Davis – Bicycle Capital of California, but what can it learn from the Dutch?
by Daniël Melters
Everyone who comes to Davis will notice that there a lot of bikes everywhere and people actually use them on a regular basis. Davis is fairly small town and it is also flat. This makes Davis a prime location for easy cycling. One reason why Davis is only one of three communities in the US that has a platinum rating [PDF] according to the League of American Bicyclists. Add to the equation the favorable climate: there is not too much wind (compared to coastal region), the summers are warm (or hot, depending on your perspective) and the winter very mild (a bit of rain with moderate cold at worst (if you even call it a winter)). All of this resulted in a true bicylce-culture in Davis. There are several bike-clubs and even more bike events, including the Foxy’s Fall century (50 km / 100 km / 100 miles). Around campus there are many pumps and repair stations locations, in case you get a flat. There is even an iPhone app with Davis bike routes on it. Of course a bicycle advocacy group (advocacy blog) have to be included as well and there are three in Davis alone. Not bad for a town with only 65,000 inhabitants.
This does not mean that there no problem associated with bicycles. Of course bike theft is a real concern (100s per year) and it would serve you well to have two locks on your bike to secure both your wheel to your frame, which in turn is secured to a solid, unmovable object. A more serious issue is that bicyclist are weak participants in traffic. Not physically weak as in no muscle strength, but they tend to do not particularly well in an accident. When a car and bicyclist collide, it is the bicyclist that will almost always lose. Even though is a very bike friendly town, accident do happen, as this heat map, made by UC Davis graduate student Russell Neches (his blog and the story why he made the heatmap), shows.
What to do to limit the accidents from happening? There are three things that are important: one and two, the drivers of both the car and the bicycle, and three, the road design.
Well, as a driver, always be aware of cyclist. They are much narrower and much more agile than you in your car, so they can slip in small spaces, which they will do especially in slow traffic or at traffic lights. Also keep in mind that it is rather strenuous for a cyclist to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and get going again. All you do is roll out the car, press the brakes. Come to a stop and press the throttle to keep going again. In addition, cyclists don’t have a cage around their heads, so they can see more, besides the fact that they sit higher. Their slower speed also gives them more time to assess the traffic at a given intersection. As a result, a cyclist will be inclined to not come to a complete stop at a stop sign, but rather ride through them while watching for traffic. Illegal? Yes, bicycles are legally equal to cars, even though they lack two wheels, a front- and rear-bumper, and an engine. Of course, this does not stop UC Davis police or Davis police to stop and fine cyclists who don’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. This effort is especially intensified at the beginning of every quarter.
Assume that every driver of a car or truck hasn’t seen you, as this is most likely true. Also, every car has a blind spot. If you are in there, the driver cannot see you. Period. The higher the vehicle, the less the driver can and thus will see. In you collide with a car, you will probably lose, so wear a helmet for your own protection. But by wearing a helmet, drivers are more inclined to drive past you at a closer distance than if you were not wearing a helmet. The fact that you drive slower than a car, means that you have more time to look around you and thus more time to anticipate your surrounding. This difference is intensified when it is dark. Always cycle with front and rear lights that are bright. If you blend in the dark background, no driver can see you and thus consider you when (s)he makes a decision. Finally, as traffic participants cyclist are still not appreciated as much compared to some other countries, such as Denmark or the Netherlands.
Speaking about the Netherlands. This country has a lot of similarities to Davis. It is flat and very bike friendly (18+ millions bike used by 16 million people and about 750,000 bikes are stolen each year). In total there are 29,000 km dedicated bicycles paths in the Netherlands, whereas there are only 5,012 km highways and 7,899 km country roads. In comparison, Davis has over 100 miles (160 km) of bicycles paths and lanes. In comparison, about 15-20% of people in Davis commute by bike. In Amsterdam, this number is ~40%. How did an entire country build such a large bicycle path network and what effect did this have on bicycle use? Here is a video that explains a few things:
A good road design takes into consideration all traffic participants: pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. In the Netherlands a new road within city limits includes a sidewalk on both sides of the street, followed by cycling paths on both sides of the street and in the center the main roadway for motorist. To prevent motorist and cyclist (or pedestrians for that matter) to use the same road, means that there is less change that they can actually physically meet. Davis is on its way to improve this, but from a Dutch perspective they have a long way to go. What would happen to the number of bicycle-car accidents if at the main driving corridors in Davis, bicyclists were driving on bicycle paths that are physically separated from the road used by cars? And what would happen if at the traffic lights (roundabouts can handle 50% more traffic, but that on the side) bicycles are given their own time for crossing without cars being allowed to cross? My bet: fewer accidents between bicycles and cars.
Davis is doing well compared to its US counterparts and Davis can be proud of that. As it stands now, it can only improve for the better, with Amsterdam and Copenhagen as possible examples. For now, share the road and be extra cautious/considerate with the those traffic participants who are more vulnerable. Drive safe.