Tagbike friendly

Finding a new way to measure cities’ bike friendliness in the United States, part 2

One of the reasons I developed my own bike friendly city ranking system was to provide a better measurement when comparing cities. Since the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) uses a nominal ranking (Platinum, Silver, Gold, Bronze), the difference in bike friendliness between cities of the same rank may be small or great. A numerical scoring system on a predictable and familiar scale will better highlight the distance of one city to another on achieve that city’s level of bike friendliness.

I created a method that would compare my ranking to LAB’s ranking and that was to find the variance (which isn’t the same as range) in scores in my ranking for each nominal level in LAB’s ranking. Platinum cities had a very high variance and Bronze cities had the lowest variance. Gold and Silver had swapped positions: Gold cities had a lower variance than Silver cities.

The beauty with creating your own bike friendly measurement system is that you can make the outcome order whatever you want.

In the days since, I’ve developed another bike friendliness measurement system, one that’s easier to understand, whose rankings are still relative to other cities, and that can be weighted. (I’m emphasizing the bike commute mode share.) It uses percentile scoring so all scores are positive but still based on the distribution of values. I’ve listed the scores for Method 1 (which uses a normalizing function based on mean and standard deviation) and Method 2 below.

[table id=5 /]

Finding a new way to measure cities’ bike friendliness in the United States

A really smart person could come up with a way to measure day-to-day bike friendliness based on how well cities adhere to standards that keep roads clear of obstructions that further frustrate the commute, like construction projects that squeeze bikes and cars together. 

I work at home. There are some days when I only leave my house to get milk from the Mexican grocery store at the end of my block (which makes awesome burritos). That means I ride my bike half as much as people who commute to work. on their bikes. Today I had a bunch of errands to run: drop off stuff, buy stuff, take pictures of stuff for my blog, Grid Chicago.

It was a very frustrating experience. I don’t need to go into details about how I was harassed by people who the state so graciously awarded a license to drive. But it happened. And it happens a hundred times a day to people cycle commuting in Chicago. I got to thinking about “bike friendly” cities. Is there a way to incorporate driver attitudes in there? I tweeted:

[tweet_embed id=264575958374305792]

Later I had the idea to use some very simple but objective measurements to create a new bike friendliness metric. It would help ensure that “Silver” (a ranking the League of American Bicyclists [LAB] uses) in one city means the same as “Silver”. It can expand from here but basically it works like this:

  • The share of people going to work who go by bike is a proxy for how “friendly” a city is to biking.
  • If a city has a lot of people biking to work, it must be friendly.
  • If a city has a few people biking to work, it must be non-friendly.
  • Cities are compared to each other to determine friendly and non-friendly.
  • The metric uses standard deviation to score cities.

Stop me if this has already been done.

I created a spreadsheet that lists the top 10 populous cities in the United States. I then added 10 more cities: Austin, Boston, Davis, Madison, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. In the next column I listed their bike commute share from the American Community Survey 2006-2010 5-year estimates. I calculated the standard deviation and mean of these shares and then in another column used Apple Numbers’s STANDARDIZE function:

The STANDARDIZE function returns a normalized value from a distribution characterized by a given mean and standard deviation.

I think that’s what I want. And the output is close to what I expected. I then found the LAB ranking for each city and found the variance of each ranking to see how far apart each city within one ranking was from another city in the same ranking. The results were interesting: the higher the ranking, the more variance there was.

Hurricane Sandy prompted a lot of New Yorkers to bike. It made headlines, even. Photo by Doug Gordon. 

I wanted to add another metric of bike friendliness, and that’s density. To me, a higher density of people would mean a higher density of places to go (shop, eat, learn, enjoy) and friends and family would be closer, too. Or the possibility of meeting new people nearby would be higher. Yeah, I’m making a lot of assumptions here. So I applied the STANDARDIZE function there as well. I added this number to the previous STANDARDIZE result and that became the city’s score.

So, in this new, weird ranking system, the most bicycle friendly cities are…drum roll please…

  1. Davis, California (Platinum)
  2. New York City (Silver) *
  3. San Francisco (Gold) *
  4. Boulder (Platinum)
  5. Boston (Silver)
  6. Philadelphia (Silver)
  7. Tie: Chicago*, Washington, D.C. (Silver)
  8. Tie: Portland* (Platinum), Minneapolis* (Gold)

Remember, I said above that any author of a list should spend at least a day cycling in each city. I’ve starred the cities where I’ve done that – I’ve cycled in 5 cities for at least a day.

I only calculated 20 cities. Ideally I’d calculate it for the top 50 most populous cities AND for every city that’s been ranked by LAB.

LAB cities list (PDF). My spreadsheet (XLS).

How many people ride bikes in Minneapolis and St. Paul compared to Chicago?

I applied for a job on Tuesday in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (Twin Cities).

I had heard that more people, as a percentage of all commuters, commute by bike in Minneapolis and St. Paul than in Chicago and many other cities. If you’ve been reading Steven can plan for a while, you know that I visited Minneapolis in September 2009 and rented a bike for 24 hours.

I used the American FactFinder to get the details. And now I know what I heard is true.

Chicago Minneapolis St. Paul
Workers over 16 1,230,809 190,814 131,798
Ride bikes to work 12,755 6,770 1,567
Bike mode share 1.04% 3.55% 1.19%

Permalink to data results. Data from the 2006-2008 3-year American Community Survey estimates, table B08301.

Knowing these figures led me to question the nothing that Chicago is a bicycle-friendly city. If it’s so friendly to riding a bicycle, how come there aren’t more people riding their bikes to work?

One of my ideas: There are many trails criss-crossing Hennepin and Ramsey Counties that go to and through major neighborhoods and employment centers. These are essentially bike highways without the threat of a automobiles.

Do you attend a bike friendly university?

Via TucsonVelo, I read that the League of American Bicyclists launched “Bicycle Friendly University” at Pro Walk Pro Bike, September, 2010.

Campuses are ideal laboratories to encourage and inspire the next generation to continue biking in post‐college life. “The program will demonstrate the many benefits of achieving aspirational levels of bicycle safety and infrastructure, while providing campuses with a roadmap to get there. It’s a win/win for everyone,” said Ariadne Delon Scott, bicycle program coordinator at Stanford University.

I filled out this questionnaire on behalf of the University of Illinois at Chicago, my alma mater, and its staff and students. Textual answers below.

If you think I selected the wrong answer, let me know.


  • Does your campus have a comprehensive, connected and well-maintained bicycling network? No
  • Is bike parking readily available throughout the campus? Yes. There are tons of bike racks everywhere. Some places need more and some places have too much, but the University doesn’t seem interested in redistributing them.
  • Is the college or university easily accessible by bike? Yes. There are numerous bike lanes and slow streets. Also several bus routes and one 24-hour L line (for multi-modal traveling).


  • Does the college or university offer bicycling education classes for students and staff? No
  • Are there classes for campus motorists on how to share the road with cyclists? No


  • Does your college or university have an up-to-date bicycle map? No. The City of Chicago produced a UIC bicycle map in 20o5, and nothing has changed, so I guess it’s up-to-date.
  • Are there incentives offered for students and staff that commute by bike? No
  • Is there an active bicycle advocacy group at the college or university? No
  • Is there an on-campus bike center for rentals and repairs? No


  • Do campus safety/law enforcement officers receive training on the rights and responsibilities of all road users? Yes. I found this out during an email conversation with Commander Frank J. Cappitelli, PhD.
  • Does your campus have law enforcement or other public safety officers on bikes? Yes. Although I sometimes see them exhibiting illegal bicycling behavior like riding on the sidewalk and crossing against signals.
  • Is there a program on campus to prevent bike theft? No


  • Is there an institutional plan or program to reduce bicyclist crashes? No
  • Does your college or university have a current comprehensive bicycle plan? No. This one’s debatable. Bicycling is part of the 2009 Master Plan with recommendations to mark new streets with bike lanes or shared lanes. It also proposes bike sharing and separated bike paths.
  • Does your college or university have a bicycle program manager? No

Your score: 4 points.

Score 0-7: Your college/university probably has some improvements to make before being designated as a BFU – but keep up the great work! Call us and we’ll tell you more about the strengths (and weaknesses) your scorecard reveals. Download the BFU application and let us help you start implementing an action plan.

New York City, a dreamland

Rather than write a lengthy post here describing my recent trip to New York City (I went in the last weekend of August), I will invite you to peruse my 50 photo gallery. They are in order by date and time taken and fully mapped and described.

I was last in New York City in August 2001, for the MacWorld Conference where I saw Steve Jobs announce the iPod – I got that iPod for Christmas that year. I stayed in Connecticut. The first day, my dad and I drove into the city. The next day we took Metro North from Bridgeport. The only thing I remember doing on that trip is taking the subway from the Javits Center to the Hard Rock Cafe and over to Grand Central Station.

I’ll describe my 2010 trip as a “whirlwind tour.” In three days I rode over 100 miles on a too-small borrowed bike. I met fourteen people. I went up and down the island four times. I wouldn’t shut up at work about it for a week.

The first photo in the set, about the typography of the New York City yellow cab system.

The last photo in the set, about pedestrian craziness in the segregated bike lanes.

Full photo set. The set is sure to grow, so stay tuned to my Flickr photostream or Twitter feed for updates.

Bike friendly neighborhoods, in Chicago and beyond

Local professional bike commuter and amateur racer Brian Morrissey has written a series of guides to Chicago neighborhoods with a particular bicycle friendliness.

Think of these great neighborhoods to visit on your bicycle (they have bike facilities, bike shops, and they’re especially easy to get to) and spend some time there eating good food. I consulted Brian on one of the neighborhoods, where I lived for two years. I’ve written about Pilsen on my blog several times (and here). Even without all the wonderful burritos and the friendliest bike shop, I’d still call it my favorite Chicago neighborhood.

Here’s the list of Brian’s guides to Chicago’s bike friendly neighborhoods:

What neighborhood should he write about next?

What makes a neighborhood bike friendly? Let’s find out!

First, we’ll ask the League of American Bicyclists. The LAB uses a rating system akin to LEED certification of green buildings. And cities want to achieve bike friendly status just as much as developers want to achieve “green” status. Bicycle friendly communities must be able to demonstrate achievement in the five “E” categories.

  • Engineering – Infrastructure, facilities, bikeways, bikeway network, and accommodation of cyclists on roads.
  • Education – Programs to teach bicyclists, motorists; availability of information and guides.
  • Encouragement – How the community promotes bicyclist; BMX track, velodrome, Bike to Work Week, wayfinding signs.
  • Enforcement – Connecting law enforcement, safety, and bicycling.
  • Evaluation & Planning – Data collection, program evaluation, bike plan, and how to improve.

Next we visit Bicycling magazine to learn how they consider the Best Cities for Cycling (full list). The editors’ criteria is not as transparent as LAB, but I’ll take a crack at decoding their articles.

  • Visibility – Bicycling wrote this about Portland, Oregon: Just hang out in a coffee shop and look out the window: Bikes and riders of all stripes are everywhere.
  • Facilities – Chicago made the list, “Still The Best:” Richard Daley…has ushered in a bicycle renaissance, with a growing network of bike lanes, a bike station with valet bike parking, showers and indoor bike racks.
  • Ambition – Bicycling commended Seattle for having the goal to “unseat Portland as the best U.S. city for cycling.” Their bike plan calls for expanding the bikeway network to 450 miles.
  • Culture – In San Francisco, a lawsuit brought bikeway construction to a halt, but Bicycling says “[t]he local bike culture has stood strong, and the number of cyclists increased by 15 percent last year alone.”
  • Education – Because of Boulder’s Safe Routes to School Program, at least “one school reports that 75 percent of its students now bike or walk to school.”

Finally, on our journey to find out what makes a community or neighborhood “bike friendly,” we come to me. I’ll tell you it’s a combination of the built environment (infrastructure) and its wider connections (bikeway network), as well as the residents who bike and don’t bike (like motorists).

  • Infrastructure – A city must build on-street and off-street bikeways that increase the perception of safety. (I was unable to find any conclusive studies that attribute the presence of bikeways to lower fatality and injury rates, but I didn’t find anything that reported the contrary is true, so that’s good.) Secondly, when you arrive to your destination, you should find secure bike parking.
  • Network – When you built on-street and off-street bikeways, you must ensure they connect to each other. It’s discouraging to come to the end of a bike lane when it doesn’t reach your destination or another segment of the bikeway network. A good network leads to important and popular destinations, like major work centers and schools. Bicycling is more prevalent in areas with colleges and universities, see Baltes report (PDF). Almost as important as creating a network is publishing information about your network – where does it go and what should I expect to see or find on my route? A paper bike map showing the locations of local bike shops, parks, and schools goes a long way to assuage nervous bicyclists.
  • People – Lick your finger and put it up to the air to test the attitudes of those around you and how they feel about bicyclists sharing the streets with pedestrians and motorists. Residents supporting or hampering positive change to make bicycling a common activity or transportation and improve the safety of bicyclists is the most important way to determine how “friendly” a community is to bicycles and their riders.

If you’re familiar with those neighborhoods in Brian’s guides, try to apply the criteria sets from League of American Bicyclists, Bicycling magazine, and myself and do your own analysis of the bike friendliness in those neighborhoods.

What do you think makes a community bicycle friendly?

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