The League of American Cyclists is responsible for putting out report cards that assign Bicycle Friendly rankings to communities, businesses, universities, and states. To receive a report card, all you have to do is fill out a 42-page application and await their review. Reviews are good for 4 years. There are a number of interesting factors that they consider, including everything from ‘Education’ to ‘High Speed Roads with Bike Facilities’ to ‘Fatal Accidents per 10k Cyclists’. Overall, it gives a rating ranging from Honorable Mention to Platinum. For quick reference, Minneapolis has a Gold rating, and Saint Paul a Silver.
I recently spent some time perusing the database and doing some basic comparisons. I went through and compared different cities I was familiar with, and I came away with a conclusion: there is only one statistic that is truly indicative of the bicycle friendliness of a given place. That statistic is ridership. At the end of the day, are local residents actually biking, or are they not? That’s not to say that other factors aren’t important as well, but all other factors on the report card help to create a bicycle culture that ultimately leads to a person’s decision whether or not to bike.
A revised model
To calculate travel-friendliness, it’s important to measure ridership. However, we should also view ridership as a snapshot in time. For example, at peak commute time on October 15, what mode of transportation is each person on the road using? Walk/roll, scooter, bus, bike, car? The simple percentage is your answer.
This theoretical city (that is better than any existing city, as far as I know) would rate 10% walk-friendly, 25% transit-friendly, 30% bike-friendly, and 30% car-friendly. Keep in mind, however, that this is a snapshot in time and not an average over time. Therefore, there is going to be seasonal variation in these numbers. Deciding how to commute is a complex set of decisions that many people make on a daily basis. Other people have deeply entrenched commuting habits, but even these people will be incentivized to change their habits over time based on a number of external and internal factors.
The average number of cyclists killed per year isn’t a measure of how bike-friendly a community is, it’s how bike-lethal it is. How much the K-12 students are being lectured about bicycle safety isn’t a measure of how bike-friendly a community is, it’s how bike-safety-education-focused it is. Additionally, the number of bike paths there are adjacent to high-speed roadways is not a direct measure of how bike-friendly a community is, but it would reflect how highly city planners prioritize providing equal access to longer-distance travel. That’s still not bike-friendliness, it’s how much money has your community spent on this kind of bike infrastructure? All these questions are factors that ultimately result in one thing: whether or not an individual person decides to hop onto their bike instead of into their car.
At the end of the day, the most bike-friendly community is the one with the greatest number of residents who routinely decide to bike as their means of transportation.