New System Ranks America’s “Bicycle-Friendly” Cities

Fort Collins, Colorado, was crowned No. 1 in PeopleForBikes’ inaugural list

Fort Collins cycling.jpg
Fort Collins, Colorado, has been named No. 1 in a new list by People for Bikes ranking U.S. cities on bike safety, infrastructure and improvement. Citycommunications/Wikimedia Commons

More Americans are biking to work than ever before. According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017, nearly 900,000 people in the United States commuted to work on a bicycle in 2015, almost 300,000 more than 2006.

What's behind the jump? During a conference held last week in Indianapolis, Indiana, bike industry representatives suggested a confluence of events—from expanding bike lanes and bike-sharing programs to grassroots efforts and comprehensive plans for improving city infrastructure.

The second annual conference was organized by the national bicycling advocacy group PeopleForBikes, which also unveiled its inaugural City Rankings Program last week.

A total of 480 cities were ranked to determine which communities are leading the way for bicycling. The process took two years to create, Joe Lindsey reports for Bicycling, and the top performers aren’t necessarily the communities you’d expect.

Coming in first was Fort Collins, Colorado, followed by Wausau, Wisconsin. Boulder, Colorado, rounded out the top three.

“[The system] rewards cities not just for what they did 20 years ago, but also what they’re doing right now,” writes Michael Andersen of PeopleForBikes on the organization’s blog. “As a result, these ratings will change. Cities will move both up and down.”

For instance, one of the variables considered, reach, measures the accessibility and ease of a city’s cycling network across all parts of the city, including often-overlooked low-income neighborhoods. Another variable, acceleration, measures the city’s continued improvement for bike infrastructure, taking into account cities that might have put together an aggressive bike plan only recently.

This more nuanced system for ranking was developed by Nathan Wilkes, an Austin street planner who wanted a way to track his own city’s improvements.

The methodology, which pulls from local and federal data, including the U.S. Census American Community Survey and fatality statistics, wants to recognize communities who aren't necessarily known for being cycling-friendly but are putting in the effort.

“It’s demoralizing for cities that want to become better to constantly hear about Portland and Boulder [Colorado], or New York City,” Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes, explains in an interview with Lindsey. “They say, ‘We don’t have the money,’ or ‘We’re not a college town,’ and the positive recognition for them putting in place a bold program is a key part of this.”

Another thing that’s unique about PeopleForBikes’ list is that it measures large cities alongside small ones without holding cities to different standards by “normalizing” scores to account for size. And it doesn’t penalize against New York for heavy foot traffic or Tucson for having city limits that extend into the suburbs, Andersen writes.

According to the organization's website, the new ranking system is intended to serve as a complement the League of American Bicyclists’ annual ranking system of Bicycle Friendly Communities. The idea is that by recognizing cities that have been overlooked through more traditional ranking measurements, these communities will be encouraged to continue to make improvements.

After all, studies have suggested that thoughtful bike infrastructure makes cycling safer. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, for instance, who examined route characteristics during 2008 and 2009, found that shared bike lanes, construction, downhill grades, and street cars or train tracks increased the risk of cycling injuries.

All the communities in City Rankings Program were evaluated on a five-star scale, and only those which had enough data to be ranked in at least three of the criteria were able to receive an overall score and be included in the list.

Notably, none of the cities included scored higher than 3.5 stars, Andersen points out, showing that there is plenty of room for improvement across the board. “[T]he truth is that there aren’t any U.S. cities that consistently meet those criteria,” Blumenthal explains. “And as much as it might hurt not to have any superstars, that’s honest.”

See PeopleForBike’s full list of bike-friendly cities here.

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