How our bike lanes were born
A determined group of Davis activists just wouldn’t give up on our quality of life
By Dale Lott
Special to the Davis Enterprise, August 2003
I love riding through the new South Davis bike tunnel. It’s terrific: wide right of way, smooth surface, nice landscaping, gentle grades, lights, even call boxes. All that and absolute separation from six lanes of headlong freeway traffic and the railroad.
It’s far beyond the aspirations, even the dreams, of the little band of activists who campaigned for bike lanes nearly 40 years ago. But it grew from a seed planted then, in 1965.
That seed was a letter to the editor from Frank Child, who warned that the town’s tradition of bicycling was in danger. The campus had grown from 2,000 students in 1959 to 7,000 and would reach 12,000 in 1969. The town had 14,500 residents and was growing 10 percent per year. Bike riders were being forced to duke it out with increasingly impatient drivers and more and more were giving up riding.
Frank said Davis’ bike culture would disappear if nothing were done. The Netherlands, he pointed out, made specific provisions to encourage bicycling — separate right-of-ways where cars were excluded. Davis should do the same.
Frank had a knack for rhetorical flourishes, and ended his letter with one: “Where the leaders have no vision, the people perish.”
I didn’t know Frank and I’d never heard of separate bicycle facilities — at that time there were none anywhere in North America — but his letter got me all excited. My experience as a student activist convinced me that his great idea would require some political pushing. We decided to form an ad hoc committee.
Another letter announced meeting and five middle-class university types showed up. None were engineers or designers. Frank was an economist, Eve Child a dancer, Donna Lott (my wife at that time) a social worker, Bob Powell a range scientist and I am an animal behaviorist. Mark Harrington joined us from time to time when the demands of being a student at UCD permitted.
Tackling the task
None of us ever had ridden or ever would ride a double century — or even aspire to it. We liked to do our daily travel around town by bike, and wanted to preserve that feature of life in Davis. We dubbed ourselves the Bicycle Safety Committee. Membership was always open, but no one else ever came, so at most meetings you could count us on the digits of one hand. But the press releases that followed our every meeting didn’t report how many were there — just what they said.
The press releases were about providing a safe environment for the Davis bicycling tradition amid growing population and traffic. Back then, neither improving energy conservation nor reducing air pollution were big concerns for the general public or for us. Our goal was to preserve an important part of the Davis quality of life.
We mapped out a bike lane system — mostly stripes and signs on the principal streets. Frank, who was tall, distinguished and spoke in a confident, relaxed baritone, presented it to the members of the City Council. One was a pharmacist who represented the business community; another a retired gentleman who represented the railroad, etc. Most of the members stared at us incredulously.
So we drew up a petition. It was very specific — exclusive space for bikes on most of the heavily traveled streets: Third Street, Sycamore Lane, etc. We made a bunch of copies and recruited people to gather signatures. For the next several weeks any social gathering of any size included petition signature solicitation. Sometimes most of the people present had a copy they were seeking signatures on. It was a signer’s market.
Not everybody signed, of course. There were those who said bikes had outlived their usefulness and should be discouraged. Then there were those who said that confining bikes to lanes would deprive cyclists of full citizenship on the road. These people often went on to argue that bike lanes would make riding more rather than less dangerous.
But about 90 percent of the people approached signed, and we soon had many hundreds of signatures. We went to another City Council meeting, and Frank presented our petitions, noting ominously that the signers were not only local residents but also local voters. This time the stares weren’t just incredulous, they were also hostile. Bike paths were still out of the question for this council.
Time for politics
Well, what are elective politics for anyhow? We focused on the 1966 City Council election. Two seats were open and bike paths were the big issue. Two candidates, Norman Woodbury and Maynard Skinner, pledged themselves to bike paths and sought our endorsement.
Woodbury even had stiff paper circles the size of a medium pizza made up with a hole in the center and the words WOODBURY FOR COUNCIL printed on both sides. You installed it inside the spokes of your bike’s front wheel and it left no doubt where he and you stood on bike lanes.
Skinner and Woodbury won and it appeared bike lanes had a majority on the new council. I was on the edge of my seat at the first meeting. The council members eyed each other uneasily in lengthening silence and my heart began to sink. Then Maynard got up, pointed to Third Street on a map of the city and said “I move that bike lanes be established on Third from B to L.” The motion passed. So did the motions he made for bike lanes on Sycamore, and nearly all the other streets in our petition.
At the end of the meeting, city staff was directed to meet with our committee and design bike lanes. We danced out of City Hall.
To the drawing board
Fred Kendall, then Davis’ city engineer, became a regular at our committee meetings. We had met with him before, and he had been polite but seriously skeptical. If he was still skeptical it didn’t show. We got right down to cases.
How wide should these lanes be? As little as 3 feet would do for a single bike, but an open car door would block such a lane, and besides, we wanted people to be able to ride side by side — that would allow overtaking and be more sociable, and most Davis streets were wide.
OK, said Fred, 5 feet; 8 feet? We tried riding side by side — 8 feet was great but didn’t leave enough space for a car traffic lane. We settled on 5 feet. OK, now what do we do at intersections? And so it went. We insisted on some experiments that turned out well and some that were flops.
One flop was on the first block of Sycamore north of Fifth where we put bike lanes next to the curb with parking next to the auto travel lane. It looked great on paper, but was a mess on pavement. When cars turned into the University Mall driveway, they crossed the bike lane. Both driver and rider, whose view of each other had been obscured by the parked cars, had an emergency situation.
When we acknowledged the flops Fred replaced them with successes without so much as an “I told you so,” even when he had told us so.
After several months, Davis had bike lanes on the streets. The committee and the engineers would be in touch for years, discussing details and strategy. “How far out of their way will bike riders go to use a safer crossing of an arterial street?” “When will it be politically possible to remove parking on Eighth from B to G (where it was too narrow for both parking and a bike lane)?” “How can we convince Caltrans that it should pay for two exclusively bicycle bridges across Highway 113 when they widen it and drop it in the ditch?”
There was no place to turn for answers, so we often had to just give it our best shot. Still, it seemed to me that after two years of effort, bike facilities were now an established part of the Davis culture and I could coast.
Not quite. Bob Sommer’s office was next door to mine and he and his philosophy walked right in. Congratulations on the bike lanes, he said, now you have the responsibility to do some applied research to see how well they work. Um, well ... I said. Let’s do it, he said.
Bob got us a little grant from the National Safety Council and we gathered data. It was very basic stuff — e.g., how many people travel Third Street on bikes compared to the number traveling by cars during commute hours? The findings were useful and the fun was diminished only a little when the Sacramento Bee opened a story on our project with the lines: “Watch out when you ride your bikes in Davis, girls. Two psychologists are trying to look up your skirts.”
The Davis Bike Lane story got around. People in communities all over the country wanted bike facilities and a lot of them visited Davis. They had many questions and we Davis people had only some answers. Bicycling needed a broad database.
In 1972, about five years after the first set of bike lanes were put in place, the Federal Highway Administration issued a request for proposals to create a set of standards for bicycle facilities. Deleuw-Cather, a consulting firm in San Francisco, won with a proposal that included a large component from UC Davis.
Mel Ramey from the department of civil engineering would do surfaces, widths, gradients, etc., and also administer the campus’ piece of the contract. Bob Sommer and I agreed to be responsible for the softer science part of the project (user satisfaction, safety effects, etc.).
Unfortunately, personal circumstances soon forced Bob to withdraw from the project. The rest of us soldiered on, making observations and doing experiments. The bike roundabouts on campus, for example, started as a very thick rope drawn into a circle and glued to the pavement in the center of an intersection by Dan Smith, on a creative August afternoon. It immediately produced order out of chaos and went into the report.
Southbound riders on Anderson Road turning left on Fifth invariably rested their left foot on the concrete median. When they got the green light they were to the left of the left-turning cars, but had to get to the right of those cars to complete their turn. There were dark looks, shouted warnings, even profanity from each to each.
A few dollars’ worth of paint created a marked lane for left-turning bikes to the right of the left-turning cars. It was much more efficient and much less irritating. Put it in the report. And so on. In 1975 the final report was submitted, 10 years after Frank Child’s germinal letter was published.
By then, Frank had left Davis for Santa Cruz. He’s been gone for 30 years now, but when I admire a new bike structure like the South Davis tunnel, or ride familiar lanes like those on Third Street, I still often think of Frank, their foresighted father.
—Dale Lott is a longtime Davis resident and professor emeritus of wildlife, fish and conservation biology at UC Davis.