Platinum meets pavement

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Published Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006 in The Davis Enterprise:

By David Takemoto-Weerts
Special to The Enterprise

It’s been almost a year since Davis received the first-ever platinum level Bicycle-Friendly Community Award from the League of American Bicyclists. This singular achievement is one of which all Davis residents, and city and university officials, can be very proud. It says that our city is unmatched by any other in the nation in its support of bicycling.

The Bicycle-Friendly Community award is not a permanent honor. Once earned, it can only be retained if the city maintains its commitment year after year to the same high standards that merited the platinum designation in the first place. In other words, the community cannot rest on its laurels.

To some extent, our platinum level award was a tribute to Davis’ pioneering efforts to create a safe, efficient and welcoming environment for pedalers. For more than 40 years, Davis has been planning, building and maintaining a cityscape that encourages the beneficial use of human-powered vehicles.

The mistakes made early on can be forgiven because planners, politicians and engineers were breaking new ground, either adapting features observed in Europe or devising their own unique solutions to accommodate the already large numbers of cyclists and to encourage even more citizens to mount up and ride.

The city striped bike lanes — the nation’s first — not just on a few major streets, but on almost every arterial and collector street in town. Bikepaths wound through greenbelts. Bicycle under- and over-crossings connected neighborhoods separated by freeways or busy streets. The university gated off the campus core, turning formerly heavily trafficked streets into wide car-free bikeways.

Bike racks bloomed in town and especially on campus, where visionary planners realized that to promote bike use, secure bike parking facilities had to be provided at all destinations and be sited near building entrances, not hidden from view — a design philosophy grudgingly accepted and later embraced by campus architects.

More recently, bicycle traffic signals, another Davis innovation, provided additional controls at problematic intersections and are now spreading to other forward-thinking California communities.
In time, something else blossomed in town: a true “bike culture.” Bicycling was not just practiced by impoverished students, eccentric professors or lycra-clad racers. Bicycling reached a true “critical mass” that most other cities could only dream about.

Our critical mass is not the once-monthly mobile anarchic assembly of rag-tag pedal pushers that take to the streets in San Francisco, New York and scores of other cities with the hope of convincing drivers to forsake their cars and join them. Ours is a daily phenomenon that’s no longer phenomenal — except to visitors and new arrivals to this cycling capital.

It may take a few weeks or months, but many newcomers eventually succumb to the obvious attractions of bicycling. Most don’t go car-free or start picketing our auto mall, but they do become comfortable with the idea of hopping on the saddle and pedaling for pleasure, business, fitness or various utility trips.

Most of these people would never do the same in other communities around the country. Not only do other cities lack Davis’ friendly infrastructure, but more importantly they lack the highly visible and compelling numbers of cyclists on their streets and paths. In Davis, bicycling is ordinary,routine and accepted by most everyone, including our motorists. There may not be “safety in numbers,” but there is certainly security and comfort.

But Davis can and must do more. According to the 2000 census, bike-to-work trips in Davis declined from 22 percent to 17 percent since 1990. We can reverse that trend, even though a smaller percentage of Davis residents work locally.

And, despite a General Plan that mandates all arterial streets shall have bike lanes, Fifth Street remains a challenge for cyclists. Too many of our children and adults are either woefully ignorant of traffic rules and riding skills or choose to ignore them. Education and enforcement is the key. A bicycle museum and resource center would be nice, too.

Finally, our city officials need to realize that the one aspect of our fair community that distinguishes us from every other city in the country is our bicycle culture. We are known for many things — the university, progressive politics, earth-friendly programs, vibrant downtown and much more. But other places have some or all of those attractive features.

However, we stand alone in our love affair with “this slender, whippet thing of steel and rubber that carries a man far and fast, by his own glad effort, on the open road and takes him away from his cares … as nothing can,” as Twells Brex wrote.

As a metaphor, the bicycle represents health, a clean environment, efficiency, sustainability, egalitarianism, appropriate human-scale technology and even functional beauty. We are indeed the “City of Bicycles” and we should proclaim so with pride and a pledge to keep it so.

— David Takemoto-Weerts has been pedaling the streets of Davis for more than 25 years. He is the UC Davis bicycle coordinator and wishes more people would recognize that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

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