Sidewalk bicycling allowed through much of Mebane

The Mebane City Council voted this week to loosen prohibitions on riding bicycles on much of the City's sidewalks, though it will still be prohibited to ride bikes within the town's Central Business District. The measure was enacted largely through the feedback of a local Fifth Street resident, who addressed concerns regarding safety with his five-year-old daughter riding her bicycle adjacent to one of the more heavily-trafficked roads in all of Mebane. 

The City of Mebane made the decision this week to make a modification to its current Code of Ordinances regarding riding bicycles on Mebane’s sidewalks. The new ordinance loosens the prohibitions regarding riding bicycles on sidewalks through large portions of the city limits, which local residents say will improve safety for families. 

Colin Cannell, a resident of 717 South Fifth Street, spoke about his concerns regarding bicycle safety along Fifth Street for his young daughter. 

“I was not a bicyclist until my five-year-old daughter came home from school and said she learned to ride a bike at school, and could I please buy her a bike,” Cannell told the elected officials. “We live on South Fifth Street, which where we live, the road is so narrow that when it was paved last year, they had to widen the road just to get the paving equipment into the road. There is no merge on the road. There is a deep gulch that drops off between the road and the sidewalk in a lot of places.”

“If my daughter were going to ride from our house to anywhere - to the park, to school, to the library - I was going to have to put her out on the road (on Fifth Street). And that was just not something I was willing to do with my five-year-old.” 

Cannell indicated that one of his main concerns with Mebane’s bicycle ordinance is that it is more than 65 years old, and doesn’t address current conditions along some of the town’s busiest traffic thoroughfares. 

“The problem I have is the law, as its written, is quite broad,” Cannell said. “It says there shall be no bicycling on the sidewalks anywhere in the city. That law was written in 1953, based on a code when there were a lot fewer cars on Fifth Street. And I see people bicycling on Fifth Street and these other major north-south arteries. I see them on the sidewalk all the time, despite the fact that it is prohibited by the ordinance. They’re doing it because that’s the only way they feel safe.” 

“These are not people in pelotons going 30 miles per hour. These are people with their kids, with recreational bicycles, going at a very normal speed,” Cannell continued. “I just felt like if we already have this behavior, where people are violating this ordinance, it doesn’t seem like anyone is doing anything. I don’t see the Police stopping them. There seems to be some tacit acceptance that this is something that’s needed (riding bikes on the sidewalk) if you live on one of these arteries, and you’re going to have to get from Point A to Point B.” 

“At the very least, I would like us to find a way to amend the ordinance so that people don’t have to break the law just to feel safe on their bicycle getting out of their house getting to these destinations. If we do that - if we create an ordinance that’s enforceable - then the Police can take that ordinance, and if someone is operating their bike in an unsafe manner, the Police can stop that person. We can get the Police involved in enforcement of it in a proactive and constructive way.” 

“There are a couple of major arteries on Third Street and Fifth Street that are very heavily trafficked, and they are not safe for bicycle movement,” City Council member Patty Philipps added. “Eighth Street is scheduled to become a bicycle boulevard in the future. But every time we look at a sidewalk project, we run into things about grade and drainage, and other issues that cause the project to be delayed. It takes a very long time. I think the intention is to provide a safe place for people to bicycle and walk, obviously. But we need to do it in a way that’s respectful to pedestrians, and doesn’t cause any more danger to them.”

Largely a result of Cannell’s feedback, the City adopted a modified ordinance that would address bicycling along some of the town’s sidewalks. City leaders see this as a temporary measure that would improve safety for bicyclists until the town’s proposed Eighth Street Bike Boulevard can be constructed sometime next decade. 

“A citizen, Mr. Cannell, indicated that he felt like this would be beneficial,” Mebane City Attorney Lawson Brown said. “The Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee reviewed this proposal as well. The thinking of the Committee is that will be a long time before we have an effective bicycle network - bicycle lanes throughout town. From the staff’s standpoint, we felt like this was a feasible, prudent thing to do at this point in time.” 

The new ordinance states that every person lawfully operating a vehicle such as a bicycle upon a public sidewalk in Mebane shall operate it in a careful and prudent manner, yield the right-of-way when approaching a pedestrian, and give an audible signal before overtaking and passing any person. North Carolina state law dictates that helmets must be worn by all bicyclists. 

“How would this particular plan interact with people who are walking?” Mebane Mayor Glendel Stephenson asked the City Attorney. 

“Cyclists should defer to the folks who are walking is the general sentiment of that,” Lawson said in response. 

Bicycling will still be prohibited on sidewalks in the Central Business District along Clay and Center Streets, as well as any areas prohibited by sign or traffic-control device, which was an important distinction for at least one Council member. 

“I think the fact that the Central Business District is excluded from this being allowed is an important point,” Jill Auditori said. “That relieves some concerns for me about pedestrians and bicycles - too much interaction between them. I do think it addresses the reality that Mr. Cannell spoke of. Which is I’m not going to ride with a five year-old on Fifth Street, on the road. So I think it fixes that gap in our ordinance.”

Although the Council ultimately unanimously approved the modified ordinance, lifelong Mebanite and longtime City Council member Tim Bradley expressed reservations at allowing bicyclists to merge with walking pedestrians on local sidewalks. 

“I was raised in Mebane. And one thing you found out pretty quick, you didn’t ride the bicycles on the sidewalk,” Bradley said. “That’s sort of been engrained into me. While it seems prudent for the bikers, what governs? We can say be nice and share the sidewalks. We have signs and laws that say share the road. And there’s a pretty clear definition of who has the right of way between a vehicle and a bicycle. How do we define that with a bicycle and a pedestrian?” 

“Our sidewalks aren’t designed for bicycles,” Bradley continued. “I know this may be a stopgap method, but when we get Eighth Street finished, and I want to ride on Third Street, I’m still going to ride on the sidewalk. The roadways may not be perfect for bicycles. But there is supposed to be an allowance with vehicular drivers for people riding bicycles. There’s no allowance for that on the sidewalks. That’s why most cities have the ordinance to prohibit bicycles on sidewalks. You’ve got a three-foot wide sidewalk. Even if you stepped to the side, that’s not a lot of clearance for people who are walking in conjunction with someone riding on a bicycle. It just seems sort of haphazard to turn our sidewalks into bike lanes. Whereas we have share the road signs for the roadways for bicycles, we don’t have share the sidewalk signs.”

Ed Hooks, the current Mayor Pro Tem and soon-to-be Mayor of Mebane, suggested that most bicyclists who would travel at a high rate of speed and be a danger to pedestrians will continue riding in the main highway, leaving the sidewalks for families and younger children on bikes. 

“I was just in an area in the state of South Carolina, where they don’t have sidewalks, but they have paths that are four feet wide. Everybody rides bicycles and walks,” Hooks said. “And it’s hundreds of people out there doing it. There is an ability to do both on these paths. This was not a sidewalk, but very similar to it. A series of trails, and they were paved, along the side of the road. And they were doing both. As far as I could tell, they got along very well. Until it becomes a nuisance to walkers and pedestrians, I don’t see a problem with doing it.” 

“I can’t see that experienced cyclists would be riding the sidewalks. I think they’re going to be riding on the side of the road. I see children, and parents riding with kids,” Hooks continued. 

“I would agree with Tim’s concerns. This is not the ideal situation. But there are just specific sections of sidewalk where it would be safer,” Philipps added. “Mr. Cannell’s original letter that he wrote, he identified the fact that his child was choosing between breaking the law and being safe. And we want to make sure our children are safe, and encourage activity. Another conversation that we had with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee was perhaps we need signage to make people aware of sharing that facility. And I think the intent is just to do this as a stopgap measure until we have the opportunity to install more permanent facilities for bicycle accessibility.”

“I don’t have a problem with increasing safety for kids, or riding bikes. Sidewalks aren’t really designed for bikes,” Bradley said. “I don’t expect our Police Department stop a five-year-old riding a bicycle on a sidewalk. I would expect them to say something if a team of bikers came through that were on speed bikes ramping through. I just know I was just raised, you don’t ride your bike on the sidewalk.”

Despite Bradley’s concerns, Philipps motioned for the modified ordinance, and Auditori seconded the motion. All five City Council members voted in favor of the modification.