Two for the road
An essay by Tom Knapp,
August 1993

One of the first things one notices in Davis, California, is the number of bicycles on the road.

Bikes appear at times to outnumber the cars and, according to a spokeswoman at the Davis Chamber of Commerce, such is often the case.

"There's probably two bikes for every person," said Kay LaBrie. "Everybody has a fancy bike and a junk bike they can leave around."

At a time when my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is taking a careful look at its transportation needs for the future -- particularly at cutting down the number of cars clogging the city's streets and limiting exhaust emissions into the air -- officials might consider scrutinizing a working example from the West Coast.

Davis, a small town noted mostly for a University of California campus and its tomato-growing industry, is proud to have the (unofficial) highest per capita bicycle population in the country. The city, a long stone's throw from Sacramento, comprises a resident population just over 50,000, plus more than 5,000 students at neighboring UC Davis during the school season.

The university helped foster the healthy bicycle population, LaBrie said. Students began biking around campus and downtown, and both the school and city responded to make things more convenient for them.

"There are bike trails all over town, plus several green belts and parks that the bicyclists can go through," LaBrie said. "Every business and store has a little bicycle stand for people to lock their bikes." Streets were widened to accommodate bike lanes and, as the city grew, new roads were designed with ample width for bikers.

The layout has helped, not hurt, the traffic situation.

"The bicyclists are very aware of the motorists and vice versa," LaBrie said. "We have a few cops on bikes, and bicyclists are ticketed for traffic violations just like motorists are. They have to obey the traffic laws, and if they don't, they get tickets."

Biking has cut down significantly on downtown parking woes, she added. It has lowered the auto emission problems that have plagued other parts of California, and has boosted the overall health of the Davis population. (Bicycling is still considered one of the best forms of exercise. Combined with Davis's 100 percent ban on public smoking, it must be a very healthy community.)

With Lancaster eyeing its own traffic, parking and air quality problems, the merits of bicycling deserve a decent look. Encouraging pedalists in the downtown area would have several pros and very few cons.

The cons, however, are very real. Where, for instance, would the city find room for bicycle lanes in already cramped downtown streets? And, of course, there would be the expense of relining roads and installing permanent bike stands for parking.

Still, the merits are sufficient to warrant a decent look. Even a few convenient places to safely park a bike in the city might convince a few downtowners to take to the road on two wheels instead of four.

[ by Tom Knapp ]