Last December I relocated to Davis, a small city 15 miles west of Sacramento, home to the University of California, Davis. Part of the attraction was the greater availability and affordability of housing. But an additional factor in my move was Davis' well-deserved reputation as the most bike-friendly community in the US. In the 1960s Davis was the first city in the country to paint bike lanes on a street, and it has continued to pioneer innovative bike planning ever since.
Bicycling in Davis is, simply put, great. Streets with minimal traffic, bike lanes and traffic calming. Bike-only light cycles at major intersections. A university campus closed to vehicle traffic. Miles of empty country roads just outside town. Abundant bike parking everywhere. Great transit--Amtrak, Greyhound, the county-wide Yolobus, and the UC Davis-run citywide service Unitrans--that facilitate a car-free lifestyle. A city government that proactively (imagine!) encourages cycling, going so far as to feature an 1890s style high-wheeler (also known as an "ordinary," "penny-farthing" or "scorcher") as the city symbol.
One prominent recent example of Davis' commitment to cycling is the newly dedicated Putah Creek Bike Path, which opened in October 2000. Built over 18 months at a cost of $4.5 million, the 12-foot wide Putah Creek path crosses under Interstate 80, helping cyclists avoid a busy traffic interchange. The project was financed by $750,000 in Proposition 116 funds, $250,000 in development impact fees, and $3.5 million in redevelopment agency funds. Imagine if San Francisco's city government were as serious about enhancing bike and pedestrian safety with the nightmarish Interstate 280-Cesar Chavez intersection.
The Putah Creek Bike Path is the newest section in the city's network of multi-use paths, which extends for more than 50 miles in dedicated right-of-ways with grade separations (bridges and underpasses) to minimize traffic interaction. This extensive path network complements another 50-odd miles of bike lanes on shared roadways. One particularly delightful feature of life in Davis is observing the morning and afternoon "rush hours" on the greenbelt paths, as groups of children travel to and from school on bikes, skateboards and scooters.
According to Tim Bustos, pedestrian and bicycling safety coordinator for the City of Davis, this safe, traffic-free path network was a critical factor in the recent vote by Davis residents to terminate the city's expensive school bus system. "Parents have a great sense of confidence about letting their children ride bikes," says Bustos. "The city's extensive network of greenbelts is critical, because it makes parents comfortable with their children cycling. They don't have to worry about their kids interacting with traffic."
Both Bustos and David Takemoto-Weerts, bicycle program coordinator for UC Davis, attribute the high rate of bicycle use in Davis to visionary city planning 40 years ago. "Because of certain unique features--mild climate, level terrain, a large population of healthy, young and cash-poor university students for whom cycling is a natural choice--Davis would have a high rate of cycling without doing anything," says Takemoto-Weerts. "However, it was Davis' decision in the mid-1960s to proactively encourage and protect cycling that has made it the most bike-friendly community in the country."
Davis has grown from 5,000 residents in 1960 to more than 60,000 today, spreading out over a larger area to accommodate that growth. Its character has changed as well, from a purely "college town" to a partial "bedroom community" for nearby Sacramento and even the Bay Area. According to both Bustos and Takemoto-Weerts, these changes could have easily crowded out cycling if it weren't for the proactive efforts of city residents, government leaders and city agencies to encourage cycling.
"Davis has had the advantage of being able to build cycling infrastructure as it has grown," says Bustos. "This is easier than trying to retrofit an older city like San Francisco. However, there's no excuse not to begin creating more favorable cycling conditions. A lot of communities waste time arguing over whether or not to provide for bicycles. In Davis, that argument is over. Bicyclists aren't asking for anything special. We only want the same consideration given to every other transportation mode."
There are challenges in Davis, to be sure. Car use continues to grow along with the city's population. (This is still a community in a car-centered nation, after all.) However, given the wide community recognition of the benefits of cycling, it seems certain that Davis will continue to provide a model for bike-friendly city planning.
Davis Bicycling Links & Resources
Davis Bicycle Club
Davis Wiki Bicycling Page
"Bike Mecca" needs bike mechanics, Bike Commute Tips Blog, April 2007
Davis commemorates 50 years of bicycling, Bike Commute Tips Blog, February 2007
Bicycling Magazine names Davis best cycling town, January 2006
Davis Named First Platinum-Level Bicycle Friendly Community, October 2005
Bike Talk Radio, KDRT broadcast, podcast, show archives
The Davis Model, history by David Takemoto-Weerts
Davis-Sacramento Bike Route Description
"How our bike lanes were born", op-ed article by Dale Lott, published in the Davis Enterprise.
"Where have all the cyclists gone", Davis Enterprise, May 2003. Response by David Takemoto-Weerts
Report and photos from San Francisco Bicycle Coalition tour of Davis, April 27, 2001.
Front page article on SFBC Davis tour in Davis Enterprise.
Paul Dorn is a former member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition board of directors and editor of the coalition's newsletter, the tubular times. He offers bike commuting tips and other cycling articles at www.runmuki.com/commute.
Pedaling to Save the City - the Critical Mass bicycling movement
Cycling in Osaka, Japan - the use of bicycles for transportation in Japan
Class and Traffic - the often overlooked costs of auto-dependency
Paul Dorn's Bicycles - reasons, considerations and rationalizations on bike types
Baseball, Apple Pie, and...Bicycling? - bike facilities lacking at California ballparks