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.
“We want what happens when we have a community that’s a little more compact—a little more comfortable without a car,” says Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA). “That’s not a rejection of driving. It’s basically an appreciation of the alternatives. If we’re going to create public roads that support everybody’s needs, then we’re going to have to find a way to accommodate bikes.”
Fifty years ago this fall, a petition circulated in a small California college town advocating for traffic lanes reserved just for bikes. Such lanes were already common at the time in European cities like Amsterdam, but none existed in the United States. Technically, they weren’t even legal in California until one of the college town’s council members—also a lobbyist—hit the State Capitol to influence legislation permitting the new lanes. And so it was that in 1967, with its bicycle-crazed populace clamoring for safe, dedicated new infrastructure, the city of Davis installed America’s first bike lane.
The rest is bicycle history. Davis has since built nearly 100 miles of bike lanes, paths, greenways and loops around the city. In 2005, it became the first city in America to earn a “platinum” designation from the League of American Bicyclists’ prestigious “Bicycle Friendly Community” program (a distinction that was subsequently matched by Portland and the Colorado cities of Fort Collins and Boulder), and it became the home of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2010. Almost 20 percent of trips made in Davis are taken by bicyclists, who travel in a place of their own away from car traffic and sidewalks, reinforcing both the safety and peace of mind of everyone on the road.
Still, like many of its regional neighbors over the last half-century, the city found itself vulnerable to the encroaching creep of car culture. Bike commuting in Davis plunged by 50 percent between 1980 and 2000, and residents saw lapses in civic initiatives like subsidized helmet programs, elementary school bicycling education, and strict enforcement of traffic laws protecting both bicyclists and motorists.
“They were off course a little bit and kind of had a lull in their growth in terms of [bicycle] infrastructure,” says Dave Kemp, who helped engineer Davis’ comeback upon arriving as the city’s active transportation coordinator in 2012. That year, he spearheaded a new “Beyond Platinum” plan that studied how to keep Davis at the forefront of America’s cycling cities for the next decade and beyond. (He moved to Boulder in October to start a new job as that city’s senior transportation planner.) “We’ve learned that the primary obstacle for people to ride bikes is traffic safety,” he says. “So we’re trying to make our streets feel more comfortable. In many cases it is safer, but it’s got to feel safe.”
There is a demographic shorthand describing bicyclists with this condition: “Interested but concerned,” a phrase that originated in Portland to qualify casual riders’ reluctance to bike in streets designed principally for automobiles. It’s a phrase heard often in conversations with Sacramento’s bicycling advocates and regional officials alike—people like Kemp, Jim Brown, or Mike Dour, the bikeway planner tasked with enhancing the safety, connectivity and appeal of bike lanes in the rapidly expanding city of Roseville. Dour says he emphasizes improvements and additions that could be desirable for the complete spectrum of bicyclists—young families, schoolchildren, recreational bicyclists, and commuters to new start-ups and other companies sprouting around Placer County.
“Our goal is to try to provide facilities that would appeal to the people you might call the road warriors—who are out there on their road bikes and willing to take on most conditions—[as well as] the folks who are really interested but they have some concerns,” says Dour, whose three major bike infrastructure projects in 2014 included installing a half-mile connection on Taylor Road between Roseville and Rocklin, and an extension of a 2.5-mile trail joining housing subdivisions in western Roseville to employment centers on Foothills Boulevard. “If we want to attract more cyclists, it’s not just a matter of putting in a couple [standard] bike lanes out on the road. That’s why we think really hard about how we’re trying to provide our facilities.”
It costs relatively little to build these types of bike facilities. Often their expense is folded into sprucing up roads already budgeted for resurfacing. In fact, according to Roger Geller—who has stewarded Portland to bikeopolis status since becoming that city’s bicycle coordinator in 2000—cost efficiency ranks with added security as one of the primary benefits of a city’s bike friendliness. The cost of building bike and pedestrian infrastructure amounted to less than 3 percent of the almost $6.5 billion spent on roadways, transit and other transportation improvements around metro Portland between 1995 and 2010. (Planners there estimate the city’s entire 300-plus-mile bikeway network was built for around $60 million, or roughly equivalent to the cost of building one mile of four-lane urban freeway.) Meanwhile, ridership in the Portland region—where there was virtually no bicycling culture to speak of before 1990—increased by 400 percent between 1990 and 2008.
“We’re not just building these things so that people can bike,” Geller says. “We’re building these things so that people can be healthy, so that people can be prosperous, and so that the city can continue to operate. So people can continue to move around the city. That is the biggest thing. We’re not treading water if we don’t advance. We’re actually going to lose ground, because population is going to increase.”
Planners at SACOG have the same certainty about our region, forecasting growth of 871,000 more residents and 361,000 new jobs around Sacramento by 2035. No scenario envisioned by either SACOG or planners downtown expects motorways to absorb that growth on their own, and some prospective answers have already been imprinted on Sacramento’s core. The green lanes on Capitol Mall and Carlson Drive have sought to calm traffic, enfranchise bicyclists and reassure pedestrians and motorists in ways that the city hadn’t seen before last year. Similarly, downtown “road diets” pared corridors like G, H, 5th, 9th and 10th streets from three car lanes down to two in the fall of 2012, utilizing the new space for bike lanes on both sides of the street.
It’s a start, yet even those pathways lack the security of other cities’ “buffered” bike lanes (which typically feature a minimum 18-inch “no man’s land” space separating bike traffic from auto traffic, car doors and other hazards) or “protected” lanes that establish physical barriers like planters or flexible plastic bollards between bikes and cars. One proposal in London, where six cyclists died over a two-week stretch last fall, would even create a 137-mile “SkyCycle” network that elevates bicyclists to safety over existing train lines. A smaller version of the same dazzling futuristic plan could fit perfectly in Sacramento over Amtrak and light rail tracks en route to the downtown train station and, beyond that, the railyards—currently one of the most difficult parts of the city to access via bicycle. “Everybody’s got their different stories of some elaborate work-around that involves parking lots and alleys and sidewalks,” Brown says. “The fact is our one-way street grid doesn’t serve the Amtrak depot very well—least of all for people with bikes.”
We’d get by just as well looking to Davis, which has pioneered buffered and protected bike lanes to assuage the “interested but concerned” class of bicyclists and restore its cachet as a national leader in urban bicycling. “We were completely oblivious to the repercussions of overall traffic congestion and the ill effects of road rage and all that,” Kemp says. “Now we’ve reached that saturation point—I think we did back in 2008 or so—where planners are starting to design streets [with the idea] that it’s not about moving cars. It’s about moving people.”
To that end, Sacramento plans its next downtown road diet for Highway 160 just over the American River crossing, where it feeds into downtown as North 12th Street. Cox, the Sacramento bicycle coordinator, says the street would cede one of its four lanes for a two-way “cycle track” separated from the busy southbound passage. The .7-mile track between Richards Boulevard and C Street would empty into the more conventional bike lane that flanks the west side of the road leading to the State Capitol. “That one is pretty much out there in the forefront of being very innovative,” Cox says of the protected stretch, which will be among the city’s high-priority proposals for SACOG funding in 2015. “And that one will likely trigger a bunch of smaller items.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.