Where have all the cyclists gone? Davis Enterprise, Sunday May 18, 2003

By Bob Sommer Special to The Enterprise

At one time, Davis was unquestionably The City of Bicycles. The only American competitors we had for the title were Santa Barbara and Eugene, Ore., and both cities sent planning officials to Davis to learn from us.

Europe and Asia played in a different league. Copenhagen and Amsterdam were excellent bike cities, as were major metropolitan centers in Asia, but they had fewer and smaller cars and better public transportation. In the United States, motorists had streets and highways, pedestrians had sidewalks, railroads had their road beds and tracks, equestrians had separate paths, and cyclists took whatever was left.

It was not always this way. Before the hegemony of the automobile, there were many bike lanes, in many American cities. The first was the Coney Island Cycle Path, opened in 1895 as the first path in this country reserved exclusively for bicycles. Its original width of 14 feet was widened 3 feet 6 months later due to heavy use, and doubled again in 1897 along its entire 5-mile length. St. Paul had 50 miles of bike paths, Seattle by 1899 had 20 miles of paths reserved for bikes, and in California there was a 50-mile system connecting Sacramento and Stockton, and another set of paths in the Bay Area.

Davis was the 20th Century pioneer among American cities when it came to bike-friendly policies and facilities. Dave Pelz, now retired from his various city posts, masterminded the implementation. Homestead, Fla., had previously created a marked bike trail that consisted only of route signs, and some cities had off-street recreational paths through parks, but none went as far as Davis in developing a mixed transportation system that gave cyclists more than leavings at the table.

Before Detroit and the rest of the nation heard what we were doing, we took macadam away from cars and assigned it to cyclists. In keeping with our image of a tolerant and caring city, bike lanes remained available to joggers, wheelchairs and skaters.

When Davis was considerably smaller, a sign stood at the approach to Richards Boulevard underpass, “Davis: Home to 15,000 bicycles.” Today, I don’t know how many bikes are stored in garages and back yards, but there seem to be a lot fewer ridden by adults on the streets. I suspect that bike riding by teens has also decreased. Witness the current parking problems around Davis High, only slightly reduced by the opening of a new lot.

In the 1970s I gave illustrated lectures about bike paths in schools of architecture and planning. One of my favorite pictures showed the half-empty auto parking lot at Davis High on a school morning. I announced with pride that this was probably the only high school parking lot in California not filled to capacity. The 10-speed with rams’ horn handlebars had become popular, and it was cool for Blue Devils to ride bikes. They had Aggies as role models.

I also showed slides of massed cyclists waiting to cross Russell at Sycamore and riding down third street to campus, plus an amazing picture (bringing gasps from the audience) of the enormous array of parked bikes on the east side of Shields Library. Someone in the audience would ask, “How can people find their bikes?” One method, I replied, was to personalize them (which was also a good anti-theft measure) using painted striped, a seat cover, plastic flowers, or distinctive baskets that could be spotted from a distance.

That is history. The masses of cyclists are gone from the intersections and from campus. The first-in-the-world bike traffic circles, introduced on campus to handle peak loads during class changes, are no longer crowded. I feel like a bird who has lost his flock. Indeed, I fear my species of bike commuter may be headed for extinction.

Nonetheless, relatively speaking, Davis remains a good bike town. There is an active bike club that holds frequent tours and other events. Plans to create the first bicycle museum west of the Mississippi are on hold primarily by a lack of suitable space downtown. There are several bike shops in town but most promote high-end ultra-light specialty cycles with more gears than I can count and mountain bikes with shock absorbers. Racks inside the stores advertise colorful jerseys, caps, Lycra pants, racing gloves, power bars and various devices for drinking liquids through plastic tubes of the sort that are usually associated with acute care in hospitals. In the hyped world of bike consumption, I am a little California brown bird among colorful exotic species.

To test my impression of fewer adult cyclists on the streets, I asked students in a large UCD class how they came to campus that morning. It was a bright, sunny day with no rain predicted. Of the 135 respondents, 56 percent arrived by bus, 30 percent by automobile, 9 percent by bike, and 6 percent walked.

Clearly, the Unitrans bus service, free for UCD students, is increasingly popular. This year, quarterly ridership averaged 20,000 per day, up 25% from 2002, which followed a 10 percent rise the previous year. These are encouraging statistics for a public transportation advocate but do little to reconcile with our self-image as The Bicycle Capital of the United States.

City bike coordinator Tim Bustos believes that many new Davis residents, attracted by the quality of life, appreciate bikes but don’t ride them regularly. This is certainly true in my campus department where it is the older faculty tho are the dedicated bike riders, while newer faculty drive cars.

The reduction in bikes on the streets could make life easier for the remaining cyclists—faster movement through intersections and less competition for parking racks. However, these gains must be balanced against the loss of safety in numbers. Davis has been a good bike town for many reasons – flat terrain, equable climate, bike lanes to major destination, parking racks downtown, rider education in schools, police enforcement to keep bike lanes clear of parked cars, and number of cyclists sufficient to generate public awareness of their presence.

Habituation to cyclists existed among Davis motorists who looked in their rear-view mirrors for cyclists when opening car doors and making turns at intersections. Bike activists in San Francisco call themselves Critical Mass. Davis has been fortunate up to now in having a critical mass of cyclists to maintain a high level of public awareness. It is likely that the awareness will dissipate as the number of cyclists declines.

The reduction in transportation cycling (as opposed to the recreational sort) cannot be blamed on an external threat. There has been no Detroit conspiracy to replace bikes with SUVs. Autos have no taken over the bike lanes, although this may come. In major cities such as New York and Chicago, where the double parking lane may be full, a bike lane will be occupied by scofflaw parked cars, delivery vans and waiting taxis.

In 1965, when Dale and Donna Lott and Frank and Eva Child collected signatures on petitions for bike lanes, they were accused of nostalgia.. I wonder if that is not my problem. While bike travel has declined, bus travel has risen dramatically. Amtrak runs 10 Capitol trains daily in each direction, and there is limo and bus service to the Sacramento airport. What’s to complain about?

In Response, I could mention opportunities for exercise lost when riding the bus. An epidemic of obesity is causing health problems. As Bustos put it, “Quality of life should not be a spectator sport.”

Similar to the Tree City USA awards Davis has received more than 20 times, we may have to settle for being a good bike city rather than The Bike Capital. At least for me, Bus City USA doesn’t have much resonance.

— Bob Sommer is a professor of psychology at UC Davis and a frequent contributor to The Enterprise.


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