Former UC Davis professor explains history of bike paths

The country's first bike path was built in Brooklyn. The motorcycle is the direct descendant of the bicycle. Bicyclists once had to contend with powerful horse lobbies to get funding for bike lanes and pathways.

Published November 26, 2007 by California Aggie 
By: GEOFF JOHNSON

Lecture traces paths back to 1894

The country's first bike path was built in Brooklyn. The motorcycle is the direct descendant of the bicycle. Bicyclists once had to contend with powerful horse lobbies to get funding for bike lanes and pathways.

These were a few of the subjects 78-year-old Bob Sommer touched on in a lecture Sunday at the Hattie Weber Museum of Davis.

Sommer, a former UC Davis professor and bicycle enthusiast, said Colonel A. A. Pope was largely responsible for the proliferation of bicycles in America. Pope was fascinated by bicycles at a time when the machine was only available in Europe.

Pope was so interested in the bike that importing bicycles wasn't enough, Sommer said. In 1878 Pope started America's first bicycle manufacturing company, along with riding courses, magazines, and thousands of bicycle pamphlets, Sommer said.

Bicycling had no problem finding supporters. So many, in fact, that tensions developed between horse riders and cyclists, Sommer said. A horse lobby was created to ensure that the interests of horse riders were represented.

"In the early days, it was the horse [instead of the car], and they banned the bicycle from some streets," Sommer said.

This in turn led to the first bicycle advocacy groups, he said. The Good Roads Association, in particular, was responsible for funding the first bike path in America in 1894, a 5.5-mile stretch along the Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y. that still stands today. The path proved so popular that its width was increased the next year, and doubled the year after that.

For the next few years, bike routes were being built all over the country including the Sacramento-Folsom American River Bike Trail in 1896, Sommer said. A more complicated plan between Roseville, Rocklin, and Lincoln was started, but never completed.

Southern California, for its part, proposed an elevated "cycleway" running out of Pasadena, replete with illumination and stocked with places where cyclists could stop and make use of public tools to repair their bikes.

Construction only made it as far as two years and two miles, however, before the Southern Pacific railroad squashed the effort in 1900.

In the coming decades, the advent of the automobile reduced the notion of a bicycle to a children's toy, Sommer said.

In 1964, the professor performed a word association game with his class.

"When we gave bicycle [as a word], the most common responses were tricycle and child," he said.

His efforts to encourage bicycle development in communities neighboring Davis didn't fare much better, Sommer said.

"When I went around to cities to sell the idea of a bike path, I got these really puzzled looks from city planners," he said.

It wasn't until the racing bike was invented that people began to consider the idea of a bicycle as a vehicle again, Sommer said.

"It's very informative," said David Castanon, a 67-year-old retired Caltrans Engineer who attended the event. "I'd never have thought of any of it."

Dennis Dingemans, a Yolo County Historical Society Board Member, said he was pleased that Sommer took his time to get personally involved with the city of Davis during his tenure instead of dealing with the issues in a strictly academic manner.

"Most university professors don't become advocates for public issues," Dingemans said.

GEOFF JOHNSON can be reached at city@californiaaggie.com.