Sidewalk bicycling safety to be debated in Sacramento

A bicycle rider mixes with pedestrians on an L Street sidewalk next to Capitol Park in downtown Sacramento, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
A bicycle rider mixes with pedestrians on an L Street sidewalk next to Capitol Park in downtown Sacramento, creating a potentially dangerous situation.

Thirty years ago, possibly longer, Sacramento city officials wrote a brief law that went largely unnoticed for decades: If a cyclist is caught riding on the sidewalk in a nonresidential area, police can hit the scofflaw with a fine of up to $5.

City Councilman Jay Schenirer, an avid bicyclist, says that piece of city code needs a rewrite to bring it into modern times. With urban cycling on the rise, some riders opt to cruise along downtown sidewalks, saying they don’t feel safe in the streets. Pedestrians complain of bikes whizzing past them – unannounced – from behind.

Hoping to avoid a turf war on downtown sidewalks, Schenirer will convene a City Council law and legislation committee hearing Thursday to look at ways to modernize the law, seeking public opinion on a fundamental question: Should adult bicyclists be allowed on sidewalks? If so, where and when – and how much should they be fined for bad behavior?

Schenirer said he also wants to launch a broader discussion of ways to make downtown streets safer and more accommodating for cyclists. City Hall planners say they are talking about turning a few streets in the central grid into “bicycle boulevards,” where bikes, not cars, are the dominant vehicles, allowing cyclists to feel comfortable pedaling into and out of downtown.

State law gives cyclists the same rights and responsibilities on the streets as motor vehicles, but advocates say people who otherwise might bike choose not to because downtown streets are too crowded.

“The question is how do you promote cycling and walking, and keep it safe for everybody?” Schenirer said. “That is not a discussion that we have had.”

Schenirer said two recent events sharpened his sense that the city needs to act now. He fractured one shoulder and dislocated the other in August when he slammed into a car that cut in front of him in Tahoe. The accident left him leery of riding on streets. “A little post-traumatic street disorder,” he said. A few months before that, a woman Schenirer has known for years suffered three leg fractures when a cyclist struck her from behind, slamming her to the ground on a downtown sidewalk near her apartment.

That woman, Hilary Abramson, was hit by a cyclist on 15th Street near Capitol Park. She has filed a $3.5 million claim against the city and called for a ban on cycling on downtown sidewalks.

“It is the Wild West now,” Abramson, a former Sacramento Bee reporter, said in an interview last month. “What happened to me is going to happen to somebody else, if not worse.”

Jim Brown, head of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, and Teri Duarte, director of WALKSacramento, a pedestrian advocacy group, say a ban on sidewalk cycling is not necessary. Brown pointed to a recent study in the Journal of Safety Research that found that the rate of pedestrian injuries caused by bikes in New York and California has fallen slightly in recent years.

One of the report’s authors, William Milczarski, a professor at Hunter College-City University of New York, said it’s possible cyclists and pedestrians are learning to coexist more safely on sidewalks. He noted, however, that his study does not paint a complete picture. It is based on hospital emergency-room data and does not include what may be many minor incidents where pedestrian injuries did not require urgent care.

It’s uncertain how often bikes and pedestrians collide on Sacramento sidewalks or crosswalks. The Sacramento Bee has requested but not yet received sidewalk collision data from the city.

Schenirer said he hasn’t seen data on collisions between bicyclists and pedestrians downtown, but that, “we have enough anecdotal evidence to know there is a problem.”

He said he believes, at the least, the city needs to set more explicit rules on sidewalk cycling and impose a meaningful fine on cyclists who violate the law. “I think it is about time, place and fines: Where can you ride? When can you ride there? And how much is it going to cost (for a violation), so it is really a deterrent?”

The city’s existing ordinance reads, “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.”

Schenirer and others say that language is too vague now that residences and businesses increasingly are built on the same blocks in midtown and downtown, blurring the lines between residential and business areas.

A review of laws in other cities shows a variety of stances on sidewalk cycling, with some banning it and others restricting it to certain areas. “Every city is struggling with this,” said Ed Cox, Sacramento’s cycling coordinator. “How do you say this sidewalk and not that one?”

The city of Davis, known as one of the busiest bicycling cities in the country, prohibits cyclists from sidewalks in the downtown business district but allows them on sidewalks elsewhere in the city, said Roxanne Namazi, Davis traffic engineer. The fine for a violation is $50.

Long Beach prohibits sidewalk cycling in business districts, and sets a 5 mph speed limit “where pedestrians are present.” It imposes a $100 fine for violations. San Francisco is more prohibitive, allowing only children under age 13 to ride on sidewalks. Similarly, Berkeley allows only juveniles to ride on sidewalks. Berkeley notably has turned some streets into bike boulevards, where cars are limited and must be driven at reduced speeds.

Seattle allows sidewalk cycling, but it instructs cyclists to operate in a prudent manner and at “reasonable” speed, yield right-of-way to pedestrians and give an audible signal before passing.

Stronger fines could help, if the police choose to cite cyclists, said New York professor Milczarski. “Police have plenty to do fighting crime and not worrying about bikes on sidewalks. If there is an accident, there is a ticketing blitz for a few weeks, then it wanes. There has to be a consistent approach.”

Sacramento officials have added bike lanes on some streets and turned some one-way thoroughfares into slower two-way streets to encourage cycling. The city recently launched a stepped-up effort, called Sacramento Grid 2.0, soliciting opinions on potential improvements downtown for walkers, cyclists and transit riders.

WALKSacramento executive Duarte proposes lower speed limits on more streets in the central grid area. “Twenty is plenty,” she said.

City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the downtown area, said even streets such as L and J should be considered for lane reductions, though it would cause more traffic congestion during commute hours. The city also should turn more one-way streets to two-way, he said.

Perhaps the biggest “modal” change proposed downtown is the idea, floated by Schenirer and others, of turning some streets into bike boulevards, designed so that even beginner cyclists would feel confident using them. That could mean physically separating bikes from cars on the street, or simply limiting car space and speed on certain streets.

“I would love to see one really nice, safe bike route from each part of town,” Schenirer said. “Maybe, it is 24th Street coming from the south area. K Street from the east. Even a street from West Sacramento. I don’t want to say this is the answer. But I want to provoke people to think a little differently. What is practical?”

City planners already are evaluating eliminating one of the four inbound traffic lanes on North 12th Street, and replacing it with a two-way bike path that would be separated from cars by plastic pylons and a buffer zone. If built, it would make 12th Street the city’s first multimodal corridor with separate areas for light rail, cars, bikes and pedestrians.

Hansen said those infrastructure changes would be helpful. But in a downtown where space is limited, he said, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers will never be able to escape each other. Drivers, in particular, are being forced to share space that once belonged almost entirely to them.

Hansen said the ultimate key to peace on city sidewalks and streets will be attentiveness, courtesy and a willingness by drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to play by whatever rules are set. “Learning how to share is a very (basic) idea,” he said, “but people seem to forget in the hustle and bustle of the day.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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