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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  8/1/2003

Our Bike Friendly Communities

Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Clarke, director of State and Local Advocacy for the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). Andy had come from our nationallobbyville -- Washington, DC -- to a strangely hot and humid California to present the City of Palo Alto with one of the League's new Bicycle Friendly Community awards.

It was the 14th of July, Bastille Day in France. Where, on that same day our national cycling hero, Lance Armstrong, was adding a little extracurricular cyclo-cross racing to Stage 9 of the Tour de France.

As befits a hero, Lance does more than simply pose for the cameras. Just as he advocates for his fellow cancer survivors with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, he also supports the rest of us as spokesperson for LAB, pushing for bicyclists' rights.

Yet both Lance and fellow-hero Tyler Hamilton live and train across the puddle, in Spain. How come?

There are lots of personal reasons, of course. But one of them is that most areas in the USofA are not good places to train for world-class competition. The roads are less than wonderful. The drivers would rather do anything reckless to pass a racer than to stop and admire his efforts or simply share the road. Heck, parents are even afraid to let their kids ride to school, let alone head out on the highway for long miles.

Changing this sad state of affairs is in large part up to Andy Clarke and his LAB co-lobbyists. That's why he was out here, posing in front the brand new sign welcoming one and all to Palo Alto, a "bicycle-friendly community."

What's a Bicycle Friendly Community?
The short answer is: A "municipality" (as the program's Web site puts it) that actively supports bicycling."

Such a city, town, county or district actually encourages residents to bike for transportation and recreation. It's is a place where people feel safe and comfortable riding their bikes for fun, fitness, and everyday transportation.

According to LAB, the more people their bike in such communities, the more those places experience reduced traffic demands, improved air quality and greater physical fitness. All of which can lead to high property values, increased tourism and/or economic growth.

The Bicycle Friendly Community Campaign was born as LAB's "Bicycle Friendly Cities" program in the late 90s. Back then, all a town had to do to gain such recognition was:

  1. Celebrate National Bike Month in May. (Note that this did not necessarily include National Bike to Work Week or Day.)
  2. Spend a minimum of $1.00 per person in the community on such cycling amenities as lane striping, bike paths, promotional efforts, etc.
  3. Actually have specific cycling "facilities" (like bike lanes) within its borders.
  4. Apply for the honor.

After a few years, it became apparent that not all the applicant cities were in reality bicycle friendly. So the League revamped the program this year, creating a much more rigorous process with five stringent areas of criteria, which I call the Five E's:

  • Engineering
  • Education
  • Enforcement
  • Encouragement
  • Evaluation

What's behind all those E's? A heck of a lot of data, paperwork, bureaucracy and -- hopefully -- successful implementation of long lists of specific bike-friendly facilities and circumstances.

The League offers a wealth of resources and references to help aspiring friendlies figure out what requirements they need to meet.

Under Engineering, for instance, there are references to "routine" accommodations, such as "integrating bicycling when making road improvements"; "accommodating non-motorized travel"; and the like. Some concrete examples: access to bridges, tunnels and overpasses; bicycle parking facilities; bike racks on public transit; designated bike routes, striped bike lanes; separate (but useful) bike paths, etc., etc.

Education covers not just school programs but also educating adult motorists and driving school trainers. And of course, there's the LAB Cycling Instructor program, which in Palo Alto gave birth to a popular Street Smarts course.

Encouragement sounds a bit less precise to me than matters of engineering and education. Yet the League specifically refers to local support for Bike Month and Bike to Work Day, as well as year-round bike commuting, Safe Routes to School, and local bike advocacy groups.

Evaluation is another topic that seems a bit hard to pin down. Yet the League has come up with a long list of measurements, including usage rates, feedback mechanisms, bicycle master plans and improvement plans from many communities across the country.

And then there's Enforcement-- enlisting the cooperation of police (and those who train them) in upholding laws that guarantee cyclists the same rights and responsibilities as motorists.

And the winners are. . .

There are four classifications of Bicycle Friendly Community awards:
  1. Platinum -- the highest level of friendliness, achieved only by those with a perfect score. Note that there was no Platinum award in 2003.
  2. Gold -- Palo Alto, CA and Corvallis, OR
  3. Silver -- Denver, CO; Fort Collins, CO; Missoula, MT; Santa Barbara, CA; Stanford University; and Tempe, AZ (Notice how many of these towns are college communities.)
  4. Bronze -- Cary, NC; The San Francisco Presidio; Redmond, WA; Schaumburg, IL; Shawnee, KS; Beaverton, OR (A few high-tech communities to join the college crowd here.)

Why, you may ask, didn't Davis get an award? The simple answer is: They didn't apply! Yet that didn't keep LAB from touting Davis as the ideal prototype for a BFC.

The Palo Alto experience

On July 14 British-born-and-bred Andy Clarke told us that he'd been in the country only a few months when he first visited Palo Alto. "I was so impressed," he recalled of that 1980s stopover as a new League employee. "I thought all U.S. cities were like that. But I soon learned different."

Several other advocacy jobs later, Andy rejoined the League this year and took over the BFC campaign, which in its inaugural year enticed 37 communities to apply. It was interesting to note, he said, that of the 14 winners, only one lies well east of the Mississippi.

A learning process

Why did these communities apply for BFC status in the first place? And why should others do so in the future?

To broadly paraphrase Amanda Jones, Transportation Coordinator for the City of Palo Alto, it's the process, stupid.

"The process of going through the application was very helpful," she reflected. "We could really see what was working and what needed attention.

"One thing we realized was that when a project leaves Transportation and goes to Public Works, we don't always know if it's carried out correctly. Are folks working out on the streets aware of our concerns? What about contractors? A lot of people care about the result but their concerns don't get out there.

"The thoughtfulness that goes into our planning has to trickle down. We learned we need to communicate what's important in terms they can understand."

Perhaps the most important thing Amanda felt she learned was that there isn't "one big fix" for making a community bicycle friendly. "There are a lot of different little fixes." And they have to be introduced one by one by one by. . ..

Suppose your home town is even more bike friendly than Palo Alto, or Stanford, or Davis (yeah, I know; it's hard to imagine). How come you don't have one of those nice BFC signs at your city limits?

Well, here's the hitch. Your town has to apply. And it's a bit of a hassle to do so. Maybe that's why Davis (as well as Madison, WI, another two-wheel haven) didn't bother this time around. After all, they've already received plenty of kudos already.

Just imagine if other big cities like Denver and Portland set their sights on for BFC status. And if more of the "eastern enclaves" took it on as well. Personally, I think it's great that the League is getting out to grass roots. I've always questioned just how valuable lobbying inside the Beltway is to those of us out on the road.

After all, Lance is from Austin, TX. Tyler hails from Marblehead, MA. Let's get those communities into bicycle-friendly mode. So maybe someday our cycling heroes can live and train safely right here in the USA.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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