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OUR OPINION: Bike-friendly cities win big

As Grand Forks gears up to paint the bike-symbol markings called “sharrows” on a long stretch of University Avenue, some residents may be wondering, “Why bother?”

After all, winters are long in Grand Forks, and the snow and cold mean lots of bikes stay in the garage. So, why spend much time or any money on improvements that’ll benefit only a comparative few?

Good question. Two answers:

First, as more bicyclists take to Grand Forks’ newly bike-friendly streets, transportation should become safer for everyone. That means not only bicyclists but also motorists, too.

Second, becoming bike friendly is a cost-effective way of improving Grand Forks’ brand, as other cities — especially college towns — that have won the designation would agree.

“There is now growing evidence to suggest that cities with higher bicycling rates also have better road safety records,” reports a 2011 study in the journal Environmental Practice.

“Overall, cities with a high bicycling rate generally show a much lower risk of fatal crashes for all road users. ... Our data suggest that improving the streets and street networks to better accommodate bicycles may lead to a self-reinforcing cycle that can help enhance overall safety for all road users.”

Davis, Calif. — perhaps America’s most bike-friendly city — boasted a fatal crash rate of less than 2.1 per 100,000 residents between 1997 and 2007, the study notes. For the U.S. as a whole, the average was 14.8 fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Portland, Ore., for its part, “increased its bicycle mode share from 1.2 percent in 1990 to 5.8 percent in 2000,” the study continues.

“At the same time, the total number of road fatalities went from averaging over 60 per year around 1990 to fewer than 35 per year” — and only 20 road fatalities in 2008, a “remarkable” 3.6 fatalities per 100,000 residents rate.

“Although a number of factors other than bicycling are at play ... the fatal crash rates in Davis and Portland compare extremely favorably with the countries reporting the lowest crash rates in the world, such as the Netherlands at 4.9 per 100,000 residents,” the study notes.

So, what’s happening in Davis, Portland and other bike-friendly cities?

The answer seems to be “traffic calming” — the fact that “the actual presence of a large numbers of bicyclists can change the dynamics of the street enough to lower vehicle speeds.”

Furthermore, when drivers make a habit of watching out for bicyclists, they get better at watching out for other vehicles and for pedestrians, too.

Not a bad return for an investment that starts with a few drums of traffic paint.

Speaking of returns, the Missoula, Mont., Chamber seems to think the community’s investment in bike infrastructure has paid off. On its “Award Winning Missoula” webpage, the Chamber highlights the city’s Bicycle-Friendly “Gold” award by the League of American Bicyclists.

The economic development team in Minneapolis does the same with that city’s award. So do officials in Ashland, Ore.; Seattle; Crested Butte, Colo.; and every other winner of the League’s top awards.

By the way, of the 50 states, only Hawaii and one other state do not have any cities on the League’s list of 291 bronze-, silver-, gold- or platinum-award winners.

All the more reason for Grand Forks to seek a League award, because winning one will leave Hawaii standing alone.