Jan 20, 2023

Are Bicycles Safe on City Streets? Ask A Spokes-Man

Soft-pedaling a real and present danger

By Ed Goldman

Question: Which of these two groups poses a greater threat to your safety on city streets?

  1. BIKERS, those independent-minded, sometimes violent individuals who may sport colors to indicate the club they belong to, leather jackets, chains, heavy boots and durable helmets (which sometimes, unfortunately, mimic those worn by soldiers of the Third Reich and those lovable January 6, 2021 insurrectionists).
  2. BICYCLISTS, who often wear spiffy form-hugging shorts, designer gloves, wraparound aviator goggles, fashion-forward headgear and athletic shoes that can cost more than most bikers’ monthly earnings if they happen to have jobs.
Edgy Cartoon

Heck’s Angel

If you chose Number 2, congratulations. You’ve obviously been struck by or barely avoided hitting a speeding urban bicyclist, one who apparently doesn’t feel a compelling need to obey stop signs or traffic signals.

More than 1,250 U.S. bicyclists died in 2020, and more than 800 of those in motor-vehicle traffic crashes, according to the website injuryfacts.nse.org (an actual source). 

Those numbers have increased in the two years since. “Bicycle deaths peak in the summer months, starting in May, and they remain high through October,” the site also reports, which I’ll admit is a stat bound to elicit a loud “duh” in most quarters. I mean, even the heartiest, most well-appointed bicyclists don’t seem to think that pedaling through a blizzard will necessarily up their endorphin counts.

My own experience with demonic, domestic bicyclists is anecdotal (as the words “my own experience” surely telegraphed). For me, it involves their zooming through intersections or riding three abreast on narrow neighborhood streets, and smirking when I’m forced to slam on my brakes to avoid acquiring an unwanted hood ornament. 

But a longtime acquaintance of mine, retired newspaper reporter Hilary Abramson, endured severe injuries one afternoon a few years ago in downtown Sacramento as a pedestrian. According to a story in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Sactown magazine, “…(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.”

I think Abramson’s allusion is apt—that many bicyclists think their vehicles are horses and rather than trolling urban streets they imagine they’re riding the range, Podnuh. I know that was my fantasy, anyway.

I was already eight when I first started to pilot a two-wheeler. Bike riding was strictly verboten (along with walking on the grass) in the Bronx, New York apartment community where I spent the first seven-and-a-half years of my life. Even so, on a day trip to visit cousins who lived in Long Island, my Dad had taught me how to ride a bike when I was about six—but I had to un-learn that upon our return to Parkchester, the one-square-mile WPA project where we lived.

But when we moved to a southern California suburb, my parents bought my brother Stuart and me our first one-speed bicycles (our eldest brother Jerry was already 18 and already into cars). Stu’s bike was a black 26-inch job that he named Tornado, which was the named of Zorro’s horse, and mine was a green 24-inch thing I called Yertle the Turtle.

Stu and I used to leave our rented home at 7:30 a.m. to ride all over the town of Lakewood; our Mom would pack us a picnic lunches and I proudly recall our not eating them until at least 7:45 a.m. 

Meanwhile, at Grover Cleveland Elementary School, the county sheriff’s office had set up a mini-street grid on our vast cement playground, with real stop signs and painted traffic lanes, the better to teach us “Safety, safety with a smile/Safety, safety all the while.” We were taught hand signals (to turn or stop) and instructed on how to attach clips to our trouser legs to prevent our pants getting entangled in the chain or pedals.

While I’m sure the officers didn’t encourage it, they didn’t prevent my pals and me from attaching playing cards to our wheel spokes so we could make flapping sounds as we cruised the schoolground. This was pretty thrilling, cards or not, since the traffic tutorial was held on the weekend, so we could navigate the expanse’s little hillocks and drainage sluices with impunity—and a certain amount of derring-do, to be sure.

As I look back on this experience, I’m reminded that as much fun as we made of the classes, they made most of us pretty responsible bicyclists. 

I stopped bicycling a few years ago when I reckoned the streets of my town had become too dangerous: Sacramento is now recognized as having the worst automobile drivers in the entire country. I think we have some of the worst bicyclists as well. As for bikers, well, you tell them. I’ll hold your beer.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).