Three Simple Lessons from America's Most Bike-Friendly Communities

Each year the same cities earn high marks for being bike-friendly. What are these communities doing? And what can others learn from them?

The ability to get around on two wheels is quickly becoming a litmus test for community appeal. More than that, bicycling infrastructure has become a factor in economic development – increased bikeability is contributing to real estate value and even job growth.

A handful of cities consistently make these “most bikeable” lists: Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Madison and others. How do they do it? And what can other communities learn from their success? Let’s take a look.

1. There are places to go on bike

People ride bikes for a variety of reasons: health, enjoyment, reduced emissions, cost savings, efficiency and, importantly, because there are places to go on bike. In bikeable cities, community members can bike to run errands, bike to desirable services and cycle to work.

The leading cities are full of the bike-worthy destinations: lakes, harbors, riverfronts, mountains, oceans, shopping districts. If your city doesn’t have major attractions like these, don’t worry – it’s really a matter of making connections in your community.

For example, consider bikeways that connect two parks, bikeways that connect residential areas to popular business districts, work centers and assets (a community pool or school, for example) or even bikeways that connect two different communities.

2. Bicyclists feel safe

The most bikeable cities do a great job of making bicyclists feel safe and they’re committed to improving the safety of bicyclists in their cities. Dedicated on-street bike facilities including bike lanes and bicycle streets (or “bike boulevards”) and networks of off-street bike trails provide a range of options for all types of bicyclists.

Well-designed bikeways clearly defining bicyclist, pedestrian and motorist space are critical, especially at intersections where conflicts are more likely. Engineers can identify design features that enhance the visibility of bicyclists, such as painted conflict zones and the tracking of bike facilities through an intersection.

When used alone, on-street bike lanes can be inadequate to meet all bicyclists’ needs. In such cases, more innovative treatments should be considered to capture more of the bicycling population. Planters and even an elevated curb can provide the protective buffer needed to get people on their bicycles and feeling safe from motorists.

How can you tell if bicyclists feel safe and comfortable? Step outside and look around. Do you see families, children and seniors bicycling? If you do, it’s often because there are bike facilities on which they feel safe. If not, consider the next item.

3. The city made a plan and pedaled toward it

A thriving, bikeable community doesn’t arrive without a destination in mind. A first step? Develop a bike plan. The bike plan is a significant step indicating that your community values bicycling as a legitimate form of transportation and that you intend to support it. To get started, tap the community to learn how they move throughout your city and where they’re going. This creates buzz and generates much needed buy-in during the early stages of your process. Use that community feedback and insight to begin determining the best routes to get to and from these destinations as well as resolve how bicyclists can be safely accommodated.

But continue to update your bike plan. The “most bikeable” cities do this. They understand that evolving from car-centric streets is a process. That it requires retrofitting old streets and incorporating bicycle facilities into new streets and developments. The City of Minneapolis, a client we’ve helped in the past, is currently updating their bicycle master plan with a protected bikeway plan. Protected bikeways are on-street routes with protection beyond paint such as curbs, planters and flexible posts. These routes offer a higher level of security and encourage use by a wider spectrum of the public.

Bringing it all together

When you commit to bicycling infrastructure, the community will take notice. At SEH we’re helping municipalities make their communities more livable by identifying solutions that can increase bikeability. Often, we’re finding opportunities to implement new bicycle facilities when beginning routine maintenance and reconstruction projects. In these instances, road diets or simple reallocation of the roadway can result in the addition of a new bikeway. We’re also helping clients obtain funding to get their bicycle project moving forward.

About the Author

Heather Kienitz

Heather Kienitz, PE, is a Senior Traffic Engineer with experience developing complete streets solutions that help connect people to their communities through planning and design of bike and pedestrian facilities. Contact Heather

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