Why Sacramento isn't bike-friendly—and how the city could become a biketopia

Pollsters rank Sacramento's bike culture highly. But local advocates say riding in the 916 is dangerous and dumb.

City bicycle coordinator Ed Cox admits that Sacramento’s bike-lane network is a work in progress. But the city is poised to launch a $4 million bike-share program soon.

City bicycle coordinator Ed Cox admits that Sacramento’s bike-lane network is a work in progress. But the city is poised to launch a $4 million bike-share program soon.

photo by steven chea

Two men dressed in khaki pants, casual sports coats, leather business shoes and bike helmets roll cautiously along the 12th Street sidewalk. They head northward, toward the train overpass that divides downtown from the city’s outskirts. During a brief lull in the thundering midday traffic, the sound of the cyclists’ spinning axles alerts two pedestrians just ahead. One man edges to the left, his shoulder brushing against a rough cement wall. Another grudgingly steps off the curb into the multilane expressway. He throws an impatient glance at the cyclists, who humbly nod thanks and, one after the other, accelerate onward.

These men are not just scofflaw commuters. They are Ed Cox and Jim Brown, two of Sacramento’s most prominent cycling advocates, and they are rolling illegally down the sidewalk, because, as in much of Sacramento, the street here is too scary—and too dangerous—to ride in.

“There’s this assumption that, ’Oh, yeah, we’re bike-friendly.’ But have you ridden down L Street lately? It’s terrifying,” says Brown, the executive director of the Sacramento Area Bicycling Advocates.

Critics laud Sacramento as among the most bike-friendly cities in America. But Brown and others feel Sacramento is some distance from entering the ranks of the best-known bike-friendly places, such as Portland, Ore.; Madison, Wis.; San Francisco; Amsterdam and, locally, Davis.

“People say that Sacramento is one of the friendliest cities for cycling, but they don’t ride a bike,” Brown says. “They say it because it sounds good, because it’s part of our civic identity.” He says city managers are really pretty skeptical about bikes. “They really don’t want to inhibit drivers’ ability to get around the city.”

Sure, there are plans to create more bike lanes and bike-parking stations, and to launch a bicycle-sharing program, featuring about 600 public-use bicycles, within the next year. The 30-mile American River Bike Trail is famous among cycling and recreation buffs, while urban bike commuters praise the flat terrain and the easily navigated street grid as prime reasons not to bother driving in Sacramento.

But Adrian Moore, owner of Ikon Cycles in Midtown, rides his bike almost every day and says, “Sacramento’s getting better, but we aren’t bike-friendly.”

Cyclists say a major problem is that downtown, like most cities, was designed largely to accommodate commuters, who drive to the capital by freeway. In the suburbs, it’s even worse, they argue, with heavily trafficked boulevards and far too few bike lanes for comfort.

Bike lanes are prominent within the city. In fact, there are 240 miles of them—a relatively high bike-lane-to-total-street ratio. Critics say many of these routes fail to serve as effective travel arteries. Some end abruptly and leave cyclists floundering in multilane raceways, which drivers use as high-speed freeway on-ramps, like I and P streets. J Street, the central city’s main thoroughfare, is considered completely unsafe by bike advocates.

They want to make a contiguous network of safe and reliable routes. They also want to see bike lanes that are entirely separated from auto traffic by a physical barrier, as well as more places to park bicycles. “Any kind of facilities, whether bike lanes or racks or share-the-road signs, help to legitimize bicycles in the minds of drivers,” Moore explains.

In a perfect biketopia, the thousands of would-be cyclists currently too nervous to leave their cars would take to their bikes. As numbers grew and infrastructure improved, the population of urban cyclists would almost surely continue to climb toward a critical mass—and at some point, perhaps just a few years away, San Francisco, Davis, Seattle and Portland would find themselves in the company of another esteemed West Coast cycling town. Sacramento, too, could be an urban bike-riding utopia.

Sparking this change, however, may be a long uphill climb for the area’s bike advocates.

How Sacto fails as a bike town

Jim Brown hops a curb and breezes past several pedestrians on the sidewalk. “Everybody has their own bootleg way to get to the train station,” he says. He and other cyclists are frustrated that no single bike route leads all the way to the depot. H Street may seem like the quietest, safest road there.

“But it’s a one-way street going east,” Brown says. “It’s illegal to ride west on it.”

Instead, this is how he bikes to the train station: He cuts across L Street, against a red pedestrian light, and crosses the three traffic lanes in order to gain a jump on an approaching wave of cars. He sprints for a block, then cuts right at Fifth. Here, he pulls to the curb, waits for a break in the traffic and speeds downhill, through the Downtown Plaza tunnel and, with a look over his left shoulder, veers left across the empty roadway. With a left turn onto I Street and another harrowing maneuver across multiple lanes of traffic, he has arrived.

The train station is a refuge from the noisy streets. There’s even a bike rack—a generous accommodation to cyclists who otherwise risk losing their rides to thieves, who like to steal parts from bicycles locked to parking signs or in side alleys.

But Brown points to a sign that depicts a bicycle with a red bar across it and reads, “No bikes.”

“They put [this sign] right next to the bike racks,” Brown says with a half-laugh, exasperated by the bureaucratic brain-fart decision. There are several other signs, in fact, planted along the curb at the station. Their intention, Brown says, is unclear: Are cyclists prohibited from riding on the street here? Just on the sidewalk? Both? Or maybe cyclists are simply not wanted using this route behind the depot as a commuting line—which Brown also points out is the only convenient way of reaching the West Sacramento river trail.

Whatever the logic behind these signs, Brown reads them as the city’s reluctance to live up to its claim of being a bike-friendly town.

But probably the biggest, most systemwide problem with Sacramento’s cycling infrastructure is its bike lanes.

“The current approach is creating a patchwork of lanes that aren’t complete,” he says.

The city’s Ed Cox agrees. “[The bike-lane network] isn’t perfect. It’s a work in progress. We don’t have continuity.”

John Boyer owns Edible Pedal bike shop and food-delivery service, but says downtown Sacramento is “terrible for bikes.” In a perfect bicycling world, he says more people would use bikes to transport goods.

photo by steven chea

The city’s planned bike-sharing program—expected to cost about $4 million to launch and $1.5 million annually to maintain—will be a big step in the right direction. But Brown views the plan with a dubious eye. He warns that the people most likely to use the shared bikes—tourists and beginner cyclists—will find that Sacramento isn’t the cyclist’s haven as which it’s been celebrated.

“The city is going to have a real come-to-Jesus moment when they realize that downtown really isn’t very safe,” he says. “Right now, you can’t even ride safely from the Amtrak depot to the state Capitol.”

He believes not enough city officials are striving to pave the way for a better cycling environment.

“It’s not that we have policies against cycling, but by not really working to improve cycling infrastructure, the city is being passively anti-bike,” Brown argues. “We have a system that works for the 1 percent that is brave enough to ride on our streets.”

Among this small fraction of the populace, opinions vary on how friendly Sacramento is toward cyclists.

Matt Gale moved to Sacramento just two months ago from Brooklyn, and he says the difference in terms of bicycle safety and accommodations between the cities is striking.

“It’s a lot less scary to ride your bike in Sacramento than it is in New York,” Gale says. “People there are much more opposed to bike lanes than they are here. It’s also so easy to bike here.” It’s flat, he says, and few errands require going more than 5 miles round-trip. “That’s 20 minutes, and that’s the same if you’re driving,” he says.

Vincent Sterne, a Sacramento resident and the owner of Two Rivers Cider Company, is a bike commuter and believes the area could use a few improvements for cyclists, especially more bike lanes and more places to safely lock bikes. But overall, Sterne thinks the city is “a great town for cycling.” He marvels as to why so many locals drive cars.

“I’m surprised and disgusted, to be honest, that more people don’t ride bikes,” he says. “It’s hard for me to fathom that a person who lives and works in Midtown has any need for an automobile at all.”

John Hodgson, a Midtown resident who commutes several blocks by bicycle to his office, agrees that the central region of Sacramento is an almost perfect place to ride.

“For trips that are less than 10 or 15 blocks, cycling is faster than driving and more pleasant, and you don’t have to worry about parking tickets,” he says. “To me, riding a bike is one of the basic amenities we have here.”

But outside the center of the city, the cycling scenery is not so picturesque.

“It’s just plain dangerous in a lot of parts,” Hodgson says, citing several particularly nasty intersections along Fair Oaks Boulevard. “It’s very unfriendly. That’s just the design. I don’t know what there is to do about it. You have these huge intersections with four to six lanes. Their purpose is to move traffic. Some of them are close to the freeway, where people are inclined to drive fast.”

“It can’t be cars vs. bikes. It’s about accommodating both, but without slowing down 50 cars for one bicycle, and the question is: How do you do that?” Hodgson asks.

'Not everyone wants to ride a bicycle'

No matter how comfortable a cyclist may feel on the streets of Sacramento, drivers dominate the city. Less than 3 percent of commuter trips in and around Sacramento are made by bicycle. By comparison, 19 percent of commuter trips in Davis are made by bicycle, 6 percent in Portland, and 12 percent in Boulder, Colo. While Sacramento's bike-commuting score is almost three times better than that of Los Angeles, cycling advocates believe the city has plenty of room to improve.

One need only look at Seville, Spain, to understand how streamlining a city’s bicycle facilities can dramatically increase the number of commuters using bikes and, even, the collective quality of life. There, cycling accounted for just 0.2 percent of all commuter trips in 2005. The city of 700,000 was a congested mess, stricken with chronic traffic that clogged the roadways leading into and out of the urban center.

Finally, city leaders agreed that there might be a simple way out of the gridlock: more bicycles. They rapidly added many miles of bike lanes and separated cycle tracks, and launched a bike-sharing program. The cycling rate promptly began to climb—rapidly—and has since passed 7 percent. Seville is now considered one of the most bike-friendly cities in Europe.

Sacramento is thankfully less fraught with traffic and congestion than Seville was a decade ago. Midtown is already pretty bike-friendly, with quiet streets lined with bike lanes on almost every block.

But downtown and many suburban areas, lodged in their antiquated car-and-driver-oriented designs, could be improved—and simple installations of bike parking racks and bike lanes could spur big changes. That, anyway, is what Sotiris Kolokotronis believes. An avid cyclist, Kolokotronis also is a big-time local developer and owns SKK Development, based in Midtown. He believes Sacramento is currently at a sort of tipping point where a few significant improvements in cycling facilities could draw thousands more would-be bicyclists from their cars.

“More and more people are realizing how beautiful and convenient it is to ride a bike around the city,” Kolokotronis says.

The city says that eight bike corrals are now tentatively scheduled for installment around the city. The corrals, which Cox says cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each to install, are placed in the street—generally where a car might otherwise park—and can accommodate about a dozen bicycles. Cox says there has been no careful cost-benefit analysis of installing them.

“But it’s just intuitive,” he says. “You have a bunch of bikes parking there rather than one car. It seems like it’s better for the business and better for the neighborhood.”

Emily Baime Michaels, the executive director of the Midtown Business Association, says that the district’s developers and business owners—especially those running bars and restaurants—recognize bicycling as a vital artery of economic blood in the city’s heart.

Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates executive director Jim Brown says Sacramento needs basic biking infrastructure, like safe routes to the Capitol and the Amtrak station.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer that if developers are focused on cycling rather than on autos, that allows us to achieve a higher density of residential units and retail space,” Michaels says.

Most new building projects in Sacramento are now required to include bike parking racks, while limitations have been placed on the building of car parking facilities.

But the much-anticipated Sacramento Kings arena project, expected to be completed in late 2016, is moving forward with plans for fewer bike-parking facilities than cycling advocates might like to see.

The arena will be built to accommodate more than 17,000 seated spectators, and three vehicle parking lots will be built into the six-square-block project area. But the arena may include no more than 126 bike-parking spaces, and there are no plans for a bike valet like the one at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park.

“If 5 percent of [people attending] a Lady Gaga show biked to the arena, you’d have 900 bikes,” Brown said. “They’ll have no place to put them all.”

The arena’s developers don’t expect large numbers of cyclists to attend concerts or basketball games. These events tend to draw crowds from places many miles outside the city, explains Desmond Parrington, the city’s entertainment-and-sports-center project manager. He describes an example of an arena in New York City that was smartly fitted with 200 bike racks. But few cyclists used them, he says, and they ultimately served as an inconvenience and obstacle to pedestrians trying to access the space.

Sparky Harris, with the city’s planning commission, says a lengthy urban study is now being launched to look at downtown Sacramento’s weaknesses and glitches in terms of transportability: where exactly traffic tends to get snagged up and how existing buildings, roadways and facilities could be amended to improve access between one area and another. Then, alterations will be made and building projects aligned to meet the same goals.

But it won’t necessarily make Sacramento a better place for bike riding. Downtown is changing, he explains, with more and more people now remaining in the area after work, rather than leaving at the day’s end via the nearest freeway. To move about between work and restaurants and retailers and bars, these people may wish to ride public transit, Harris says. Some will want to walk. Many will certainly prefer to keep on driving.

“We want to improve access to downtown for all people,” Harris says. “But not everyone wants to ride a bicycle. …

“To be honest, I think the goals of the cycling advocates may be a little too utopian.”

In a perfect bike world

It's true that cyclists such as John Boyer envision a bike-friendly city that does not exist—at least not here and not now. In his imagined world, pedestrians and cyclists enjoy an urban environment centered around public parks, plazas and people—not automobiles. In this world, goods are delivered largely by bicycle, and few people drive. The concept is not entirely a fantasy. In Europe, parts of many cities look much this way, including Dublin; Munich; Copenhagen, Denmark; Ferrara, Italy; and Stockholm, Sweden.

But Boyer is trying to bring this vision alive in Sacramento. He runs a food-delivery service called Edible Pedal, launched in 2009. He now works with almost a dozen restaurants, as well as Good Humus Produce. Boyer and his employees ride several modified utility bicycles fitted with enormous carrying platforms and tubs. They transport restaurant to-go orders and produce deliveries to customers around the city. Boyer and his team log 50 to 80 miles per day and have carried as many as 50 box lunches—plus drinks—at a time.

“Too many people have this idea that the bicycle can’t be used as a means of transport, and this is hampering the improvement of cycling infrastructure,” Boyer says. “It’s one of the main hurdles we need to get through to really make this a bike-friendly environment.”

Boyer is pessimistic about city policies when it comes to bicycles, people and cars.

“Politicians are reluctant to take a stand for bicycles,” he says. “Downtown is terrible for bikes, and it isn’t getting much better.”

Boyer says he wants to make it clear to others that bicycles are a viable cog in the urban economic machine—not that Boyer is the only believer.

Ed Roehr, owner of Magpie Cafe and Yellowbill Cafe & Bakery, uses Boyer’s services for delivery runs of takeout orders and catered meals. “The Edible Pedal has been huge for us,” he says. “We used to have to turn orders down sometimes because it just wasn’t worth it if it was just two or three boxed lunches. We’d have to find someone to drive the van, find a place to park it, make sure there was gas in it. It just wasn’t cost-effective.”

Now, small orders that once would not have been delivered by vehicle find their way across town thanks to Boyer’s bicycles, Roehr says.

Sterne at Two Rivers also supports his business with bicycles. Using several cargo bikes, he regularly hauls kegs of cider to events—as many as 30 gallons at once, he says.

“It’s so much easier to go door-to-door on a bike rather than pack it all into a van and deal with traffic and try and find a place to park,” Sterne says.

The ease of moving through the city on a bicycle is familiar to any regular cyclist—and for this reason, Boyer thinks more businesses and services could be doing as he does. Pizzas, packages, mail—all could move by bike under most local circumstances, he says. Boyer’s latest addition to his service—the Community Supported Agriculture box deliveries—is a step further in the direction of his pedal-powered paradise.

“It’s sustainable food delivered by sustainable means,” he says.

Boyer’s idea of a perfect Sacramento, he says, is a place where people, not vehicles, own the town, whether they’re cycling, walking or just sitting. In the existing world, he argues, cyclists are frequently viewed as “just a step up from homeless. And people who rest on benches are considered ’loitering.’”

Boyer wonders why bike infrastructure such as lanes and corrals must be fought for, and why automobile infrastructure remain the status quo.

Sterne believes this modern social norm could change with time. “Hopefully, as more people ride bikes and as the cycling community grows, we’ll start seeing changes in how they design the city and how they build infrastructure,” Sterne says. “As more people become more active and more concerned about the environment and their health, we’ll maybe see less red tape, more cyclists and fewer drivers.”