Where the sidewalk ends: On modernizing Sacramento’s bike rules and infrastructure

A bicyclist nails a pedestrian. It's gruesome. Now, Sacramento's updating its bike laws. What needs to change?

Hilary Abramson doesn’t remember the precise moment when a bicyclist slammed into and shattered her left leg.

It happened the third Wednesday this past May, after the morning commute, when cars and trucks zigzag southbound on 15th Street and state workers in Seinfeld white sneakers circumnavigate Capitol Park. The scene had eased into an unhurried spell, and that was when Abramson headed out to the gym. She recalls standing on the sidewalk, looking at her watch—10:35 a.m.—then peering down the block toward N Street. “There was no one around me,” she told SN&R.

Next thing she knew, she was lying face down in a bush, staring at dirt.

There were no witnesses. She says a bicyclist—assumedly heading north on the sidewalk at a pretty decent clip—rammed into her left side. He was a very tall, skinny, baby-faced young man with ear buds around his neck who began apologizing profusely. “Let me help you stand,” he told her.

She couldn’t. There was just “an indescribable pain.” She screamed.

A surgeon later informed that her left femur was fractured in multiple places. Now, her left leg is shorter and she walks with a cane. This week, she’ll undergo throat surgery to remedy a complication that occurred during a one of her previous procedures. This will leave her unable to speak for weeks, maybe longer.

“How the hell did this happen? I will never understand,” she told SN&R. “Why?”

Abramson has become the face of bicycling reform in Sacramento. After three decades of zero changes to city rules, leaders are now realizing that, especially in the urban core, things aren’t always safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

Abramson, a former Sacramento Bee reporter, wants a sidewalk ban. No exceptions. And a lot of grid-dwelling Sacramentans might agree. For years, they’ve complained about the proverbial “bro on a cruiser” riding on the sidewalk.

Others say the sidewalk issue is a distraction. That the city needs to focus on things such as safer bike lanes, fewer cars and dedicated bike routes. They remind that mid-century city planners designed Midtown and downtown’s streets for commuters in cars, not for people who want to walk or bike and enjoy urban life. That’s why some opt for the sidewalk.

Abramson doesn’t have much sympathy. “I’ve been on bikes, too. But if I felt unsafe, I wouldn’t ride them in the urban core, period,” she says.

She means business: Last month, her attorney filed a claim against the city, arguing that its bike rules are insufficient. The claim could be a precursor to a $3.5 million lawsuit.

City staff and officials such as Councilman Jay Schenirer have wanted to update Sacramento’s nearly 30-year-old bike rules for a while now. But this Thursday, they’ll finally sit down at a law-and-legislation committee meeting to discuss modernizing the laws. Abramson and others will be there to chime in.

Will the city reform bicycling as we know it? Or will they just ban bicycles from sidewalks?

Banning bikes 'a no brainer'?

City staffer Randi Knott will lead the presentation on Thursday. She says the process of updating the city’s bike laws, because of what she calls a “wonderful influx of cyclists” in recent years, will need to be “comprehensive.” That means it’s not just about sidewalks; it’s about lanes, signage, education and speed limits. Everything. This week is just the first step. Council could pass a final ordinance by late January.

It’s worth noting that the city code is truly outdated. Bike riding on sidewalks is allowed in the “residence district,” according to section 10.76.010. But this rule was written three decades ago, and it’s difficult, especially in the central city, to tell the difference between commercial and residential areas. This confusion also makes it hard for police to enforce bike rules.

Not that the fine for riding a bike on the sidewalk in areas where you shouldn’t puts a dent in your wallet: It’s just $5, the same as it’s been since the 1980s.

Knott and others at City Hall told SN&R, though, that kicking cyclists past the curb and into the streets isn’t realistic. “I don’t think an outright, complete ban would be practical,” she said.

Teri Duarte, with the pedestrian-advocacy group WALKSacramento, also agrees that a hard-and-fast prohibition won’t address big-picture problems. “We don’t have the bicycle and walking infrastructure that we need,” she explained. “Bicycling on the sidewalk is really just a symptom of the problem.”

A few California cities have a total ban on sidewalk biking. San Diego prohibits sidewalk riding throughout the city—and with a $5 enforcement fine, according to a city of Sacramento report. San Luis Obispo also has a total ban. Ditto San Francisco, and with a $100 fine—although kids under 13 years old are allowed to ride on any sidewalk. In Davis, which always gets kudos for being a bike-friendly city, bikes on sidewalks are banned in downtown’s business district and other specified areas, with fines of up to $250. Only Long Beach enforces a hard-and-fast speed limit.

Despite a lack of complete bans in other cities, Abramson still hopes for one. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. I have absolutely no idea why any bicycle is on any sidewalk on any time,” she explained.

Her attorney, John Poswall, says the city has been irresponsible in its failure to act so far. “And it’s getting worse downtown, of course, and there’s more people down there now,” he said.

Sacramento does not have data on bike-pedestrian accidents.

Poswall worries that the sidewalk issue is getting politicized and the final solution will be a “cop out” that allows biking on the sidewalk. Or that council members ban it, but without a significant fine to act as a deterrent. He said he is prepared to follow through with his threat of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city.

Cyndy Perkut-Kelly hopes that Sacramento delivers on a sidewalk ban. A former state Assembly employee before she retired, a bicyclist maimed her at 8 a.m. on the L Street sidewalk on Good Friday in 2007.

“Boom, I got hit sideways. I flew out of one of my shoes,” she remembers. The collision shattered her elbow in four places, and seven years later she still takes medication three times day to address the pain and chronic suffering.

She says she’s “not too happy about that at all” that, to this day, the city hasn’t addressed how to make sidewalks and streets safer for walkers and bikers. “It’s still going on.”

The bigger issue

Most bike advocates and even city leaders like Schenirer say the bigger problem is that Sacramento’s streets, especially in Midtown and downtown, simply need to be a helluva lot more bike-friendly.

Chris Morfas, longtime transportation and policy advocate and the former board chairman at the California Bicycle Coalition, says the solution is to “create streets for everyone.”

He reminded SN&R that too many central-city streets—such a J, I, L, 15th,16th and more—“look like and function as surface street expressways straight out of a mid-1960s Caltrans design manual.” Their sole purpose, he says, is to move nine-to-fivers to work and back home to the suburbs. They no longer vibe with the vision of Midtown and downtown as interconnected commercial and residential micro-communities.

“The grid is just a very confusing place for everyone,” he says. “No wonder some people ride on the sidewalk. The streets do not serve the community, they serve the commuters.”

As a solution, Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates wants to see things such as better signage for where bikers can ride safely, more interconnectivity of bike lanes, separation from car traffic and bike lanes.

The city actually is already soliciting feedback on how to make Sacramento better for bikes. The project, called “Grid 2.0,” has a website (www.sacgrid.com) where residents can share ideas.

In the meantime, everyone agrees that there needs to be policy that holds bikers accountable, like speed restrictions, and even fines tailored specifically for bike riders. The state allows local governments to adopt different fine structures just for cyclists. This means, for instance, that if a bike runs a red light, the city can adopt a different amount for the fine than what a vehicle would pay. Sacramento has not done this, but Davis has.

All this just might happen by early next year, which is the city’s planned deadline for a new ordinance. And there are many other ideas in the pipe, including “road diets,” where lanes for car traffic disappear and bike lanes pop up. One street that could change is 12th; there’s talk of installing a two-way bike lane next on that road, so that inbound commuter traffic from Highway 160, light rail and bikes would co-exist on the same thoroughfare.

These are all radically innovative transit ideas, at least for Sacramento. And, little surprise, implementing them is complicated.

First, it’s a matter of budget priorities. Morfas points out that, while the city says it needs to be more bike-friendly and wants to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the city also makes a significant amount of revenue off parking. And they’ll need to keep that revenue up to pay for downtown’s new Kings arena. When it comes to bike improvements, “to what extent does the parking-arena deal tie our hands?” he asked.

Others point out that the city is bigger than just Midtown and downtown. And that some of the most dangerous places to ride a bike are outside the grid.

Where the sidewalk ends is just the beginning.