Bike Towns: Cycling as a Community Building Tool

I’d never heard of Devon Alberta (Canada) until yesterday.  Now I know that this exurb of Edmonton is known as Alberta’s bike town.  This didn’t just happen.  Leaders hired a consultant to help them rebrand in an effort to attract new residents, businesses and visitors.  Here’s what he came up with.


Devon’s official website lists the reasons they’ve embraced cycling.  Think of these as the town’s core values.  They are:

  • Building a Strong Community
  • Improving the Health of Residents
  • Improving the Environment

I think most people intuitively understand the second and third reasons, so it’s the first I want to focus on today.  Cycling does indeed help build strong communities.  I’m absolutely convinced of this.  I’ve seen it in places both large and small from Chicago and Pittsburgh to Steamboat Springs  and Decorah, Iowa.

Cyclists bring vibrancy to the Strand District, Pittsburgh.

Cyclists bring vibrancy and street life to the Strip District, Pittsburgh.

Protected bike lanes are economic development tools in Ogden.  The Business Exchange will soon be home to outdoor companies including bicycle manufacturers.

Protected bike lanes are economic development tools in Ogden. The Business Exchange will soon be home to outdoor companies including bicycle manufacturers.

The “father” of cycling as a community building tool is Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá Colombia.  Around the most recent turn of the century, Peñalosa scrapped a controversial series of proposed elevated freeways that would tower above downtown Bogotá, a city of eight million people, in favor of a transit system fed by ciclorutas (bicycle routes).   He later mentioned that one of the benefits of this approach was a dramatic reduction in crime. Bogotá went from being one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America to one of the safest, in part because people started riding bicycles instead of driving cars.

Devon officials explain why this is so in their little corner of the world.  When you take people out from behind the “armor” of a car and put them on a bicycle, they interact with each other.  They smile.  They wave.  They say hello as they pass on the street.  They are no longer enemies vying for the same space.  Such is the power of a bicycle.

Mackinac Island, Michigan - Cyclists and Pedestrians rule here.  There are no cars.

Mackinac Island, Michigan – People come here from all over the Midwest to walk the streets of a village without cars.  Photo by Bardya  [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Devon officials also list myriad other reasons why they’ve embraced their inner cyclist.   Cycling makes Devon more liveable by reducing noise and creating a safer environment for all road users.  It provides mobility for those without automobiles.  It results in less carnage on the roads.  It allows the community to retain the very things that make it special, even as it grows.

And make no mistake about it.  Growth is the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room.   Cities have been trying since the beginning of time to control it without much success.  This is where bicycles especially shine.  Bicycles rightsize transportation.  The scale is ideal for a world where we’re all going to live a little closer to one another and a little closer to home. It’s just a matter of time before everyplace figures this out. Those that already have are in the breakaway group and may never be caught.


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