By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Deborah Ambrose-McDonald intended on returning home from her shift at a Beloit restaurant last May. Instead, the 58-year-old took her last breath at a local hospital after being hit by a bicyclist.
The crash happened at around 1 p.m., May 6, 2016, when the 18-year-old rider plowed into her. She died a day later.
The teen was fined $187 for operating a bicycle in a prohibited place. That place was a sidewalk in front of shops, cafes and on-street parking spaces.
In other words, he was riding in an area reserved for pedestrians, according to city ordinance – and common sense practices we learn as youths: sidewalks are for pedestrians; bicycles share the road with automobiles.
In Rockford, there are similar laws to the Beloit ordinance, and according to one merchant the potential for similar incidents.
Rockford Code of Ordinances Sec. 16-77 prohibits cyclists age 16 and older from riding on sidewalks located within business districts. That includes walkways in front of downtown businesses, an area similar to where Ambrose-McDonald was killed.
“The City Council, Public Works (Department) and the police need to be proactive and change what is a very dangerous situation for pedestrians, restaurateurs and retailers,” said Rockford business owner Jim Phelps.
Phelps and his wife, Janet, own Phoenix Traders at 215 7th St. and said he sees cyclists ignoring the law often. An avid cyclist, Phelps said while he spots violators in all parts of the city, a spate of sidewalk riders can be found along the East State Street corridor near City Hall and the concentration of mixed-use development that lines both sides of the road.
And it’s not just bicycles rolling down Rockford’s sidewalks. Some have taken to riding motorized bikes and scooters on crowded pedestrian walkways.
“It is quite clear that the moment a grandmother comes to see her granddaughter play volleyball at the UW Sports Factory and is run over by a bicycle, motorized bicycle or minibike that are being used illegally in our business districts on sidewalks – it will be the last time a sports team will be coming to our city because we are already well known for being one of the most dangerous cities in the nation,” Phelps said.
He said it isn’t the first time he has voiced his concern. He has addressed the issue twice in front of aldermen, and said individual meetings with city officials have still not yielded the results he said he was promised.
“I was trying to convince the city council that to be successful in creating a café culture downtown, we need to enforce our ordinance,” he said. “To do that, they need to put up the signs the former city attorney promised and to start a public campaign to enforce the law, along with working with media to get the message out.”
A campaign is in the works, Rockford Police Public Information Officer Kimberly Bruce said. Starting next month, the city will use a series of public service announcements literature about bicycle safety and Rockford’s rules.
At the same time, the city plans to continue expanding its bike-friendly areas as it works to create a path along Spring Creek and open up new riding areas through the Whitman Street interchange corridor.
Currently, those caught operating a bicycle illegally on Rockford business district sidewalk can be fined as much as $500.
According to state law, bicycles are allowed on sidewalks in areas where local ordinances do not prohibit them. A person riding on a sidewalk must yield the right of way to pedestrians and give verbal warning before passing.
In addition, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 5912 into law last year. It grants bicyclists the same rights as drivers of motor vehicles and requires riders to follow the same rules of the road.
To sum, say supporters, you can’t operate a car on the sidewalk, so why would you operate your bicycle on one? Rockford, in its continued attempt to rejuvenate downtown, will force itself to ask that very question.