The Most Bicycle Friendly Town

I went to lunch yesterday with two community leaders here in Jefferson.  One’s a cyclist.  The other isn’t.  The one who isn’t asked me a simple question.

What would we need to do to make Jefferson the most bicycle friendly town in Iowa?

Wow.  Good question.   He’s genuinely interested because he sees bicycle and pedestrian connectivity as a way to make the town more attractive to newcomers.  That means growth and prosperity and wellness and all the things that people everywhere want for their communities but often don’t know how to get.  I think business people and community leaders everywhere should ask this of themselves and each other.  The list of the world’s most livable cities is full of bicycle friendly places.

So how did I respond?  Like this.

Start with the children.   Make it easy for children to walk or bike to school and you begin to solve a whole host of pressing problems from childhood obesity to the environment to civic budgets for roads and bridges.  This requires changing the widely held belief that cycling is dangerous, especially for children.  It doesn’t have to be.  The Dutch have already proven this.

Nothing we can do? The Dutch would disagree.

Next, I said, education is tantamount.  It’s certainly more important that pouring concrete or painting the town green.   I told him that we need to embrace and adopt Safe Routes to School as a civic imperative.   Not someday.  Now.  Today.

It sometimes amazes me how little the average motorist or law enforcement officer knows about traffic laws concerning bicyclists.  I used the sharrow and the concept of “taking the lane”  to illustrate.  I’ve cycled through communities with sharrows painted willy-nilly all over the place and virtually nobody knows what they mean.  Many jurisdictions can’t even place them where they’re supposed to be in the lane in accordance with NACTO standards.

Despite what this guy or gal thinks, a sharrow does not mean “park here.” Photo: RJ Sharpe

So in my mind painting sharrows is worse than doing nothing at all.  Instead of obsessing over infrastructure like so many other bike/ped advocates, let’s start by creating a shared understanding of where cyclists belong and why we ride as we do.  By people, I mean city officials, the law enforcement community and motorists.  In other words, people who do not cycle.

This is what I teach.  As a League of American Bicyclists Certified Cycling Instructor (LCI 4661), I help adults learn how to ride a bicycle.  That often sounds funny at first, but most people who take my class don’t really know about things like “taking the lane.”  I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but these are things that might save their lives.

What I really do, though, is teach communities and engaged stakeholders how to become bicycle friendly and reap the benefits that come from making that choice.  Kids who ride to school are generally healthier than those who don’t.  Communities with lots of cyclists generally have cleaner air.  They’re safer, too.  No kidding.

The benefits of such an approach are myriad.  Education creates understanding.  Here’s an example.  Many motorists don’t understand that cyclists are more visible when they ride in the middle of the lane than at the right edge.  On most low speed streets, it’s safer for everyone if the cyclist “takes the lane.”  Once it’s explained, mindsets begin to change.  Until then, the perception is that we’re arrogant and entitled and should get out of the way.

Sunrise in Jefferson…no green paint, but the best place I’ve ever cycled.

Education also leads to more consistent enforcement of and compliance with traffic laws…things like speed limits.  Streets with low average speeds are a bicyclist’s best friend.  It also creates an environment where ALL road users (including cyclists) are respectful of other road users.

Education is a long process.  You can’t hold one meeting and expect it to stick.  You have to come back to it again and again.  You have to be willing to spend some money, though in the end education is a lot cheaper and leads to more far reaching outcomes than building infrastructure.   Changing deeply held beliefs takes time.  It will not happen overnight but if you stick with it you can make it happen and when you do your town will become bike friendly…with or without green paint.

Ultimately, choosing to become bike friendly is a matter of engaging people who don’t currently cycle.  In the best places…cities like Portland and Minneapolis, we’re still only 10% of the general population.  We need the other 90% who don’t cycle to understand and recognize the benefits of doing this.   When we can show them what it means to their quality of life and the long term health of their children, that’s when we will win.  That’s how you create the most bicycle friendly town anywhere.

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