The Rise of the Bicycle-Friendly Suburb
Welcoming bicycles to the streets isn't just an urban thing anymore. Increasingly, according to the new rankings of "Bicycle Friendly Communities" released by the League of American Bicyclists this week, suburbs are getting in on the act.
Places like Elmhurst, Illinois; Riverside, California; Montclair, New Jersey; and Dublin, Ohio; are among the 32 municipalities making LAB’s list for the first time this year. The list, which ranks towns and cities in a four-tier system from bronze up to platinum (the full list here, PDF), was inaugurated in 2003. It now includes 291 towns and cities in 48 states.
Riverside, California. Image courtesy of Flickr user James May.
In its early years, the list was dominated by larger cities like Seattle and Portland, along with college towns like Davis, California, and Fort Collins, Colorado. But it's growing fast, and a lot of the expansion is coming from conventional suburbs where biking – whether for transportation or recreation -- was a marginal activity just a few years ago.
A new bike rack purchased by the Worthington-Dublin Rotary Club. Image courtesy of Flickr user Don O'Brien.
Communities submit applications for the League’s consideration on an annual basis, and are evaluated on things like safe bicycle infrastructure, a bike-friendly culture, education for riders, and enforcement of laws protecting people on bikes. Because LAB’s ability to do outreach is limited, municipal leaders are the ones taking the initiative to apply – an indicator in itself.
The percentage of suburban communities applying has jumped significantly in the last couple of years, according to Bill Nesper, LAB’s vice president for programs. "It’s not just the usual suspects anymore," he says of the applicant pool. "These are places with longer trip distances and suburban land patterns. They are answering a demand. They are coming to us, and they are competing."
Increasingly, Nesper says, suburban leaders are seeking out a "bicycle friendly" designation because they think it makes their communities more attractive to new businesses and residents. He cites Greenville, South Carolina, as another unexpected place that earned a bronze designation this year. Amenities like good bike infrastructure can help set a suburb or small city apart from its sprawling counterparts.
"What’s happening is that bicycling is an indicator of a high quality of life," says Nesper. "It helps the community compete."