Monday, May 20, 2013

How Delaware dramatically improved its bike-friendly ranking

By Amy Wilburn – Back in 2008, Delaware ranked 31st in the League of American Bicyclist’s Bicycle-Friendly States program. It was disappointing and embarrassing, and was one of many factors that helped motivate us to work harder. Our ranking shot up 22 points in 2009 to 9th place, in good part due to the Complete Streets policy (creation, as it was not yet implemented) and the first bike summit (a joint effort by representatives from WILMAPCO, Dover/Kent MPO, DelDOT, Delaware Bicycle Council, Bike Delaware, Parks and Recreation, WCBC, Sussex Cyclists and others). In 2010, we dropped slightly to 10th and then even farther to 18th in 2011.  We moved back up to 10th in 2012. This year (2013) we are 5th, in good part due to the progress we’ve made but also based on the hope that good intentions will translate into a more bike friendly state. And that is important to keep in mind. Ensuring that good intentions translate to a bike friendly environment is definitely possible, but it will not be easy. It will take the efforts of many organizations and individuals on many fronts to achieve.

Governor Jack Markell
Over the years, numerous agencies worked to build a foundation. Further progress was made once we had a bike friendly governor who initiated Complete Streets and the First State Trails and Pathways Plan. In addition to funding, legislation and infrastructure, we have made inroads in education, enforcement and encouragement. But we have a long way to go. Funding is necessary but that alone won’t do it. First, we have to ensure that whatever funding we receive is put to best use. Certainly, we should consider recreational opportunities since they impact quality of life and health. We also need to encourage more people to use their bikes for transportation, which will help our citizens, communities and environment in so many ways. That is perhaps the most difficult challenge, since it is impacted by so many factors, including attitudes, knowledge, infrastructure and land use.

In terms of infrastructure, we need to make best use of the facilities that already exist including our roads, since this is the quickest, cheapest, and in many cases, the only practical solution. It is important to create networks that include viable, best practice facilities on a combination of arterial roads, low-stress and neighborhood roads, and trails in order to allow people to travel from their homes to destinations like work and shopping and school. Bike friendly communities have discovered that providing more than one viable route between point A and point B - as we do for motorists - increases bicycle mode share. It is unrealistic to think that we can create networks with only one type of facility due to the hostile nature of some roads, the lack of land to construct trails, the length of time it will take to create trails and similar facilities, and the large amount of money needed in some cases. We need many tools in our toolbox. Maybe someday we will create a utopia. But for now, we should work on the short term needs as well as the long term goals. We should correct deficiencies, often minor, that create barriers to usable routes. In this way, for a relatively low cost and within a short period of time, we can create usable facilities that the majority of cyclists–from road warriors to the timid– will find adequate, if not ideal.

Infrastructure involves more than trails and roads, however.  Commuters, shoppers and school students need a safe and accessible place to park their bicycles.  Commuters need a place to shower and to change into work clothing.  Providing these facilities is another quick and relatively inexpensive way to make biking a practical choice.

The way we conceive of and build our environment also needs to change, to accommodate a bigger picture that makes mass transit, walking and biking feasible, safe and convenient. Our communities and counties have the biggest input into our built environment, although we the people are also an important component since we choose how and where to live.

Attitude is truly critical as well. A car culture combined with exaggerated fears and numerous misunderstandings is a serious barrier. It is important that we don’t allow fear or stereotyping to become the excuse for our choice. We need to support, encourage and educate the cyclists who are currently on the roads. Those of us who bike serve as role models and show other interested people that it is both fun and feasible to bike for transportation and recreation today.

Motorist education as well allows people to share the roads. And publicizing and enforcing our laws is critical. Only when people take driving seriously, whether by motor vehicle or by bike, will we be able to make transportation safe and comfortable. All transportation.

Progress is slow. It is a nuts and bolts, one foot in front of the other approach coupled with both a realistic vision and visionary goals, that will allow us to achieve a truly bike friendly state. It’s complex, and it feels pretty daunting. You know what, though? Change is slow, but sometimes after years of establishing a foundation, it takes off and moves far more quickly. History is replete with examples. I find it helps to think of change as more exponential than linear.

- Amy Wilburn has been Chair of the Delaware Bicycle Council since 2008.

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