Changing Gears

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Photo by Jeremy Sykes

Sacramento has spent generations and untold billions of dollars building around the automobile. Now, with the area's bicycle culture booming and more American cities seeing the economic upside of planning for two wheels instead of four, our car-centric capital city finds itself at a crossroads. Here's how we can navigate the new path ahead and grow in the right direction.


WWhen it works, it’s beautiful.

Take a prime downtown street on a bustling weekday. Mid-afternoon, sunny blue sky, trees rasping in the breeze that bends lunchtime to happy hour. Light rail trains flow north and south over parallel tracks. City buses trundle toward points west and east and beyond. Couples and colleagues on sidewalk caffeine quests perch at the edges of crosswalks. Motorists and bicyclists slow and stop for red lights. The riders line up inside the bike lane, feet planted on a layer of paint as green as fresh mint—greener even than the lights that, seconds later, send them pedaling once again through the city. Drivers whir safely past them; one awaits a right turn. The crosswalk empties out, the street clears, and the road dance begins anew.

Utopia? No. Capitol Mall.

This skyscraper-lined corridor is hardly the most traveled thoroughfare in Sacramento, often clearing out at 5 p.m. and leaving these streets sparse in the dusky gazes of the Tower Bridge and State Capitol. But for a few hours on those picture-perfect weekdays, its harmony matters as an example of what could be—starting with the bike lanes that have gleamed beneath sun and streetlight alike for a little over a year, among the first of their kind in Sacramento.

“We chose to do that because Capitol Mall is kind of a main entrance for bicyclists into the city,” says Ed Cox, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Sacramento since 2000. Prior to the fall of 2012, the Mall didn’t even have regular bike lanes, let alone these green ribbons tailored into the roadside that establish a designated route for bicyclists between drivers and pedestrians. “We wanted to make a statement in that regard.”

Symbolic or otherwise, now is a critical time to make that statement. Between 2000 and 2010, as more Americans decided where to live based on lifestyle factors like proximity to work and recreation, the city’s population grew by almost 15 percent. The region’s number of bicycling commuters ranks ninth among large U.S. cities, and the American River Parkway features just one of the area’s many nationally renowned bike trails.

Not coincidentally, increased bicycling injuries and fatalities have kept pace around the region: The California Department of Public Health reports that cycling-related deaths in Sacramento County more than doubled from five in 2006 to 11 in 2010 (then dropped to nine by 2012), while cycling accidents resulting in emergency room visits nearly doubled from 1,345 in 2006 to 2,479 in 2012. Beyond the experimental idyll of Capitol Mall, the city’s other set of green bike lanes lines the far more treacherous River Park interchange near Sacramento State known as the Carlson Corridor, where two bicyclists and a motorist have died in collisions in the last four years. Meanwhile, a notorious sidewalk collision last spring between a bicyclist and a pedestrian in downtown has forced the Sacramento City Council to reevaluate its law permitting sidewalk bicycling in residential districts—a law that the grid’s growing number of residential projects and underdeveloped bike lane infrastructure has dramatically complicated.

“What’s happened is that the city has created a situation with this ordinance where no one is safe,” says Hilary Abramson, whose leg was broken in three places when she was struck by an unidentified bicyclist while walking near the Capitol. She has since advocated for more bike lanes along with stricter enforcement of clear laws against sidewalk riding on the grid. “Everybody has to be safe. Pedestrians have to be safe, bicyclists have to be safe, automobile drivers have to be safe—we all do. Otherwise, we have the Wild West.”

Over the next year, the region’s residents will have a rare chance to reshape this fraught environment both inside and outside the city limits. Planners launched the Downtown Transportation Study—aka “Grid 2.0”—last spring to determine how to invest $100 million in infrastructure for cars, trucks, bikes, pedestrians and transit over the next 20 years. Also, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG)—comprising local leaders from 22 cities and six counties around greater Sacramento—is developing a new Metropolitan Transportation Plan that heavily emphasizes the promise of “complete streets” where active transportation (like biking and walking), transit and cars can coexist more safely and readily. Workshops this past fall from Placerville to Marysville asked attendees to weigh in on how the region should evolve through 2035, including how SACOG should distribute at least $2.8 billion in federal and state transportation funding.

Part of that funding is contingent on Sacramento improving its air quality and reducing traffic congestion in a valley prone to heat waves and smog, goals that dovetail neatly with a greater prevalence of bicyclists commuting to work. The stakes are even higher for cities wanting to court homebuyers, who have shown that they’ll pay premiums to reside near bike infrastructure. One study from Indianapolis found that on average, homes within a half-mile of the city’s busy 10.4-mile Monon Trail sold at prices 11 percent higher than comparable home sales farther away. Another study from Minneapolis-St. Paul found that the median home value increases by $510 for every quarter-mile closer the home is to an off-street bicycle trail. The stakes are just as high for regions eager to lure the types of young talent (and the corporations that employ them) for whom commuting via bike, foot or mass transit has proven a more desirable attribute than it was years ago when our region first blossomed around freeways and car travel.

More significant still are the reports from merchants everywhere—from San Francisco to Boulder to New York City—showing the upticks in commerce that followed the improvement of bike lanes and parking along business corridors. A researcher in Portland, for instance, found in 2012 that while customers who arrived at a range of the region’s local businesses by automobile spent the most money per visit, bicyclists spent the most money per month: $75.66 compared to drivers’ $61.03.

As the clock ticks for solutions, planners can consider inspirations from as far away as London or as near as the American bicycling capital just across the Yolo Causeway. Every option is on the table—prospects like “road diets” that shave down car lanes in exchange for bike lanes and new or retimed traffic signals; bike paths connecting suburbs and workplaces; bike-share programs to get more area residents on two wheels instead of four. And while nobody yet knows how these solutions will shake out, everyone seems to agree that the opportunities for Sacramento to innovate and lead in the national bike conversation have never been better—or more necessary.