Local news media is running a story this morning about the best and worst states for cyclists. It wouldn’t be newsworthy or of interest to me except that Iowa was ranked dead last. The study was put together by ADT Security Services. The best state? California, even with the worst city. Go figure.
Whenever I see a survey like this, I try to ask myself a few questions before being triggered. Who’s doing the survey? What’s the business purpose? I mean, ADT Security isn’t doing this as a public service. They expect some kind of return from it otherwise there’s no point. Maybe it’s just brand awareness. Maybe it’s something else…I don’t really know.
What I do know is cycling. I’ve covered a lot of ground on my bike. I’m closing in on 50,000 miles since 2013. I haven’t cycled in all fifty states, at least not yet, but I have cycled in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. That’s eighteen states. I’ve cycled in the heart of big cities like Denver, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Omaha, Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City. I’ve cycled in countless small towns and on rural highways, both paved and unpaved.
I’m not going to get into my own ranking system because I recognize that there are a lot of factors that go into where an individual cyclist feels comfortable and they vary from person to person. I will share with you what I like so that you better understand where I’m coming from.
Mostly, I like small towns. They are invariably delightful places to be a bicyclist, even those with absolutely zero bicycle infrastructure. Webster City isn’t far from here. I’ll have to go up there and ride. I can’t imagine it’s that bad.
Maybe surprisingly, I also like the urban cores of large cities. Speeds tend to be slower and motorists more aware when they are downtown. I never seem to have problems here. My worst places are those auto-centric suburbs and urban areas outside the core with wide, high speed arterial streets designed to move the motorized as quickly as possible.
When it comes to Iowa, my experience suggests that most motorists here are more inclined to move over and/or slow down when passing a cyclist than they are most other places. That’s huge to me. I’ve ridden all over Des Moines (10th worst) and never once have I had someone try to intimidate me. Even in the suburbs, aggressive motorist behavior tends to be muted here. I can’t say that about Denver, Indianapolis or many other cities that didn’t make ADT’s worst list. In some of those places, motorist hostility is the norm, rather than the exception.
I’m not just blindly defending Iowa. We could certainly do better and we should. Every community in this state should have Safe Routes to School and Complete Streets policies on the books and in practice. Both our elected officials and law enforcement professionals need better training so that they better understand the rights of cyclists and the duties of motorists to share the pavement. We have miles to go in this regard but so do most of these other places…even the highly ranked ones.
Take Salt Lake City, for example. It’s ranked 30th best by ADT while Jackson Wyoming is close to the bottom at 737th out of 790 cities. I’ve been all over SLC on a bike and it’s not bad but it’s not great, either. There are lots of bike lanes, and I know they have a Complete Streets policy but apparently nobody else knows it because motorists tend to be fairly aggressive there. There’s also a connectivity issue with plenty of really wide, high speed streets with no room for cyclists at all. This tends to be especially problematic in cities that claim to be bicycle friendly. Motorists often don’t understand connectivity since their network allows them to go everywhere. Ours doesn’t. We often have to use the roads to get where we need to go.
Meanwhile, I spent a few days cycling around Jackson in October, 2016 and it was memorable…absolutely one of the best places I’ve ever visited on my bike. I highly recommend going there to cycle. You won’t regret it. Try to avoid the high season at nearby Grand Teton National Park if you can but if you can’t, go anyway. It’s that good.
One last point… I also don’t understand how ADT can compare cities as large as New York (population 8,500,000) and Los Angeles (population 4,000,000) with towns as small as Webster City Iowa (population 7,750) or Jamestown North Dakota (population 15,440) and come up with anything meaningful. These places are too disparate and statistics tend to be a little weird the further out you get on the bell shaped curve. The fact that they don’t seem to understand this calls the whole study into question. The more I think about it, the more it feels like clickbait than fundamentally sound research. So from my perspective, maybe ADT Security should stick to burglar alarms.