Sidewalk riding is forbidden on downtown streets.Photo by Bob Seidenberg

Evanston officials have long grappled with what to do about cyclists riding on sidewalks in some areas, placing pedestrians at risk.

But members of the City’s Transportation & Parking Committee recently brought a new element into consideration: Cyclists may take to sidewalks in certain areas because they just do not feel safe riding on certain streets.

At the committee’s Sept.  25 meeting, members discussed a referral from First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, asking them to take a look at the problem. The First Ward includes much of the Central Business District where the problem has been greatest at times, intensifying when Northwestern University students return to school.

Current City Code prohibits bicycle riding in the Central Business District or in any other district where signs prohibiting sidewalk riding are posted. Officials counted 124 bicyclists riding on the sidewalk at Chicago Avenue and Church Street –  27% of the total bicycle traffic in that area, under a survey included in the City’s July 2014 Bike Plan update, the last time the count was taken.

But the traffic was even higher at the time at Chicago Avenue and Sheridan Road, with 693 bicyclists on the sidewalk or 7% of the total bike traffic.

The survey predates the City’s installing a protected bike lane in the Chicago and Sheridan area, cutting down the number of sidewalk riders to “minuscule,” said Jessica Hyink, the City Transportation and Mobility Coordinator, addressing the Committee.

“That is what is missing from this conversation – is that people bike on sidewalks, not trying to make other people feel uncomfortable, but because they feel uncomfortable in the streets.”

Protected bike lanes, located on Sheridan Road, Dodge Avenue and Church Street, comprise about 5% of the total streets.

On those streets, “this is where we say bikes belong,” she said. “Everywhere else, bikes are trying to fit in with other modes of transportation – cars and pedestrians.”

That may be the case, said Committee member Terri Dubin. “But I live downtown now and you should be walking your bike on the sidewalk,” she said, “and you should know and expect that and build it into your time.”

City Engineer Lara Biggs, said the issue really needs to be studied over a wider range.

“In downtown or the business districts, where we have a large density of pedestrians, it’s really easy [to see] why we don’t want bicyclists on the sidewalks,” she told Committee members.

In other areas with fewer businesses, “there are pedestrians – they’re walking home, they’re walking to school, they’re walking their dog, but it’s not packed with people,” she said. “And there it is relatively simple for a bicyclist to safely navigate without running into a pedestrian.”

Ms. Biggs pointed to herself. “I’m not a very good bike rider, and if I’m going on Asbury, I’m not very comfortable riding on Asbury, but I am comfortable riding on the sidewalk. And I come across pedestrians all the time, and I very carefully navigate around them.”

Evanston police generally issue warnings rather than writing tickets for people riding on the sidewalk, said a representative of the Police Department sitting in at the meeting. Alerting riders of the prohibited activity, “we say, ‘Can you get off?’” related the officer. “They say, ‘Yeah, I’m getting off to park the bike,’ which is 20 feet onto the sidewalk,” he noted.

Another complaint police frequently hear is, “We don’t see the sign,” he said, with the signs out of the eye-level of many riders.

“No Bicycle Riding” signs are located on corners, pointed out another officer, “and most people coming to a corner – they’re worried about crossing the street, and not paying attention to the sign.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the problem exists in the Main-Dempster Mile Business District, where there is a bike lane.

“The sidewalks are narrow, and you step out of Jimmy Johns or any of those stores there, I’ve nearly been hit by a cyclist, I don’t know how many times,” she said. “To me, that’s like driving down past cars where you’re going to get doored,” she said.

She said officials should consider adding signs mid-block.

Committee member Alejandro Anon said there is a bigger problem at hand. “I think we would never get rid of people who are irresponsible and who ride on the sidewalks.” But on Chicago Avenue, for instance, “if you could ride your bike on the street, you would do so.”

Attention-getting sandwich board signs, such as are in use in Oak Park, may be one possibility to warn cyclists against riding in prohibited areas, Committee members said.

Beyond that, staff could conduct a survey downtown and in other business districts to make sure markings are in place, Ms. Biggs suggested.

On a more basic level, Ms. Dubin suggested, “Maybe we can talk to Northwestern – and I’m sorry I’m singling them out, but I do – including in freshman orientation what the rules are in Evanston on bike riding.”

Ms. Hyink said that is being done as part of orientation. She said the problem is not limited to Northwestern.

One of the officers pointed out that Oak Park’s downtown has A-frame signs posted at the beginning of each block and mid-block, spelling out everything that may and may not be done on sidewalks, including rollerblading and skateboarding.

“It’s intrusive, and it’s meant to be intrusive,” he told committee members. “And it’s meant to be visible, so therefore you can’t say, ‘I didn’t see the sign,’” officials said.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.