Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. ranks as America's second best city for biking and walking

January 24, 2012 - 09:26 AM
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Sharrow power. (Photo: flickr/ubrayj02)

The Alliance for Biking and Walking has released a new report that ranks American cities and states by their "biking and walking levels" (how friendly they are to cyclists and pedestrians) and by the number of biking and pedestrian fatalities. D.C., you didn't come off so badly. America's capital city is the number two city overall, the Alliance says, and is the sixth best city in terms of fatalities (if you can still use a term like "best" when talking fatalities). The news is encouraging to consider but also a reminder that more work remains to be done — like the District Department of Transportation's efforts to slow down and better manage all the traffic on Maryland Avenue NE, which I wrote about last week. Our neighbor city Baltimore scored 11th and 15th in the two main categories, which rely on American Community Survey data.

What's the city that took the top slot in both? Cold, old Boston, Massachusetts. 

The full report is a whopping 248 pages and the result of "hundreds" collaborating but a handy media sheet will try to wow you with some big facts, like this one: "12% of all trips are by bicycle (1.0%) or foot (10.5%)." Good to know. But look deep into the report and see that D.C. is also recognized for some big firsts: "In August 2008, the first public smart bike sharing program in the U.S. was launched in Washington, DC, and subsequent programs have sprung up in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Nashville, San Antonio, and other cities." This "smart" bikesharing system was actually the now-dead SmartBike D.C., which preceded our current Capital Bikeshare.

The report also ranks the percentage of people who bike to work and walk to work. D.C. ranked seventh and second, respectively.

Men edge out women in terms of both biking and walking, according to the report: "Men make up 73% of bicycle commuters and 54% of pedestrian  commuters. Walking is more even between the sexes. Men comprise 49% of the population and the same percentage of all walking trips." in D.C., our biking advocates have begun to seriously consider how to close this gender gap.

Beyond fatalities, the report insists we have to look at cities' broader culture of safety for cycling and pedestrians. Hence categories for the Safest Cities to Bike and Safest Cities to Walk. D.C. ranks fourth and seventh, respectively.

The Alliance stakes out broad and forward-thinking positions when considering these rankings and ones designed to advance the mission their name suggests. They point to the fact that walkers' and bicyclists' public investment only amounts to about 1.6% of all transportation funding despite representing 12% of all trips. What we have here is the classic political battle, in which certain politicians actively insist on funding and subsidizing roads, bridges, and cars while shying away from promoting pedestrian and biking issues. Think Eric Cantor's resistance to bikeshare funding. But the alliance emphasizes what other countries are doing as well as how these modes of transportation influence the health and obesity of a given population. They make the simple, clear economic case: "Bicycling and walking projects create 11-14 jobs per $1 million spent, compared to just 7 jobs created per $1 million spent on highway projects."

The Alliance for Biking and Walking was formed back in '96 and now has about 200 members around the country. The Benchmarking Report explicitly notes that it "will ultimately support the efforts of government officials and bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization." Funding for the report, I'll note, comes primarily from the CDC as well as the AARP and Planet Bike. Much of the report's data and information is not new but it does synthesize and sharply clarify what the national situation is regarding pedestrian and bike issues. It's also refreshing to hear efforts placed in a nationwide context. In the U.S., 19 of the 51 largest cities have embarked on "complete streets" policies, as D.C. has done in recent years. D.C. is one of 21 cities nationwide to have developed a pedestrian master plan, which we did in 2009. Looking from a broader transportation perspective, I was glad to read how transit and biking have come together, as facts like this show: "Forty-four cities report that 100% of their bus fleet have bicycle racks, a 19% increase over the past two years."

Although I see many positives about the report, my final thought is to look at all these numbers, whether from ACS, APTA, or elsewhere, with an appropriate degree of scrutiny. As I've noted multiple times in the past, data can be a monstrous thing and not always accurate. Do these numbers and rankings capture the true dimensions of pedestrian and bicycling life in the District? Perhaps or perhaps not. The sources are credible ones. The overall report does represent a lot of work, time, and attention paid to increasingly important issues, though, and I can't help but think the awareness they bring to cycling and pedestrian advocacy is wise and politically necessary.

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