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Davis: The Best Bicycle Town in North America
Alex Steffen, 10 Jul 06

Bicycles are tools for urban sustainability. In North America, however, bikes are largely relegated to a recreational role, and people who use them as their main means of transportation often do so at great incovenience and danger

One city, though, has pedaled against the trend. Bicycling Magazine calls Davis the best town in America for cyclists: I'm here to check it out and on the ground it's hard to argue. Davis is a biker's nirvana.

This small city of 65,000 people has over 100 miles of bike lanes and bike paths (indeed, some claim that Davis was the first city in North America to create separate bike lanes). Bicycle infrastructure is everywhere – from bike shops to bike maps to artistic bike racks on the sidewalks. Most people here own bikes, and 17% of Davis residents commute to work on them. Davis even has a local Critical Mass group, though as my traveling companion said, CM seems a bit redundant here, as at least in the residential areas it's hard to find any car traffic from which you could reclaim the streets in the first place.

How did Davis do it, though? The climate and location – hot, flat and dry, with a large population of university students – certainly help. But even more, Davis has made a series of really far-sighted policy and planning decisions which have de-emphasized the car and made biking and walking easier and more attractive.

For one thing, though not a particularly dense city, Davis is fairly compact, with a well-defined downtown that flows into the university campus. (The university bans almost all car traffic). Slow-growth policies and good planning have kept the city relatively tightly woven (though it shows definite signs of sprawl on the fringes). The result is that most destinations within Davis are bike-able, and the surrounding agricultural lands both provide for great recreational riding and act as something of a greenbelt.

Davis has also made bicycling a top transportation priority, putting real funding into bike infrastructure, even building bike overpasses so that cyclists can cross the freeway more safely and easily. The city has an amazing comprehensive bike plan (big PDF) which details the wide variety of innovative ways the city aims to support and promote bicycling. (A more reader-friendly overview of Davis' efforts is David Takemoto-Weerts' Evolution of a Bicycle Friendly Community — the Davis Model.)

And the innovations continue, such as the bike signal head:

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."

Bicycles won't work everywhere, all the time, but they are a key tool in the chest of innovations we're putting together for building bright green cities, and there's probably not a city in North America that couldn't learn something from Davis.

(image: TheoPaaske)

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Now that's what I'm talking about!
Biofuels and alternative energies will be needed just to run our rail, our garbage pick up, and to grow, harvest and transport our food. We'll be lucky just to run infrastructure on renewable energy.

The days of the private vehicle are just about over because of peak oil. It's time to invest in a bike, and write a letter to your local representatives that your suburb needs light rail and a bunch of bike sheds (and repair shops) each end of the rail.

Good luck in the coming oil crisis.... the Australian Broadcasting Corporation just aired their 4 Corners special on peak oil last night.

You can watch it at...

Posted by:
Dave Lankshear on 10 Jul 06

Alex, I hope that your story is told far and wide. There's no reason why Davis's success could not be widely duplicated. I've spent many pleasant hours on bicycles in Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands and France. In Copenhagen in 1996 (when I last was there), 55% of the within-city trips were by bicycle. I remember noting in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Delft, The Hague, Dijon, Beaune, and other cities, that the "parking lots" tend to be very small when they're for bicycles.

Posted by: David Foley on 10 Jul 06

Fantastic piece. Articles from the US on cycling tend to be negative, and even when they are positive, there is a painful bitterness over all-pervading car culture. This is a hopeful piece. No-where is perfect. All we can do is try to make a difference.

I might note that Japan is a fantastic place for cycling generally. Over 30% of all commuters in many cities there for example travel by bicycle - and that does not even include school students, probably the majority of whom ride bicycles to school. Narrow streets, slow vehicular traffic and compact cities... sounds like Europe, and in many places the feel is very much like a European city in this way. Lovely.

Posted by: Ryan on 10 Jul 06

I am pleased that WC has covered the great city of Davis, Ca. After spending 4 years of college at UC Davis and returning frequently to work on collaborative projects, I have to agree that this is a great town for living in an earth friendly way. The farshighted planning that you mentioned was due in great part to the influx of a group of young faculty that came in during the 1960's. They helped in developing the mathematical and computational tools for modeling ecological systems. They then went on to develop models for human societies and apply them to forecasting. They could see what was going to happen in a few decades and decided to work with the town council in order to better prepare the city for the future. This was a fruitfull alliance between local politicians and well informed experts. It's a beautiful city to live in and will weather the coming crises (peak oil, debt collapse and global warming) with the greatest tools any society has: its people.

Posted by: Xavier Figueroa on 10 Jul 06

Great to see an article that considers the bicycle to be a part of the solution to our transportation needs.

Davis sounds like a great place to be!

Posted by: shay on 11 Jul 06

I loved learning about Davis. So many of us strive for a simpler life, where we can breathe fresh air. It'd be great if every town strived to be a biking town. I'm in Los Angeles and in Venice, CA a group of bikers periodically take over Main street. I've seen them defiantly getting out there with the cars, but who needs to breathe that exhaust or risk being hit by someone distracted on his cell phone. It's a start though, perhaps a trend that will get more people out of their cars and into pedal power.

Posted by: Donna on 11 Jul 06

interesting, but at some point I would have mentioned that this was Davis,CA. Yes, there are cities and towns outside of CA.

Posted by: mo on 11 Jul 06

That's impressive! My home town of Erlangen has about 100,000 people and 125 miles of bicycle lanes, and it is considered to be one of the more bicycle-friendly cities in Germany...

Posted by: Jürgen Hubert on 11 Jul 06

after actively cycling in davis, san francisco, and now london (uk), i can say- hands down- that davis is by far the most bicycle friendly city i have ever lived in (this also includes san diego and los angeles), seconded only by copenhagen as the most bicycle friendly city ive ever ridden in. although far from denmarks socialistic tendencies (where there is a curb like divider between the 2 lane streets and the 4 lane bike paths- 2 each side), davis is an inspirational model that many metropolitan cities yearn for- or at least their bike riding residents do.

although san francisco is very progressive and bike-friendly, their are no where near as many "official" bike lanes so- much like manhattan- bicyclists / couriers tend to be a bit nutty, and live for the challenge of pothole / cab / car dodging. luckily, san franciscans tend to be simultaneously sympathetic and aware. sadly, the same cannot be said of london- and a shame too, noting the obvious proximity with scandinavia, france, germany, netherlands, et alii; the general public view here can be equated with the generic bush-voting middle-american "cars = good = the only solution for A to B." laziness, naiveté, and near-intentional ignorance.

it saddens me just a fraction less than it scares the poo out of me, as i ride about this glorious town, dodging black cabs and overbearing double decker buses.

luckily, things are changing. legislation is allowing for state funded parking / safety sheds (one of the key issues here is bike theft), and a growing number of "bicycle friendly" streets, with dedicated bike paths. already, east-central london is amazingly pro-bike, with new bike shops popping up like mushrooms after a storm- but the key issue lay in raising awareness throughout this mega-tropolis.

sadly, mentioning the words "global warming" here is about as effective as asking them "how do you do?" in mandarin; deaf ears bear no reaction. i am currently doing my masters thesis in sustainable development for the real world, and cycling represents a huge change in global methodology and mindset- just ask the new urbanist's. someday (i hope) the rest of the world will see the great upsides of this machine, much as davis and kraftwerk have.

Posted by: carlos benjamin on 12 Jul 06

The story is encouraging but I'm skeptical of the prospects of North American cities replacing the car with the bicycle comprehensively without some pretty massive restructuring. For people whose round trip commute to work is 100-200km a bike simply isn't an option.

Posted by: Jose on 12 Jul 06



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