Some of you already know this, but I get around. I’ve ridden my bicycle through the heart of cities as large and diverse as Denver, Pittsburgh and Seattle. I’ve crossed rivers with names like Columbia, Mississippi, Missouri and Monongahela. I’ve climbed out of canyons and cycled through countless small towns and across miles and miles of countryside. Most places are navigable, at least to some degree. Few are exceptional. None are Missoula.
I came to this storied seat of education on the far side of Montana expecting to leave just a little disappointed. Missoula sounded too good to be true. It has serious cred as an outdoor town…kind of like so many other places that were less than perfect when it came to actually turning my crank. I’ve heard it all before and so this time I listened to my jaded heart and tempered my expectations. But Missoula didn’t play along and that’s a good thing. Missoula blew me away.
This is without a doubt the best place I’ve ever ridden a bicycle. There is no honorable mention I can think of. This city is that far ahead of the other places I’ve cycled. It’s the gold standard, the place against which I will now measure all other places. It is the one and only city in Pedalfree’s Cycling Hall of Fame.
So what did I like? Connectivity, for one thing. I felt like I could go anywhere here by bike. Crossing the Clark Fork was no big deal. There’s a foot bridge that sneaks up behind the Albertson’s grocery store. It’s full of padlocks and inspired by the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. There’s also this incredibly pragmatic bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street. I call it America’s Hovenring. There are trails here and there and everywhere.
Missoula is an active place and so it seemed as though all of those trails were clogged with walkers and joggers. Instead of weaving through the crowds, I hit the streets. I cruised the protected bike lanes along Higgins Street downtown and passed a law enforcement officer. We exchanged greetings, which was easy to do since he was also on a bicycle. Everywhere I went, motorists were kind and courteous. They still respect crosswalks in Missoula.
It might seem like a small thing, but I passed countless bikes in front of businesses here. Few, if any, were locked. Apparently there’s no need. Helmets are optional, just like in Holland. Speeds are low for both bikes and cars. The folks I saw were not training for next weekend’s gran fondo. They were just going about their daily lives on bicycles.
It seems as though the total community is engaged. There’s a local organization called Missoula In Motion that works with employers to encourage people to commute sustainably. They hold a commuter challenge and have a leaderboard on their website where companies compete with each other. It reminds me of my time in Denver when RTD, the local transit organization, worked with employers to get people out of their cars and clean up what was then the country’s worst air pollution.
Of all the places I’ve been, I think Missoula would be the easiest to live without a car. The town itself is relatively compact. There’s free bus service everywhere, even to the airport. Roads are being redesigned in a way that incorporates Vision Zero principles. One major exit off of Interstate 90 is a roundabout with no stoplights. Another is under construction at present.
Not everything is rosy here. As I understand it, air pollution is a serious problem in the winter. The lay of the land suggests that this is the case, as Missoula sits in a relatively tight little valley the likes of which typically produces temperature inversions. Growth is also creating sprawl outside of the city limits. People want to be here and it’s bustling. I saw this same thing destroy Boulder, and so I keep my fingers crossed and hope that Missoula can work through it.
We weren’t even going to stop here. It was just a fluke that we did…a matter of making time work in terms of other stops further on down the road. I’m glad we did. It was serendipity. I can honestly say that Missoula is in a class by itself when it comes to bicycle friendly…at least from my perspective. I can’t wait to come back.