The Conversation

August 17, 2014

The Conversation: On a mission to get bikes off sidewalks

After being injured, I was on a mission to find out how the law deals with bicycles on sidewalks and to make it safer for pedestrians.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Does Sacramento need protected bicycle lanes? And should there be fines for riding a bike on a city sidewalk? To write a letter, go to sacbee.com/sendletter. Or comment on our Facebook page at facebook.com/sacramentobee.

A neighbor in a third-floor apartment heard me scream. But all I remember is looking for my left foot.

It was just past 10:30 a.m. on May 21, and I was walking north on 15th Street, approaching Capitol Avenue. I was thinking about my birthday the following week.

Suddenly at eye level with dirt, I realized that I could move my right leg but not its mate. Could that black blob over there be my walking shoe? What happened? And where the hell is my left foot?

A bicycle had smashed into my left side from behind with enough force to change my body forever and my life for at least a year. My foot was attached but the leg was turned out.

There were three fractures in the femur, requiring a three-hour operation during which the surgeon inserted a hunk of steel – 5 inches long by 1 inch thick – and four steel screws. Internal bleeding meant two blood transfusions.

After two weeks in the hospital – the second for physical and occupational rehabilitation – my left leg was one-half inch shorter. Today, compression has shrunk the hip bone further, making the use of a cane possibly more than temporary.

Once six weeks passed and I could deal without hard-core painkillers, I was on a mission. If I had been so seriously injured, there were probably others, and more to come. I had to research how the law deals with bicycles on sidewalks. I just had to try and make it safer for pedestrians. And I learned that Sacramento is taking the first step toward making bicycling safer for everyone.

When I lived at F and 25th streets during the 1970s, Sacramento was known for trees and reasonably priced Victorians. The sight of a resident commuting on a bike would have inspired double takes, like seeing people strolling instead of driving once the sun went down.

Working and living during the week in the Bay Area since 1990, I witnessed the makeover of “urban” River City on weekends: Second Saturdays, clubs, lofts, high-rise condos and the proliferation of bicycles.

Only when we moved near the Capitol a year-and-a-half ago did I notice so many bikes on sidewalks, weaving around people, wheelchairs, baby carriages and shopping carts.

Rush hour ends on Sacramento streets, but bicycles move on sidewalks through the night, often without lights. Few bicyclists seem to know that City Ordinance 10.76.010 prohibits sidewalk bicycling except in residential neighborhoods, or where a sidewalk is designated as part of an established bicycle route. The law does not mandate a fine or signage, and except for a possible verbal admonishment from an officer, enforcement is nonexistent.

So are statistics. Injuries resulting from collisions between bicyclists and pedestrians on the sidewalk in the past few years have been lumped with those occurring on the street.

According to California Vehicle Code Section 21200, a bicycle must be operated as a vehicle: on the street, moving with the flow of traffic, on the right. Every city can have a different local law for bicycling.

Take San Francisco, considered by many as the gold standard for city bicycling with 80 miles of bike lanes. If you are over the age of 13 in San Francisco and ride a bike on a sidewalk, you can receive a citation for $470, about the cost of running a red light in the Golden State without the extra fees.

This year, 312 bicyclists have received citations in the City by the Bay; last year, 326 bicyclists were cited, according to San Francisco Superior Court records. Kristin Smith, communications director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said that the organization educates about 5,000 bicyclists annually through courses and thousands more through fliers.

Pedestrians and bicyclists have strong opinions about bicycles on sidewalks. Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown Sacramento, is keeping his thoughts on the subject to himself. He did not respond to my emails.

Sgt. Matt Young, who headed the Sacramento Police Department’s 10-officer bike unit last year, was happy to take on the subject.

In the three years he worked with the unit, Young said he was “not aware of any officer writing a citation for a bicycle riding on the sidewalk.” The goal of law enforcement here, he said, has been “to gain (instant) compliance. We work with local bike shops and advise bicyclists about the law verbally. Bikes on sidewalks are obviously very dangerous, hazardous.”

At the same time, Young acknowledged that a bicyclist might ride on the street after they speak to an officer and return to the sidewalk when they get around the corner.

Young calls the unit’s work in educating bicyclists successful. More to his point: “We want Sacramento to be a bicycle-friendly city and that we all move forward together,” he said. “I think we’re doing that. I don’t think that the lack of a fine impedes bicyclist compliance. At this point, I think our bicyclists are good bicyclists. I don’t think the incidence of injuries on sidewalks is huge. Down the road, if it is, a fine might be appropriate.”

What the bike unit could do today if its officers witness a bicycle on a sidewalk in a nonresidential neighborhood is issue an administrative penalty, a Level 1 violation, that could range from $100 to $1,000 at the officer’s discretion. But no officer has done so to Young’s knowledge.

Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, is against a high fine.

“Bikes on sidewalks are a symptom of a problem of people not feeling safe enough in the streets,” he said. “Particularly downtown, there are a lot of one-way streets that are no more convenient for people on bikes than people in cars. Bikes often take shortcuts by using sidewalks. High fines are an unfair choice for people. It wouldn’t fix the underlying causes of riding on sidewalks.”

After exchanging a walker for a cane, I spent two weeks stopping an average of seven sidewalk bicyclists a day throughout the city. I also spoke with businesspeople on S Street near 19th, where a UPS store owner, and workers at a nail salon and dry cleaner reported that bikes regularly surprise and scare pedestrians on the sidewalk.

I am tired of hearing “A cop said I could do this,” or “There’s no bike lane, so I’m allowed to ride on the sidewalk,” or “Riding on the street is scary,” or even “I ride slowly on the sidewalk and I never hit anyone.” I am tired of seeing people of all ages wearing baseball hats instead of helmets and flip-flops instead of protective shoes as they ride on sidewalks as if they were boardwalks.

Riding a bicycle on an urban sidewalk is against the law, dangerous and can be expensive. My health insurance tab is up to about $23,000, and my obligation at this point is about $1,300.

It is time to educate bicyclists and put muscle into a joke of a local bicycle law:

•  Amend the city ordinance to prohibit bikes on all sidewalks.
•  Add a substantial fine and signage.
•  Build affordable barriers between cars and bicycles on the busiest urban streets to protect bicyclists.

Michael Andersen, a Portland journalist who writes for a bicycle blog, recently surveyed the first cities to build bike lane barriers: Chicago, Austin, Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. According to his research, the number of bikes on sidewalks dropped significantly as the number of protected bike lanes on the street increased.

There is reason to hope that Sacramento is moving in that direction. Ed Cox coordinates planning facilities for bicycles and pedestrians for the city’s Department of Public Works. By the end of the year, he hopes that the department will OK feasibility of installing a “cycletrack” on North 12th Street between the bridge over the American River to the railroad crossing near North C Street.

“The idea is to allow for a two-way bicycle trail next to the sidewalk, with a 5-foot buffer space between the path and inbound traffic,” he explained. “The space would have trees in planters. … We’d have to remove a car lane, and that has consequences that we have to study.”

If this protected lane for bicycles is successful, Cox said that the department would consider adding them to other streets that carry substantial traffic in the city’s core.

Few people said they can believe that a bicycle on a sidewalk can do real damage to a pedestrian. Glenn Casale, Music Circus artistic director, is one of the few non-doubters. A bicycle recently swiped his left side as he walked near where I was hit. “We are worried about our patrons, and merchants on 16th Street have the same concern,” he said.

Everyone wants to know about the kid who hit me. I heard him before I saw him, and felt him trying to lift me to a standing position.

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” he said.

He looked older than 16, probably a foot taller than my 5 feet. He looked scared. Two good Samaritans on a smoking break from the state Department of Health Care Services nearby hurried over and tried to lay me across several stairs off the sidewalk.

“Do I have to stay or can I go?” asked the youth.

“Ah, you can go,” said the woman, looking at the man, who nodded his assent.

Only my brain tried to yell, “Stay!”

The bicyclist rode off.

My femur – the longest, strongest bone in the human body – has miles to go before it can chase him down.

My first goal post is City Hall. The Sacramento City Council can get most bikes off sidewalks by crafting a bicycle ordinance that police can enforce and making protected bike lanes a top priority.

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