Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Drawing a line with sidewalks and cyclists

A bicycle rider mixes with pedestrians on a J Street sidewalk in downtown Sacramento, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
A bicycle rider mixes with pedestrians on a J Street sidewalk in downtown Sacramento, creating a potentially dangerous situation. Bee file, 2014

There is no other way to put it: Hilary Abramson was physically maimed when she was struck from behind – by a cyclist – on a city sidewalk a year ago. The horrific incident highlighted an escalating tension between pedestrians and cyclists in downtown Sacramento – a tension that will only grow as the urban core expands in the coming years.

A longtime journalist who wrote for The Sacramento Bee a quarter-century ago, before I came to work here, Abramson suffered three fractures in her femur from the collision on 15th Street, between N and Capitol. She bled so much after being slammed onto the concrete that she needed two blood transfusions during a three-hour surgery. Her left leg has been held together by 5 inches of steel and four screws.

Now 70, Abramson said her husband has difficulty discussing what happened to her without crying. She’s in physical and emotional pain and has been on a one-woman campaign to ban all bike riding on city sidewalks. It’s an effort that includes a $3.5 million claim she filed against the city.

Currently, bicycling on city sidewalks is prohibited with exceptions in “residence districts.” Conflicts have occurred on sidewalks in mixed-use neighborhoods, such as Abramson’s. On Tuesday, the Law and Legislation Committee of the Sacramento City Council began weighing the issue and considering whether to increase fines against cyclists who ride on the wrong sidewalks. They could go from $5 to as much as $100.

There are some who suggest that Abramson has gotten a lot of attention – more than several cyclists killed by cars within the city limits – because of her connections with the media. In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve never met Abramson in person and only have spoken with her on the phone once. Her case resonated with me because I’ve nearly been creamed by errant cyclists.

As a jogger, I’ve had more than one unsettling close call with bike riders who recklessly blow by me at high speed. It’s a major concern because we all know that as we get older, it takes longer to heal. Broken bones can become permanent limps, as it has with Abramson.

But there are deeper issues underscored with Abramson’s case. Sacramento’s downtown is going through a renaissance for which it is not prepared. The city wants to add 10,000 new housing units there over the next decade. It’s encouraging bike riding but has woeful infrastructure to support it. Massive bike-sharing projects are in the works, but downtown can be a treacherous place for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians to mix.

There is a strong and active cycling community in Sacramento, and they’re not sitting on the sidelines when it comes to causes that affect them. These folks are organized. They have political pull.

“This issue is so stigmatized,” said Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA). “It’s tough to talk about riding on the sidewalk as a reasonable choice.”

But it seems more reasonable if you consider how dangerous it is to ride a bike on the street in many parts of downtown. There are few alternatives for bike riders in the urban core when bike lanes suddenly disappear.

“We don’t have a street grid that is easy to navigate,” Brown said. “I take confession from a whole bunch of people who say they ride the sidewalks because there is no way in hell that they are going to ride the streets.”

Brown used L Street as an example: “There are no bike lanes west of 15th Street. If I’m headed toward the arena, there are three lanes of traffic and no bike lanes.” He described I Street as too scary for most bike riders when competing with cars. And there is no convenient way to ride your bike to the Amtrak station, he said.

It’s true that there aren’t enough bike lanes and infrastructure to make cycling safer downtown. But Brown’s words don’t account for Abramson’s injuries. In her case, the cyclist who hit her stayed with her for a while but left as paramedics prepared to transport her to the hospital. He’s caused her a year of pain and rode away without assuming any responsibility. He was never identified.

She was hit early in the morning. She remembers few people on the street. The young man was listening to music or lost in thought when he smashed into her. There was no reason or excuse for it. He made her life hell for the last year. What’s to stop that from happening again?

It doesn’t appear that the city is prepared to ban all bike riding on city sidewalks or levy $400 fines, as Abramson would like.

Meanwhile, Brown and other advocates want the city to hold off on instituting fines for cyclists who ride on sidewalks until the city fully invests in extensive and protected bike lanes – and creates continuous bike paths throughout the city.

It’s worth noting that cyclists are injured at far greater rates than pedestrians. According to the state Office of Traffic Safety, 165 cyclists were killed or injured by cars in Sacramento in 2012 – one of the highest rates in the state. A total of 163 pedestrians were hit or killed that year; officials say most were hit by cars.

But other cities far more committed to a bicycle culture use their police to crack down on cyclists when they abuse the law. In Davis, for example, city police have officers on bikes who routinely issue $50 tickets to cyclists riding on sidewalks where it is prohibited.

On Wednesday, Davis police will stage an enforcement operation that will target cyclists breaking the law. “It’s a priority for us,” said Darren Pytel, Davis’ assistant police chief. “We have one of the worst rankings for cyclists (being injured or killed) in the state.” OTS numbers show that Davis was ranked third in the state. It had 64 cyclists killed or injured in 2012, a very high number for a city with only 66,000 residents.

There are no easy answers. Nobody is above reproach. Sacramento is riding high with optimism over a blossoming downtown. But as the area swells with people, those good feelings will give way to something darker – unless the city creates an urban core that’s safe for everyone.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee