I would have pegged Amsterdam or Copenhagen as world biking capitals, but after riding through Davis, it didn’t feel entirely far-fetched, aside from the fact that the city is much smaller than its international peers. If not the capital of the world, then it certainly has standing for “bike capital of the U.S.,” and offers some unique lessons.
Indeed, riding around town, one frequently shares the road with more bikes than cars. Supposedly there are more bikes per capita here than anywhere else in the country. The city’s logo is even a penny-farthing (those old bikes with big front wheels).
Davis holds a platinum ranking as a Bicycle Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists, sharing the prestigious ranking with only Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo., Portland, Ore., and Madison, Wisc. So what about biking in Davis crowned the city as the capital of the rest?
Thanks to its small population, great weather, and flat terrain, Davis far outpaces the other platinum cities in terms of the percentage of residents who commute by bike. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, about one in five residents bike to work in Davis, with second place Boulder coming in at 10 percent. This alone would make an easy call for the “capital” title. But it also suggests that biking holds a cultural significance in the community at large, an essential complement to bicycling infrastructure.
Planning for success
Davis introduced modern bicycle infrastructure to the United States, opening its first bike lane in July 1967. The city has been an example for the rest of the country in planning its streets with cyclists in mind, starting decades ahead of most other cities in creating space for biking as a safe and convenient form of transportation.
Riding through Davis, the extent of its bike infrastructure speaks to the effort that the city has put into making bicycling a significant transportation option.
Thanks to a planning process that has historically prioritized bicycling, Davis has an extensive network of bike paths completely removed from the street, creating safe routes on which riders barely have to encounter motorized traffic. Even with on-street cycling, almost every part of the city is connected by low-stress options more extensively than other U.S. cities I’ve been to.
Trail infrastructure isn’t enough by itself. An important addition is the ubiquitous presence of other amenities for cyclists, such as parking options, shops and fix-it stands: there are 16 air pumps strategically placed throughout the city along major corridors, as well as eight bike shops. I never felt too far from some form of assistance and some bike parking areas were as full as the ones I’d seen in the Netherlands. If anything on my bike broke over the course of my cross-country trip, I would really want the place for that to happen to be Davis, since I could probably have had it fixed in minutes, not having to search long for a stand, shop, or a very nice person to help.
To really solidify its spot as the United States bike capital, Davis now hopes to grow “Beyond Platinum” as a Bicycle Friendly Community. Much like when the city laid the country’s first bike lanes in the 1960s, this plan looks to set the standard for bicycling to eventually become the primary mode in a sustainable system that also focuses on walking and transit. The plan hopes to achieve a 30 percent bike modeshare by 2020.
It’s all about soul
On top of infrastructure, what has set Davis apart from other American cities I’ve visited is how pervasive the community’s cycling culture is. Cultural impact, outreach, and education is a vital partner to infrastructure investment in getting people on bikes. As research from Access Magazine notes, without strong community investments in biking culture, few tend to adopt biking as a transportation option in any form, even with the existence of protected lanes. Encouragement and education can attract those who are curious, and change the minds of those who might otherwise not consider biking as a daily form of transportation.
Bike Davis, the local bicycle advocacy organization, works closely with citizens and the local government to keep the city on track in bike-oriented planning. As a relatively new organization (founded in 2007) the group has made impressive inroads in collaborating with the city to design streets and improve safety for active transportation users.
The organization also engages with the community to help set the cultural tone around biking, creating a foundation to bring in more potential cyclists. Educational programs teach residents the benefits of biking, and introduces them to the opportunities it provides. Working with schools, Bike Davis teaches benefits of biking and how to do it safely. There are programs to teach kids about biking, route maps to schools, and an app to inform parents that their kids arrive safely – encouraging them to let their kids bike.
Most striking to an outsider, as I entered Davis on a dedicated bike path, bicyclists passing in both directions welcomed me to town. Such excitement in greeting fellow bikers (and people on touring bikes definitely stand out as visitors) shows how strong the community can be, and how motivating it can be to join. It was a strong sense of welcoming on a regular day that I have not seen so pervasively anywhere else.
Davis is a pretty great place to ride. It’s calm and peaceful getting around, as opposed to the hectic pace that exists in larger cities. One can sense the effort that groups have put into making cycling a significant mode of transportation, and that it’s a significant part of the city’s culture to a much greater extent than others.
While bike commuting is still nascent in most cities, it is an established part of Davis’ fabric. It was apparent even though I only spent a few hours there. Larger metro areas like Washington, D.C., or San Francisco have more complex transportation systems to plan around, on top of decades of car-centric design, but Davis can still provide an example of how to push infrastructure planning in the right direction, and how to aspire to compete as biking capital of the United States.
Photos: Bicyclists ride in a traffic circle in Davis (Gerald Fittipaldi, Flickr, Creative Commons). Riders in a wide bike lane (Kate McCarthy, Flickr, Creative Commons). A Davis bike rack (Phillip Barron, Flickr, Creative Commons).