Petaluma cycle advocates step up calls for safer streets, while council eyes creating a more bike-friendly city

More than 40 cyclists weaved through Petaluma Boulevard last week, their light-refracting spokes and neon spandex forming a bright, serpentine procession along one of the city’s main arteries.

Among the hum of passing cars, the group made little noise aside from the rhythmic clinks of rotating pedals, a dutiful observation of Petaluma’s first Ride of Silence, an event meant to honor the memories of cyclists killed by vehicles on local roadways, including two in Petaluma since October 2019.

Amid a confluence of recent deaths and a new council dominated by cyclists, the memorial ride marked a hopeful shift for riders calling for education and updated infrastructure ahead of city budget talks and updates to its General Plan.

“There has been a lot of interest intermittently over the last century on safety, but now we definitely have more people on council that are much more dedicated bicyclists,” Mayor Teresa Barrett said. “I think it’s rekindled some additional interest. It could be that several things have come together to make people realize we really need to make this safer and more accessible to more people. Now looks like the right time.”

Raising awareness

The line of bicycles left Walnut Park last Wednesday evening, continuing past a bustling downtown toward the Corona Road overpass where 39-year-old Petaluma resident and father to two Bryan Cacy was hit and killed by a prescription drug-impaired driver May 23, 2020.

Standing alongside the white “ghost bike” memorializing Cacy’s death, two of Cacy’s family members quietly acknowledging the cortege of fellow Petaluma bicyclists.

It was a gut punch for council member D’Lynda Fischer as she and the group rode past single-file.

“Riding over Corona, when I saw them there, that was - that was a lot,” Fischer said with a pointed pause.

Less than a year before Cacy’s death, another Petaluma man, 89-year-old Valerio Estrada, was struck and killed by a semitruck Oct. 23, 2019, on Lakeville Street near In-N-Out Burger.

An avid cyclist, Fischer knows first-hand the dangers of riding in Petaluma. She’s able to rattle off a host of intersections and streets where she’s had frighteningly close calls with traffic.

For Fischer, who moved to Petaluma in 2013, and got to know her home by riding its streets, trails and country roads, a key factor in improving the cycling experience is educating the community about the dangers cyclists face.

“I think we really need to bring awareness that riding in our city is very challenging,” said Fischer, who attended the memorial ride. “I’d like to really bring more awareness that there are so many places, especially on the west side of town, where we don’t feel safe.”

Fischer’s cycling club, the Petaluma Wheelmen, led the bicycle event in conjunction with rides in Sonoma and Santa Rosa organized by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. First launched 18 years ago in Dallas, the annual memorial has grown into a worldwide event thought to draw thousands of participants.

This year, Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition honored the memories of nine cyclists killed in the county between 2018 and 2020.

Eris Weaver, Executive Director of the coalition, says cycle deaths in the county have remained somewhat constant over the past five years, averaging between three and four per year.

On a national scale, a March 2021 report from nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says deaths among bicyclists younger than 20 have declined 90% since 1975, but deaths among bicyclists 20 and older have tripled in that same period.

Meanwhile, the appearance of “ghost bikes,” bikes painted white and placed at the site of cyclist deaths, have popped up among popular thoroughfares in recent years as visible memorials.

Just a week before the Ride of Silence, two cyclists were hit by a suspected drunken driver north of Sebastopol. One of those, 52-year-old Mark Osborne of Santa Rosa, died May 20, one day after the memorial ride. A 12-year-old boy who also was hit remains in hospital care, according to the Press Democrat.

After the May 19 ride, Mary Davies, 72, spoke of the need for motorists to recognize and respect cyclists in the roadway, especially in parts of the city where careless drivers are known to push speed limits and drive in bike lanes.

“We’re people’s moms and dads and kids and grandparents,” she said. “I feel like when people see us, it’s a lot easier to get mad at a cyclist who appears to get in the way, rather than to see that we’re your families here.”

Prompted to act

Despite the stories laced with caution, local cyclists are effusive about wanting to get more people on bikes – seeing a more bike-oriented city as a way to both reach the city’s aggressive climate goals and to transform citywide infrastructure to cater to a city that chooses two wheels over four.

Council member Kevin McDonnell, who also attended the memorial ride and is an experienced long-distance cyclist, said the city needs to both encourage more residents to hop on their bikes and invest in more continuous bike trails and better bike lane infrastructure across existing roads. One, he said, could lead to the other.

“If our commuting routes had better safety, then more people would do it,” McDonnell said. “People wish they could get on their bikes, if only the facilities were there. While it’s sort of chicken or the egg, if we had more cyclists we would be more motivated to complete better routes. But because we don’t have a lot of cyclists we don’t have better facilities.”

Penngrove resident Molly Mazzella, membership coordinator with the 198-member Petaluma Wheelmen club, said that organization, long recognizing the danger of organized rides in town, is shifting from education to advocacy.

“The Wheelmen in the past have been really focused on getting amateur cyclists out,” Mazzella said. “But I’m starting to see a shift, we feel we can do some good here and raise awareness in safety on roads.”

The group has been in contact with several council members in recent weeks, and is preparing a report on city road conditions to present to city staff and leaders within the next few months. Among the group’s first requests is for the city to renegotiate its contract with Recology Sonoma Marin to include regular sweeps of bike paths in Petaluma, to clear them of debris and trash that create hazards for cyclists.

Bicycle advocates should have a welcoming audience in the current Petaluma City Council, where more than half the council members are cyclists.

Those leaders say upcoming budget discussions and the ongoing General Plan update are ideal opportunities to explore ways the city can both invest in safety measures and encourage more residents to take up cycling.

“Our job here I think is making sure we’re making our roads safer and safer,” Mayor Teresa Barrett said. “That should be our goal with everything we’re doing, we need to upgrade or improve any bike availability on the street when it’s economically feasible.”

And for some members of the Petaluma Wheelmen, including council member D’Lynda Fischer and resident Mary Davies, wider bike lanes and better signage could make some routes through town a little less heart-thumping.

“The concern is that we don’t have enough of the roadway,” Fischer said. “They are typically designed for cars, with bicycles as an afterthought. With many of our streets, we don’t have dedicated or striped lanes.”

Though council member Brian Barnacle said robust discussions about incorporating bike-friendly elements in the General Plan are a priority, he said there’s also a number of smaller projects that could improve safety for little cost or effort.

He suggested installing secure bike racks downtown and in shopping centers, keeping bike lanes open during construction projects and organizing a large monthly ride to bring awareness among motorists to share the road.

Benefits of biking

While much of the focus on local bicycling lies with ensuring more people can get out on their bikes and feel safe, council leaders also underlined how a citywide embrace of bicycle travel could create a less car-dependent city and help reach its climate goals.

Among Petalumans, 69% of daily trips start and end within city limits, with roughly the same amount under 5 miles, according to a 2020 study from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. About one-third of all trips in Petaluma are fewer than 2 miles.

“Safe streets are the best climate policies we can have,” said council member Brian Barnacle. “Transportation accounts for 65 or 70% of our emissions.”

The city has made strides in recent months in its effort to become carbon neutral by 2030. The City Council has banned future gas station construction, invested in electric vehicle charging stations and prohibited natural gas lines in new construction in order to promote less fossil fuel dependence.

City leaders say building a less car-dependent city is also critical to curbing emissions, and point to bicycle transportation as a piece of the puzzle.

Philadelphia native Gail Steiner, 69, said she thought more people ought to ride their bicycles given the city’s layout and climate.

“In Petaluma, as far as the layout, you couldn’t ask for better infrastructure in terms of it being flat and neighborhood-ly and the weather,” Steiner said. “The lack of people cycling to go grocery shopping or go to doctor, is amazing to me, when that’s possible all year round.”

With the city now required by the state to add nearly 2,000 more units of affordable housing, Barnacle and other city leaders say an investment in bicycle infrastructure is not only a climate-friendly move, but could be the only way to truly minimize traffic woes.

“If we don’t commit to a strategy, we’re going to spend our money in places and not get the results we want,” Barnacle said. “We need to find a new model, that’s the pain point we’re in right now.”

Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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