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Bike-friendly Missoula enjoys ‘huge’ return

In 2012, Missoula, Mont., won the Gold Award from the League of American Bicyclists, placing it among the top 20 most bike-friendly cities in America.

In this interview, Ben Weiss, Missoula’s bike/pedestrian program manager, talks about Missoula’s bike-friendly initiative and what it has meant for the city.

Q. When did Missoula start to focus on bicycling?

A. We’ve been promoting biking as a good way to get around for more than 30 years.

Basically, as a college town, we’ve always been fairly progressive. Biking caught on during the gas crisis of the late 1970s as an alternative to a car.

And even though we’re out in the mountains of western Montana, we’re a fairly compact city, and most of the city is on flat ground. It’s pretty easy to get to any destination by bike.

Originally, the city applied for and got federal money to start a bike safety program. And over the past 30 or 35 years, it has become apparent that many more people would choose to ride a bike if we provided some pretty basic amenities for them.

I say basic, but other people say, “Why should we build all this infrastructure?”

The fact is that bicycle infrastructure costs a fraction of the price of expanding a roadway or building a new road.

So, if you can have some percentage of the population choose to go by bike instead of by car, they’re saving money for the city and the taxpayer in the long run.

Q. What kind of benefits does Missoula get from being bike-friendly?

A. The return that we’ve seen has been huge on this.

We’re among the national leaders in percentage of people who bike to work regularly. Some 6.2 percent of our population bike to work every day; and that’s the average over a year, so it’s more in the summer, less in the winter.

Bicycle-friendly cities such as Portland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo. — we’re right there with them.

In terms of economic benefits, I’d list several things.

For one thing, being bike-friendly definitely improves the city’s quality of life, and that shows up in our rents and housing prices, among other places. You pay to live a little closer to the trails.

Furthermore, the major housing developments in the past few years all are within a quarter-mile of our bike trails. We’ve seen about 700 units go up in past three years which are in that category.

The developers come in and they talk to me about things like bike parking; they say, “Hey, we’re right near the trail, we need to provide bike parking.”

They definitely see the proximity to the trail as an amenity and one that will make their development attractive to potential customers.

Speaking of businesses believing in this, our downtown association recently completed a master plan, a big part of which was improving conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The association’s thought is that a slower pace in the downtown area is going to be an overall benefit for their member businesses.

The other player that totally believes in bike-friendliness is our redevelopment agency. We have a redevelopment agency that sets up urban renewal districts and collects tax increment financing. They help control a lot of the commercial development in their districts; and one of the things that they always get developers to do is make sure they provide bike parking and to upgrade the streets around their properties to enhance biking and walking.

That means new sidewalks, getting bike lanes, getting pedestrian-scale lighting and that sort of thing.

The agency really sees this as an economic recovery tool that will help make its districts more attractive.

Last but not least, tourism is another big economic component. Several thousand bicycle tourists come to Montana every year, and Missoula is kind of the epicenter of that. Just Missoula sees more than 1,000 bicycle tourists come in every summer.

Q. How did you go about winning the League’s Gold Award?

A. We had applied in 2001, and we got the League’s Silver Award. Four or five years later, we got silver again.

We made a commitment to go for gold. We actually wrote it into a planning document. We put a group together to complete the application. It’s pretty in-depth — 90 or 100 questions, all about what you’re doing.

They evaluate on the basis of “the five E’s”:

  • Engineering: They look at the facilities you have and how easy it is to actually get around by bike.
  • Encouragement: What sorts of things are you doing to encourage people to bike?
  • Education: How are we letting cyclists know what they should be doing, and how are we letting drivers know that it’s a good idea to safely share the road?
  • Enforcement, in which they look at what the police are doing to create a good environment to bike.
  • Evaluation: What are we doing to study and improve the effectiveness of all of this?

When we received the Gold Award, we were thrilled. We had a big announcement at City Council; we had the mayor celebrate it. You get signage from the league, and we have four main entrances to the city, so we hung the signs out there.

Q. Are there critics?

A. Yes, there are some people who ask why we as a city are bending over backward for what they see as a small minority of the population.

But the fact is that the big study on this subject showed that about 70 percent of the population would ride a bike if they felt safer. In other words, it could be a majority of the population who would ride a few times a year.

Furthermore, the truth is that fewer than 65 percent of people drive, once you factor in people who are too young, too old, disabled in some way or who choose not to drive.

So, when we make our public spaces only for cars, then we’re limiting who has access.