieftje is kicking around the idea of an ordinance banning riding bicycles on downtown sidewalks.
“I’ve proposed it several times to our groups, and I’m going to check back and see how the conversation is going,” he said. “If it doesn’t get moving very soon, I’ll certainly do it myself.”
Hieftje, an avid cyclist who regularly rides with traffic in the streets downtown, said he doesn’t think it’s necessary for people to ride on the sidewalk. In fact, he thinks it’s safer in the street.
“I have witnessed people careening down the sidewalk, trying to avoid pedestrians and knocking over three or four chairs in front of restaurants and going flying themselves,” he said. “And we have had reports of people stepping out of doorways and being run into. A few years ago, we had woman with a broken arm who was smashed by a cyclist.”
Hieftje brought up the idea of a new ordinance at the last Downtown Development Authority board meeting and received positive responses. He said it doesn’t have to be a blanket ban.
“One of the objections I’ve heard is what about the family with the kids that wants to ride down to the library?” he said. “And I think we could probably figure out some exceptions. I’m not concerned about the 9-year-old on a bike. My concern is the person who’s barreling down Street Street.”
Hieftje said the ordinance, which would have to be approved by the City Council, could be worded in such a way so that families with children under a certain age could ride on the sidewalks without being ticketed. And as for others who don’t like the idea of being pushed into the street, they still could choose to walk their bicycles on the sidewalks downtown.
The city already has adopted the Michigan Vehicle Code, which has rules for riding bicycles on sidewalks. The law states anyone operating a bicycle on a sidewalk or a pedestrian crosswalk must yield to pedestrians and must give an audible signal before overtaking and passing them.
Anyone who doesn’t already follow that law can be subject to a civil infraction ticket and hit with a $110 fine in Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court. Court Administrator Keith Zeisloft said the court has 22 citations on file for bicycle-related violations in the past two years, but a breakdown of the specific violations wasn’t immediately available.
The law further states anyone lawfully operating a bicycle on a sidewalk or pedestrian crosswalk has all the rights and responsibilities of a pedestrian using that sidewalk or crosswalk.
As for the kind of city ordinance Hieftje is talking about, reactions are mixed. Some love it, some hate it, and some are in between.
Sandy Bledsoe, an avid cyclist in Ann Arbor, said traffic is so light downtown that it’s silly to ride on busy sidewalks. Still, he’s undecided on the idea of an ordinance banning riding on sidewalks.
“It could do more harm than good,” he said. “For example, I’ve heard stories about laws making texting illegal actually making the problem worse and causing more accidents.”
David Tapia-Vidal, another avid cyclist who commutes by bicycle through downtown Ann Arbor, said he’s been safe riding with traffic in the street but he’s still not in favor of the ban.
“There’s an issue here, which is freedom,” he said. “If you are cautious, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to practice the freedom of being in the sidewalk.”
City Council Member Sandi Smith, who serves on the DDA board with Hieftje, said she would be in favor of an ordinance banning bicycling on downtown sidewalks.
“I do a lot of time on my feet on the sidewalks and there are conflicts — more and more are conflicts of bicycle and pedestrian, and the pedestrian is going to get hurt,” she said. “I’ve been bumped.”
Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, said she doesn’t know if an ordinance banning bicycles on downtown sidewalks is needed.
“I’m hesitant to ever create laws that I don’t know we could enforce,” she said. “I would really need documentation that it was a consistent health hazard, as opposed to the people who go through red lights on their bikes, the people who blow through stop signs on their bikes — those are impossible for us to enforce and yet those are already against the law.”
Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, stopped to chat about the issue while riding his bicycle on a downtown sidewalk on a recent afternoon.
“I won’t support it because I think that’s way far overreaching,” he said of the mayor’s idea. “There are other things happening on our sidewalks that are causing just as much problems. Maybe we shouldn’t have such a liberal sidewalk vending permitting process.”
Kunselman, who regularly rides his bicycle on downtown sidewalks, said he has faith Ann Arborites can be courteous and follow proper bicycling etiquette, like alerting others when they’re passing.
“Whenever I’m in crowds on sidewalks, I go very slowly, put my feet down and kind of walk it and sometimes I get off and walk,” he said. “I’ve never hit anybody.”
Nicole Minzey, a server at Conor O’Neill’s, spends a lot of time at the front door of the pub observing the flow of people on Main Street. She’s never seen a bicycle-pedestrian accident.
“The only places I see accidents — there’s quite a few on the Diag, bicycles hitting bicycles, bicycles hitting pedestrians. I’ve never seen any accidents here,” she said.
A complex issue
Erica Briggs, who chairs the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition, calls the idea of banning bicycles on sidewalks a complex issue. She said the topic has been talked about for a number of years because of the ongoing conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists downtown.
Briggs said the WBWC has no official position, but she thinks it’s safe to say the group would not support a ban on bicycling on sidewalks throughout the entire downtown at this time.
“My personal viewpoint is that it might make sense to prohibit biking on sidewalks for adults in certain zones now,” she said, mentioning Main Street between William and Huron, Liberty between Main and State, State between Huron and William, and South University between East University and Huron.
“These are dense pedestrian areas and a cyclist in this area could pose a risk to a pedestrian,” she said. “Prohibiting riding on the sidewalk in short corridors would protect pedestrians, while still allowing and encouraging cyclists to travel to destinations throughout the downtown.”
But to prohibit bicycles on sidewalks throughout the entire downtown would be counterproductive, she said, noting efforts are under way to encourage non-motorized travel.
Briggs believes the city needs to focus on greater education for both cyclists and motorists, increase enforcement of cyclists riding recklessly fast on sidewalks and ignoring traffic laws on the street, and commit to creating better infrastructure for cyclists downtown.
She said many bike-friendly cities have focused on developing “bike boulevards,” which are streets intended primarily for bikers and walkers, and “cycle tracks,” which are buffered bike lanes. She noted most downtown Ann Arbor streets lack bike lanes and “sharrows” are used instead.
Hieftje said he’s looking forward to more discussion on the issue, including public hearings. He’s convinced it’s less dangerous for cyclists to be in the street than on busy sidewalks.
“I personally find there’s really no problem riding in the streets of downtown Ann Arbor. The traffic is not moving at a rapid pace,” he said. “If you’re paying attention and you have any sophistication at all as far as a cyclist, it’s not a problem to ride on downtown streets.”
Hieftje said the city would have to put up signs to get compliance with the ordinance. As for adding more bike lanes downtown, he said that’s not on the city’s agenda.
“In the downtown area, we decided a long time ago that we weren’t going to attempt to put in bike lanes everywhere,” he said.
“You’ll see bike lanes on streets like Division and Fifth,” he said, “but on the other streets like State, for instance, there’s no need for bike lanes. Traffic is creeping along anyway with the lights there.”