This article first appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
PeopleForBikes released its fourth annual city ratings for bicycling this year, ranking Brooklyn, New York, on top for large cities; Berkeley, California, first for medium-sized cities; and Provincetown, Massachusetts, the best for small cities.
The ratings are intended to shine a light on those cities with the best cycling conditions, as well as provide city leaders with ideas to make conditions even better. The ratings were extended internationally for the first time this year, with rankings for 30 European, 42 Canadian, and 35 Australian cities.
The city ratings make sense for an organization like PeopleForBikes, whose motto is, “More people riding bikes more often.” Kyle Wagenschutz, vice president of local innovation, said the city ratings came out of an internal effort to evaluate the efficacy of the work the organization was doing with cities around the country.
“PeopleForBikes has for more than 10 years worked directly with city leaders, helping them expand and accelerate building bike trails,” Wagenschutz said. “As we thought about evaluating the outcomes of those programs, we realized we were not very good at describing how well a city was performing in terms of bicycle friendliness.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter how many miles of bike trails you’re building unless more people are riding.
“Is it getting safer?” Wagenschutz asked. “Are people connected to communities in different ways? We wanted very meaningful metrics for infrastructure and perception of bicycling.”
Wagenschutz explained that it’s a two-part process to determine the city ratings. First, Wagenschutz and his staff look at all the places in a city where it’s safe and comfortable to ride, based on an analysis of data from OpenStreetMap. Think of OpenStreetMap as the Wikipedia of geodata for the world, including traffic speeds and the presence, or lack thereof, of trails and bike lanes.
“We think about the most timid riders — the elderly, children, people who have never ridden before,” Wagenschutz said. “If they went out today, would it be comfortable or stressful for them to ride? We evaluate every road and intersection for comfort level.”
Every street corridor is labeled as high stress or low stress, a binary system, Wagenschutz said.
“We make assumptions based on the data we have and a piece of software we’ve been developing for five or six years,” he said.
The entire process is open source and made available for anyone to use for their own cities or towns. Wagenschutz has a team of four people to crunch the data for 767 cities worldwide for the 2021 ratings.
“Once we get everything set up, it requires monitoring and verification of data,” Wagenschutz said. “It’s not a deeply complicated process. We are able to predict what it’s like to ride that city, based on how the roadway network connects people to the places they want to go.”
That’s step one. Step two involves asking local folks what it’s like to ride in their cities. PeopleForBikes has developed a survey that asks whether a person thinks their city is making progress for bicyclists, whether they feel safe when riding, and how often they ride.
“We balance a predictive score with local perception and attitude to take in nuance,” Wagenschutz said.
Even if a city has a great network of trails for bicyclists, safety remains the number one concern, according to Wagenschutz.
“That paints a picture that we always have to be improving and talking about educating drivers and riders, and continually investing in improving the safety of people riding,” Wagenschutz said.
If people don’t think it’s safe, they won’t get on a bike. Wagenschutz said a lot of the angst around safety stems from unpredictability.
“Chaos is created by infrastructure that doesn’t paint a clear picture,” he said. “Not knowing what the person on the bike is going to do, or what the driver next to me is going to do.”
If cyclists get a piece of the road where they can operate predictably, it removes that anxiety, according to Wagenschutz.
“That’s what’s benefiting Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Sevilla (Spain), all top performers,” Wagenschutz said. “They’re giving everyone a piece of the road and creating a safer environment for everyone. That’s the effort American cities need to strive for.”
PeopleForBikes’ city ratings is a year-round effort, according to Wagenschutz, supported by Trek and nearly 300 other sponsors, including many others from the bicycle industry.
“We spend a full year working on collecting and analyzing the data,” Wagenschutz said. “We’re engaged right now preparing for systems to release the 2022 results. We’ll spend the next six to seven months collecting survey results from riders. Next spring we’ll collect the network data and begin that analysis.”
There’s no cost for cities to participate in the ratings, and any city is welcome to climb aboard.
“Any city that wants to be part of the ratings can be,” Wagenschutz said. “Whether the population is 800 or eight million, we provide the same level of analysis.” While the current data — from Western Europe, Australia, and North America — prioritizes western narratives, which has its own ramifications, PeopleForBikes acknowledges this gap in data and is working diligently to help bring the rest of the world into the conversation. “We’re already exploring opportunities to include Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America in the next iteration of the City Ratings program,” said Wagenschutz.
Ideally, Wagenschutz wants the city ratings to inspire cities to do better by their bicyclists, and better than the next city over.
“Particularly in the U.S., there’s a natural competitiveness among cities,” Wagenschutz said. “I used to work for a city a decade ago where I ran the bike program. My charge from the mayor was to not be listed as the worst city for cycling again in Bicycling magazine. This was my number one task.”
So what about those city officials in Brooklyn, Berkeley, and Provincetown? What are they doing right to come out on top on PeopleForBikes’ city ratings?
Ted Wright is the New York City Department of Transportation’s bicycle unit director. He has 20 people working for him to cover all five boroughs of the city, including Brooklyn.
“We’re very much focused on implementation,” Wright said. “We’re not on-the-shelf planners. We get it done, right now, lines and markings.”
That attitude has resulted in nearly 300 miles of bike lanes in Brooklyn, more than any other borough. The 47-year-old Wright has been advocating for bikes in New York for 20 years, but he said climate change has altered just about everyone’s attitudes.
“That used to be a joke if you said, ‘We’re trying to make the new Copenhagen,’” Wright said. “People would have laughed. Nowadays it’s serious.”
In Berkeley, Ben Gerhardstein is a coordinating committee member of Walk Bike Berkeley, an all-volunteer organization that advocates for cyclists and pedestrians. Gerhardstein gives Berkeley’s drivers credit for having an awareness that “there are people on the street who aren’t surrounded by metal to protect them.”
“To use wonky transportation lingo, (drivers) yield at a higher rate to people trying to cross the street walking and biking,” Gerhardstein said.
By U.S. standards, Berkeley has a high “mode share” of cyclists, with 8–10 percent of commuters riding a bike. But there’s a catch.
“Look at any other world-great cycling city, and you see we have a long way to go,” Gerhardstein said. “Copenhagen is at 40 percent.”
Rik Ahlberg is the chair of the bicycle advocacy committee in Provincetown. He said the PeopleForBikes ratings and data analysis are very useful.
“It’s just nice to have some real data,” Ahlberg said. “I can take that (PeopleForBikes) map, look at it and talk to the board of selectmen and town engineer, ‘These are the streets down to specific areas where we need to make improvements.’ That’s been great.”
Ahlberg said the biggest shortfall in Provincetown is the absence of a good connection between the town and the network of bicycle trails that lace the Cape Cod National Seashore just outside of town. But otherwise, it’s pretty smooth sailing.
“Riding a bike here is great,” Ahlberg said. “Drivers tend to be respectful. Provincetown is the most European of small towns in America.”
Wagenschutz is encouraged by surveys PeopleForBikes has done since 2018, showing that people in the U.S. love bicycles.
“We do public opinion polling nationwide, and in every instance, we find majority support for making improvements for bicycles,” Wagenschutz said.
Only, that’s not enough. “You can’t build a bike nation just from loving bikes,” he said. “We have to make a built environment to match that love of bikes.”