Commentary: How Bicycle Friendly is Davis Really?

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bikesThis week we had Davis Bicycles! and a host of other groups have a candidates forum featuring discussions on transportation and biking.  I have been to a lot of forums in the past two weeks, and this was my favorite of them all.  It dealt with a lot of issues that do not get enough attention even as Davis likes to do things like get a Bicycling Hall of Fame, bring in the Amgen tour, and act as though it is the bike mecca of America.

A little known fact about is me is that when I got accepted to graduate school at UC Davis, I came here to visit in April of 1996 by bicycle.  That is correct, I biked from San Luis Obispo up Highway 1 to San Francisco and then cut across back roads to ride into Davis on Old Davis Road through the south side of campus.

I did not own a car until 1998 when my work on a campaign required it.  I had always bicycled San Luis Obispo despite the fact that I had to travel about 3 miles to go to the university and the trip was uphill both ways – I am not kidding.

I also used to bike in Washington DC when I worked there in the mid-90s, that was an adrenaline rush switching between the sidewalk and the streets trying not to get hit.

Davis by comparison was flat and easy to navigate.  However, I soon discovered that biking in Davis was not nearly as easy as I thought.  First, I always thought I was taking my life in my hands biking onto campus where half the people seem to have no idea where they are going.  I remember my first year getting hit by a pedestrian who was not looking where she was going and she rather than me ended up on the pavement.

For years, I would hit brush and clippings as green and bike friendly Davis just chucked them into the bike lane forcing bicyclists to either jet out into the traffic or take their chances with protruding debris.

I have lived in a lot of different places at different times, this is the only city that does not use containers for their waste.  And when we tried to do a pilot program, the citizens of this bike friendly town revolted.  You would have thought they were banning fire places or something.

And then there is Fifth Street which is the main route to the eastern portion of Davis.  If I want to bike to the Post Office for instance, my options are to put my life in my own hands and try to use the street, to illegally bike on the sidewalk, or to go several blocks out of my way to the north and then back to the south.  Some will say – big deal? 

Well it is a big deal. Especially when we pride ourselves as the biking capital of the world.  The place where bike lanes were developed and prospered.  The home of the biking Hall of Fame.

I was reading a letter to the editor in that Davis paper the other day, so one decided that it was a good idea to ban bicycles from that stretch of 5th Street between A and L.  Wow.  So there you are, right by the front door of City Hall.  Two blocks from the National Bicycling Hall of Fame, and you have the main street in Davis blocked off to bike traffic.

Now as someone pointed out in this morning’s paper, that is actually illegal.  Bicycles cannot be prohibited from city streets like that.  But forget about that point for a second, think about the audacity.  This is Davis and we have citizens seriously making such proposals.

And they are not alone.  The business community is flat out opposed to the idea of a road diet on Fifth to make it bike friendly, pedestrian friendly, and frankly more car friendly.  I do not like to even drive my car on Fifth Street between the crazy turns, cars whipping around the crazy turns, and messed up lighting sequence on F and G.

The three-phase lights have made the road more safe, but there have been many times at 5 am in the morning or late at night where I just miss a light, I’m the only car on the road, and I’m idling my car for a full two minute cycle.  Talk about waste of gas.

Fortunately, the Davis City Council for once ignored the pressure of the business community and supported the road diet – twice in the last six months.

The fact of the matter is that if weren’t for my good friend Steve Tracy, we probably would not be where we are today.  Without his work, the idea of a road diet on Fifth Street would have diet a long time ago.  He got the studies approved, pushed for funding, and promoted the idea.  When the business community got a signature campaign with 400 signatures, he got one that was more than twice that.

The good news is the plan is going forward.  The good news is that the incoming council will be committed to the project no matter who is elected.  The bad news is that right now city staff is not.  Without diligence, the design of Fifth Street could be a problem.  There will have to be a tweaking of lighting sequences to get the flow just right, but we know from other communities it works and the areas around the road diets have flourished.

But here’s the amazing thing, in this bicycling friendly community, how much it has taken to make common sense changes to Fifth Street.  I have lived here only 14 years as of this coming fall, but for that time and I assume well before it, the main thoroughfare through the biking capital of America has been problematic at best and unfriendly at least to bikes.  That is simply amazing and people were willing to tolerate it.

There is worse news, and I will discuss it far more coming up this week, the transportation and road maintenance portion of the city’s budget is woefully underfunded and it is going to become a problem unless the city changes the way it does business.  This is going to affect everyone who uses the roads, but especially bicyclists.  More on that this week.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 thoughts on “Commentary: How Bicycle Friendly is Davis Really?”

  1. Greg Kuperberg

    Everyone in my family has been bicycling in Davis from the earliest possible time, and we moved here in 1996. Yes, it would be nice to rebuild fifth street to accommodate bicycles. But the truth is that this is an expensive and contentious project, and it should not be the top priority. The reason that it is not the be-all of bicycling in Davis is that there are parallel alternatives to 5th Street, such as 8th Street and 3rd Street. All you have to do is to know to take one of those other streets. Indeed, Covell Avenue already has bicycle lanes and a bike path, but since it is as busy as 5th Street, it is more pleasant to traverse the north side of town on Villanova, at least in the stretch that Villanova exists.

    In my opinion, the most pressing bicycle transportation problem is bicycle parking and traffic separation at the schools. It’s really pretty bad at many school sites, although some of them are okay and the high school this year did improve. It suppresses bicycle ridership for the population that is the most likely to want to bicycle. It’s also sometimes dangerous. It’s a much bigger safety problem than the safety issues that were trumped up to justify the high school stadium.

    But, partly because city politics has been obsessed with 5th Street for years, there hasn’t been much discussion of what goes on around the schools at the beginning or the end of the school day.

  2. Greg Kuperberg

    And also, there is one other respect in which Davis has become adamantly, defiantly opposed to bicycles. Growth is now the great villain of city politics. Outfill is an outrage, infill is acceptable until someone calls it densification, and affordable housing is a brilliant idea as long as it doesn’t happen. There just isn’t room in Davis now for everyone who works and studies here, and the bicycle mode share for people who come in from out of town is approximately zero. People have looked at why the bicycle mode share has fallen among UC Davis students. Commuting from out of town is the major reason; it’s certainly not 5th street.

    But we might as well instead discuss either 5th street or bicycle access to city schools, because those two issues are harmonious with the property interests of current residents.

  3. David M. Greenwald

    I think the issues you raise are good ones that need more focus. But I think it’s crazy to have to divert four to six blocks out of your way to get from where I live to the post office. I don’t see how that makes any kind of practical sense.

  4. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]But I think it’s crazy to have to divert four to six blocks out of your way to get from where I live to the post office.[/i]

    Your apartment to the central post office is one of a handful of itineraries that is significantly affected by 5th street. Unless you work at the post office, this is not a route that you need to take every day. Even so, you could get there using Arroyo Park, the Sycamore Park bridge, Villanova, and 8th. This is a much more pleasant route and it is only 10% longer. Yes, that is about 4 blocks, but we are talking about an extra half mile of smooth bicycling in a 4-mile trip.

    By contrast, thousands of children bicycle to school in Davis on the average school day. Many of the bike racks are badly overcrowded and the safety issues are also serious.

    Again though, I’m not against the 5th street corridor; on balance it sounds like a good idea. It’s not a good idea to quarrel over it for years while other problems are neglected.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    Your last comment is a good point, the problem is that’s the nature of politics. One issue gets addressed while others are neglected. I do think now that we’ve at least decided to go forward on 5th, it’s time to focus on other issues as well. Unfortunately, the issue I’m going to bring up is the transportation budget, the fact that we have $2 million in annual needs for repavement, and have been getting by on $800,000 and now that money by next year will be completely gone.

  6. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]Your last comment is a good point, the problem is that’s the nature of politics. One issue gets addressed while others are neglected.[/i]

    It may be the nature of politics, sometimes, but it’s certainly not the nature of policy. While the political discussion of 5th street dragged on, the city did give bicycle lanes all over town a second stripe. They also moved the bicycle crossing on F street and did some other good things. And, as mentioned, there were important things that did not get done.

    From the strict safety point of view, the most important thing that has never gotten done is to fence the most dangerous half mile in Davis — the train tracks next to Olive Drive.

    Yes, a general cut to the transportation budget won’t make things any better. But public works will certainly still have a budget and many possible ways to use that budget. So one can only hope that the city council won’t just obsess over a few big, contentious issues such as 5th street, and instead rationally prioritizes a broader list of items.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    Greg: It seems you agree with my central premise but maybe think that I needed to present more examples than the ones I have given. I think that’s a fair critique, I’m certainly open to additional items on the list.

  8. Greg Kuperberg

    I think that the premise is true for different reasons than that the city can’t quite get on one page on 5th street. 5th street is a large, flashy externally funded project, and we’ve already had several of those for the sake of bicycles. We now have two additional routes across I-80 that each cost 7 figures, the underpass and the Pelz overcrossing.

    It is true that Davis has rested on its bicycling laurels lately. The major reason for that is the politics of zoning and home ownership. However much Davis residents like bicycles, they are more concerned about preventing growth. They would much rather force workers and students to drive from out of town than to see more growth in the city. Maybe many city residents are willing to be flexible, but politics has gotten organized into a completely inflexible bottom line.

    A second issue is that many problems have been overlooked just because of bureaucracy, and not because of a quarrel with the DDBA. The bicycle situation at the schools is a particular problem because it involves both the city and the school district. I don’t think that anyone necessarily disagrees with anyone else about school bicycling; it just hasn’t gotten proper attention. And it doesn’t help that the school district drained its facilities funds into the stadium.

  9. E Roberts Musser

    GK: “A second issue is that many problems have been overlooked just because of bureaucracy, and not because of a quarrel with the DDBA. The bicycle situation at the schools is a particular problem because it involves both the city and the school district. I don’t think that anyone necessarily disagrees with anyone else about school bicycling; it just hasn’t gotten proper attention. And it doesn’t help that the school district drained its facilities funds into the stadium.”

    If you feel so strongly about the bike parking issue at the high school, why don’t you spearhead an effort to address the problem, much as Steve Tracy spearheaded an effort to fix the problems on 5th Street?

  10. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]If you feel so strongly about the bike parking issue at the high school, why don’t you spearhead an effort to address the problem,[/i]

    First, I have been politically involved. I was involved with the Davis Bicycles School committee headed by Chrystal Waters. Partly by their efforts, the city donated some bicycle racks to the high school, and the parking per se is much improved. The main problem now is to separate traffic, so that bicycles mix less with cars on 14th Street. And nothing much has been done at the junior high schools.

    Second, I’m not much of a politician. I have other things to do, and I prefer to be listened to and understood rather than to spearhead some campaign. Frankly the problem is obvious, and I’m kind-of hazy on what there is to explain or to whom. The audience here consists of outsiders to the problem, so I understand having a discussion here. On the inside, however, there are certain sides to the bureaucracy that just don’t make sense.

  11. jrberg

    Every single issue here has been before the BAC in the last five years. The double striping of bike lanes was a compromise after the failure to get a greenwaste pilot project. And, in my view, the double striping has been the only thing that the BAC has accomplished since its inception. And the City will not expand that program, because of cost.

    I agree with all of you that cycling issues are ignored, except for the big bang issues, such as the Amgen race coming up. But the day to day issues need to be addressed, including school parking and connectivity, which includes Fifth St., Olive Drive, and the H St. tunnel.

    I’ve lived here since 1978, and the basic infrastructure for cyclists in the core has not changed at all since then, except for more parking at the train station. Davis is indeed resting on its laurels, in terms of cycling as transportation. We need to move forward, and I’m encouraged that most of the candidates for City Council recognize this.

    When parents drive their kids to school because they are afraid to let them cycle, because of all the auto traffic at the school, there is something seriously wrong with our community.

  12. Greg Kuperberg

    Hi John (Berg). First of all, whether the double stripes were a compromise or not, they are a really good idea. When I first saw the double stripes, I thought, “I didn’t think of this, is it actually important?” But now after riding in the lanes for long enough, I think, “This is very nice, and I have learned something.”

    Second, a member of the school board who shall remain nameless told me that they had at least gotten somewhere with the bicycle parking, conceded that it was not as much as one might hope, and then said that it’s because the district just doesn’t have the money. At that last remark, I was biting my tongue hard, because it’s obvious that bicycle improvements across the district would have been a drop in the bucket compared to the stadium.

    So the lesson is that it’s not exactly that people don’t notice day-to-day issues. Sometimes, it’s that we get painted into a corner by the more expensive projects.

  13. Greg Kuperberg

    And one other thing: After the arrogant claims that we had to have the stadium for the sake of safety, a kid was paralyzed on the field during the stadium’s opening game. There was never any safety study behind the safety claims. If there had been one, it should have said that you can protect children by keeping them a safe distance from cars when they walk and bicycle; you don’t protect them by promoting football.

  14. wdf1

    GK:Second, a member of the school board who shall remain nameless told me that they had at least gotten somewhere with the bicycle parking, conceded that it was not as much as one might hope, and then said that it’s because the district just doesn’t have the money. At that last remark, I was biting my tongue hard, because it’s obvious that bicycle improvements across the district would have been a drop in the bucket compared to the stadium.

    How much money do you imagine it would cost the district to make the changes you have in mind?

  15. wdf1

    By the way, the next school board meeting is a joint meeting with the city council. It’s a good opportunity to raise issues like this at the meeting.

  16. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]How much money do you imagine it would cost the district to make the changes you have in mind?[/i]

    A good bicycle parking space (a lightning bolt, as now exists all over campus) costs on the order of $100. In a reasonable project, all other issues such as installation, concrete flooring, traffic separation, painting the path, etc., might be about another $100 per bicycle parking slot. There are about 2000 bicycle riders in the entire district, so a complete deluxe rebuild of all of the bicycle parking in the district might cost $400,000. If you include expansion, maybe $500,000 or $600,000. However, I think that this is an overestimate, because you can make good use of some of what the district already has. For instance, now that the high school has improved bicycle parking, the main thing to do is to redirect bicycle traffic around the sides and back of the high school.

    So as a rough estimate, a really thorough project might cost the school district about 1/20 of the cost of the stadium, or 1/10 of the cost of phase I of the stadium. I can understand that the stadium is very important to some people, but I have trouble believing that it is 20 times as important as school district bicycling. I could accept the stadium is twice as important, even though I might not agree, because it would mean more money for district bicycling than it would ever need.

    A more conservative approach would be to devote $50,000 per year for school district bicycle facilities, for 5-10 years or indefinitely. As far as I know, the district could use facilities money for this. Again, it is a drop in the bucket compared to other projects such as the stadium, the performance arts building at the high school, etc. Part of the problem is that, unlike the campus and the city, the school district doesn’t really have a bicycle coordinator. Not as far as I know, anyway.

    The city itself could devote a comparable amount of money, or seek funding for a comparable amount of money, to fix certain problems with existing routes to school. For instance, Oak and Villanova could have a traffic light to help with some of the school traffic issues. Or to name a simpler problem that has always bugged me and affects hundreds of students, the S curve on Villanova near Carob is poorly designed, and it should be rebuilt with a narrower sidewalk.

    [i]By the way, the next school board meeting is a joint meeting with the city council. It’s a good opportunity to raise issues like this at the meeting.[/i]

    Actually, I have raised the issue at a school board meeting. It’s a good way to get barely started with an issue, but it is a very cumbersome forum for any further progress.

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