The Keys to Safer, Bike-Friendlier Communities

By Susan Glenn

When tens of thousands of experienced and not-so-experienced bicyclists hit the nation’s roads this May to celebrate National Bike Month, will they return home safely? The answer depends largely on local policy and planning decisions years in the making. Let’s take a look at what public and nonprofit leaders in large and small communities can learn from three of the bike-friendliest cities in the United States—Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City.

Bike-Friendly Basics

From general interest travel websites to Bicycling Magazine’s cyclist-centric list, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City routinely rank high among bike-friendly cities because they each offer the following features:

  • Bike-share programs* that encourage casual users, short trips, and transit use
  • Miles of protected bikeways that provide both real and perceived safety by separating cyclists from traffic
  • An interconnected network of streets and bikeways that put more destinations within safe cycling reach
  • Visible bicycle commuter presence, creating safety in numbers
  • Amenities such as bike racks and corrals for easier bike parking near transit stations, shopping areas, and offices

*Bike sharing is an innovative transportation program, ideal for short distance point-to-point trips providing users the ability to pick up a bicycle at any self-serve bike station and return it to any other bike station located within the system’s service area. (Source: Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center housed within UNC’s Highway Safety Research Center)

Bike-Friendly: By the Numbers


*Table data is from Bicycling Magazine, MinneapolisMN.gov, Chicagocompletestreets.org, NYCdot.gov, citibikeblog, and BIKESmart: The Official Guide to Cycling in NYC

To put these numbers in perspective, consider what your town would look like if you removed several thousand commuters from local car traffic (but not the local economy) every day. What if your transit ridership grew by several hundred because commuters were able to combine transit and a bike-share ride to reach previously inaccessible destinations? The numbers suggest that bike-friendly communities are a plus and foster both economic and environmental growth.

Keys to Bike-Friendly Communities

So why and how did these three very different cities reach the top of the bike-friendly lists? More importantly, how can your community become bike-friendly?

Bill Nesper, Vice President of programs for the League of American Bicyclists, has the answers. The starting point for many of the “best of” bicycling lists, his Bicycle Friendly America program conducts a comprehensive, five-point rating process and provides technical assistance to applicants seeking the League’s Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) status. (Read more about League’s selection process and criteria)

Why Become a BFC?

According to Nesper, public officials and local leaders increasingly see cycling as a tool for improving livability; economic, environmental, and personal health; and access and mobility in their neighborhoods.

“Bicycle Friendly Communities are always on the lists for best places to live, work, visit, study, and retire,” said Nesper. “Cities are competing to attract the most mobile generation of workers, baby boomers who still want to be active, and job creators. When communities make investments in cycling infrastructure, education, and events, those investments pay off.”

Quantifying the Bicycling Return on Investment

As proof of those pay-offs, Nesper cites studies that show the following statistics:

  • A more than 30 percent decrease in injuries to all street users and a 49 percent increase in retail sales in two New York City “bike-laned,” redesigned corridors
  • 83 percent of bike-share users surveyed in Washington, DC, are more likely to patronize a business accessible by bike sharing
  • $60 million in bike tourism-related economic activity in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which is a nine-to-one return on the state’s $6.7 million bike infrastructure investment

Planning and Public Outreach Make the Difference

While bicycle commuting grew by 62 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2013, Nesper notes the growth rate was 105 percent in bike-friendly communities.

He credits that success to so-called complete streets policies that create interconnected street networks, making streets safer and more accessible for all users—cyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and drivers of all ages and abilities. By contrast, “incomplete streets” center on drivers’ needs and often leave non-motorists stranded without a safe route from point A to point B.

That planned interconnectivity, says Nesper, makes bike sharing, for example, a real game-changer as a form of transit in New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis, and other cities. “In DC, I can ride the Metro, get on a bike-share bike, and ride that bike the last two miles to where I need to go.”

Apparently, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel agrees. Last month, he announced Chicago would be almost doubling its bike-share program by June to a total of 476 stations and 4,760 bikes across 86.7 square miles, giving it the most bike-share stations and largest bike-share service area in North America. With NYC planning to expand its bike-share program to 12,000 bikes, 700 stations, and more neighborhoods by 2017, Chicago’s claim to bike-share fame may not last long.

Best Public Outreach Practices

Indeed, strides are being made in cities across the country, but there is an important factor to remember when it comes to creating complete streets and solid bike infrastructure—public support. Winning that support requires the involvement of others:

  • An engaged cycling community that ensures bike infrastructure is done right from the bottom-up
  • Churches, schools, hospitals, employers, and neighborhoods that ensure their needs are reflected in the planning process
  • Community leaders who help ensure local values are reflected “from the top down,” as Nesper noted

Ideally, says Nesper, these critical constituents would be participants in your local bicycle and pedestrian advisory committees (BPACs).

Putting bike-friendliness into the context of more livable, accessible communities, Nesper sums it up this way: “Bikes are not the end. Bikes are a means to an end.”