What needs to change to make Sacramento a more bike-friendly region? Leave a comment at the end of the story or to send a letter, go to www.sacbee.com/sendletter.
The Sacramento region could be a model for bicycling. We have two sweet natural attributes for bicycling that few other places share. Our major population centers are based in the flatlands, and our weather is mild. We don't have bitter cold, snow, incessant rain or sweat-inducing humidity. Sure, summer afternoons are hot, but it's like an oven, not a steam bath, and mornings are glorious.
So why don't we lead the nation in the share of trips made by bike? Why do cities like frigid Minneapolis and puddle-prone Portland outbike Sacramento? We do have college-town Davis with its hordes of bicyclists. Yet Davis is an anomaly with 22 percent of trips by bike, not the regional norm. Bicycling magazine doesn't include the city of Sacramento 2.5 percent trips by bike in its top 50 cities for bicycling in the United States.
The Sacramento region is naturally good for bicycling, and parts are very good thanks to bikeways and other human efforts. We fall short of being great. What would it take to make Sacramento a cycling Shangri-La for transportation and a Lycra lotus land for recreational cycling? Here's my Top 10 list.
1. Vision. Having a vision is vital. It's sometimes assumed that cities and countries with high levels of bicycling, such as Davis, Portland, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, have been that way since bikes were born. That's not the case. In each place, leaders and citizens made conscious decisions to boost bicycling. They recognized the cost savings and the health, safety, traffic and environmental benefits.
2. Political will. Vision is empty without action. Political leaders have to provide a fair share of funding for bike projects. California's funding for bicycling is woefully inadequate, but every level of government can do more. Priorities should start going to human-powered transportation.
There has to be a will to innovate. The region needs elected officials and traffic engineers willing to embrace new ideas and to experiment. Concepts such as West Sacramento's colored bike lanes, Davis' bicycle traffic signals and roundabouts for bikes, and Sacramento's left turn lanes for bikes should be replicated. Bike boulevards, streets that give bikes priority, have proved to be successful. Let's try them here.
3. Connections. The region has to have better bike connections. That means more bike lanes and bike paths. Shouldn't all residents be able to live within minutes of open spaces like the spectacular American River Parkway and its popular bike trail? Paved paths along the Sacramento River including Sutter and Yuba counties in the Dry Creek Parkway, on the south bank of the American River and into El Dorado County would provide remarkable places to enjoy nature. Tying all those paths together would create a world-class network of scenic bike freeways.
Connectivity also means that new developments need a grid system of streets. Meandering suburban streets, rife with disconnected cul-de-sacs, make trips longer and concentrate traffic on big, busy streets. Grids and small blocks disperse traffic and offer varied and safer route options.
Many existing streets are too big and busy. Turning streets like Freeport Boulevard into complete streets that pedestrians and cyclists of all ages and abilities can use should be on the to-do list.
4. Short trips. Making a one- or two-mile trip by bike is easy and is often faster than driving. Eliminating barriers is one way to shorten trips. Our region's biggest barriers are our rivers and freeways. We need more bridges across the Sacramento and American rivers and more freeway crossings. There's a four-mile stretch of the American River, from downtown to Sacramento State, that can't be crossed by bike or foot. The Tower Bridge is the only decent bike connection on the miles of riverfront between Sacramento and West Sacramento.
Another way to shorten trips is by building compact, human scale "20-minute" neighborhoods places where residents can meet their daily needs, and meet each other, by walking or bicycling. That translates into smaller schools on neighborhood streets instead of mega-schools on busy highways at the edge of town. That means neighborhood grocery stores, supermarkets and shops instead of megastores in distant regional malls.
5. Safer streets. While the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks, our streets remain too dangerous. We need better enforcement of traffic laws. Instead of tolerating crashes and traffic fatalities as acceptable collateral damage in our efforts to get some place, our goal should be zero traffic fatalities. Human life is more important than speed or texting while driving. Besides assigning more officers to traffic duties, automated enforcement of speed limits and red-light-running offers a cost-effective way to cut the number of crashes. We need lower speeds in urban areas. Is there any reason speed limits on city streets need to be higher than 35 mph?
6. Destinations that welcome bicyclists. Businesses, including restaurants, should have highly visible, well-designed bike racks near their entries. (Please, no more of those semi-functional serpentine bike racks!) Workplaces should have secure long-term bike parking, such as bike lockers or bike cages, as well as clothing lockers and showers to accommodate workers making longer commute trips.
7. Educated cyclists. It's far too common to see cyclists disobeying traffic laws. Cyclists riding on the wrong side of the street, running red lights, riding on sidewalks and riding at night without lights greatly increase their risk of hitting a car, a pedestrian or another cyclist. Law-abiding, competent cyclists feel comfortable on almost any road and improve the image of cyclists. There's more to cycling than balancing. Well-trained cyclists know where to position themselves on the road, know the risks and can anticipate dangerous situations.
8. Promotion. The "May Is Bike Month" campaign highlights bicycling one month a year. Every business should promote bicycling by its employees and customers year-round. Offering financial incentives to bike can save employers money on parking spaces and reduce health care costs. Bike commuters are healthier, more energized employees.
9. Cultural change. Bicyclists are often portrayed by the media as geeks or scorned by the public as scofflaws. In reality, most people own bikes and nearly everyone can be a cyclist. The image of bicycling needs a change. After all, many luminaries ride a bike. President George W. Bush rides mountain bikes. President Barack Obama rides. Robin Williams rides and is a Tour de France fan. Local city council members, county supervisors, police chiefs and media personalities all ride. I've got a photo of a smiling Einstein riding his bike at Princeton, but you don't have to be a genius to know bicycling is a good thing. How about a little respect for bicyclists?
10. End subsidies for driving. If you had to pay out of your pocket for your use of the road or for a place to park every time you drove, you'd think twice about choosing to drive. Though parking is never free to provide, it's almost always free to use. Though gas taxes pay some road construction and maintenance costs, federal and state gas taxes haven't increased for years and lag behind inflation. Gas taxes don't begin to cover the total costs of automobile use. Those costs include road costs, emergency services, tax breaks for oil companies and environmental damage. Driving is subsidized by everyone, whether they drive or not, through taxes or other charges. When you shop at a mall, your purchases pay for the parking lot.
Sacramento created a vision for the American River Parkway, and then made the parkway a reality, blessing us with an unsurpassed slice of natural beauty. The same thing can happen if the region adopts a vision of bicycle excellence for transportation and recreation. We can't do all these things overnight, but we can start. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl says of Copenhagen, "It is great to live in a city where every day you wake up and the city has become a little bit better than it was the day before." Forty years ago, streets in Copenhagen were clogged by cars. Now, 37 percent of trips there are made by bike.