Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Sacramento cycling culture can be menacing

It’s impossible to know whether the young man who slammed into Hilary Abramson has any idea how badly he injured her and how profoundly his carelessness altered her life.

If he had been driving a car instead of a bike when he hit Abramson on a warm morning last May, and left the scene, there would be a warrant for his arrest.

But nobody called police. And as Abramson lay writhing in pain, the young man asked if he could leave. Witnesses told him he could, so he climbed onto his bicycle and pedaled away.

“I tried so hard to say, ‘You have to stay. You have to give us your identity,’ but I couldn’t speak,” said Abramson, 69, a veteran journalist whose career includes a lengthy stint at The Sacramento Bee in the 1980s.

The accident wasn’t her fault. Abramson wasn’t ignoring a red light while crossing a busy intersection. She was on the sidewalk on 15th Street, between Capitol and N. She was hit from behind – never saw it coming.

She suffered three fractures in her left femur that required three hours of surgery and the insertion in her left leg of a five-inch piece of steel and four screws. She bled so much internally, she needed two blood transfusions. The breathing tube inserted in her throat during surgery may have permanently damaged her vocal cords. A woman who loved to sing may no longer be able to do so.

Abramson has suffered far more post-surgery effects, but let’s not lose the point: This happened on the sidewalk. This happened in a state capital where cycling is growing ever more popular, but city streets lack the infrastructure to keep cyclists safe from motorists and pedestrians safe from cyclists.

The League of American Bicyclists reports that the number of people commuting by bike in Sacramento jumped about 45 percent between 2005 and 2012, to about 5,000 riders.

But unlike neighboring Davis, Sacramento has failed to keep pace. The city does not have enough bike lanes, let alone a well-designed system of bike corridors, protected and labeled, that link from one neighborhood to the next.

The demand for cycling exceeds the capacity to manage it properly on city streets.

The problem snowballs from there: Cyclists don’t feel safe pedaling on most city streets in Sacramento, which has a reputation for hit-and-run collisions and ranks among the worst cities in California for drunk-driving arrests. So more cyclists are moving onto sidewalks, even when there are bike lanes adjacent to the streets they travel.

As a jogger, I’ve had three close calls with cyclists on city sidewalks. The most frightening came last year, at 16th and S, when a young man came up from behind, never said a word, and came inches from smashing into me at great speed. If I had stepped left to enter the intersection just a second earlier, I would have gone to the hospital. The guy was wearing ear buds. He never slowed, never looked back.

Cycling is great for the environment. Lots of state programs now encourage bike riding to reduce emissions and promote healthy living. Next summer, the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District will launch a $4 million bike-share program, allowing people to rent bikes at one location and return them at another for a $65 annual membership.

It’s a great idea that could go terribly wrong.

The discussion about such programs typically frames the safety argument around cars and bikes. You don’t hear enough about pedestrians – about how the cyclists, too, are climbing aboard vehicles that can cause great harm when operated recklessly.

The potential danger in bike sharing is that you greatly increase the number of bike riders, many of whom haven’t ridden regularly since they were kids. They are ignorant of the rules. They commit the same mistakes people do when they drive: listen to loud music, text, become distracted and dangerous.

According to Abramson, the young man who hit her was wearing ear buds, meaning he probably was listening to music.

“He had a baby face. He was adorable,” said Abramson, who pegged him at 19 or 20. “But I will never understand why I got hit. The street was empty. There weren’t a lot of people to navigate.”

She said he kept repeating the same words: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“He said to put my arms around his neck so he could help me up,” Abramson said, “and I did. He was very thin, tall and lean. He lifted me to my feet, but when he let me go, I went down like a puppet who had its strings cut.

“The pain was so unbelievable. I couldn’t find my left shoe, and it’s because my leg was turned out.”

Onlookers called paramedics. Abramson remembers the young man asking if he could leave, and then he did.

She also remembers the hospital. Doctors needed an X-ray of the leg before surgery, and it had to be straightened.

“They wheeled me to the room and slid me (yelling) onto a table,” she said. “The X-ray tech was built like a wrestler and held my arms; a resident doctor standing at my feet told me ‘when,’ and they pulled my leg in opposite directions as if I were a piece of taffy … I was sure that my mother could hear me howl in her grave in New Jersey.”

Abramson relies on a cane now. She’s not sure if her insurance will cover all her costs. She loved to dance, and no longer can.

Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer agrees that the city has fallen behind, both in terms of building a system of bike corridors and adopting rules to regulate their use. He said Friday he will take up this issue and that the city will begin studying how to improve safety as more bikes hit the streets.

The plan that emerges needs to go beyond the infrastructure required to keep cyclists safe. Protected bike lanes are great, but there should be fines for cyclists who flout safety and injure people.

Somewhere there is a young man riding around, having avoided taking responsibility for his careless actions. In a just world, he reaches out to Abramson, apologizes again and tries to help her cope financially with her injuries.

“The big question mark is the impact of this on the future – mine and my husband’s,” Abramson said.

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