Over the last four years, I’ve had the opportunity to bicycle in a lot of different places. I’ve ridden through the downtowns of significant cities like Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Omaha and Salt Lake City. I’ve cycled countless miles through suburbs and out into the countryside along rural roads. I’ve ridden in 15 different states from Arizona to South Carolina. I’ve covered about 26,000 miles, which is a little longer than one lap around the world at the equator. I get around.
Much of my cycling is simply for the fun of it, but I am a vehicular cyclist first and foremost. Jan and I sold our second car and so my bicycle is my primary form of transportation most days. Even when I’m going long, I try to take care of “life’s business” along the way.
Early on in my search for bike friendly, I sought out those areas that the Bike League said were “the best of the best.” As I did, it slowly occurred to me that their dataset is seriously flawed. Maybe it’s even political…designed to advance a certain agenda. I don’t put much stock in these rankings any longer. They don’t mesh with what I see on the road. Is Utah (#5) more bicycle friendly than Indiana (#39)? I couldn’t tell you. If pressed, I’d say no, it isn’t.
I have my own bicycle friendly filter I use now when evaluating a place. Here’s what I look for:
Motorist Behavior – is the typical driver aggressive and stressed out? Some of you may find this hard to believe, but there are places where they aren’t. Small self contained towns in any part of the country are far better than the highest ranked places. Large urban cores are surprisingly good, too. The most stressed motorists I’ve had to share the road with are found in the suburban Southwest and Rocky Mountain West (Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Utah). The most mellow? Small towns in the Upper Midwest (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin).
Concern for Pedestrians – Most places have crosswalk laws. Many never enforce them. The canary in the coal mine here is hit and run crashes. If they’re common and if there’s a tendency to victim blame/shame the pedestrian (she wore dark clothes!), then the place is probably hostile to cyclists as well. I also look for sidewalks. I would never cycle on a sidewalk, but if they exist it means the place is at least concerned enough for pedestrian safety to not compel them to walk in the traffic lane.
Parking lot ingress/egress – This might sound funny to some readers, but I look at big box parking lots. The ones that funnel motorists to one entrance instead of offering multiple ways in and out create motorist stress. While it’s nice as a cyclist to have fewer driveways to cross, I’m convinced this sort of design leads to more aggressive driving, all things being equal.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says the best doctors are virtually unknown because their patients never get sick. It’s like that with bicycle friendly places as well. The best places for cyclists don’t require fancy infrastructure, motorist education or law enforcement because people in these places already know how to behave and do so as a matter of course.
These places exist. They’re not on anybody’s top ten list, but I’ve seen them and so I know they’re real. Now I’m moving to one and will be there in less than a month. You can do that, too, if you want to. In the end, it might be quicker and easier than waiting for the culture of your current place to change.