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Will awareness change downtown bike activity?

Jim Ward said he feels safe on Rochester's downtown streets on his daily commute during the warmer months. As a bike rider and a pedestrian, the Mayo Clinic employee said mixing the two activities on busy sidewalks spurs safety concerns for all...

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Jim Ward said he feels safe on Rochester's downtown streets on his daily commute during the warmer months.

"I don't mind getting a little bit of exercise," he added as he locked his bike at a First Avenue Southwest rack last week.

As a bike rider and a pedestrian, the Mayo Clinic employee said mixing the two activities on busy sidewalks spurs safety concerns for all involved.

Others, however, worry about their safety when riding on the street.

Moments before Ward locked his bike after his morning commute, Jonathan Jay rode among pedestrians on the sidewalk, heading to a nearby bike rack as he prepared to volunteer downtown.

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"It seems safer, I guess," he said, when asked about his decision to ride on the sidewalk.

Ward said it's understandable. "I can see where they are a little intimidated about riding on the road," he said, noting the key is making sure others see you on the street.

Officer James Marsolek, who is restarting the Rochester Police Department's bike patrol, offered similar advice for sharing the street with cars.

"You ride like you are a car," he said. "You want to be visible and you want to be predictable."

Marsolek said statistics show that more accidents occur with bikes on sidewalks than when they are ridden in city streets.

The safety debate aside, state law says bikes cannot be ridden on sidewalks in business districts, which would include downtown Rochester. It's a law that has gone largely unenforced, as some local residents have noted publicly.

During the June 5 Rochester City Council meeting, downtown business owner John Kruesel recalled an incident from the night before when he was nearly hit by a bike on the First Avenue Sidewalk between Half Barrel and Potbelly's.

He said it wasn't his first near-collision.

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"I see it all the time," he told the council. "I step out of my shop some times and a bicycle is right there, and you almost get hit."

Richard Freese, director of Rochester Public Works, said his department is taking early steps that could change that.

"Police officers are really reluctant to write tickets they know will not be enforced," he said, noting such cases can be thrown out in court if a violator claims no notice was provided.

Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson echoed the thought, noting it also impacts officer safety.

"Taking enforcement action without making any reasonable effort to notify the public of restriction will create significant public resentment," he said, noting that can lead some people to react negatively.

Rochester has no signs informing people that bikes are not allowed to be ridden on downtown sidewalks, but that could change by the end of summer.

Last month, Freese presented the city's Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee possible sign and sidewalk stencil designs for busy sidewalks to raise awareness and deter improper use and better define the downtown business district.

He said a pilot program could start later this summer on select downtown streets, such as First Avenue, Second Street, Fourth Street and South Broadway.

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During the discussion, most members indicated they would prefer stencil options.

"From what I've seen, having stencils on the sidewalk is more impactful than signs," committee chairwoman Kelly Corbin said, noting she has seen both used.

Sue Hartwig, who makes a nine-block commute to Mayo Clinic by bike, said the added notification is needed. While she recently rode up to her bike rack from the street near the intersection of First Avenue and Center Street, she said she wasn't aware the sidewalks were off limits. She said the street simply feels safer before and after work.

"Everybody's coming out of parking ramps or coming to work," she said.

Still, she said signs or stencils should only be a first step, especially if it leads to ticketing violators.

"If the city is going to crack down on that, then I strongly feel we need protected bike lanes sooner rather than later," she said, noting changes would make people more likely to ride outside of the sidewalks.

However, Peterson said the primary goal is to inform, rather penalize people.

"Our goals is not to write tickets, but to get more compliance," he said.

However, Joy indicated new markings may not sway his choices.

"It depends on how close I am to my destination," he said, when asked if he would leave the sidewalk for the street when he saw a sign posted.

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Sue Hartwig

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