When Jan and I bought our home and moved to Ogden in late 2015, one factor (of many) in our decision making process was the city’s bike friendly rating from the League of American Bicyclists. In our minds, bicycle friendly meant that the local community was committed to cycling and that there would be a prevailing attitude of mutual respect on the streets. It meant that laws would be enforced fairly across the board and that infrastructure is not only built but also maintained and not left to crumble. That seems reasonable, right?
But it hasn’t worked out as it was sold to us. I think I know why. It’s because those of us who feel this way are just a small percentage of the total population. It doesn’t really matter what we say or claim to believe in. The only thing that really matters is reality on the ground. If 10% of people in leadership roles want bike friendly and do the things necessary to put tick marks in the right boxes but fail to sell the broader population on what it all means, well, nothing is ever going to change.
That’s Ogden. In fact, that’s a lot of places. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. It is what it is. That said, we’re now considering another move and this time the Bike League rankings aren’t factoring into it at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that they simply don’t matter.
So what does matter? I think more than anything else it’s culture. Some places just have this culture of cooperation and compromise on the roads. Others are all about conflict. Speed and width of roads are the canary in the coal mine. Places with lots of super wide roads with fast speed limits are all about winning and losing. Driving is a competition. The enemy must be vanquished. There’s very little room for cyclists in this world.
One sure fire way to determine if a place is truly bicycle friendly is to look for pedestrians. People on foot do best in places where there are a lot of people out walking around. These places are typically the urban cores our largest densest cities (New York, Boston, Chicago, etc.) and college towns.
My experience bears this out. I’ve had great success cycling through urban cores in cities as big as Indianapolis, Omaha, Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City. I’ve also enjoyed college towns like West Lafayette, Boise and Lincoln. Self contained smaller cities and towns like Carmel Indiana, St. George Utah and Pueblo Colorado have also been delightful.
The places I’ve struggled most are where sprawl is most prevalent. Outlying Indianapolis and much of the Wasatch Front come to mind. Not surprisingly, these are tough places to be a pedestrian. Going forward, that’s going to be my bellwether. People on foot are good. Lost of pedestrians means that they feel safe walking around. That means it’s probably safe to be on a bike, too. It may not be 100% accurate, but it seems much more so than a wonky data set that just doesn’t mesh with reality as I’ve lived it.