Pedal to the medal

The mobile Bike Church, an advice-and-repair kiosk on wheels, provides free advice to UC Davis cyclists.

The mobile Bike Church, an advice-and-repair kiosk on wheels, provides free advice to UC Davis cyclists.

Ken Widmann is a Davis resident who writes about what makes the town tick.

Topographically speaking, Davis is flatter than a libertarian’s tax scheme. In fact, there’s just a single hill in the entire city, Slide Hill, and it’s man-made (I should say person-made—the other day I heard a community mediator, in invoking an angling analogy, use the gender-neutral phrase fisherperson. Remind me to check the library here for the revised The Mature Person and the Sea). Anyway, were the streets of Davis lined with green felt, one could shoot pool clear across town. Imagine growing up without having to shift gears on your bike or ever watching your poorly thrown baseball roll all the way down the hill. Even for the Ritalin-free kids, life in Davis affords no peaks, no valleys.

The upside, though, is that if you were to pick the ideal landscape to drop a bike-friendly small city on, Davis would be it (minus the searing heat, of course). Davis is immensely proud of its innovative 40-plus-year-old bike culture—the city logo is a high-wheeler—and it should be.

Almost any location in town is accessible via bike lanes or full-on car-free bike paths. Bike racks are as common as ashtrays in Europe, and a host of traffic aids—bicycle circles, bike-only crossing signals, free full-color bike maps, etc.—give cyclists a level of safety and status rare in the American landscape. The city funds a full-time bike coordinator and staff, as does the university. Don’t have a blinking rear light? Campus police will give you one. And if your turns are more wobbly than usual, they may slap you with a BUI, a $250 fine plus $170 in penalties. (Perhaps owing to such vigilance, MADB is not a strong presence).

Serving a total population of fewer than 100,000 are an astounding nine bike shops, including the quirky mobile Bike Church, a free advice-and-repair kiosk on wheels staffed by a “ministry” of “acolytes” who provide free advice and maintenance to campus cyclists.

There are no school buses in Davis. Years ago, the City Council voted to abolish them because their bright-yellow hue infringed upon the color palette of the Western honey bee. No, no, voters banished them to encourage kids to bike to school. And bike they do—I live next door to a junior high school; at 3 p.m., the streets resemble a two-wheeled, plastic-helmeted running of the bulls.

All this healthy, emissions-free transportation has its drawbacks, however. For starters, there’s just a lot more dudes rocking spandex who probably shouldn’t be. Also, October was California School Bus Safety Awareness month, for example. Did anyone care? And that extremely fit mom stuffing groceries into the panniers of her custom road bike outside the Davis Co-op? She’s been blood doping.

But at the risk of sounding boosterish, you have to admire the effort and results. Even right now, construction crews are tearing up a major street in east Davis to build a bike undercrossing beneath it. It’s all part of why the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists consistently has deemed Davis the most bicycle-friendly city in the nation.

In September, Davis hosted the California Bicycle Coalition’s annual Walk/Bike California conference. At UC Davis’ Freeborn Hall, amid a collection of trim-looking bike enthusiasts, city planners, civic-minded entrepreneurs hawking new-fangled bike racks, pedometers and all things people powered, up to the podium stepped Jack Gallagher, comedian and cycling enthusiast. Gallagher, a Sacramento resident, commended Davis, and pointed out how lazy the rest of America’s auto-centric culture has become. Take the invention of cruise control, he said. “You’re already in a car,” he exclaimed. “You have a ride. Your big butt is on a seat. Now—it’s too much trouble to hold a down a pedal?”

Not here.