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Injured midtown resident challenges Sacramento law allowing sidewalk cycling

In midtown, Sacramento’s new bicycling mecca, you see them everywhere, cyclists on sidewalks, some pedaling slowly and calling out their presence to pedestrians, others flying past startled walkers with no warning.

Are they breaking the law? It’s not clear.

The state Vehicle Code says cyclists shall ride in the streets with cars and obey all traffic laws. But in Sacramento, that’s not always the case. A little-known city code says it’s legal for cyclists to ride on sidewalks in residential areas.

A midtown resident who was seriously injured by a cyclist riding on the sidewalk is challenging that code section, saying it’s confusing and, as more people bike, a danger to pedestrians. Hilary Abramson, 69, filed a claim with the city Tuesday seeking $3.5 million to compensate her for pain and suffering she endured after a May accident in which she was hit from behind and slammed to a sidewalk.

Abramson says she also filed the claim for a bigger reason: She wants the city to rewrite its rules to prohibit cycling on sidewalks.

Her injuries required surgery and a two-week hospital stay, and resulted in a permanently shortened leg. Abramson now uses a cane and must undergo another surgery for a throat condition related to her hospitalization after the crash.

“No bikes should be on sidewalks in an urban environment,” Abramson said. “I feel this is the best way to bring it to the City Council’s attention. This is serious. I want to make sure I have done everything I can to try to prevent this from happening again before someone gets killed.”

Abramson said she has talked to numerous cyclists, and none was aware of the local law.

“It is time to educate bicyclists and put muscle into a joke of a local bicycle law,” Abramson, a former Sacramento Bee reporter, wrote in an opinion piece in The Bee in August.

In California, the state Vehicle Code says that cyclists shall ride on the street, but it allows cities to establish local rules. The city code section in question simply states: “No person shall ride a bicycle on a sidewalk except within a residence district or where a sidewalk is designated as part of an established bicycle route. Pedestrians shall have the right-of-way on sidewalks.”

Abramson’s attorney, John Poswall, said the code “leaves it to said bicyclists to operate in any manner they see fit including, as here, coming up behind a pedestrian, providing no warning, wearing headphones (that make them) inattentive.”

Poswall said that if the city rejects the claim, Abramson likely will file a lawsuit.

Unlike the new state law that requires drivers to give cyclists a 3-foot buffer zone on the street, the city ordinance doesn’t contain any requirement that cyclists give pedestrians space when passing, Poswall said. The city code also is silent about citations and fine amounts for cyclists violating the sidewalk rule.

“In effect, the city has put bicyclists on sidewalks with pedestrians and wishes each good luck,” the claim states.

City staff members declined to comment about Abramson’s claim Tuesday, saying they do not discuss matters involving potential litigation.

On the streets in midtown Tuesday, bicyclists and pedestrians largely agreed that sidewalk-riding is becoming more problematic as more people bike. None said they were aware of the city rule that allows riding on some sidewalks.

Tony Juvenall, a midtown resident, rode on the sidewalk rather than deal with the fast-paced traffic on J Street, a busy and tight one-way street. “Where there is a bike lane, I ride in the street,” he said. “That’s my preference.” He readily acknowledged that riding on the sidewalk “can be dicey” when there are pedestrians and other cyclists doing the same.

He said he tries to use common sense and will call out to pedestrians to warn them he is approaching.

Jeremy Maron, a midtown resident and downtown worker, walks frequently, and has had cyclists rush past him from behind. Even if they call out to him, it’s startling and isn’t necessarily safe. The city rule seems confusing, he said, especially in areas that are neither completely residential nor completely commercial.

“Midtown is a mix of both, so, which supersedes which?” he said.

Jim Brown, head of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, has been fighting for years to push cities to make more room, including more bike lanes, on streets to make them safer for cyclists. He said he does not condone cyclists using the sidewalks, but said he understands why some do on busy downtown streets.

“Bicycles on the sidewalk is a symptom of a street network that is not convenient or safe to use,” he said. “Sidewalks are on every street and connect every destination. They are, in fact, an attractive nuisance” for cyclists who want to avoid car traffic.

Abramson recently wrote that the city should look into creating buffered bike lanes in the urban area, where cyclists can be separated and protected from cars. Brown agrees, saying he intends to ask city officials to try out the concept.

City officials have been making changes slowly over the last decade to the downtown streetscape to encourage bicycle riding and walking. That includes reducing some three-lane streets to two lanes to make room for bike lanes. Unlike in new subdivisions, where developers are able to design “complete streets” that offer room for various travel modes, downtown was designed for cars first, pedestrians second, with little thought to bicycling.

Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer said he will convene a City Council committee meeting in November to discuss what the city can do to make the streets safer for cycling. He said he has talked with Abramson and will include the sidewalk cycling issue in the discussion.

The cyclist who hit Abramson remains unidentified. Abramson said the young man stopped and tried to help her up, telling her he was sorry. When others came over to help, he left, Poswall said.

Abramson, still a writer, said she had become aware after moving into midtown a few years ago that bicyclists and pedestrians were on a collision course. Even before the accident, she had planned to research the topic and write about it.

“That is the irony,” she said Tuesday. “I knew it was an accident waiting to happen. I just didn’t know it would be mine.”

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