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To build better urban cycling in the U.S., a new report offers data for change

The City Rankings report wants to raise the bar and push cities to do better by bikers

A cyclist waits to cross 5th Avenue on November 28, 2016 in New York City. 
Getty Images

A new report on biking infrastructure in the United States suggests that, while progress has been made, it’s time to raise the bar. City Ratings, a new analysis released earlier today by the advocacy group PeopleForBikes, which is funded by Trek, a cycling manufacturer, offers a comprehensive, data-driven report card, as well as a sign that cycling in the U.S. may have reached a new phase.

“Cities have grown into an adolescence in terms of biking know-how,” says Kyle Wagenschutz, PeopleForBikes’s Director of Local Innovation. “They know what to build, and what safe bike lanes looks like, but they haven’t been doing a great job of quantifying what it means. This report is an attempt at suggesting new benchmarks to help them realize more effective programs.”

The new City Ratings system grades cities on five different categories—ridership, safety, network, acceleration, and reach—with perennial role models such as Portland and Madison, Wisconsin, ranking in the Top 10.

PeopleForBikes

The scoring and ranking, a combination of survey data, self-reported information from cities, and census information, took two years to develop and factors in 184 calculations across five categories. The idea, according to Wagenschutz, is to go beyond measures like miles of bike lanes installed, a stat that doesn’t really speak to the riding experience, and look at more relevant characteristics, such as equality of access across different neighborhoods (reach) or the interconnectedness and utility of city biking infrastructure as a whole (network).

These new tools, which will be updated annually, will ideally help cities strive for improvement and look towards the future, especially the acceleration measurement, which takes into account what cities plans to add to their biking infrastructure network. The metrics were deliberately calibrated to an international, rather than a U.S., standard. Higher standards are intended to push cities to look both inward and outward for ways to improve.

“Establishing high benchmarks demonstrates that U.S. cities are doing great work, but we’re falling really short of our peers in other countries,” says Wagenschutz.

For instance, the top U.S. cities on this list, such as Fort Collins, Colorado, and Wausau, Wisconsin, both have overall scores of 3.5, showing plenty of room to grow. Compare that to cycling capitals such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam, which score in the mid-4s on all categories. For Wagenschutz, that shows that even the greatest cities have room to grow, and that U.S. cities should strive for those kind of scores.

“Even [cycling capitals] can’t get a perfect score in this particular system,” he says. “That’s an important message. Let’s look to these examples for ways to be excellent for bicycling. We need to drive forward.”

PeopleForBikes

The report comes at a time when rapid changes have had major impact on cycling and urban mobility. According to Wagenschutz, last year saw record-high federal spending on bicycling infrastructure, and the last few decades have seen spending by cities grow exponentially.

Wagenschutz sees a lot of new trends helping to improve city cycling beyond building more infrastructure. Electric bikes, bikeshare, and dockless bikes, for all the serious issues around blocking sidewalks, have created thousands of new monthly riders in the cities where they’re deployed, adding a convenient way to ride and unlock demand.

A new study by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) quantified the bikeshare boom. In 2017, 35 million trips were taken across the country, a 25 percent jump in rides year-over-year. This rapid growth has helped many cities create better biking networks. Roughly a third of city systems have offered income-based discounts to improve access and equality. Dockless bikes have, according to NACTO data, flooded the streets, accounting for 44 percent of the total bike share bikes on the ground, despite only being recently introduced in many cities, and 4 percent of the total rides.

“In just a few years, bike share has proven successful in an ever-widening collection of cities,” Linda Bailey, NACTO Executive Director, said in a statement. “Cities continue to build streets that provide safe places to ride, and people are responding by biking by the millions—to get to work, school, and for personal business.”

But despite the growth of these new systems and options, cities should never dismiss the basics, like building out more bike lanes. Wagenschutz says some of the more effective and immediate changes can come from something as straightforward as reducing speed limits and introducing traffic calming methods. Cities also need to focus on the network as a whole and think in terms of a complete unit rather than a one-off project.

“In the span of the last 30 years, some places have achieved quite a bit, and spent decades working on this problem,” Wagenschutz says. “But they have a long way to go. We have a much better handle on delivering projects and what good biking infrastructure looks like. We have an opportunity to do more and do it better.”