Changing Gears

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A bicyclist in Davis rides America’s first bike lane, which was installed in 1967. (Photo courtesy of City of Davis)

“We want what happens when we have a community that’s a little more compact—a little more comfortable without a car,” says Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA). “That’s not a rejection of driving. It’s basically an appreciation of the alternatives. If we’re going to create public roads that support everybody’s needs, then we’re going to have to find a way to accommodate bikes.”

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Fifty years ago this fall, a petition circulated in a small California college town advocating for traffic lanes reserved just for bikes. Such lanes were already common at the time in European cities like Amsterdam, but none existed in the United States. Technically, they weren’t even legal in California until one of the college town’s council members—also a lobbyist—hit the State Capitol to influence legislation permitting the new lanes. And so it was that in 1967, with its bicycle-crazed populace clamoring for safe, dedicated new infrastructure, the city of Davis installed America’s first bike lane.

The rest is bicycle history. Davis has since built nearly 100 miles of bike lanes, paths, greenways and loops around the city. In 2005, it became the first city in America to earn a “platinum” designation from the League of American Bicyclists’ prestigious “Bicycle Friendly Community” program (a distinction that was subsequently matched by Portland and the Colorado cities of Fort Collins and Boulder), and it became the home of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2010. Almost 20 percent of trips made in Davis are taken by bicyclists, who travel in a place of their own away from car traffic and sidewalks, reinforcing both the safety and peace of mind of everyone on the road.

“People enjoy riding bicycles,” says Portland bicycle coordinator Roger Geller. “People like being active. The main thing that inhibits them from doing so is fear. We have a good product. It’s not a hard sell.”

 

Still, like many of its regional neighbors over the last half-century, the city found itself vulnerable to the encroaching creep of car culture. Bike commuting in Davis plunged by 50 percent between 1980 and 2000, and residents saw lapses in civic initiatives like subsidized helmet programs, elementary school bicycling education, and strict enforcement of traffic laws protecting both bicyclists and motorists.

“They were off course a little bit and kind of had a lull in their growth in terms of [bicycle] infrastructure,” says Dave Kemp, who helped engineer Davis’ comeback upon arriving as the city’s active transportation coordinator in 2012. That year, he spearheaded a new “Beyond Platinum” plan that studied how to keep Davis at the forefront of America’s cycling cities for the next decade and beyond. (He moved to Boulder in October to start a new job as that city’s senior transportation planner.) “We’ve learned that the primary obstacle for people to ride bikes is traffic safety,” he says. “So we’re trying to make our streets feel more comfortable. In many cases it is safer, but it’s got to feel safe.”

There is a demographic shorthand describing bicyclists with this condition: “Interested but concerned,” a phrase that originated in Portland to qualify casual riders’ reluctance to bike in streets designed principally for automobiles. It’s a phrase heard often in conversations with Sacramento’s bicycling advocates and regional officials alike—people like Kemp, Jim Brown, or Mike Dour, the bikeway planner tasked with enhancing the safety, connectivity and appeal of bike lanes in the rapidly expanding city of Roseville. Dour says he emphasizes improvements and additions that could be desirable for the complete spectrum of bicyclists—young families, schoolchildren, recreational bicyclists, and commuters to new start-ups and other companies sprouting around Placer County.

“Our goal is to try to provide facilities that would appeal to the people you might call the road warriors—who are out there on their road bikes and willing to take on most conditions—[as well as] the folks who are really interested but they have some concerns,” says Dour, whose three major bike infrastructure projects in 2014 included installing a half-mile connection on Taylor Road between Roseville and Rocklin, and an extension of a 2.5-mile trail joining housing subdivisions in western Roseville to employment centers on Foothills Boulevard. “If we want to attract more cyclists, it’s not just a matter of putting in a couple [standard] bike lanes out on the road. That’s why we think really hard about how we’re trying to provide our facilities.”

It costs relatively little to build these types of bike facilities. Often their expense is folded into sprucing up roads already budgeted for resurfacing. In fact, according to Roger Geller—who has stewarded Portland to bikeopolis status since becoming that city’s bicycle coordinator in 2000—cost efficiency ranks with added security as one of the primary benefits of a city’s bike friendliness. The cost of building bike and pedestrian infrastructure amounted to less than 3 percent of the almost $6.5 billion spent on roadways, transit and other transportation improvements around metro Portland between 1995 and 2010. (Planners there estimate the city’s entire 300-plus-mile bikeway network was built for around $60 million, or roughly equivalent to the cost of building one mile of four-lane urban freeway.) Meanwhile, ridership in the Portland region—where there was virtually no bicycling culture to speak of before 1990—increased by 400 percent between 1990 and 2008.

“We’re not just building these things so that people can bike,” Geller says. “We’re building these things so that people can be healthy, so that people can be prosperous, and so that the city can continue to operate. So people can continue to move around the city. That is the biggest thing. We’re not treading water if we don’t advance. We’re actually going to lose ground, because population is going to increase.”

Planners at SACOG have the same certainty about our region, forecasting growth of 871,000 more residents and 361,000 new jobs around Sacramento by 2035. No scenario envisioned by either SACOG or planners downtown expects motorways to absorb that growth on their own, and some prospective answers have already been imprinted on Sacramento’s core. The green lanes on Capitol Mall and Carlson Drive have sought to calm traffic, enfranchise bicyclists and reassure pedestrians and motorists in ways that the city hadn’t seen before last year. Similarly, downtown “road diets” pared corridors like G, H, 5th, 9th and 10th streets from three car lanes down to two in the fall of 2012, utilizing the new space for bike lanes on both sides of the street.

A proposed protected bike lane in Philadelphia near the city’s community college (Rendering courtesy Philadelphia Environmental Council)It’s a start, yet even those pathways lack the security of other cities’ “buffered” bike lanes (which typically feature a minimum 18-inch “no man’s land” space separating bike traffic from auto traffic, car doors and other hazards) or “protected” lanes that establish physical barriers like planters or flexible plastic bollards between bikes and cars. One proposal in London, where six cyclists died over a two-week stretch last fall, would even create a 137-mile “SkyCycle” network that elevates bicyclists to safety over existing train lines. A smaller version of the same dazzling futuristic plan could fit perfectly in Sacramento over Amtrak and light rail tracks en route to the downtown train station and, beyond that, the railyards—currently one of the most difficult parts of the city to access via bicycle. “Everybody’s got their different stories of some elaborate work-around that involves parking lots and alleys and sidewalks,” Brown says. “The fact is our one-way street grid doesn’t serve the Amtrak depot very well—least of all for people with bikes.”

We’d get by just as well looking to Davis, which has pioneered buffered and protected bike lanes to assuage the “interested but concerned” class of bicyclists and restore its cachet as a national leader in urban bicycling. “We were completely oblivious to the repercussions of overall traffic congestion and the ill effects of road rage and all that,” Kemp says. “Now we’ve reached that saturation point—I think we did back in 2008 or so—where planners are starting to design streets [with the idea] that it’s not about moving cars. It’s about moving people.”

To that end, Sacramento plans its next downtown road diet for Highway 160 just over the American River crossing, where it feeds into downtown as North 12th Street. Cox, the Sacramento bicycle coordinator, says the street would cede one of its four lanes for a two-way “cycle track” separated from the busy southbound passage. The .7-mile track between Richards Boulevard and C Street would empty into the more conventional bike lane that flanks the west side of the road leading to the State Capitol. “That one is pretty much out there in the forefront of being very innovative,” Cox says of the protected stretch, which will be among the city’s high-priority proposals for SACOG funding in 2015. “And that one will likely trigger a bunch of smaller items.”