Ranking States Based on ‘Bike Friendliness’ Amid an Uptick in Serious Crashes

In this Monday, March 14, 2016, photo, a cyclist rides in a bike lane on a downtown street, in Des Moines, Iowa.

In this Monday, March 14, 2016, photo, a cyclist rides in a bike lane on a downtown street, in Des Moines, Iowa. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

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"It’s the responsibility of state DOTs to take action to make it safer for people biking," says the author of a new report.

State transportation departments around the U.S. have more work to do when it comes to improving conditions for bicyclists, according to a new report from a cycling advocacy group that ranks states based on how bike-friendly they are.

The League of American Bicyclists notes in the report that 45% of the nation’s cycling fatalities happen on state-owned roads. These thoroughfares, though, make up just 22% of U.S. roadways.

“Those are some of the most dangerous roadways for people who are biking,” said Ken McLeod, the League’s policy director and the author of the report. “That really means that it’s the responsibility of state DOTs to take action to make it safer for people biking.”

In 2018, federal statistics show that 857 cyclists died in crashes with motor vehicles, marking a 6.3% increase over 2017. Deadly cycling crashes generally declined from the 1980s through the early 2000s. But since 2010, bicyclist fatality rates have been mostly rising.

The top performing states in the rankings this year are not wildly different than they were in 2017, when the League of American Bicyclists last released a similar report.

Washington was again ranked the most bike friendly state in the nation. Oregon, Minnesota, California and Massachusetts rounded out the top five. All of those states were in the top five in the previous ranking, though not in that exact order.

At the bottom of the list there was more movement. Wyoming was ranked 50th, or worst, falling from 42nd in 2017. Nebraska edged up to 49th from 50th. Mississippi fell to 48th from 40th, Montana dropped to 47th from 45th and North Dakota moved up to 46th from 48th.

When asked about the report on Monday, Aimee Inama, a spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said in an email that the agency would need more time to look at it closely to provide detailed comments.

But Inama emphasized that Wyoming, which is one of the least populated states in the nation, had zero reported bicycle crash fatalities in 2018—along with 50 reported injuries. There were also zero cycling crash deaths reported there in 2017 and only one in 2016. 

The state averaged about 1.2 cyclist fatalities annually going back to 2014, Inama said, adding that, one fatality or injury "is one too many.”

Inama also said that Wyoming DOT believes that the state follows many best practices the League of American Bicyclists endorses. 

For example, state law there requires motorists, when space allows, to keep at least three feet between the right side of their vehicles and cyclists riding along a roadway, and the state uses federal highway safety funds to educate the public on bicycle safety.

Wyoming also offers guidance to local governments developing their own bicycle and pedestrian plans and infrastructure, Inama said.

Lynn Zanto, administrator of the rail, transit and planning division of Montana’s DOT, pointed out that the League’s findings rank the state as one of the best, or safest, performers in a sub-category that looks at cyclist fatalities per 10,000 bike commuters.

She also noted that the state ranks well in terms of per capita spending of federal funds on biking and walking programs. 

But state transportation dollars are limited, Zanto said, with only enough to match federal program funds and support maintenance. “Expansion of infrastructure is challenging across all modes,” Zanto added in an email. “MDT focuses on preserving highway assets first.”

The ranking also presents complications for Montana in terms of how it factors in information that the state can’t easily track, according to Zanto—like the number of miles of widened road shoulder, something Montana routinely builds out, but isn’t necessarily getting credited for.

“Efforts by Montana within the report may be underrepresented,” Zanto said.

Each state’s ranking is derived from weighted scores for how it performed in five categories: infrastructure and funding; education and encouragement; legislation and enforcement; policies and programs; and evaluation and planning.

Indiana moved up the most in this year’s rankings, rising 14 spots to 24th from 38th. 

The report highlights how the Hoosier State has devoted federal funding to biking and pedestrian programs, enacted a safe-passing law (akin to the three-foot rule that Wyoming and other states have on the books), and adopted a statewide “Active Transportation Plan.”

Florida also moved into the top 10 of the rankings for the first time since 2011.

The state is known for having especially high rates of serious bicycle and pedestrian crashes. But the report says leaders there “seem to recognize they have a crisis on their hands and are taking action.”

McLeod has worked on three editions of the rankings now. Asked about how things had changed across those three reports, he said: “It's mostly status quo, with some good signs.”

"I think we're seeing more states putting money toward biking and walking,” he said. "That's a really positive trend." There’s also a greater focus on bicycle-related planning efforts, he said.

The states in the top third of the rankings, in particular, have made strides, McLeod said. But he added: “It's not quite to the level of making the cultural change at their state DOTs so they aren't primarily highway and road departments.”

Among states in the bottom two-thirds of the list, McLeod described progress toward improving bike friendliness as more “hit and miss.” 

Though McLeod said he does think some of these states are taking cues from the higher performers, and he highlighted new efforts by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to increase its attention toward pedestrian and cycling issues.

Apart from the rankings, the report raises a number of other notable issues related to cycling and pedestrian safety, such as obstacles to reducing speed limits.

Higher speed vehicle crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists tend to increase the risk of worse injuries or fatalities. But the report points to state laws and regulations that may make it harder for local governments to lower speed limits.

For instance, the report says that 44 states require an engineering or traffic study to alter speed limits and 16 states maintain at least some authority over changing them.

Certain bike infrastructure also remains uncommon on state roads, according to the report. Less than one half of states, for example, reported having a protected or separated bike lane or buffered bike lane on any state-controlled roadway.

These sorts of lanes might not make sense on certain rural roads, where wider shoulders, or rumble strips might make for more practical upgrades. But McLeod noted that there are both smaller cities and towns “where their main street is a state roadway.”

"There definitely is a place," he said, "for bike infrastructure on state roads."

More information about the report can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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