Changing Gears

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A rendering of a protected bike lane in Portland, Ore., where bicycle ridership shot up 400 percent between 1990 and 2008 (Rendering courtesy of Owen Walz)

Those smaller items have yet to be determined, but protected bike lanes have a particular appeal in cities hungry to make bike safety—and thus pedestrian safety and car safety—a priority. This year, after studying 144 hours of video footage featuring protected bike lanes at intersections in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland and Washington, D.C., a team of researchers at Portland State University found no instances of collisions—or even near-collisions—among the 12,900 bicyclists on camera. More than half of the residents surveyed near those videotaped bike lanes (as well as a pair of observed bike lanes in Austin) said the thoroughfares made bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers safer; 85 percent of the residents who described themselves as “interested but concerned” about bicycling said the physical separation of lanes made them likelier to take up cycling on the affected routes.

“People enjoy riding bicycles,” Geller says. “People like being active. The main thing that inhibits them from doing so is fear. And so my job is to eliminate the fear and help to create good conditions for bicycling. We have a good product. It’s not a hard sell.”

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More than money, more than workshops, more than green paint, the building of any safe, thriving U.S. bike culture requires leadership. Davis had it 50 years ago, and Kemp emphasizes its continued value for bicycle-forward cities today.

“The leadership has to be there, and it has to transcend into city staff who turn policies into action,” he says. “You’ve got to have that synergy. Sometimes you go to [city officials] who don’t ride, who don’t think like a bicyclist, who don’t know how to design a facility that’ll support a bicyclist. There needs to be some firsthand experience of how [bicyclists] actually function.”

On the bright side, bicycling policy generally carries broad and bipartisan appeal, in large part because the upsides speak for themselves. In Indianapolis, another city that shares Sacramento’s entrenched issues with sprawl, Republican Mayor Greg Ballard spearheaded the public-private partnership to build the eight-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail around the city’s downtown. Since opening in 2013, the trail has already brought more than $100 million in investment to the area and emerged as a prime draw to companies like Cummins, the engine-maker that plans to build a distribution center (and employ up to 400 workers) adjacent to a new 28-story residential tower. Memphis went from being one of Bicycling magazine’s worst American cities for bicycling in 2008 and 2010 to its most improved in 2012, thanks in large part to Democratic Mayor A.C. Wharton’s push to build 55 miles of new bike lanes, trails and shared paths. That boost has spurred increases in real estate values and $100 million in retail and restaurant development on key bicycling corridors.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to woo bicyclists and their employers away from the tech-friendly bike havens of the Pacific Northwest in the years to come, insisting, “You cannot be for a start-up, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”

These lessons of political will are crucial to keep in mind in Sacramento, a city that boasts one of America’s highest-profile mayors in Kevin Johnson. Other city leaders like ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have spent considerable economic and political capital improving and adding to their cities’ bicycling networks, and for good reasons: Not only do places with higher numbers of bike commuters show a lower incidence of health problems like diabetes, and not only have separate paths for bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians been proven to keep all three groups safer on the road, but they’re coveted by the labor pool of young talent around which cities are hoping to build their futures. At the opening of a new protected bike lane in downtown Chicago in 2012, Emanuel pledged to woo bicyclists and their employers away from the tech-friendly bike havens of the Pacific Northwest in the years to come. “You cannot be for a start-up, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike,” Emanuel announced.

And that’s coming from the mayor of a city where the average temperature falls below 60 degrees six months out of the year (not counting wind chill off the adjacent lake). In the flat, perennially sunny climate of Sacramento, regional governments—whose transportation budgets are often linked to meeting increasingly strict air-quality standards—are only now starting to react to both growing numbers of area bicyclists and the economic writing on the wall. According to observers of the public workshops for SACOG’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan/Sustainable Community Strategy, the developing vision for Sacramento and its surrounding counties has bicyclists, pedestrians, and their respective safety in ever-sharper focus.

“[Workshop participants] keep talking about how important it is to be able to close some of those gaps,” says Matt Carpenter, director of transportation services at SACOG. He adds that “gaps” can be anything from a $1.5 million fix on the Lake Natoma Trail in Folsom to a $17.1 million “complete streets” improvement for bikes, pedestrians, public transit and automobiles alike on Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights. “[We need to] make some of those corridors that have had demand for biking and walking safer, so you can get more people to take trips.”

Why do more pedestrian and bicycling trips matter to a region? Once again, follow the money: A 2007 study of the effect of transportation habits on Portland’s economy found that residents drove four fewer miles per day than the national average of drivers in other cities, which translated to roughly $800 million that locals didn’t have to spend on gas and other driving expenses. That money—and those who spent it—instead filtered into housing and locally based businesses that had bloomed along with the city’s emphasis on biking and walking. Further north, as part of its own mission to promote and preserve public health, Seattle Children’s hospital contributed $4 million toward improving bike facilities in its vicinity for kids, staff and neighbors alike. Here in Sacramento, Mercy General Hospital has been a gold member of the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Business program since 2010 for its efforts at promoting cycling to its employees. If Mercy or other area hospitals contributed to improving bike infrastructure near their locations, it could send a powerful message about public health and safety.

It’s unclear who will step up to guide Sacramento’s bike culture through its crossroads, where a $4.4 million bike-share project—expected to place more than 500 bikes on the Sacramento grid, as well as in West Sacramento and Davis, as early as 2015—must be reconciled with the legal wrangling over sidewalk riding. (Abramson has initiated a $3.5 million lawsuit against the city.) Challenges like these are just part of the bigger planning puzzle for Ed Cox and Sparky Harris, a principal planner at the city’s Department of Public Works who is overseeing the first-of-its-kind Downtown Transportation Study. This ongoing “Grid 2.0” project will determine how $100 million of transportation spending is allocated downtown over the next 20 years. Cox envisions overhauls of heavily traveled midtown corridors like 16th Street, a one-way artery built to carry up to 30,000 cars per day through the center of the city—many hustling their way out of town at 5 p.m.

“That orientation has led to some real decline in the viability of that street,” Cox says. “If you go down 16th Street north of H, you’ll find lots of businesses that might be just barely hanging on. And it’s because it’s not an environment where people really want to stop. They’re in a big hurry—‘There’s a whole bunch of people behind me, I’ve got to keep moving.’ That type of attitude. Whereas if you look at other streets in the central city, like K Street, where it’s a slower pace, you can pull over to the side, park, get out and walk around. It’s all about that slowing down.”

A “road diet” is planned for downtown Sacramento’s North 12th Street, where one of its four car lanes will be converted into a two-way “cycle track.” (Click for larger image; rendering courtesy City of Sacramento)

It’s enchanting to think about the ways a bold, imaginative road diet like the one planned for North 12th Street or green lanes like those on Capitol Mall could reinvent 16th Street—a track that could flow from the Tower Theatre and past neighborhood hubs like Ernesto’s and the bike-worshipping pizzeria Hot Italian (recently designated as the only California restaurant to qualify for the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Business program). It could leisurely stretch from the open space of Fremont Park to the shadows of new developments like 16 Powerhouse, Legado de Ravel and Eviva Midtown, which are expected to combine for more than 250 new apartments and nearly 26,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. It could link up with bike lanes at K and L streets, offering riders a chance to cut east to midtown or west to the Capitol or maybe the new arena. (Or maybe to a southbound companion track on 15th Street.) It could finally unwind north past the Memorial Auditorium and onward to a district where creatively conceived bike lanes might turn both the economic and cultural tides.

Which is where the opportunity of Grid 2.0 comes in. The types of bike features that can put us on or even ahead of the pace of our peer cities nationwide could very well materialize if Sacramento turns out for them in the coming year. The results of preliminary resident surveys will be posted to sacgrid.com in early December, while further community input will be solicited online and in at least one public meeting in the first half of 2015. “We’re not going to start from scratch, obviously,” Harris says. “We’re not going to tear up
every piece of pavement in Sacramento and do something different. But the community is going to have some unique ideas that we’re not going to come up with, and I’m really curious to see what those are.”

Ideas are one thing. Action is another. And the cities that act— dispensing with bureaucracy, excuses and inertia as they establish bike lanes, parking, education, enforcement and infrastructure—are already reaping the spoils of a lucrative, safe bike culture.

“The thing about Sacramento is whether the city is going to take up that choice—whether this city is going to seize this opportunity to start thinking differently,” says SABA leader Jim Brown, envisioning the new infrastructure and innovations that will keep the region moving. “I’m going to encourage them to do that, because there are other standards.” And when they work, it’s beautiful. S