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.”
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.