Last month, I visited the best city in the country for bicycling. Davis, California, has almost exactly the same size population as Portland: about 67,000 people. But it is light-years ahead of us in creating a safe and inviting atmosphere for bicycling.

I wanted to see what we could learn from their experience. First, a few facts:

Since 2005, the League of American Bicyclists has given Davis its top ranking as a bicycle-friendly community. Only three other communities in the country have achieved that ranking.

Less than 1 percent of Americans commute to work by bicycle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Portland, that figure was 3 percent in 2014. An amazing 23 percent of Davis residents biked to work that year – far more than in any other city in the country.

Davis built the country’s first bike path in 1967, nine years before Maine’s first bicycle path in Orono. (It is no coincidence that both Orono and Davis are college towns.) Twenty years ago, Davis also installed the first bicycle traffic signal in the country.

The California city now has more than 100 miles of bicycle lanes and separated bicycle paths, in addition to a large network of bicycle paths on the campus of the University of California, Davis. Portland has fewer than 20 miles of bike lanes and shared use paths in a city with almost twice the land size.


I was wowed by Davis’ bicycle culture even before I arrived.

The city’s logo features a high-wheel bicycle. That image appears on everything from city trashcans to the Davis Chamber of Commerce office.

The city’s website has easy-to-find links for reporting stolen or abandoned bikes, requesting bike racks, learning about bicycle laws and reporting bicycle or pedestrian concerns.

My airbnb host, Terre Cerridwyn Busse, offered me a choice of two bicycles to ride during my stay. Shortly after arriving, I took off on her silver comfort bike to explore. Her house is a half-block from a network of bicycle paths that snakes through the city.

I came to a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over a busy road that Cerridwyn Busse jokingly described as Davis’ one hill. The city has four such bridges and about 20 underpasses. They provide cyclists a safe way over or under major roads and railroad tracks.

In front of the high school, I was amazed to find two covered bicycle corrals with room to park about 400 bicycles. There are an astounding 3,500 bicycle parking places on city land, in addition to those at schools, the university and on private property.


Thirty-three percent of Davis students biked to school regularly in 2013, and another 11 percent walked. Students are given tags to attach to backpacks that they scan when they get to school, which sends their parents a text or email saying they arrived safely. Wouldn’t that be a great idea for Maine?

And here’s another great idea: Davis holds Crossing Guard Appreciation Days.

I cycled all over the city – through downtown, the university campus and an arboretum. I was on bike paths or in bicycle lanes almost the whole time.

I saw all types of bicyclists, from a man in ragged jeans with a milk crate strapped behind his seat to moms pulling babies in trailers. I also saw lots of pedestrians, joggers, skateboarders and people in wheelchairs.

Davis’ success is due in part to a couple of forward-thinking leaders.

When the university planned a major expansion in the mid-1960s, they chose to make the campus virtually car-free. The university and city have worked together ever since to expand bicycling infrastructure.


They also have collaborated on bicycle safety campaigns. Twice a year, Davis police target enforcement of bicycle laws, with $50 tickets for the first infraction.

Davis has a full-time city bicycle-pedestrian coordinator and another employee who coordinates the Safe Routes to School program. (By comparison, Portland’s bicycle-pedestrian coordinator works half time.) This year, Davis is making $8.5 million of bicycle and pedestrian improvements, much of it funded by competitive grants.

I asked Jennifer Donofrio, Davis’ bike and pedestrian coordinator, how other communities can emulate her city’s success. She said the first step is to create a network of bikeways that provides a seamless way for people to get around.

There’s no question that Davis has better weather for bicycling than Portland. But we cannot use that as an excuse. Montreal, Minneapolis and Stockholm are just a few of the northern cities that have surpassed us in embracing bicycling.

Cerridwyn Busse, my airbnb host, said Davis’ greenway helped convince her that she wanted to live there. The network of bike paths “brings the community together” in both a literal and a figurative way, she said. “It connects us.”

Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who walks and bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at

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