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Lonnie Shekhtman headshot

People for Bikes Sponsored Series

The Business Of Biking

How Bike-Loving Mayors Make Bike-Friendly Cities

The amount of driving per person in America has held steady since 1996, and even declined among younger generations, according to a recent report by advocacy organization U.S. PIRG.

If these trends continue, they will impact transportation policy at all levels of government. In fact, they already have at the municipal level, where U.S. mayors are diversifying their cities’ portfolios of transportation options in the hopes of looking to attract and retain startups and their employees, reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality.

In order to make his city the most bike-friendly one in the country when he took office in 1989, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley formed a Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, developed a cycling master plan, and secured funding for his vision from the federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality program.

He was re-elected five times. When he left office in 2011, Chicago had more than 100 miles of bike lanes, thousands of racks throughout the city, and a bike-friendly reputation.

His successor, Rahm Emanuel, continues to carry Daley’s cycling torch.  His administration’s cycling plan has proposed to create a 500-mile network of bike routes by the end of this decade, “establishing a bikeway within a half-mile of every Chicago resident,” according to the plan.

In 2012, Emanuel got rid of a car lane in Chicago’s business district to make room for two-way, protected bike lanes, along with their own stoplights. Emanuel, like many other mayors, believes that more bike lanes will attract more technology startups.

To date, at least perception-wise, he might be on to something.

At a celebratory event to open the new lanes in December 2012, the mayor pointed out the connection between Chicago’s bike-friendly cred and its startup-friendly reputation.

According to Gridchicago.com, a sustainable transportation blog, the mayor told the crowd, “The city of Chicago moved from tenth to fifth of most bike-friendly cities in the country in one year. … In the same year, the city of Chicago moved from fifteenth to tenth worldwide in startup economy. … You cannot be for a startup, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.’”

This summer, Chicago’s Department of Transportation started rolling out its bike-share program, nicknamed “Divvy,” which cost the city nearly $28 million, mostly covered by federal funds. According to the Chicago Tribune, when the program was less than two months old, in August, it had already enrolled about 5,000 annual members, at $75 each, and had sold more than 37,000 24-hour passes, at $7 each.

New York City and its bike-loving mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, launched a highly anticipated bike-sharing program this year, as well, having spent the previous five years installing more than 350 miles of bike lanes.

“A bike-sharing program would provide New Yorkers with another transportation option while reducing traffic,” said a 2010 press release from the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT).

Although Citibank-sponsored program has faced criticism about safety and the amount of valuable street space the bike kiosks take up, the program had 6,000 bikes at several hundred stations; 70,000 annual members, at $95 each; and a hard time keeping up with the demand as of August, about three months from launch, according to The New York Times.

A New York Times poll from August 2012 showed that 66 percent of New Yorkers support the bike lanes. And they’re clearly using them, because the city reached its goal of doubling bicycle commuting between 2007 and 2012 a year early, in 2011, according to the DOT.

The two leading New York City mayoral candidates — Bill de Blasio, the Democratic nominee, and Joseph J. Lhota, the Republican nominee — say they support continued expansion of the bike-lane program, although Lhota says he would move around some lanes that he considers to be problematic.

Boston’s outgoing Mayor Thomas M. Menino launched a cycling program in 2007 and declared in 2009, “the car is no longer the king in Boston,” calling for healthier citizens and communities. This is after seeing his city ranked as one of the country’s worst biking cities in Bicycling magazine. Today, it’s still not in the top 10, but the mayor—and the candidates to succeed him—seems committed to improving the program to make it more expansive and safe.

Menino’s administration has installed more than 60 miles of bike lanes and 1,000 bike racks and launched the Hubway bike-share system in 2011. Just this year, the mayor released a Cyclist Safety Report, promising to reduce the city’s crash injury rate by 50 percent by 2020 and is supposed to install helmet vending machines at several bike-share kiosks around town any day now.

Like New York, Boston has doubled its cycling rates in recent years, so the mayors’ efforts are paying off.

And it’s not just the New Yorks, Bostons and Chicagos of the world that are getting on board. The trend towards multimodal transport can be seen in cities far and wide, including Chattanooga, Tenn.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Madison, WI; and Louisville, Ky.

This is a very positive sign for millennials who prefer to live in walkable and urban neighborhoods and for all of us who prefer less car traffic and lung congestion.

[Image courtesy of The City of Chicago]

Lonnie Shekhtman headshotLonnie Shekhtman

Lonnie Shekhtman is a Massachusetts-based writer covering sustainable business, food systems, social enterprises and impact investing. Stay in touch by following Lonnie on Twitter: @kuurlyq.

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