Mar 8, 2017Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

In 1967, Davis broke ground on the country’s first true bike lane. Fifty years later, we look back on the inaugural system’s impact—and how more work remains to be done to protect cyclists nationwide.

One morning in late July 1967, a Davis, California, public works employee loaded a marking machine, letter stencils, and big containers of white paint into a city truck and drove over to 8th Street. It didn’t take long to stripe both sides of 8th between A Street and Sycamore Lane—a distance a little less than a mile long. After the paint dried and stenciled lettering was applied, the 10.5-square-mile city had the first bike lane in U.S. history. 

This early project integrated concepts that still qualify as progressive. San Francisco got its first protected bike lane—where cyclists are separated from auto traffic by cement barriers and parked cars—in 2010. Chicago didn’t have one until 2016. Davis had one five decades earlier—not to mention a two-way bike lane and a so-called contra flow lane—where riders can travel against traffic on a one-way street. This early building set in motion an actual revolution, one that resulted in a single city like New York having more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes today.  

Davis, a flat, compact college town blessed with temperate year-round weather located a dozen miles west of Sacramento, was ripe for a transportation transformation. The first advocate was newly appointed school chancellor Emil Mrak. In the early 1960s, the university, recently named the seventh general campus in the University of California system, was poised to have its student body expand exponentially, from 2,000 to 10,000. Mrak was determined to encourage cycling to avoid an influx of 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. Incoming students received letters encouraging them to bring a bike to school and officials drew up plans for a network of bike paths around a largely car-free campus. “Bike paths and tunnels were built in some neighborhoods before those neighborhoods were actually built out,” says current Davis Mayor Robb Davis. “How cool is that?”

Suddenly Davis seemed to be pulsing with young people on bikes. Still, it wasn’t exactly a cycling paradise. Bikes were a dependable, fun, popular way to get to class, but many locals and city officials were not open to sharing the road, so the police launched a ticket-writing crackdown and the number and tenor of bike-car conflicts grew worse. 

Into this simmering conflict stepped Frank Child. An economics professor at UCD, Child had just wrapped up a summer sabbatical in the Dutch city of the Hague in 1963. There, he and his wife, Eve, had spent many afternoons on bicycles, riding around the city with their four children. That experience left such an impression that the couple sold their second car as soon as they returned to Davis.

Inspired by their Dutch experience and the road conflicts they saw in Davis, the Childs wrote a letter to the local newspaper, proposing separate lanes for bikes on a few local streets. They would be a win-win for everyone, the Childs wrote. They started a vibrant organization with local supporters called the Citizens’ Bicycle Study Group. “People met over their kitchen tables and got mad and expressed determination that things would change,” says Ted Beuhler, a Portland-based bike advocate who wrote his UCD graduate thesis on bicycle policy in Davis, a document that established the city’s historic primacy in the bike-lane universe. “The Childs had seen how these things could work in the real world when they lived in Europe. They said ‘There’s no reason we can’t do this here, right now.’” 

The CBSG submitted a formal petition to install a handful of bike lanes. But their proposal was rejected by engineers, police, planners, and the city council, which had the power to authorize road infrastructure. 

What happened next might seem familiar to contemporary readers, but it was novel for nascent bike advocates in the mid-1960s: the CBSG supporters protested at the ballot box. Two pro-bike candidates ran for the three-seat city council. One of them, says Beuhler, put little cardboard discs on supporters’ bicycle wheels that proclaimed “Maynard Skinner for Council!” The candidates wound up winning more than 60 percent of the vote in 1965. 

By July, the new council had approved all the bike lanes in the original petition. But more hurdles remained. More important, since California laws did not yet recognize bike lanes as a legal part of city streets, officials were concerned they didn’t have the authority to set aside part of the roadway for riders only. Fortunately, one city council member—a professional lobbyist in Sacramento—helped introduce and pass a bill in the state Assembly. Governor Ronald Reagan signed Vehicle Code 21207, which allows cities to establish bike lanes on local streets, into law in 1967. 

The bike lane required one more team of unlikely advocates before it could advance: the engineers. “Davis was really fortunate to have a public works chief who was open to change,” says Susan Handy, director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation at UCD. “In many communities, that person is typically conservative.” 

Beuhler agrees. “In this case, the city’s engineers graciously worked happily with the city council to develop something that hadn’t been done before, and they actually figured things out in impressive fashion,” he says. Within the span of a few months after the 1967 law went into effect, officials in Davis installed four lanes: on Sycamore Lane, 3rd Street, 8th Street, and J Street. 

In the early 1990s, Davis became one of the first U.S. cities to install dedicated bike-signal lights. The city started branding itself as Bicycle Capital of America, and in this case, the civic cheerleading didn’t seem overstated. Today, Davis has more than 100 miles of bike lanes and shared-use paths and 25 bike-only bridges and tunnels. “In terms of cycling infrastructure and usage, Davis still outshines nearly every other city in America,” says Handy. Local advocates say that more than 20 percent of all trips within the community are done on a bike. 

“You can cross the whole campus without interacting with cars,” says Mayor Davis, who says the bike lanes’ anniversary will be “quietly celebrated” as part of the city’s centennial throughout 2017. “The history is great and we’re proud of it, but the best part is to see how many kids in Davis ride their bikes to school.” Recent counts indicate that more than 33 percent of all teens in town ride to high school and nearly 25 percent pedal to elementary school.

As a testament to the outstanding cycling culture in Davis, the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, moved from Somerville, N.J. to Davis in 2010. Inside, a visitor can view rare 19th century bicycles, race trophies from the 1920s, and exhibits honoring such legends as Major Taylor, Connie Carpenter, and Greg LeMond. Upon exiting the Hall, one could stand on the plaza in the sunshine, and watch riders stream by 3rd Street—which, like all of the four bike lanes built in 1967, is still in operation.

Correction: (Apr 13, 2017) An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Davis as the first U.S. city to install dedicated traffic signals, which had already been in use in New York City since 1980. We regret the error.