The Conversation

Sacramento is not a friendly city for cyclists

With its many attributes, Sacramento should be a great town for bicycling, but unfortunately the city falls well short of its potential.
With its many attributes, Sacramento should be a great town for bicycling, but unfortunately the city falls well short of its potential.

Sacramento should be a great city for cycling. It is pancake flat with mild weather for most of the year. Its residents embrace the outdoors. And the city boasts many livable neighborhoods within a short ride of the downtown core, where wide streets laid out in a grid should make it easy to find your way through town.

Yet despite these advantages, the city falls well short of its potential.

Only a tiny handful of people – about 3 percent – commute to work by bike, and few use their bikes for short trips to the grocery store or other errands. Most people will drive, often alone, even when going by car takes longer than riding a bike.

As a result, the city’s streets are more clogged with cars, the air dirtier and our citizens less healthy than they could be.

Why is that? The sad truth is that Sacramento simply is not very friendly to cyclists.

The League of American Bicyclists, which rates cities nationwide, gives Sacramento its “silver” rating on bicycle friendliness. That sounds promising, but silver is actually the fourth lowest of the league’s five levels, so Sacramento is just one rung above dismal.

But you don’t need a national organization to tell you that Sacramento is not bike-friendly. Just go out and ride.

Other than on the American River trail, a true treasure, commuting by bike into Sacramento is neither safe nor convenient.

Bike trails are almost nonexistent, and bike lanes outside the city center either don’t exist or aren’t continuous. They end randomly or are squeezed by traffic structures and shifting vehicle lane widths. Cars, trucks and buses speed by inches from your ear as drivers rush to and from work.

Most motorists seem to regard cyclists as an invasive species that does not belong on the road and needs to be rooted out, or driven off.

These problems are especially bad in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, where more people depend on bikes as their only form of wheeled transportation. Bike lanes are even sparser, and the roads tend to be vast arterials designed to move cars quickly without regard to the safety of cyclists or pedestrians.

Downtown, the respect for cyclists is a little higher, but cyclists are still in peril.

Coming west toward the Capitol or the Sacramento River, bike lanes on major streets like I, L and P abruptly end between 21st and 15th. Cyclists suddenly find themselves squeezed between parked cars and harried commuters on cellphones, or visitors looking at their GPS navigation. The problem is just as bad in reverse until you escape from the city center.

The youngest cohort of adults wants to live in cities that are bikeable and walkable. If we are going to be one of those cities, we need a plan for getting there.

Jim Brown, executive director of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates

Commuters who hope to take the train into the city and then go from there by bike have to navigate a maze to reach most destinations, and finding a place to safely lock a bike can be impossible. Getting from the Capitol back to the Amtrak station is even more difficult. There is simply no safe, direct route. A new downtown arena will make this problem worse, and there is no plan to deal with it.

Biking is dangerous even in midtown, which probably has the highest concentration of cyclists in the city. On the wider streets, rush-hour motorists speed to beat the traffic lights when they can, hoping to make up for time lost in the gridlock around the Capitol. And in the residential neighborhoods, concrete traffic circles built to slow down the cars and trucks also make it more difficult for bikes to cross intersections, leaving cyclists jostling for space with vehicles in a narrow single lane with limited visibility for either party.

The good news is that the city knows that most of these problems exist. The bad news is that it will be years, if ever, before they are fixed.

Ed Cox, the city’s longtime coordinator for pedestrian and bicycle safety, is guiding an update of the city’s bicycling master plan. But the project has been in the works for years and still is not really off the ground. The city now plans to farm out much of the job to a private consulting firm that will work under Cox’s direction to bring the plan to fruition.

Cox, who rides his bike throughout the city, says there is only one place he will not ride: on a stretch of Fair Oaks Boulevard approaching the H Street bridge over the American River from the east. But he acknowledges there are many other trouble spots.

“We need to focus on those areas of the city where there’s just not a lot of room for bikes,” he says, citing the low-income neighborhoods north and south of the city center. “It’s all auto-oriented development.” But he adds: “It’s really hard to try to crack that nut now” because of the cost of redoing the streets and, sometimes, opposition from local businesses. The intersection of Fruitridge and Stockton is one of the worst examples.

Cox cites plans for new bridges over the American River; a paved bike trail on the south side of the river from downtown to Sacramento State University; another through South Land Park; more bike lanes, including some that are physically separated from traffic; and more dedicated bike parking.

But many of these projects are years away at best, and in some cases depend on funding that does not now exist.

And that is the problem in Sacramento: a lot of big ideas but far too little action.

“We need better transportation options,” says Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates. “The youngest cohort of adults wants to live in cities that are bikeable and walkable. If we are going to be one of those cities, we need a plan for getting there.”

More people would commute and use their bikes for short errands if it were easier and safer, he says. There were more than 200 collisions between cars and bikes on the city’s streets last year, and many of them ended with serious injury to the cyclist.

“When you put more bikes on the street, it becomes safer to ride a bike,” Brown says. “It’s possible to prioritize traveling by bike and to put up more money to do something about it.”

There are plenty of models for Sacramento to follow. Portland, Ore., is one. Boulder, Colo., is another. Even West Sacramento seems more committed to cycling than its bigger neighbor across the river.

Cox acknowledges that other cities “seem to be making huge advances” but insists that Sacramento is also making progress.

“We’ve had a lot of growth in cycling,” he says. “You can see it out there in the streets.”

But if that is true, it is also true that there are more cyclists getting hit by cars, surviving near-misses and struggling with the city’s outdated infrastructure.

Sacramento can do better.

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report.

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