A Bicycle Friendly Community

The Davis Model

(a paper presented at Pro Bike/Pro Walk, September 1998, Santa Barbara, CA)

By David Takemoto-Weerts

Davis, California, is sometimes referred to as "The Bicycle Capital of the U.S." because of the city's high rate of bicycle use and its long history providing its thousands of pedalers with a "cyclist-friendly" environment. Wide streets, an extensive bikeway network, gentle terrain, mild climate, supportive official policies, and an attitude of mutual respect between cyclists and motorists have resulted in a community with perhaps the most bikes per capita of any city in the U.S. Davis' pioneering efforts in establishing special bicycle facilities was unprecedented in this country, and many communities looked to Davis as a model for their own attempts to promote cycling locally. Now, over thirty years since the nation's first bike lanes were striped on the streets of Davis, it is time to look at the Davis model --how it evolved, what mistakes were made and learned from, and what facilities, policies and programs have endured and can continue to serve as examples for other aspiring communities to emulate. It is important to examine what was "special" about the city thirty years ago that led to its success in promoting cycling. It is also necessary to look at the formidable challenges facing Davis cyclists, planners, and politicians today. As the city continues to grow, it is attempting to retain bicycling's many benefits while confronted with expanding borders, population growth, and associated factors which threaten to transform "America's Best Cycling City" into just another auto-centered municipality indistinguishable from most other North American cities in its reliance on, and subservience to the motor vehicle.

In a 1972 "Bicycle Circulation and Safety Study" commissioned by the city and the University of California, researchers wrote:

"In speaking of Davis the word most commonly used is "unique", perhaps the only accurate portrait of the community as regards its most outstanding characteristic - the bicycle. "Davis" and "bicycle" are virtually synonymous.

"A number of factors appear to contribute in enabling the cycle to play this major transportation role. Among these are mild climate, level terrain and wide streets. Presence of the University of California campus assures a high percentage of the population will be comprised of young adults and the dispersed layout of the campus itself encourages use of the cycle. Also important is the fact that Davis heretofore has been a closely defined and relatively self sustained community. All activity centers in the city are within easy cycling range of the most remote households and with relatively little external travel, the bicycle is a viable form for almost all trips. But probably the most significant element has been the attitude of Davis residents and city officials and the provisions they have made to insure cycles are not crowded off city streets by growing automobile traffic."

This quote contains a key clue to why cycling has prospered in Davis: there was a pre-existing set of factors that contributed to the popular use of bicycles for transportation long before city and university officials and other key players set about to consciously improve the physical and social environment to promote "pedal power".

Mild climate and flat topography are, of course, physical "givens" over which the most ardent bicycle advocate has no control. The fact that Davis was a classic example of a "company town", the company in this case being the burgeoning campus of the University of California system, was the single most significant "man-made" factor, assuring a large population of healthy, young and cash-poor students for whom the bicycle was a natural transportation choice. Because Davis is a ten square mile urban "island" set in an agricultural "sea" and is separated from surrounding cities and towns by at least a dozen miles of sparsely populated farmland meant that nearly every student and many staff and faculty members lived within one to three miles of the University --distances well within reach of just about anyone who could balance on a bicycle. Students, staff and faculty were further motivated to bicycle on campus where the distances between activity centers were often too great to cross on foot during short breaks between classes.

"By the mid 1960's the dramatic volume of bicycles using the City streets near the University made it clear that the status quo, (bicycles in ever increasing numbers sharing the public streets designed and marked solely for motor vehicles), was no longer a viable alternative. A plan to adequately provide for cyclists was needed. "The primary issue of the April, 1966 City Council election was the provision of bikeways for the commuter on the public streets. The pro-bikeway candidates were elected. A trial system of bikeways was quickly installed and proved immensely popular. Rapid expansion of the system followed."

The University followed suit by banning almost all motor vehicle use from its central core roadways that were formerly open to motor traffic from off campus. A series of bike paths were built from the campus perimeter which channeled cyclists into the campus core from city bike paths and bike lanes. Once on campus, cyclists had little need or opportunity to share roads or paths with motorized traffic. Cycling was further encouraged by the provision of ample bike parking immediately adjacent to virtually every building and activity center on campus.

All of these factors, conditions and historical circumstances combined to give rise not only to a city with an impressive rate of bicycle use (estimates of 20 – 25% of all trips being made by bicycle), but led to what has been called a bicycle "culture" in Davis. Evidence for this "culture" ranges from the city’s adoption of the vintage highwheeler bicycle as its official logo to the more subtle acceptance of bicycles for everyday utilitarian trips –and not just by college students. Bicycles plying the streets of Davis became so commonplace that conflicts between cyclists and motorists were rare –indeed, as many residents used both modes extensively, there was mutual understanding and respect for the needs and desires of both groups.

Since 1950, the city’s population grew from under 5,000 to over 53,000. Attracted by its small-town atmosphere, the cultural and social benefits provided by the University, a generally progressive political climate, a low crime rate, and even its cyclist-friendly environment, many state employees who work in the nearby capital city, Sacramento have made Davis a "bedroom community" as much as it is still a "college town".

These changing demographics have affected the Davis cycling climate in several ways. Despite relatively low-growth rate policies which have been in effect for decades, the City has grown significantly both in population and area since the 1960's, with much new housing having been added on the western and eastern ends of town, resulting in greater travel distances to the University and downtown. South Davis, defined by that part of the city south of Interstate 80 and east of downtown and the campus, has absorbed much of the city's growth in recent years. The major link between south Davis and the rest of town is a four-lane freeway overpass with standard on- and off-ramps. Although a familiar feature in most cities through which freeways run, and despite being designed with careful attention to bicyclists' needs, the structure's inherent complexity relative to other Davis bike facilities is perceived by many Davis residents as a significant obstacle to bicycle travel between south Davis and the rest of town. A solution in the form of a $4 million bike and pedestrian undercrossing of six lanes of Interstate 80, a two-lane frontage road, and the adjacent Union Pacific railroad track will provide a convenient and auto-free connection between south Davis, the University and the downtown core. This example illustrates how another city's typical freeway overpass can be perceived as problematic by cyclists accustomed to a comprehensive network of bicycle facilities.

Because Davis pioneered the bike lane and other bicycle facilities in this country, it is not surprising that some "experiments" were less successful than others. One such example was the construction of "protected" bike lanes where motor vehicle and bicycle traffic was separated by a raised "buffer" or curbing. In some cases, the bike lane was established between the parking shoulder and the curb line (i.e. cars were parked on the left of the bike traffic lane). Needless to say, any "benefits" of such facilities were soon found to be outweighed by the many hazards created for their users.

Most such well-intentioned, but ill-fated designs were phased out long ago. However, some facility design decisions made decades ago were not so easy to remedy. The most pervasive example in Davis is the two-way bike path immediately adjacent to a roadway. Particularly problematic are single two-way paths located on only one side of the adjacent road. The problems associated with these designs have been described in any number of publications, and they are well illustrated at several locations in Davis. In spite of this documentation, some residents, city officials, and developers remain quite vocal in advocating such facilities when new construction is being planned and designed. The city and campus have attempted a variety of mitigation strategies to reduce the hazards or inefficiencies associated with these side paths, but many observers believe that continuing to build such facilities is wasteful at best.

The most recent Davis innovation that may soon see use in other cities is the bicycle signal head. Modeled after similar devices used in Europe, the bike signal head has been approved by the California Traffic Control Devices Committee for certain specific uses, generally where large volumes of bicycle traffic are encountered. In Davis most of the devices are used to control bike traffic at mid-block bike path crossings of roadways. However, at one particular intersection, a significant interface between the campus and city with over one thousand bike crossings per hour at peak times, the special lights have been employed to provide cyclists with their own separate phase during which only they may cross a busy arterial. Bicycle collision rates at the site have been dramatically reduced since the signals’ installation, and the device shows promise for similar situations where bike traffic volumes warrant their use. However, it should be noted that this particular Davis intersection is complicated by two-way bike paths on both sides of the arterial, and one of the paths terminates on the west side of the bike crossing while the path opposite continues east and west for a great distance. It has been argued that the need for special signals would be obviated if the paths were removed and the arterial widened or otherwise improved to handle the bike traffic volumes. While the argument may have some merit, it is also moot given fiscal and political realities in Davis. However, this facility exemplifies the problems that can arise when attempting to rectify planning and design decisions based on limited experience and knowledge, not to mention the difficulty in forecasting traffic volumes decades in the future.

As Davis approaches the twenty-first century, the bicycle mode choice faces many threats to its traditional popularity. The city and campus continue to grow and attract a more diverse population with different origins, lifestyles, careers and workplaces. These "newcomers" don’t necessarily share the same vision as long time residents, and their varied backgrounds can make inculcating them into the once pervasive Davis bicycle milieu a real challenge. Recognizing this challenge, both the city and the University are taking steps to preserve, protect and promote bicycling and its benefits to the community. In recent years, these steps include the hiring of a full-time city bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, the establishment of city and campus bicycle advisory committees, and an earnest effort to take advantage of local, state and federal monies to fund a wide range of facilities development and programmatic improvements.

With more and more communities becoming aware of the many advantages which accrue to the promotion of alternative transportation modes, Davis can continue to serve as a shining example of what can be done when enough hard-working residents and officials agree on a common vision of what makes a place truly livable.

1. "Davis, Calif.: America's Best Cycling City," Pro Bike News. (November 1995), pp. 4 - 5.
2. De Leuw, Cather & Company, "Davis Bicycle Circulation and Safety Study," (1972) pp. 3 - 4.
3. City of Davis Ad Hoc Bicycle Task Force, "Davis Bikeway Plan," (1993), p. 2.