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BFC Building Block: Bike Coordinator

Part of our ongoing “Building Blocks of a Bicycle Friendly Community” blog series. Photo right: Carlos Morales, bike/ped coordinator for the City of Omaha.

I’m going to come right out and say it: Cities with a bicycle program manager or bike coordinator are far more bicycle friendly than cities devoid of such a position — even when the same amount of resources are being devoted to improving conditions for bicycling.

Like every rule, there are, of course, some exceptions. But, for the most part, when I come into a city it becomes clear after just a few hours the level of staffing focused on bicycle and pedestrian issues.

Misplaced sharrows. Poorly executed bike lanes. After 50 visits I could show you dozens of pictures of bad engineering examples — and 90% are from places that are trying to do the right thing, but, without a full-time bicycle coordinator trained in bikeway design and safe cycling principles, they fall short of delivering what bicyclists need.

And that’s just the first E (Engineering). When trying to provide a comprehensive program (what Bicycle Friendly Communities all have in common) it’s even more important to  have a passionate, dedicated and smart staff person (a bicyclist of course!) at the helm — with a job description that demands interdepartmental communications and silo-busting activities.

For instance, when I was the bicycle coordinator in Boulder, Colorado, a typical day might look something like this:

  • 8 a.m.: Meet with the traffic engineer to discuss a recent crash and the City Attorney’s memo about current confusion about who has the right of way at the Broadway Bike Path and Euclid. The issue: Turning motorists aren’t yielding at the crosswalk or looking for cyclists. My job: Argue for signs that tell turning motorists they must stop for bikes and peds; push to get rid of the free right, or at least tighten up the curve radius.
  • 9 a.m.: Review edits made by Mayor’s office on the “Try Something Really Different – Don’t Drive to Work” brochure for utility billing insert that will go to all home owners next week.
  • 10 a.m.: Check in with my intern on bike map status and get at least three bids for the print job.
  • 11 a.m.: Set up a meeting with the Chief of Police to discuss when debriefing with police officers can happen regarding the findings of the Annual Bike/Motor Vehicle Crash Report and upcoming selective enforcement campaign.
  • Afternoon: Go through all the proposed new developments using a bicycle/pedestrian check list to ensure good bike parking placement, adequate sidewalk widths, trail easements, etc. Then check in with streets maintenance on resurfacing plans for Arapahoe: Can we put on hold until road diet review is completed? Or better yet, let’s just test a road diet with new markings -– it’s just paint! Next, call the Principal of Columbine Elementary to see when a Safe Routes to School assembly can be scheduled.

Okay, you get the picture. These are all real examples of a single day in the life of a bicycle coordinator — and that was in a city of just 80,000 people! Today there are even more demands for a person in this position as the bar keeps getting higher.  

When I was in Sacramento, for instance, bicycle coordinator Ed Cox told me the demand for bike corrals has grown so quickly that some weeks a quarter of his time is spent on that program alone! I happened to arrive for a visit on a day that the media wanted to cover this, so what did Tom do? Incorporate it into the bike tour for that day, as all good overworked and underpaid task jugglers might do! (And with creative juices flowing, brought a rope along to turn into a lasso to underscore the bike corral “branding.”)

Here’s Ed getting his lasso ready for media interview, showing off latest bike corral implemented in Sacramento.

I could go on and on about the amazing work bicycle program managers are doing throughout the nation, and how I’ve yet to meet a person in this position that isn’t trying to fit 80 hours of work into a 40 hour work week, week after week, year after year. There’s also increasing evidence that the average bicycle coordinator brings in far more dollars through grants and economic activity than their salaries. Not to mention, by increasing the number of bicyclists in a city, the bicycle coordinator can save a community significant dollars in terms of health care costs alone. For instance, economists in Copenhagen have calculated that one mile on a bike is a $.42 economic gain to society, while one mile driving is a $.20 loss — and the city saves $357 million annually in health care costs because 80% of its residents bike.

So, with all the evidence, what’s going on in places like Omaha and Boston?

Sadly, while community leaders across the country are embracing bicycling like never before, there are a few places that seem to be going the opposite direction. I was just in Omaha last week when I heard the unbelievable news that the mayor had eliminated the bicycle/pedestrian coordinator from her 2015 budget, despite all the recent gains in Omaha for bicycle friendliness. Of course, I used the opportunity to raise concern about this, but it’s not looking good. 

While the League has long championed the hiring of bicycle staff at a community level (Andy Clarke, League President, was a founder of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals) and has created some excellent guidance on the issue, nobody I talked to in Omaha seemed to need any convincing. In fact, I heard from a number of people — including a business owner who uses Omaha’s Bronze designation to attract employees and customers — that the League should remove Omaha from its list of Bicycle Friendly Communities. Another business owner and long-time advocate told me that she was now looking to relocate to another city at least until 2017 when a new mayor can be elected!

“Carlos came here from LA because he was told that Omaha officials wanted this city to become the next Portland. Then the leadership changed and now we’re going backwards. He taught a lot of people a lot of things, in his quiet, modest way, but without somebody in his position to continue advancing things, well … it doesn’t look good.”

For more information on the role of bicycle coordinators as an essential building block of a bicycle friendly community, see this resource.