The ever-popular bike lanes you see all around the country are a pretty new phenomenon. San Francisco received its first protected bike lane in 2010. Chicago finally implemented bike lanes around the city in 2016. New York City is home to 1,000 miles of bike lanes.
But the original bike lane, founded right in Northern California, was created five decades before many of its counterparts.
Davis, California is home to a little under 70,000 people, including a bustling college population that relies on bikes to get around town. The community is flat and holds a consistently moderate climate year-round, making it perfect for the biking community.
Davis’s local bikers, along with the University of California, Davis, have been a leading voice in the international cycling community for over 50 years.
The university in Davis was founded in 1907, and much like many colleges in the early 20th-century, it was a small endeavor. Flash-forward to 1961, when the college was named the seventh general campus in the University of California system, city officials had to scramble to design a town that was about to grow from 2,000 to 10,000 students.
The newly appointed school chancellor Emil Mrak was the first to advocate for a bike-friendly campus, hoping to mitigate the problems foreseen with the influx of new students along with their cars. “I have asked our architects to plan for a bicycle-riding, tree-lined campus,” he said in 1961, as an expanded UCD campus was being surveyed.
City officials drew up a city full of bike paths and sent a letter to incoming students encouraging them to bring their bikes, instead of their cars, to campus. The town’s blueprint revolutionized city planning, as bike paths and tunnels were drawn-up for the area before those neighborhoods were actually built out.
Of course, integrating bikes into a car dominated world did have its setbacks. Rising conflicts between bikers and drivers (who who had no idea how to share the road) began to concern locals. But it was an UCD economics professor – who had experienced the bike-friendly roads of Europe – who brought a radical idea to the community – the bike lane.
Frank Child had spent the summer of 1963 in Dutch city of the Hague, where he and his wife enjoyed the streets via bicycle. Upon his return to Davis, he wrote to his local newspaper suggesting they build a completely separate lane for bikers on some streets. They started a vibrant organization with local supporters called the Citizens’ Bicycle Study Group and submitted formal petitions to install bike lanes throughout the town.
The proposal spent years jumping through political hurdles, but in 1967 Governor Ronald Reagan signed Vehicle Code 21207, which allows cities to establish bike lanes on local streets. A biker’s paradise was born.
Davis continued to stay in the forefront of bike projects for years to come. In the early 1990s, the town installed America’s first dedicated bike-signal lights and began branding itself as Bicycle Capital of America. In 2010, the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame moved to Davis from New Jersey, complete with its antique bikes and racing memorabilia.
Today, Davis currently boasts more than 100 miles of bike lanes and shared-use paths and 25 bike-only bridges and tunnels. It remains the gold standard of bike towns in the United States. Not bad for a little college town in Northern California.