On May 14, Sacramento will host the Amgen Tour of California, with the men’s race kicking off next to the state Capitol and the women’s race finishing there.
It’s a great, high-profile moment for our city. Let’s just hope that no local cyclists get hit by a car while the world press is at our door.
You see, for a town so celebrated for its extraordinary American River bike trail, in the national race currently underway to build what are known as protected bike lanes, we’re bringing up the rear.
But first, let’s back up for a moment: What is a protected bike lane? It is essentially a lane that includes physical barriers, such as poles, planters or curbs, to prevent cars from being able to enter the cyclist’s space.
While their primary purpose is, of course, rider safety, protected bike lanes are also the latest arrow in the quiver of American cities that are competing for millennials. Quite simply, young people are driving less and biking more because cycling is healthier, cheaper and better for the environment.
It’s in this race with other cities – where we’re competing for companies, workers, tourists, etc. – that we’re basically spinning our wheels.
To wit: Of America’s 40 largest cities, 32 have protected lanes. New York opened its first one along Ninth Avenue in 2007 and added 18 miles of them last year. San Francisco boasts 14 miles of protected bike lanes. In April 2016, Oakland opened one on Telegraph Avenue, and in less than a year reported a 40 percent drop in collisions over previous years – this despite a 78 percent increase in bike ridership.
Sacramento? We’re barely competing. Of the eight “top 40” cities that do not currently have protected lanes, Phoenix already has numerous “buffered” bike lanes – paths separated from auto traffic by painted no-drive zones – and Fresno; Oklahoma City; Jacksonville, Fla.; El Paso, Texas; and Mesa, Ariz., all have protected lanes scheduled for completion in 2018.
That leaves Sacramento and Las Vegas as the only two “top 40” cities in America without an imminent protected bike lane in sight.
Our first such lane – a 0.8-mile stretch from C Street to Richards Boulevard – was proposed in 2014 and is scheduled for completion in 2020. That’s six years from beginning to end. For a bike lane.
In September, Bicycling magazine ranked the top 50 bicycle cities, and Sacramento merited a lackluster No. 37. “Even with its impressive trail network, an increasing number of downtown developments (such as the new Golden 1 Center arena) and a large contingent of bike commuters,” the magazine declared, “Sacramento lacks any progressive bike infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards.”
Yes, you read that right. The capital of California “lacks any progressive bike infrastructure.”
Our absence of urgency for these lanes is baffling. Not only are they providing safe areas to ride but, by extension, they make their cities more desirable places to live. Hardly a day goes by that our leaders don’t speak of luring tech companies to the region, attracting talented 20- and 30-somethings and creating a destination city.
The powers that be in other towns do too, which is why they’ve put these cycling tracks at the top of their civic agendas.
“As we add more and more bike lanes, we continue to recruit more companies, and more and more workers who work in the new digital economy,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in 2013. “So these types of investments actually lead to economic growth.”
We’re even getting trounced by our neighbors.
Davis is the home of America’s first-ever bike lane, built in 1967, as well as the country’s first protected intersection and has two more on the way. West Sacramento will debut almost 3 miles of protected lanes this year, and Rancho Cordova will open 2 miles of them next year.
In the end, there are no good excuses for this monumental lapse in civic judgment. Sure, we can blame funding deficits and staffing issues, but so can every other city. Whatever we’re doing to create a bike-friendly city simply isn’t happening fast enough. Period.
But there is hope.
For all the bad news, Jim Brown, executive director of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates remains cautiously optimistic. He says that city’s Bicycle Master Plan was badly outdated before being updated last August. He also believes Mayor Darrell Steinberg will be more engaged on this issue than his predecessors. To his credit, our new mayor did cite the need for protected bike lanes on his campaign website.
But Brown is most excited about the city’s new “bike czar” Jennifer Donlon Wyant, citing her experience with Alta Planning, a private-sector company that has designed protected bike plans for Seattle, Memphis, Tenn., and elsewhere. He says her expertise in securing grant money for such projects will give Sacramento a leg up. But she also needs adequate funding and staffing.
Arguably as astute an observer of cyclists’ needs in our city as anyone, Brown wants to see a protected lane on L Street between Fifth and 15th streets, connecting midtown to Golden 1 Center.
A protected lane here would mean fewer accidents, more cyclists commuting to work, less traffic and cleaner air. This could also be the single highest-profile way to trumpet a bike-forward culture to locals and those visiting downtown and the state Capitol.
But let’s not just talk the talk. Let’s set an aggressive date to build this lane and hit it.
My two cents: Let’s make our deadline May 2018, just in time for the next Amgen Tour of California – one year from now. And let’s move mountains to make this happen. A global television audience will be watching as the racers cross the finish line on L Street. It’s time to show the world that, when it comes to creating a progressive bike culture, Sacramento is finally on the right path.
Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. Turner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.