Whether I’m running to the local co-op market to buy groceries, checking out a book from the library or meeting up with friends at the wine bar, chances are I’m going to ride my bike. That’s because I am fortunate to live in a centrally located neighborhood within a network of bike trails and bike-friendly streets.
But for the most part, cities in the United States are not built for bikes. They are built for cars. In Reno, Nevada—where I live—as soon as you exit the downtown and midtown neighborhoods, the streets get larger and busier. Strip malls were built one after the other for miles. But there is a grassroots movement to make Reno more bike friendly. At a recent meetup of cyclists in Reno, locals shared news about an infill bike park on a former golf course, a bicycle pick-up service for compost, and new arteries that were about to get a “road diet”—a colloquial way of saying construction crews would transform four vehicle lanes into two with bike paths.
Bike-centric conversations like this are happening all over the country, as communities prioritize cycling to improve the quality of life for their residents and as citizens demand a shift from car culture to bike and pedestrian culture. Reno, like a lot of auto-centric American cities, has a long way to go. The Places for Bikes’ City Ratings, published last May, scored Reno a low 1.6 out of 5 points. The grassroots energy at the meeting felt good, but how does a city like Reno convince more people to get out of their cars and onto bikes?
Places for Bikes, a department under the People for Bikes umbrella, used data to score cities across the United States based on five factors: the number of people riding bikes, how safe it is to ride bikes, the network of bike trails and bike-friendly streets, how far that network reaches and finally, how quickly the community is improving its biking infrastructure. In Fort Collins, Colorado—ranked number one on the city ratings’ list—bicycling has been a priority at city hall since the 1990s, when the city adopted a transportation and bicycle master plan. Meanwhile, in Wausau, Wisconsin—number two on the list—the shift to becoming a bike-friendly city has been more of a recent push over the last decade by city leaders, said Aaron Ruff, a public health educator who is on a committee of health, planning and transportation officials to make Wausau bike friendly.
“Wausau was an old paper mill community,” said Ruff. “A lot of industrial jobs faded away, and the community was like, ‘How do we create a place where people want to live and raise a family?’ The discussion became about quality of life.”
Biking has put Wausau on the map for young residents, like Ruff, who is 29. (The city’s second-place standing on the People for Bikes list has also given them a bit of publicity, said Ruff.) A city with 39,000 residents—more live in the greater metropolitan area—Wausau is built on a grid and it’s flat. More than 600 custom-made signs direct cyclists across a 105-mile network of routes spread across this metro region in north-central Wisconsin. The infrastructure—from bike lanes to pedestrian- and bike-only tunnels and overpasses—makes people feel safe on their bikes, said Ruff. Last year, the Wausau parks department opened a mountain bike park right in town, kitty-corner from the local middle school and high school. Even in the middle of Wisconsin’s bitter winters, residents ride fat bikes on groomed trails.
“One of the cool things about Wausau is there is so much momentum for all types of biking,” said Ruff. “To me, it’s one of those things—if you build it, they will come. If you start building and creating places for people to be active, they’re going to do it. Any time a city puts in a bike lane or a multiuse path, you’re creating an opportunity for people to be active.”
In Reno, the last person to speak at the bike meetup was Gary Sjoquist. An inductee to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, Sjoquist says he is the bike industry’s first full-time bike advocate. (His advocacy work is paid for by Quality Bicycle Products.) For 20 years, Sjoquist’s message has been consistent: Expand opportunities to ride bikes and the bike industry will grow. He travels across the country to spread the word about biking’s benefits to a variety of groups, from community leaders to state and federal representatives to high school students.
“The community has to step up and start to exert some influence,” said Sjoquist. “The taxpayers and the residents and the citizens have to say they want to live this way. And we’re seeing that around the country. It’s a slow evolution, but it is happening.”
After the meetup, I called Sjoquist to ask him more about what makes a city bike friendly. He outlined a few qualities that bike-friendly cities like Fort Collins, Wausau and Minneapolis—his hometown—have in common.
The Cities' Politicians Have Made Bicycling a Priority
Not every city has the same amount of resources needed to build bike lanes. But what bike-friendly cities have in common are their priorities. The more cycling advocates who attend public meetings and elect officials who run on a bike-friendly platform, the more likely it is that the city will start to devote resources to creating more safe places to ride bikes, said Sjoquist.
“It starts at the community level, when people are able to influence how the community will change,” said Sjoquist. “Residents, citizens are becoming much more vocal and much more proactive in helping make decisions about how the community is going to evolve.”
Electing community leaders who are running on a bike-friendly platform is key to making cycling a political priority, said Sjoquist. Once they get elected, they are in a position to take it one step further and actually implement and find funding to create lanes and bike parking. Fort Collins, Wausau and Minneapolis all have guiding documents outlining plans to expand and develop bicycle infrastructure, making it easier for people to ride their bikes and ride bikes farther.
Biking Is Everywhere
When he visits a new city, one of the first places Sjoquist looks for bikes is at the airport. “What is the bicycle access from the airport into a city?” he asks. It’s important not only for people who are traveling to and from the airport, but also for people who work there. “There are tons of jobs at airports,” said Solquist. “If people could ride their bikes to the airport, it would relieve a lot of parking and traffic congestion.”
But the litmus test is downtown. “If I’m going to meetings or running around in a downtown area, do I see a lot of cyclists?” said Sjoquist. “Another thing I look at is bike parking. If you are in an urban area, are there areas on the street level, in front of businesses, devoted to bicycle parking? For me, that is a telltale sign.”
Bike Paths Make a Big Difference
In Minneapolis, where Sjoquist lives and rides his bike regularly, city planners took advantage of the railway lines to build bike trails into the city from the suburbs. “We literally had America’s first bicycle freeway—the Cedar Lake Trail—which is two, divided, eight-foot-wide bike paths,” said Sjoquist. “They are directional. If you’re going out of town, you’re on one trail, if you’re going in town, you’re on the other. And then there was a third trail for pedestrians and hikers.”
Signage Is Also Everywhere
One of the big projects in Wausau that helped build momentum for bicycling was signage, said Ruff. Wausau had invested in new infrastructure, but without signs telling people where to go, the bike network felt disjointed. “We had a lot of good infrastructure, like a beautiful new bike-ped bridge that went over the Wisconsin River, but [the bike paths] weren’t connected,” said Ruff.
Now, more than 600 color-coded and numbered signs dot the entire Wausau metropolitan area, giving cyclists intuitive information that helps them know where to go. “It’s basically like a subway system,” said Ruff. “Every route has a unique number and a unique color.”
A Commitment to Making Cycling the Go-To Choice
“In so many places around the country, you can see where you’d like to get [to], but you can’t get there by bicycle safely,” said Sjoquist. Bike-friendly cities have solved this gap. They built safe routes for people to ride bikes, which has fostered a culture that will hopefully change people’s daily habits.
“As proud as we are as bike advocates of where we are, we’ve only really scratched the surface and we have so far to go,” said Sjoquist. “But I think the future is bright.”
Editor’s note: People for Bikes has been a nonprofit partner of REI since 2003. An REI contribution totaling more than $1 million has helped support People for Bikes’ efforts over the years.