Sidewalk strife: Sacramento bicyclists face stiffer fines under proposed ordinance

Critics question the need as city lacks safe bicycle lanes and bicyclist-pedestrian collisions are rare

This is an extended version of a story from the June 16, 2016, issue.

A little over two years ago, Hilary Abramson’s life changed forever. On May 21, 2014, days before her 69th birthday, the Midtown resident was walking on a 15th Street sidewalk when a bicyclist struck her and sent her flying. Hospitalized for two weeks with a shattered left femur, fractured pelvis and internal bleeding, she wound up with a steel plate in her left hip and a left leg that was a half-inch shorter than her right. Two years on, she still deals with chronic pain.

Months after the accident, Abramson embarked on a mission to ensure it didn’t happen to others, which led to her pushing the city to strengthen its longstanding ordinance against riding bicycles on sidewalks, which carries minimal fines and enforcement.

But in a city where not all bike lanes are created equal, some fear the stiffer fines could force cyclists to choose between breaking the law and putting themselves at risk.

“Safety against legality is a bad policy,” warned Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates.

It’s taken two years of subcommittee meetings, public outreach and backlog at City Hall, but the updated ordinance is ready for the Sacramento City Council, with a draft released to the public June 10. Principal planner Fedolia Harris said he intends to present the ordinance to city council on June 21.

“I think it’s more clear,” Harris said of the ordinance. “I think it’s more enforceable. It will work better over time.”

One of several walking and biking-related policies that could come before city council this summer, the ordinance would allow fines in the ballpark of $250 for riding on the sidewalk. The current fine is $5.

The citywide ordinance would take effect 30 days after council approval. Many parts of Sacramento lack safe bike lanes, though Harris says he doesn’t intend to force cyclists to choose between safety and obeying the law. Instead, he will recommend the city manager have discretion in determining where to apply the ordinance.

That’s a relief for SABA’s Brown, but Abramson countered that cyclists have a choice to ride on the street or sidewalk. “Don’t you dare have the arrogance to endanger a pedestrian’s life,” she told SN&R.

The risk to pedestrians might be small. A 2014 study by three New York college professors published in the Journal of Safety Research found 2.24 pedestrian injuries were caused by cyclists per 100,000 people in California in 2011.

Which begs the question: Is the ordinance even needed?

Brown says the ordinance has been driven more by the $3.5 million claim Abramson filed against the city following her accident. “To be honest with you, I think the city’s wasting its time,” he said, adding that pedestrians get hit much more often by cars in crosswalks.

Abramson counters that the city denied her claim and that she lacked standing to file a lawsuit. She said she brought her claim “to change public policy” and that cities like Davis, Portland, San Diego and New York all have prohibitions against riding on the sidewalk. “If anything near what happened to me happens to someone else or worse, it’ll just kill my heart,” she said.