19 September 2016

Davis: Still Trying To Set People On The Path Of Cycling

"It was Portland before Portland was Portland."

That is how someone described Davis, California for me. 

 Today, when you ask people to name a "bicycle-friendly", they are likely to think of the City of Roses.  I will not quibble with its reputation:  Few American cities have done more to promote bicycling as a viable means of transportation (though, as in most places, some of those efforts have been misguided).  Portlanders adopted their first bike plan in 1973; after meeting its goals, which included 190 miles of bike paths, new bike plans followed in 1996 and 2010.

It should be pointed out, however, that Davis was developing a reputation as a bicycle haven as early as the 1950's, at a time when few American adults cycled--and Portland was still a lumber-and-mining town.  (When Bill Walton arrived to play with the Trailblazers, the local NBA team, he was dismayed to find a "redneck" burg.)  The local agricultural college had just become the University of California-Davis (UC's seventh campus); the city's flat terrain and warm climate as well as enthusiasm over a new educational project attracted a diverse group of people who were willing, well, to try something new.  

According to local lore, the real driving (pun intended!) force behind the city's pro-bike efforts were a family who returned from a year in the Netherlands in the early 1960s.  They found sympathetic ears in a newly-elected city council that, no doubt, saw bicycling as a way to promote their city as well as the new UC campus. In 1967, Davis striped what were claimed to be the first bicycle-specific lanes in the US.  

Other efforts and experiments soon followed, which included facilities  and ways of accommodating bicycles at traffic signals.   The university invented the bicycle roundabout, now used on many other schools, to handle the large number of bicycles on campus.  Today, the city of ten  square miles boasts 50 miles of on-street bike lanes the same amount of off-street bike paths.

Even after other cities have ramped up their efforts to make themselves more appealing to cyclists, Davis is still seen as a cyclist's paradise--at least, in comparison to other American locales.  A far higher percentage of its citizens cycle to work or school every day than in almost any other city of its population (67,666, according to a 2015 estimate).  Still, Susan L. Handy muses, "Perhaps even more interesting than the fact that so many people in Davis cycle is the fact that so many more don't."

Professor Handy is the Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at UC-Davis.  She is also Director of the Sustainable Transportation Center, part of the Federal University Transportation Centers Program.  She is probably  in as good a position as anyone can be to understand patterns of bicycle usage--and, more important, what might be behind those patterns.

She also uses what is, arguably, some of the best bicycle infrastructure in the United States. Still, she says it is not enough.  "[W]hile good infrastructure is necessary to get many people bicycling, it is not enough to get most people bicycling".  The experience of Davis would seem to bear this out:  Although a higher percentage of Davis workers ride their bikes to their jobs than their colleagues even in nearby Berkeley (home to another UC campus)  or Palo Alto (Stanford University), or in other campus towns like Ithaca, New York (Cornell University)  and Boulder, Colorado, the number for Professor Handy's hometown is still only 15 percent.  

Still more telling, a similar percentage of children cycle to their soccer games, even though most don't have to go very far.  

According to Professor Handy's research, whether or not children cycle to their soccer games is influenced by whether or not their parents also ride.  Ditto for whether or not they--or their older siblings who attend high school--ride their bikes to classes.  Of course, as in most places, whether or not kids ride to their high schools is also a function of whether or not they have drivers' licenses or access to automobiles.

Interestingly, according to the research, friends' and peers' attitudes about cycling have little or no effect on whether kids or teenagers ride to school or their soccer games.  Based on my own admittedly informal observations, I would say the same for whether or not adults ride their bikes to work.

Another factors that  helps to depress the numbers of cyclists who ride to school or work is the perception of safety:  People often express fear of traffic, crime or other factors.  (I often hear such anxieties expressed here in New York.) Perhaps not surprisingly, women express these fears more than men do.  And then there are those who simply don't like to ride bikes.

Nobody seems to know how to influence that last category. (I failed with a spouse and a couple of romantic partners!) They, like those who come from families who don't ride or worry about their safety, are not pedaling to work because of their attitudes about cycling.  And, as Professor Handy says, attitudes are even more important than infrastructure in getting people to forsake the steering wheel and grab a handlebar.

If there is anything discouraging about Professor Handy's conclusions, it is this:  She came to them in one of the few places in the United States with two generations' worth of "cycling memory", if you will.  In most other places in this country, most drivers have little or no idea of how to act around cyclists because they haven't ridden a bike  on a street, for transportation or other utilitarian purposes, since they were children--if indeed they even rode then.  In much of Europe, by contrast, far greater numbers of drivers are still cyclists, or have ridden recently in their lives.  And they are more likely to have come from families with at least one member who regularly cycled.  

I offer myself as an example:  I am the first--and, to date, only-- member of my family to regularly ride a bike beyond the age at which I could hold a drivers' license.  (I am also the first to do a number of other things, such as earn a high school diploma and college degree, and to do things that are the subject of my other blog!)   But I am an anomaly:    I simply found that I enjoyed riding and never lost that love.  I rode, even with a complete lack of infrastructure , very little cycling culture and few peers who rode. And I continue to ride. On the other hand, I have never been successful at enticing anyone to ride who wasn't already inclined to do so. The complaints and excuses were the same then as the ones I hear now.  

As Professor Handy points out, the real challenge is to change those attitudes--if they can indeed be changed.  She seems to think it possible.


  1. Ah yes...

    I was growing up in Portland before it became Portland, in the 40's and 50's. It was a biggish sleepy port town inhabited by "proper" people, where nothing ever happened, a place where trends and fashions never penetrated. There was a joke in the 50's that if you found out the world was going to end within a year, you should move to Portland as soon as possible, because it was always ten to fifteen years behind every other place.

    It was said that the 50's ended in 1970 in Portland. I can vouch for that. I commuted by bike in Portland in the 60's. I NEVER saw another bike commuter. People smiled and waved. I guess they thought I was cute. I figured it was a good cover story.


    1. Leo, you were way ahead of your time. Look what you started in Portland:)

  2. Leo--What would happen if you returned to Portland and the people realized that you made Portland Portland?

    In reference to the end of the world, Mark Twain made a similar comment about Cincinnati.

    Chris--Leo is a trendsetter, isn't he?

  3. I detect a certain level of, ah, skepticism here. I speak nothing but the truth. Actually I did know one other cyclist, a lunatic whose hobby was drafting freight trucks on the freeway at 55 mph. But commuters? No.


    1. Leo, I always enjoy your comments on this blog. Like Justine, I am not skeptical at all.

  4. Leo--I am not skeptical at all. Given the place and time in which you grew up (about a decade and a half before me), it makes perfect sense.

    Drafting trucks at 55 mph? Now that's something that would get attention!