After a long ride of hills, intermittent downpours, and the strongest headwinds of my journey I rolled into Davis at dusk. Signs at the edge of the city championed its Platinum ranking by the League of American Bicyclists and pointed to UC Davis, Downtown, and the library. Buffed with an accommodating flat terrain, progressive and youthful college population, Davis is deserving of its LAB crown. But a decreasing transportation budget and shift in municipal focus may find the city without a throne soon.
There are absolutely no physical barriers for bicycling in Davis. It is a small town with a fluctuating population around 100,000. The only hill in the city is the artificial one that climbs over the tracks on Kendall Way. The hardest thing physically for the good people of Davis is the winter. Winters can be very cold and chilly and does bring on a large amount of rain. The night I arrived, I rode through a rainstorm and huge puddles on my way to a bike film festival.
The culture in Davis is as acclimated to bicycling as ranchtowns are to cows. Crosswalks are thick with warnings of possible bike crossings. Cars shift their speeds and road postitiong to accommodate for a bicyclist’s presence. Even gas stations have neon bikes glowing next to their signs.
After a meal, Jason and I headed to the Davis Bike Film Festival. The event sold entry tickets alongside raffle tickets for a new bike and Burley trailer to raise money for the local Safe Routes to School program. Unable to find classroom time, the program suffers like other budget-strapped communities. The festival had a healthy showing on a rainy Friday night of about 50 people, mostly families and middle-aged folks. The films aired were a mix of festival-hardened repeats from other bike film festivals in Davis and beyond and a few fresh ones. Overall the vibe was mellow and gave the impression that those attending did so more to show face than to truly relish in the bond of bicycling. Nothing of the rowdy sort found at Portland’s Filmed By Bike.
What Davis lacks in rowdiness it more than makes up for with progressive elegance. Huge prosperous farms surround the city and the city boasts a 15% mode split for bicycling. While in Davis I was shown a lot of the city’s cooperative living. The university alone boasts four large cooperative housing developments. The most interesting were The Domes located in the central eastern part of campus. The development is a space of 14 domes with two residents in each dome. Shared between the residents is a community building, multiple gardens, chicken coops, bike tools, and giant lawn. The development also used to house the Bike Church which is now defunct. At the co-ops I saw a homemade box-less bakfiets, couch bike and dozens more regular bikes. Bicycles are everywhere in Davis. Sure, Portland has a lot of bicycles and you see them at every corner, but in Davis they are kept in visible places, hanging from front porch railings, locked to bus stops, carved into stone walls of restaurants. My host, Jason, lived in the N Street Cohousing which started out as a single cooperative house until residents started buying neighboring houses and tearing down fences. The co-housing now has a vast shared garden space in between 12 houses.
For some reason, the only place where I got lost in Davis was the N Street Cohousing. But other than that it is hard to get lost in Davis on a bike because of all the signage on off-street bike paths and bike lanes. Cul-de-sacs have thin paths that cut through to the Davis Bike Loop and have a street sign for those on the loop to know which street they have just passed. If you visit Davis and don’t have a bike map – no problem. Simply stroll down to a park to find encased citywide bike maps.
But while there are some fantastic signs, Davis unfortunately is part of California, home of the most confusing bike signs. At the edge of town, while trying to find the bike path to Sacramento I came across two signs that say “Bike Route” but with arrows in different directions and no description of where the routes go and another sign said “Bike Route Ends” when I had no clue I was on a bike route or where to go to stay on one. Davis also suffers because of its bike lanes. At California intersections where there is a bike lane, the bike lane loses right-of-way and is open to the wanton invasion of cars and is marked with a dotted line or nothing at all.
It would not be too difficult to fix these issues. It costs very little money to add adequate signs. The disappearing bike lane issue would require a city ordinance which is admittedly a steeper request, but possible with the right advocacy group. Unfortunately, after a history of a bike-friendly government there wasn’t much need for challenging advocates. New developments have developed which feature an absence of bicycle infrastructure. There aren’t cutouts through cul-de-sacs to winding bike paths, there aren’t signs telling you how to get to Downtown or how to find the Yolo Causeway Bike Path (a noisy path from Davis to West Sacramento). The homes look like a typical American suburb and doesn’t have the charm of the rest of Davis.
This could have been caused by the difficult task of being accommodating to bicycles that Davis has put itself in. Davis is 10.5 square miles. Within that space the city boasts that it contains 100 miles of bike lanes and multi-use paths and trails. Instead of having the effect of icing on a cake it is more like meringue and fudge added to the too-thick cake frosting. And for those poor pedestrians that have to share the cake with the bicyclists on the paths and trails there are ice cream sidewalks. With the way Davis can’t choose between on-street or off-street bicycle infrastructure they are paving the way for very expensive active transport infrastructure.
The old Davis of the 70’s was most certainly the #1 bicycling city in the US and the city certainly prides itself on that fact. But with the rise of cities like Portland, New York, and San Franciso the city might have to hang its pride up in the US Bicycle Hall of Fame it is home to. Citizens have taken notice of this and a new advocacy group, Davis Bicycles!, has sprung up to tackle the serious issues of bicycling in Davis. Otherwise, “Bike City, USA” might have to move away from Davis, CA.