Making Western states bicycle-friendly

Unless you're in Washington, which ranks No. 1, state officials and bicycle advocacy groups have a lot of work to do.
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Unless you're in Washington, which ranks No. 1, state officials and bicycle advocacy groups have a lot of work to do.

What makes a state bicycle friendly? That’s a question just taken up in earnest by a Beltway-based bicycle advocacy group called the League of American Bicyclists.

In August, the League issued its first annual ”Ranking of Bicycle Friendly States.” Out here in the New West, Washington won the sweepstakes, named the most bicycle-friendly state of them all, followed closely by Oregon, in fourth place. After that, it doesn’t look nearly as friendly — Utah (11), Wyoming (18), Colorado (22), Idaho (37) and the worst of the region, my state, Montana (44). Ouch!

So, I had to ask, why?

To come up with the ranking, the League sent a long questionnaire to the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in the state Department of Transportation (DOT). The League assessed more than 70 issues to come up with the final score, but the group emphasized six key areas: state laws; policies and programs; infrastructure; education and encouragement; evaluation and planning; and enforcement. That’s a little too general for me, so I had a long chat with Jeff Peel, who worked on the study and is the League’s bicycle community project specialist.

I asked him why Idaho and Montana ranked so low compared to Washington and Oregon or even Colorado or Wyoming, but because of the way the survey was conducted, he couldn’t really put his finger on any single issues causing the poor ranking.

“There was no one make-or-break question,” Peel explained, “and they were all yes or no questions or questions with hard answers,” which means no opinions or judgment calls went into the survey results.

“When you look at the top five states,” he noted, “They all have a bicycle plan in place. They have staff dedicated to bicycling in DOT. They have a statewide advisory council. Bicycling reaches into all aspects of health and recreational plans, and all the things we think are important for states to do are in these state plans. They also have bicycle-friendly laws.”

Keeping in mind that no single issue trumps any other issue, Peel said having bicycle-friendly laws is definitely one of the most important factors in the ranking. I asked for examples of “bicycle-friendly laws,” and he pointed to legislation that:

  • Require motorists to give cyclists at least three feet clearance — or as in Wyoming, five feet — when passing (i.e., so-called “safe passing laws).” In other words, laws that make it illegal for a motorist to try to pass a cyclist riding on the right side of a lane without crossing the center line. This is common sense, safety-conscious driving, but not the law of the land in many states such as Montana.

  • Do not require cyclists to use bikeways or bike lanes. In some cases, bikeways and bike lanes are the safest route, but they can also be more dangerous than riding in traffic. “Bicyclists should be able to ride where they think it is the safest,” he notes.
  • Require cyclists to ride as far to the right as “practical.”
  • Allowing cyclists to ride two abreast, such as Washington’s law, one reason it became the most bicycle-friendly state. Most states do not allow riding two abreast.

(Not on Peel’s list, but interesting to me is Idaho’s law, the only one in the nation that allows cyclists to not come to a full stop at a stop sign, which seems mighty bicycle-friendly. More later on this issue.)

Having a statewide advisory council was also a major factor, something Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all need to get going. Having paid staff for the council is even better, he explains, but rare.

One common deficiency, present in virtually every state, was shortage of training for police officers. “The score on the enforcement category was low across the board,” Peel noted.

By this, he refers to the sad fact that most states have no required training on bicycle laws and motorist responsibility when sharing roads with cyclists in law enforcement academies and no continued education required for existing police officers.

“We also learned that there wasn’t much support for bicycle programs within a lot of DOT’s,” Peel concluded, “and that’s something we want to improve with this program.”

Let’s hope he’s successful in fixing that problem — and a lot more. The West has some serious work to do in the bicycle friendliness area, so hopefully, state officials and volunteer groups focus on the factors used in the League’s ranking and try to improve their state’s score next year.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the "Wild Bill" section of New West.  

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