Davis, a bicycling mecca

And advocates want to keep it that way

Davis Bicycles! advocacy group member Leo Rainer.

Davis Bicycles! advocacy group member Leo Rainer.

Photo By dominick porras

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In a photograph in the October 8, 1964 edition of The Davis Enterprise, U.S. Sen. Pierre Salinger balances precariously on the seat of a bicycle while visiting UC Davis. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, he seems to struggle with the two-wheeled contraption as he attempts to pedal away from the crowd. The photograph nicely symbolizes the history of bicycling in the city of Davis: huge numbers of young bicycle riders pedaling around with the support of sympathetic politicians and policymakers.

Among cyclists and non-cyclists alike, Davis is known as the bicycle capital of the United States. But in recent years, the percentage of residents that use bicycles has declined, several bicycle-friendly public-works staff retired from their planning positions and, according to several bicycle advocates, the use of cars is on the rise.

“Maybe it’s because of complacency,” said Leo Rainer, treasurer for Davis Bicycles!, a bicycling advocacy group. “You talk to anybody in Davis, and they will all be very much pro-bicycle or say that Davis is a good bicycle place. But it needs more than that. You still need pressure and activism to keep things moving.”

Today’s bicyclists benefit from city and university planning that started in the early 1960s. In his master’s degree thesis, “Fifty Years of Bicycle Policy in Davis, CA,” recent UC Davis transportation studies graduate and Davis Bicycles! founder Ted Buehler credits the school’s first chancellor, Emil Mrak, for asking architects “to plan for a bicycle-riding, tree-lined campus” in 1961. Mrak was an avid bicycle rider during his youth, and his love of cycling shaped the university’s plans as it prepared for ever-increasing enrollment levels.

UC Davis’ “Long Range Development Plan” in 1963 included high-speed bicycle paths that were kept separate from both vehicle traffic and pedestrian walkways, spacious bicycle parking facilities and links to both nearby housing and downtown shops. That bicycle-conscious planning led to the biking mecca Davis is today. In 2005, the League of American Bicyclists designated Davis as a “platinum” level Bicycle Friendly Community, the league’s highest rating for U.S. cities with the best bicycle programs.

The league ranks cities based on how well they meet the “Five Es”: engineering, or the availability of bicycle pathways and facilities; education, or how the community informs both cyclists and motorists about safety issues; encouragement, or how well cycling is promoted within the community with road signs, maps and incentive programs; enforcement, dealing with bicycle laws and relationships with law-enforcement agencies; and evaluation and planning, or how well the community continually works on cycling issues. Of the more than 70 cities listed on the league’s January 2008 Bicycle Friendly Community award list, only Davis and Portland, Ore., hold the platinum level.

But bicycle-friendly planning in Davis felt a setback when longtime cyclists and Public Works employees Dave Pelz and Duane Copley retired in the late 1990s. And despite earlier decades of Davis’ pro-bicycle efforts, the most recent U.S. Census findings indicate that cycling is losing ground in the city. In 2000, 15 percent of residents reported commuting to work by bicycle, down from 22 percent in 1990. While Tara Goddard, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Davis’ Public Works Department, thinks the census data is imprecise, she does believe a decline in bicyclists can be attributed to several factors.

“There are more people moving into the area who aren’t coming from the culture of bicycling,” she said. “For them, it’s not second nature—or first nature—to grab their bikes instead of hopping in the car.”

Despite these challenges, Davis continues to improve its bicycling infrastructure. Last year, the city completed a 12-mile bicycle path loop around the city. This month, the city held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly-completed Covell Boulevard bicycle and pedestrian under-crossing, which will provide a safe passage under a heavy-traffic road on the north side of the city.

Rainer said he would like to see bicycle advocacy as one of the major issues in the upcoming city council election. While some of the candidates have expressed support for bicycling in the city, he hopes that all of them will make bicycle issues part of their campaigns. Maybe the candidates should take a cue from Sen. Salinger and arrange a photo op while seated on their own bikes.