By Charles Pekow
At first glance, it seems that Utah has drastically become a more bicycle friendly state of the last year. The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) released its 2012 Bicycle Friendly State rankings, its annual list of how states are doing and compare to one another, judging them on five criteria: legislation and enforcement, polices and programs, infrastructure and funding, education and encouragement, and evaluation and planning.
This year, Utah finished in 13th place, a large improvement over last year's 31st place finish among the 50 states. Idaho, on the other foot, dropped from 30th place to a disgraceful 36th spot. [Rain soaked Oregon finished first this year while snow covered Minnesota placed 2nd. LAB does not include territories such as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, which has added considerable miles of bike lanes and sponsored a burgeoning bike sharing program in recent years.]
But Utah's acceleration from closer to the bottom to closer to the top reflects in part a change in the criteria LAB uses to rank states, rather than entirely an improvement in state bicycling conditions (or a decline in other states' activity).
LAB switched from giving letter grades in each category to giving states number scores (5 high, one low) this year. So while you can't compare last year's rankings exactly, it does seem that Utah made some progress over the last year. In 2011, LAB flunked Utah in policies and procedures as well as legislation and enforcement and gave it a D for evaluation and planning.
This year, the state still got the lowest possible score (1) for evaluation and planning but progressed somewhat in the other fields. It didn't get a high 5 in any category, however.
LAB is pushing statewide complete streets policies – and Utah's lack of one severely lowers its ranking. LAB noted that Utah needs “training and implementation guidance for engineers and planners.”
LAB also criticized Utah for not maximizing potential use of all sources of federal dollars for bicycling, such as Transportation Enhancements and the Highway Safety Improvement Program. But LAB found that states scored pretty low across the board in infrastructure and funding.
Utah lost points because fewer than one percent of commuters bicycle. LAB wants the state to “(d)etermine barriers that people face when bicycling and implement a comprehensive strategy to reduce barriers and increase ridership.”
It also says the state needs a bicycle advisory committee and it hasn't developed a statewide bicycle plan in the last decade. Such a committee “is something we can and should look into, either through the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) or some along some other lines,” acknowledges Scott Lyttle, executive director of Bike Utah.
On the bright side, the state made considerable progress in the education and encouragement category, notes Matt Wempe, LAB state and local advocacy coordinator. “They addressed a lot of the issues in that section,” he says. LAB was impressed with the Share the Road campaign. And the state included bicycle awareness on its commercial drivers license tests and drivers manuals. LAB also liked the state's use of events to encourage riding, such as sponsoring Bike Month and Bike to Work Day. “They're doing everything we could really ask of them on that side,” Wempe says.
Meanwhile, up in Idaho, the criteria may have changed but the state's ranking remained, to say the least, disappointing, but in a way a paradox considering all the cycling activity going on in the state. The trouble in LAB'S eyes, is that the state isn't doing as much as it could to promote it.
On the bright side, LAB praised Idahoans for “one of the highest bicycle mode shares in the country,” noting that unlike Utah, more than one percent of commuters bike. One percent means success in LAB's view. LAB also likes Idaho's Share the Road campaign and its inclusion of bicycles in its highway safety strategy.
But like Utah, Idaho lacks a state bicycle plan, advisory committee and Complete Streets legislation. And the state spends less than 1.28 percent of its federal transportation money on bicycling and walking, “the lowest in the country,” according to LAB. So Idaho got a 1 for infrastructure and funding. LAB also faulted the state government for not hosting any bicycle events, such as Bike to Work Day, commuter challenges, Bike to School Day or Winter Bike to Work Day, let alone Bike Month.
LAB also wishes Idaho would pass a safe passing law.
The Idaho Transportation Department (IDT) seems to think so little of bicycling – or at least of LAB – that it didn't completely fill out the ranking form, LAB notes. So it may have slighted itself by not reporting everything it does.
The rankings may not accurately reflect a state's bicycle conditions because they focus mainly on state as opposed to community policy, however. “There are definitely pockets of Idaho where bicycling is very prominent” such as Boise, notes Heather Wheeler, executive direct or of the Community Transportation Association of Idaho. “There is definitely some movement to improve (conditions) throughout the state.” Communities across the state sponsor many of their own events, even if the state doesn't help.
Wheeler chairs a recently-formed statewide bicycle committee. It is working with IDT to develop a statewide plan over the next two years. “This is in the works but it is taking time because of limited resources,” she explains. IDT had to spread out funding over two years for plan development. “I imagine that when LAB takes another survey, it will find Idaho has improved.”
And while the state's not working on Complete Streets, Wheeler said many communities across the state are. “I don’t envision the state coming up with legislation for Complete Streets,” she says.
And while it would be great if the state spent more money on bike/ped projects, it has to spend most of its surface transportation dollars to keep up its crumbling highway infrastructure, so other priorities just get the minimum required. “Our highways and bridges are failing,” Wheeler says. “I can see why they felt they had to put their dollars where the biggest needs are.”
Wheeler predicts “I imagine next year, we'll see our ranking go up. We're moving in the right direction in a lot of those areas. We are making progress. It is baby steps but we've got to start somewhere.”
And Wempe says that LAB will probably have to readjust its ranking criteria again next year if federal surface transportation law changes. Pending legislation would give states more control on how they spend highway funds and state policies and rankings will have to change along with the law.
A big hole in the rankings is that they fail to adequately consider how states and communities use all their funds or plan for cycling, focusing largely on specific federal sources.
“States don't report how they spend their own money to any federal agency,” Wempe notes. “We want to look at state and local funding that can be identified.” And while Utah lacks a statewide bicycle committee, Salt Lake County, for instance, has one.
State bicycle coordinators for UDOT and IDT did not respond to Cycling Utah's requests for comment.
You can find the state rankings at http://www.bikeleague.org/programs/bicyclefriendlyamerica/bicyclefriendlystate/.
Bike Friendly Communities
But the communities in Utah and Idaho aren't showing LAB much interest. LAB also just announced its semiannual list of Bicycle Friendly Communities. “This is the busiest application period we've ever had,” Wempe says. But no new municipality or county in either Utah or Idaho applied this time.
“There's not much being done in Utah to inform communities that this program is out there,” states Nicole Wynands, Bicycle Friendly America program specialist at LAB. But more towns could possibly do it. “A few smaller communities there have pretty good bicycling (programs) and there are a lot of low-cost or free things they can do,” such as foster public-private partnerships and develop bicycling polices and provide bike parking. “Local bike shops and advocacy groups can do a lot of this; it's not just the city. It's a community effort.”
And while no new communities applied in Utah, the good news is that Park City reapplied as its four-year credential was expiring. And the city got bumped up from the fourth-level bronze to third-level silver.
LAB cited Park City's amazing 7.7 percent bicycle mode share, “one of the highest in the country,” Wynands says (something admittedly easier for a small town than a big city). “What we really liked were the ski lifts” that allow cyclists to carry their bikes uphill if they only want to ride down the mountain,” she adds. The city is filled with many underpasses and overpasses and bike lanes or paved shoulders on arterial streets so cyclists don't get stuck in traffic. The city provides bike parking at community events and hosts some bicycling events. It enjoys a low crash rate. “That's really great because it has so many cyclists,” Wynands says.
Additionally, all elementary and secondary schools use Safe Routes to School programs. And the city provides adult cycling education – from LAB-certified instructors, of course. And city police get trained in bicycling.
With all that and more the city is doing, why hasn't it reached LAB's two highest levels (gold and platinum)?
The city could increase adult education and family friendly bike events (most focus on mountain biking, racing and other programs for experience cyclists), Wynands says.
So will we see more applications from Utah? “We could look at promoting it and encouraging communities to apply,” Lyttle says. “That could be part of an initiative we could take on, helping them go through the application process.”