Sacramento Needs to Prioritize People Over Cars

While there are many things we’ve been happy to leave behind as pandemic lockdowns fade in our memories, safe, near-empty streets, and clear skies are not among them.

Cities around the world took bold steps to close roads to cars and prioritize people over vehicles, leaving communities transformed. In Europe, some have gone so far as to be labeled car-free cities” and retained former space allocated to cars in city centers to serve more people. After all, we’re all people, so shouldn’t we be the priority?

R Street in Midtown Sacramento, closed to cars during the pandemic.

Clogged streets and short-sighted “car first” policies need to be a thing of the past. Many U.S. transportation departments continue to make decisions based on outdated policies that prioritize moving cars from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. It’s an antiquated model that leads to an ever-increasing number of deaths on our roads and makes our cities unwelcoming.

But there’s a better way.

If the shift to work-from-home during the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we are tired of spending hours a day trapped in a car for travel to an office. Americans have finally awoken to the fact that there’s an alternative to the daily grind.

Instead, people want a better quality of life. They want their time back to spend with friends and family, take their kids on safe streets to play in the park, and pick up groceries locally instead of having the ordeal of working around peak traffic and parking hassles.

15-Minute Cities

Many in the forward-looking active transportation world are advocating for what’s known as 15-minute cities . As the name implies, the concept refers to residents of a city meeting their daily needs within 15 minutes of home via walking or riding a bike.

The 15-minute city provides multiple benefits to communities:

  • Fewer miles driven leads to safer roads for everyone, including drivers
  • Smarter, safer street designs to prioritize safety over speed
  • Reducing carbon emissions to help reach our state’s climate goals
  • More investment in local neighborhoods, especially small businesses
  • Better quality of life to attract employers
  • Stronger communities as people interact with neighbors more
  • Greater equity as services increase in often-ignored neighborhoods and traditional “food desert” areas
  • Providing safe, affordable transportation options for all residents
  • A healthier population as people can easily adapt an active transportation lifestyle

What needs to happen to get Sacramento and its neighborhoods to be more user-friendly for everyone, whether you’re eight or 80 years old? A bold vision, certainly. The concept of a 15-minute city doesn’t magically appear overnight. But we do need immediate action. There are a number of steps Sacramento can make now to move in the right direction.

A connected network

Sacramento has many great neighborhoods, but there is no safe network of bike routes to get around the many highways, railroad tracks, and arterials that intersect our city.

Our residents deserve a seamless, connected network that allows any resident to get where they need to go safely and efficiently by bicycle or walking. The city has a target bicycling mode share goal of 12% and we are currently at a dismal 2%. Without bold moves, we will not see bold progress. Or any progress.

A connected network eliminates the all-too-common “bike lane to nowhere” and instead prioritizes getting people walking and biking safely and efficiently to destinations across the city. It incorporates safe ‘first and last mile’ connections that complement mass transit and make buses, trains, and light rail a convenient and desirable alternative to single-occupancy vehicles.

Separated bike lanes should be added throughout the city, allowing efficient, safe travel for people on bikes. Sidewalks meeting ADA codes should be in all neighborhoods.

Thoughtful street design

Sacramento was recently ranked 2nd worst in the nation for its unsafe drivers. Slowing traffic down by better street design saves lives, including those of drivers. Busy intersections should have pedestrian-first designs to slow traffic  and save lives, and traffic signals should be metered to prioritize pedestrians with a head start at crosswalks to eliminate the worry of getting mowed down while simply crossing the street.

Forward-thinking cities have eliminated “right turn on red” to slow traffic down and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries, making city centers safer and more welcoming.

Sacramento has major arterials that cut through the city, hurtling fast-moving vehicles through downtown. SABA supports the Central City Mobility Project that proposes permanent reconfiguration of high-speed, one-way roads into slower, safer, two way avenues. The plan will also add miles of protected bike lanes in Sacramento. We need to see more of this!

Allocate more public spaces for people

After restaurants closed for the initial pandemic shutdown, there was panic about lost jobs and whether any of our favorite dining spots would survive. But restaurants pivoted and found new ways to not only survive, but thrive.

Parklets—redesigned street areas or parking spaces to accommodate more people—sprung up everywhere. Even in cities with cooler climates, dining outside with space heaters became the norm. And contrary to the common argument that transitioning a parking spot will harm business, these reconfigured spaces had the opposite effect. People came out to enjoy these new public spaces and businesses thrived. Sac’s R Street was bustling with pedestrians, people on bikes, and families dining outside enjoying the car-free atmosphere. R Street was a perfect, real-life demonstration of people responding to safe, communal spaces for all to enjoy.

A lone rider on R Street.

Sacramento had its share of parklets crop up during the pandemic, but even after seeing the enthusiasm for R Street, the city returned the street to cars, and now R Street is just another road. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, voters just approved keeping JFK Promenade permanently free of cars. This reconfiguration was test-piloted during the pandemic and it turns out that people like safe places to ride and walk. To put it simply, Sacramento needs to think bigger and take bold action.

Instead, our Mayor and council recently incentivized parking in the downtown grid by lowering parking rates. This is the perfect example of antiquated thinking and city planning that is taking Sacramento in the wrong direction. The economic and social benefits of parklets and communal reconfigurations have been recognized, but as long as our local leaders maintain a “car is king” mentality, Sacramento won’t see progress.

Events for community to come together

SABA’s Bikes on the Boulevard event during May is Bike Month brought people together to safely ride across town on closed streets, enjoying music, food, yoga, and community. We need our city to embrace and encourage more events like this.

Bikes on the Boulevard, May is Bike Month, 2022.

Sacramento should look to the Ciclovia in Colombia for inspiration. While many tend to dismiss any idea from outside of the U.S. (don’t even dare to mention Copenhagen) with a “we can’t do that here” attitude, that lack of vision is a big part of the problem. Ciclovia launched in Bogota nearly 50 years ago, and every Sunday, the city has millions of participants out riding, walking, dancing, and eating street food on 75 miles of closed roads. Millions every week! Now that’s an equitable and celebratory use of public space.

Closer to home, Los Angeles—inspired by Bogota—launched its own CicLAvia in 2010. To date, CicLAvia has welcomed 1.8 million people to 40 events on nearly 250 miles of closed roads. More than 50% of participants said they’d be inactive if not for CicLAvia and businesses along the route see a 57% increase in business on event days. Sunday Streets in San Francisco is another great example.

CicLAvia in Hollywood. Photo Courtesy of

This is such a no-brainer for Sacramento to embrace, bring people together and get them moving! The city should be working to encourage these events and support them in whatever way possible in neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. Even just taking the lead on assisting with street permitting and traffic plans would ease the burden on small nonprofits like SABA and facilitate more events for all to enjoy.

More equitable use of our public space currently allocated to cars puts the residents of Sacramento first. All residents. Not just those who wish to drive and are privileged enough be able to own, insure, fuel, and store an automobile. After all, roads are funded as much by general taxes paid by everyone as they are through the gas tax. Our road space should work for everyone who pays for them.

Let’s put community first

The defeat of Measure A on the November ballot was encouraging. Our thanks to everyone who voted against the measure! It shows that residents of Sacramento County don’t want to raise their taxes for more of the same: more highways, more congestion, more fatalities, and more wealthy investors and developers. People are ready for a smarter way of living.

We’ve outlined a way to get us there. Is it simple and will it happen overnight? No. It is possible to achieve? Absolutely.

So, what are we waiting for? With the climate crisis and rising road fatalities in our cities, now is the time to act and create a forward-looking vision of a dynamic city everyone can enjoy.

We all win when cars don’t completely dominate urban design. So does our planet.