Making Vermillion’s Downtown Safer for Cyclists

I’ve been corresponding with the Mayor, and now the City Manager, about various ideas for improving downtown Vermillion, especially in the wake of these findings about the impact of bringing in a Wal-Mart.

One of my suggestions was to improve access and safety for cyclists in downtown Vermillion.  I haven’t been riding my bike as much as I used to (preferring to walk), and part of the reason for that is the danger of riding on the streets downtown.

With the diagonal parking and big pickups blocking everyone’s view (had to get that in), cars backing out of parking spaces are a huge danger to downtown cyclists on the streets.  Too, there is an injunction against bicycles on the downtown sidewalks, though it is not enforced.

In my view, all things being what they are, it’s a darn good thing that it’s not enforced because there are always a number of kids using those sidewalks to bike home from school.  Yes, they could take back streets, but as a mother, I’d rather have kids in a safer, more public environment rather than on a back street where they could be whisked off without witnesses.

So, I asked Mayor Christopherson about making the downtown streets safer for cyclists so the prohibition could be enforced equitably.  He gamely responded to my other concerns, and forwarded my question about the sidewalk bicycle prohibition to City Manager John Prescott.  Here’s the response I received this morning:

Typically the regulations prohibiting bicycle traffic on downtown sidewalks comes from the potential conflict between shoppers and bikers in an environment where one group may not be expecting the other. Let me explain a little better. The shoppers are walking out of businesses thinking about their next destination or other items. They are not anticipating or thinking about bikes which can move at a different speed and direction down down the sidewalk vs. that of pedestrian traffic. The potential for collision and injury are why cities typically have no bikes on sidewalks in the downtown area. This is different than the hike / bike path where users are warned of and expect the two types of traffic.

The no bikes on sidewalks probably isn’t enforced very strongly as it is typically not a problem in most situations. At the same time, we don’t want to promote bicycle use on the sidewalk and create the potential conflicts referenced above.

Hope this helps.

John Prescott
City of Vermillion

Maybe I’m taking it a little too personally, so I’ll put it out to the readership: does this feel a little patronizing to you? Of course, it may be that many of the questions he gets are from people who haven’t thought too much about the problem or the context behind the issues they’re asking about. It’s actually a very good description of the possible conflicts.

What bugs me about the response is that it doesn’t address the problem of dangerous streets coupled with an unenforced ordinance that forces those who would obey the law to endanger themselves by doing so.  Mr. Prescott’s response simply explains why the ordinance is in place and why he guesses it isn’t enforced.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really not a fan of making an ordinance and then only selectively enforcing it.  If the safety issue is big enough to pass the ordinance, then the ordinance should be enforced.  If enforcing the ordinance creates other safety issues, then the ordinance should be reviewed and changed, or struck from the books.

Too, the “one group not expecting the other” rationale illustrates the inherent danger in forcing law-abiding cyclists into a situation where the group not expecting them (motorists) is rather unlikely to be physically injured by the unexpected meeting.

Cyclists on the sidewalks typically (though not always) operate with the recognition that a collision with a pedestrian is fairly likely to physically injure the cyclist, too. I’d argue that a situation in which both parties might be physically injured tends to make both participants more mindful, while a situation in which only one party is likely to be physically injured does not inspire the same level of care on both sides of the equation.  Studies, anyone?

Anyhow, here’s my response to Mr. Prescott:


I understand the rationale behind prohibiting bicycles on downtown sidewalks.

What I am suggesting is that we find ways to make cycling on the downtown streets safer, so that the prohibition can be enforced without endangering the cyclists (especially the kids coming home from school). It doesn’t make sense to have a prohibition that is not enforced, or not enforced equitably.

Further, pedestrians seeing the “bicycles prohibited” sign and therefore assuming that bicycles are, in fact, prohibited, may be further endangered by assuming there won’t be any bicycles on the sidewalks.

Alternately, it might make more sense to have a “Watch for Cyclists” sign on the sidewalks (and the interior of front doors in downtown businesses) than to have an unenforced prohibition that might serve to endanger more people than it keeps safe. Or, perhaps, a “Walk Your Bikes” edict for the sidewalks downtown that could be enforced–though the idea behind a bike is to ride it, not walk it, which gets us back to making the streets safer for cyclists.


–Rebecca M. Terk

I’m hoping this exchange won’t backfire in unintended ways. I would certainly hate for the “solution” from the City to simply have the police start citing everyone for riding their bikes on the sidewalks because it’s so much safer than riding on the streets.

I would like to believe that (because our downtown beautification plan has included putting more bike racks downtown) the answer would be to take a serious look at the problem and find workable solutions that keep both cyclists and pedestrians safe.


16 responses to this post.

  1. Rebecca, being involved in so many advocacy efforts, one of my concerns has always been downtown. I don’t know that I have the answer either, but I’m not sure that bikes on the sidewalks is a good answer. I do walk my bike on the sidewalks downtown for safety sake.

    The “slant” parking and big trucks has always been a pain. If you “ride right” like you should, then you are one fast-not-looking-backup from a trip to the hospital. I would hate to be in any city officials shoes when it comes to downtown. I don’t have the foggiest idea how to better engineer downtown to be more friendly. The thoughts of taking away some parking or making horizontal parking spots correspond with the road works best in my mind, but that would get me lynched by those who already complain there are not enough spots downtown (and God forbid they walk more than 10 feet to get into their favorite store).

    At any rate, you have my email address and I’m more than willing to team up with you to come up with a good approach to the situation.


  2. Posted by flyingtomato on March 25, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Hey, Biking Brady!

    Thanks for the comment. It does seem a bad idea to set up a situation in which you either follow the law and endanger yourself or break the law and risk a ticket. I agree that parallel parking is one solution, but it’s one that’s unlikely to get many backers.

    We’ll see if I get a follow-up to my response to the City Manager. I’ll let you know!


  3. Posted by redhatterb on March 25, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Big trucks and SUVs have been a pet peeve of mine for several years. They aren’t bad just in diagonal parking situations, the same applies at a stop light or sign then they pull up on the right side of you, or they the are parked parallel on the side of the street, at an intersection, blocking your view, so you can’t see if anything is coming.

  4. Posted by flyingtomato on March 25, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I have been known to rant and sometimes even swear about big trucks parked alongside me, preventing me from seeing well enough to safely exit a parking space. Once I was doing this and hadn’t noticed there was someone actually in the truck with their windows open. I half-apologized (I was swearing more at the truck than them), and said, “I can’t see around your enormous truck!!!” They were too shocked to make a reply.

  5. Posted by dwhitsett on March 25, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Dear Flying Tomato.
    Thanks so much for the link! I really appreciate it. I enjoy your writing.
    It may be a lost cause to expect sense from the city…pretty rare everywhere.

  6. Posted by dwhitsett on March 25, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Sorry I didn’t say who I was…Charamon Garden

  7. Posted by flyingtomato on March 26, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Thanks for reading! I’m not necessarily expecting sense–I’m working on organizing a group to demand pleasantly suggest some sensible options!

  8. Posted by cjop on March 26, 2009 at 8:35 am

    “I don’t know about you, but I’m really not a fan of making an ordinance and then only selectively enforcing it.” Welcome to Vermillion under John Prescott. It seems that they will only enforce if a citizen complains even though one would have to be blind to miss. I.e. the Sigma Nu sidewalk this winter. Not only on Main St but within one block of the temp City Hall. Go east a half block and the rental property with garbage and vehicles on the front lawn. I would prefer that the city enforce the ordinances they already have instead of passing ones such as the banner ordinance which penalized churches and other civic organizations. I know they went back and modified it but one could argue that is was a poor attempt getting the bar across the street from the new City Hall to close down.

  9. Posted by flyingtomato on March 26, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Oh, that Sigma Nu sidewalk makes me crazy. But then, so do people’s sprinklers that spray all who pass on the sidewalk. I’m always tempted to move them (if they’re movable) to spray directly in their windows. Maybe I have done this once or twice, but then maybe I don’t want to incriminate myself.

    Then there’s the swearing ordinance, which I could have invoked on myself last summer when I stepped in a ground bee’s nest, got four stings in rapid succession, and ran from my backyard to the front, swearing the whole way. Then I saw the families out for a nice Sunday stroll. I did apologize for that, and kept wondering whether I’d be reported to Code Enforcement for my linguistic lapse.

    I’m all in favor of a city/county/state/nationwide DE-legislative term wherein elected officials can only get rid of or modify old laws instead of passing any new ones.

    At any rate, no response thusfar to my e-mail to Mr. Prescott, the text of which was copied in this blog post. I think all the cyclists should get together, get on the city agenda, and go en masse wearing bike helmets to protest the lack of safety for cyclists in Vermillion and see if we can’t work together to find some solutions.

    Thanks for the comment!


  10. There’s a swearing ordinance in Vermillion?

  11. Posted by flyingtomato on March 26, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Under Chapter XIII, Chapter 130


    No person shall use any profane, vulgar, or obscene language or gestures upon any street or other public property or place in the presence of any person under the age of 12 years.

    (1975 Code, § 15-31) (Am. Ord. 1128, passed 5-17-2004) Penalty, see § 10.99

    However, it seems that this was updated not more than a couple years ago. I don’t think this is the current ordinance.

  12. Posted by flyingtomato on March 26, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I like this one, under the same title and chapter, 130.13. Apparently it’s OK for a man to be a prostitute, but it’s not OK to tell anyone that you know a certain place is a house of “ill fame” or to point out a person that is a prostitute:

    (B) Prostitution prohibited. It shall be unlawful for any woman to be a prostitute, practice prostitution or to be an inmate of any bawdy house or house of ill fame or assignation, to entice, solicit, or procure any person to commit an act of prostitution with her, or to endeavor by word, sign, or action to ply the vocation of a prostitute within the city.
    [I left C out]
    (D) Solicitation for prostitute. It shall be unlawful for any person within the city to entice, solicit, or procure, or attempt to solicit, entice, or procure, another to commit an act of prostitution, or to designate, indicate, or lead the way to any house, room, or place where prostitution is practiced, or to point out or to indicate to another any person with whom he or she believes an act of prostitution may be committed.

  13. Hmm. The prohibition of female prostitutes only presents some interesting economic development possibilities for Vermillion.

  14. Posted by Claire on March 29, 2009 at 12:04 am

    Since we are on a new topic, does anyone know what/who resides in the purple trailer with the female silhouettes all over it on Hwy 50 heading towards the 29?? I’m half tempted to just walk up to the door, but if that is someone house, I’m not so sure I want to meet them!

    As for downtown, I was a little horrified when I found out they are planning little pocket parks and crap. Frankly, downtown is a death trap. It has inadequate parking, inadequate intersections, inadequate signage etc. It’s dangerous enough when I’m in my car, I can’t even imagine someone trying to ride a bike through that area. When you add in the bars, it’s even scarier. As for the pocket parks and loss of parking spaces, that is just silly. This is SD, why lose parking for parks too small to be practical in a place that is covered in ice half the year?

    Even though I wouldn’t be caught dead trying to bicycle on a surface street, I fully support the idea of making it safer! Vermillion is only about 3 miles across which makes riding the bike everywhere a very reasonable option (if it were safe!). I think modifying the code for the sidewalks is the best option as long as there is appropriate signage for all concerned (i.e., mutually watching for bike/peds and not riding at a reckless speed for a pedestrian area).

    As for Mr. Prescott, he should consider that if someone is able to send him a cogent letter that the writer is probably aware of the usual liability issues that accompany the ban of anything with wheels on sidewalks. I did find the letter a little patronizing, but I also don’t read the guy’s mail everyday. Who’s to say what kind of letters he is used to responding to. In any event, proper signage is a strong affirmative defense to any liability lawsuits the city may face with the mixed sidewalk usage. Besides, South Dakotans really aren’t that fast to file suit from what I’ve seen. People here still believe in accidents. There doesn’t always have to be someone to blame. I happen to like that a lot about people here in SD. It means there’s a decent chance that one could ride a bike on the sidewalk legally in the near future 🙂

    Anyways, if you do manage to make some noise on this issue, I’d be in full support of it. I’m just a pedestrian with small children, but I suppose you don’t have to be the one on the bike to care about this particular issue!

  15. Posted by flyingtomato on March 29, 2009 at 9:11 am

    That trailer was an adult novelty store. I don’t know that anyone actually lives in there–skanky!

    The downtown improvements seem to be a lot about looks/image. I was told the new City Hall counts in terms of developing the downtown. In what way is a government building a draw? I also mentioned extending the awnings along Main Street to provide for safer sidewalks and less exposure to the elements. The response there was that the current awnings are privately owned. Umm, OK…and?

    I’m all for little parks instead of little garbage-filled nooks and ugliness, as long as the little parks are kept up. But I think some attention also needs to be paid to the current problems we’ve addressed–things that make downtown less safe and less accessible. But that’s not as glamorous as a new City Hall.

  16. Posted by Claire on March 30, 2009 at 10:52 am

    hahaha, you have to keep in mind who’s using the city hall 🙂

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