A bicycling culture

An interview with members of Bikeramento

As part of my challenge to go car free for 30 days, I wanted to learn more about bicycling in Sacramento. So I spoke with a handful of members from Bikeramento, a grassroots, volunteer-run group committed to promoting bicycle culture in our city.

Why did you get involved with Bikeramento?

Makiko Yamashita: I love cycling both as a sport and a means of transportation. I got involved with Bikeramento because I share the idea that bicycles offer many benefits to people and community, not only with fitness and the environment, but also with community and business development. In my home country of Japan, people ride a bike daily for transportation. All kinds of people ride a bike—young and old, student and teacher, man and woman, father and mother. It helps develop a dense and vibrant community where people gather and interact on a more personal level and where local businesses thrive.

Brian Fischer: The idea of creating a central-city bikeway had been plaguing my mind for two years. We’re a flat city, and the American River Bike Trail cuts off at both ends of the central city, making it difficult to traverse from downtown to East Sacramento on a bike. I’m always thinking about how to blend economic development with social goals for Sacramento. Everyone at the political level has been talking about Sacramento’s potential as a green mecca, so I dreamed of putting some teeth into it.

Linda Khiev: My father, Henry Khiev, was an avid bicyclist. Whether through the streets of Redwood City or the hills of Highway 280, he biked through it all while taking me along with him. He bought me my first bike, a blue BMX with training wheels, when I was about 4 years old. I am still hooked 23 years later. When I moved up to Sacramento three years ago, I quickly realized biking around was not as easy or safe. Drivers and bikers didn’t know what to do with the other. I want to bring the love of biking back into my life without the fear of being injured and spread the knowledge to others who are looking for an alternative to car transportation.

What’s the latest with Sac Sunday Streets?

Jeff Louie: As we began the project, we knew we would have a long-term vision, but we did not have the scope aligned with our vision. After speaking with coordinators of similar car-free events in San Francisco, we have a better understanding of the obstacles. The city [of Sacramento] is actually very supportive.

Fischer: The process is moving faster than we imagined from a city level. Councilmen Steve Cohn and Ray Tretheway have been very receptive. The two most difficult aspects remain attracting enough volunteers to ease the burden and working out safety needs with the police in closing down so many streets [along Capitol Avenue].

Khiev: The biggest obstacle thus far has been finding more people power to help us before and during the event. Volunteers are the core of making this a success.

Why do you feel car-free days and zones, such as Sac Sunday Streets, are important in promoting bicycling?

Yamashita: Two reasons. First, Sac Sunday Streets offers people a safe and friendly environment to experience bicycling. Riding a bike on a busy road can be scary and unpleasant, and it may discourage many people from riding bikes. On Sunday Streets, we don’t have to worry about fast-moving car traffic, and it’s a perfect environment to introduce joy and excitement of bikes to new people. Second, Streets is an ideal place to promote bike awareness to car drivers. By learning more about bicycles, benefits, rules and safety issues through activities and workshops, we hope drivers will be more willing and happy about sharing roads with cyclists.

Fischer: People are afraid to travel downtown particularly, but even in Midtown, because of confrontations with cars. If we want to encourage families and commuters to leave cars behind, we need to make the urban infrastructure safe and accessible.

Khiev: Downtown and Midtown have so much to offer everyone willing to battle the traffic, parking and one-way streets. Much of the beauty of this area is missed since people are busy concentrating on driving or looking out of a car window. Locally owned restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, historical landmarks, parks; the list goes on and on. Having car-free zones on specific days will allow everyone the opportunity to enjoy what Sacramento offers. This can be done without the fear of injury, pollution, parking and meter maids. This will hopefully nudge everyone to consider biking more into the city without worries, to get out of our cars and stop to enjoy what we normally speed by.

Do you think Sacramento is conducive to a car-free or bicycling lifestyle?

Louie: Sacramento is a perfect place for bicycling due to its naturally flat design. I think now is the perfect time to introduce a bike-friendly culture that will help Sacramento identify with something that is extremely important to our growth during this down economic time.

Yamashita: Currently, no. Among cities I have lived, Sacramento is the second most difficult city to bike after Bangkok, Thailand, where I felt imminent danger of getting hit by a car or motorbike. There are not many bike lanes in Sacramento, and you often have to ride through major streets with fast car traffic to bike from neighborhood to neighborhood. While there are many cyclists in town, many of them enjoy cycling as a sport or are into specialized technical bikes like a sleek-looking “fixie.”

There are many things that can improve this. More bike lanes and bike racks will help. A bike map or online guide showing the bike lanes or streets with less traffic will help people plan a bike ride. Any major improvement will have to involve citywide development and planning. For example, public transportation needs to improve to make commuting between city and suburbs more viable, so people can ride a bike to and from train and bus stations.

Lorena Beightler: Currently, no. Cycling is available to all ages and is a good way to promote physical fitness, but not that many people ride. Why? People are afraid of the potential danger out in the streets. Creating a bicycle culture does not necessarily speak about the cyclist but is about the community at large. In the United States, the onus is always on the cyclist, but we could do well to imitate other countries by improving infrastructure to create a safer experience and educate the driver to look for the cyclist. Essentially, creating a bicycle culture will make a pathway for all this change to take place. In places like Amsterdam [Netherlands] and Copenhagen [Denmark], the cyclist is No. 1. Cars will be mindful and stop, because drivers are cyclists, too. And, by law, the cyclist will never be faulted.

Khiev: We have a city movement to become more green and energy conscious. This is a great opportunity for Sacramentans to see that even during tough economic times, we are able to make positive changes within the city we live in. Probably the hardest part of making any city less car dependent is changing the culture. Cultivating the budding bike culture in Sacramento will be our initial start to eventually making this city more bike-friendly, leading to city planning that would include alternative modes of transportation that may include more bike lanes, better public transportation and public education.

Do you use a car in Sacramento, or do you primarily commute via bike?

Louie: We currently carpool to our Midtown office and use bikes to get around the downtown and Midtown areas.

Yamashita: I primarily commute by bike.

Fischer: Temporarily, I’m bound with the kids to the car, but we’re moving back into Oak Park and I will be able to commute by bicycle, kids and all. I’m very happy about that.

Beightler: I don’t own a car. I commute by bike, but my work also involves the use of a bike to do marketing and promotion. I also write a blog called Sac Cycle Chic (www.saccyclechic.com) about cycling with style, not necessarily in Lycra, but in our everyday clothes.

Khiev: I carpool from the Florin area into Midtown, since there is currently not a safe route into the central city from there. I then ride my bike to work as often as I possibly can, helmet hair and all.