By David Bolling
On Oct. 20, the League of American Bicyclists announced the City of Sonoma had been named a fall 2009 Bicycle Friendly Community.
Five weeks later, a 13-year-old bicyclist collided with a 72-year-old woman on a Broadway sidewalk sending her into a coma from which she has yet to fully recover. In the aftermath of the accident, some citizens publicly wondered if Sonoma is perhaps a bit too bike friendly.
Police conducted a lengthy investigation, even going so far as to have a veteran bike-riding officer test-drive the accident bicycle to ascertain its maximum possible speed for the gear it was in at the time of the accident. In the end, they found that tall bushes obscured the vision of both parties, that the bike rider was traveling neither recklessly nor too fast and that no one was at fault for the unfortunate collision. But that didn’t stop an outpouring of anger questioning the city’s policy of letting bicycles travel the same sidewalks as pedestrians, and that sentiment generated a counter-response from parents who do not want their children riding at risk on city streets.
Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett said California’s vehicle code regulates bicycles, but allows local jurisdictions to set local rules.
Sonoma’s municipal ordinance states that no one shall operate a bicycle “at such speed or in such manner as evidences willful, wanton or reckless disregard of the safety of other pedestrians in the vicinity.”
In the case of the Broadway accident, said Sackett, “We painstakingly examined this case, and we were not able to establish that the boy was riding in such a manner and at such a speed as to exhibit wanton disregard …”
Sackett said the issue of bicycle safety is complicated and, “My job is to enforce the laws established by the city and by the state. Do I always agree with them?”
But Sackett, who has three bike-riding children of his own, readily admits, “I have instructed them to ride on the sidewalk. I try to run frequently and my 7-year-old likes to ride her bike behind me. I couldn’t manage doing that on the street.”
But Sackett lives in Santa Rosa where the municipal ordinance bans riding bikes only on sidewalks in commercial shopping areas such as the downtown area, Old Railroad Square or at shopping centers.
And despite some public outrage at the freedom of Sonoma cyclists to travel on sidewalks, most of the rest of Sonoma County’s cities allow cyclists some degree of sidewalk access, as an Index-Tribune survey revealed.
Besides Sonoma and Santa Rosa, the bike-on-sidewalk policies of other local cities are as follows:
• Healdsburg: A member of the Healdsburg police force told the Index-Tribune that the state vehicle code applies and that bikes cannot be ridden on sidewalks.
• Sebastopol: Bikes are not allowed on sidewalks in the downtown corridor, but are allowed in residential neighborhoods. A map is available which delineates the no-sidewalk riding area.
• Windsor: Bikes are not allowed on sidewalks in the town’s commercial districts, specifically the Town Civic Center and the Town Green. The proscribed area is specifically described, block-by-block in the town’s ordinance.
• Rohnert Park: Bikes are allowed on city sidewalks where not specifically prohibited. Some sidewalks are posted with signs prohibiting bikes but all others are open to cyclists.
• Petaluma: The city prohibits bikes on sidewalks in the central business district of the city unless traffic signs are posted informing bicyclists and pedestrians that the sidewalk has dual usage. Additionally, the city code states that, “No person shall ride a bicycle on any sidewalk which abuts the front of any school or any building used for public assembly.”
Sackett explained that he knows of communities that differentiate between children cyclists and adults, allowing bike riders on sidewalks until they reach the age of 16.
And he suggested a “bigger discussion” might be focused on what should happen as Sonoma continues to develop its bike riding infrastructure and two-wheeled travel becomes even more popular. The city might want, he suggested, to then consider changing the sidewalk ordinance.
Reflecting on the Broadway accident, Sackett said, “I think this is a very tragic accident and warrants public concern and discussion. But I would caution people not to use this as a lightning rod. I did, however, send a request to the city attorney to take a look at the ordinance” to make sure it is serving the current needs of the community.
Notwithstanding the tragic nature of the injury to victim of the Broadway accident, Sonoma’s traffic safety officer, Mike Baraz, said it was a statistical anomaly. “I’ve been to bike accidents, and I’ve been to pedestrian accidents, but in 16 years of police work, this is the first time I’ve come across a pedestrian vs. bike accident.”
Baraz cautioned bike riders to understand that, “If you’re choosing to ride your bike on the sidewalk (understand that) generally speaking the sidewalk is for pedestrian travel. Even though it’s legal to ride bikes on the sidewalk, people aren’t necessarily expecting it. Ride with due caution.”
As a motorcycle rider, Baraz said he assumes that a car could come out of every driveway, every side street, every parking lot he passes and he constantly prepares to avert sudden hazards. The same kind of caution and awareness, he said, should apply to people riding bikes.
And he also reminded drivers that whenever a car confronts a pedestrian or a bicycle at a driveway crossing a sidewalk, the car has to yield. But yielding can be a moot point if a bicycle rider is traveling too fast for the car to react in time to avoid an impact.
And finally, Baraz noted, the rules of the road, including stop lights, stop signs, turn signals and lights, apply to bicycles as much as to cars.
“And whether you’re on the street or on the sidewalk,” he concluded, ” you’ve got to expect vehicles are coming from wherever.”