What can we learn from Davis’ bicycling advocates?

I had the opportunity to meet with Christa Clark-Jones recently. She and I had a long conversation relating to bicycle advocacy and the gradual shift in the U.S. from an environment that is more auto-centric to people-centric. As a graduate of University of California, Davis, Christa had much to say on Davis being a bike friendly city. I was very interested in her observations and knowledge about Davis’ history and I think Davis has some valuable lessons that we, in San Diego, could learn.

Davis, CA is known for being “Bike City, USA.” The bicycle infrastructure and high bicycle commuting numbers, make this city a model for cities all over the U.S. But I’ve been very curious on what Davis was like before the city’s infrastructure was revamped to include bicycles as a viable and valid mode of transportation?

Frank and Eve Child. Davis bicycle Advocates. Photo from ucdavis.edu
Frank and Eve Child. Davis bicycle Advocates. Photo from ucdavis.edu

In the 1960s, Davis was the first city in the U.S. to have bike lanes. In 2005, it became the first city to receive the Platinum rating from the League of American Bicyclists. Portland, OR and Boulder, CO soon followed afterward. But what made Davis the first “Bike City, USA”?

It all began when two Davis residents, Frank and Eve Child  returned home to Davis after a sabbatical in the Netherlands in 1963. The couple was inspired by the bicycle infrastructure in the Netherlands and wanted to create the same environment in Davis. So they formed a bike advocacy group and began a movement that was very much a grassroots effort that eventually resulted in pro-bicycle residents winning the elections to represent the city at the City Council level.

This victory in politics resulted in the city experimenting with some of the nation’s first bicycle infrastructure. Road reconfigurations were made,  and policies specific to cyclists were written and included in the city’s General Plan. Bicyclists were finally legitimate users of the roadways. Much of what was designed and implemented in Davis became a model for cities and towns everywhere else in the country.

However by the start of the twenty first century, bicycle mode share had begun to drop noticeably. Car usage was beginning to simultaneously increase. The reasons for the drop in cycling was easy to spot. The political will that existed in the 1960s had deteriorated, and solutions to increase bicycle mode share were unknown and the bicycle advocacy movement had lost its momentum.

Thankfully, Davis has begun to recognize and reverse the decline. The University in Davis has policies that discourage freshman from owning automobiles as they cannot obtain parking permits.  The city in conjunction with the university has plentiful bicycle parking throughout the city. The city has lowered fines for cycling offences, and police officers give away blinky lights to those who don’t own them. 95% of the city’s arterial streets have bike lanes and the city continus to innovate with bicycle-centric infrastructure in an effort to continue encouraging and promoting bicycle use. Best of all, the city understands the increasing benefits of investing in bicycle based infrastructure and continues to expand and promote bicycle use agressively – a strategy that many other cities and states are beginning to realize. San Diego will do well to heed to how investing in bicycle infrastructure and promoting bicycling will pay off in spades.