Is Utah Really a Bike Friendly State?
By Jared Hargrave
In May, the Utah cycling community got welcome news when the League of American Bicyclists ranked the Beehive State as the 13th most bicycle-friendly state in the nation. While the number doesn’t sound like we should be popping corks of champagne bottles quite yet, take into consideration the fact that the ranking was a giant leap from 31st place last year. According to Bike Utah, a non-profit organization that advocates for improved bicycling conditions across the state, Utah’s improved ranking came about thanks to better infrastructure and funding for bike facilities, educational programs that promote cycling, and the recent passage of bike-friendly laws in the state legislature. However, does 13th place mean Utah can now be considered a “bike-friendly state?”
Scott Lyttle, Executive Director of Bike Utah, thinks we are on the right track, but says we still have more to do before breaking into the top 10. “I think the state has made huge strides. I feel the bicycle/vehicle conflicts have reduced. I’m out there riding all the time, and I feel safe,” Lyttle said, adding, “But I think there’s always work to do.”
To compete with states that have better rankings, Lyttle says Utah needs to be even more diligent, and plans are in the works. Among the cycling improvements that advocacy groups are looking at in the future include increased planning and infrastructure funding, building more awareness between vehicles and bikes, and most importantly, establishing a statewide, complete streets policy. “Complete streets means, whenever we’re planning new roadways, every mode of transportation is taken into consideration.” Lyttle said. “Pedestrians, bikes, cars and public transportation – everything is taken into consideration when developing a plan for new roadways. So those are a few of the key things we will dial ourselves in on in the next couple years to try and get into the top ten.”
The agency in charge of making a statewide plan a reality falls on the Utah Department of Transportation. Evelyn Tuddenham is the Bicycle Pedestrian Coordinator at UDOT, and she credits Utah’s rise in the cycling-friendly ranks on opening the door for better relationships between UDOT and advocacy groups like Bike Utah, as well as increasing awareness through their Road Respect Campaign. But the rubber doesn’t meet the road, so to speak, until new infrastructure like roads with wider shoulders are actually built. UDOT says they’re busy making it happen.
“The projects that we’re working on right now will actually give us bike plans in every single region of the state, which is something we haven’t had previously” Tuddenham said, adding, “We’re actually doing some really in depth studying of needs, analyzing the needs, coming up with plans for connections to transit, and then looking at funding options and the economic impacts of developing these connections.”
Tuddenham says there are several of these projects in the works, like the Gap Analysis in Southern Utah, where UDOT will be looking at all the roads, from shoulder widths, the gaps between roads that are frequently used by cyclists, and how they can link rural towns together for cyclists. There’s also the Utah Cooperative Active Transportation (UCAT) project, where they’re looking at the best ways to connect bicycling and pedestrian routes to transit stations all along the Wasatch Front. “These are the beginning of bike plans,” Tuddenham said. “When we get done with this, it will be a start. It won’t be the end of all our plans, but it is a start where we had nothing previously.”
Aside from statewide efforts, much of Utah’s “bike friendliness” has grown on the municipal level, led by Salt Lake City, which has spearheaded several improvements over the years such as increased bike lanes, bike turn boxes at intersections, and bike racks taking over parking spaces in front of bike-friendly businesses and restaurants. But recent controversy has cast a shadow on Salt Lake’s bike-friendly reputation, when Mayor Ralph Becker dissolved the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, folding it into the Transportation Advisory Committee. This action has many advocates in the city wondering if Becker is still as bike-friendly as he proclaims, and whether his actions may hinder the cycling community’s voice at the table.
Jonathan Morrison, Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective, doesn’t think so. He says Becker’s policies have been more effective than any previous administration, and he cites the fact that ridership has increased around 27 percent, thanks in part to the fact that the mayor hired staff specifically to improve cycling conditions. “The proof is in the pudding. The fact that ridership has gone up that much has to tell you something” Morrison said. “Those staff are professionals in their field. I do believe there should be public feedback, but Becker’s campaign has gotten more done.”
Case in point: on June 19th, Mayor Becker unveiled plans for a European-style bike-share program that will launch in the spring of 2013. At the start, over 100 bikes will be available at kiosks and can be ridden around downtown for a small fee. They expect to expand the program even more once additional funds can be secured.
Efforts like this put forth by individual cities and towns really have a cumulative effect on a state’s overall bicycle friendliness. Tuddenham says local municipalities make a huge difference, and many of the improvements went unnoticed when the League of American Bicyclists made their ranking last year. “I think we’ve come a long way and further than people realize. A lot of what we have was being underreported. A lot of the things that Salt Lake City has done also made a big difference in that score. As we move forward, the more that people want bicycle infrastructure in this state, and the more they really work with their local governments and let their legislators know that this is something that they want, the more easy it will be to make this happen on a state wide level.”
So what do other states have that we don’t? Utah’s report card from the League of American Bicyclists tells us that we need to adopt a federal-funding rating criteria to incentivize bicycle projects, increase statewide ridership, and establish a statewide bicycle advisory committee, among other things.
So is Utah a bicycle friendly state? Morrison thinks we already are. “As far as places to ride recreationally, it’s hard to beat. If you’re talking on road, or mountains, or even just in Salt Lake City, there’s amazing mountain bike trails just around the city. On top of that, in the valley it’s generally flat, and that makes for great commuting around the Wasatch Front. I moved out here from New York in 2000, and if I thought there was a better place to be, I’d be there. This really is an amazing place.”
Editor’s note- Several attempts to the Mayor’s office to gain comment regarding cycling and the dissolved Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee were unanswered.”