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Bicycle Friendly Fiendish Communities

— NOT so Friendly to Cyclists —
by Fred Oswald, PE, LCI #947

“It’s not all about safety”
— Portland, OR Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller during a radio program about bicycling “enhancements” in Portland. Geller’s remark was in response to criticism of bike lane hazards after two cyclists had been crushed by turning trucks in Portland “coffin-corner” bike lanes.

We at LAB Reform think it should be about safety and also equitable treatment.  We think it is unconscionable that the League has been giving awards and praise to cities as careless about safety as Portland.

Bicycle Friendly?
This is a composite picture. We do not know any city that puts a BFC sign on the same signpost as a ‘no bikes’ sign. But there are cities that have both signs. We think that’s a disgrace.

General Comments

The League of American Bicyclists “Bicycle Friendly Communities” program gives the League considerable influence over decision-making in cities that want to promote cycling.  This provides a golden opportunity to correct significant problems at the local level.  Unfortunately the opportunity has largely been squandered because the program considers little other than facilities to separate bicycle and motor traffic.  BFC guidelines fail to distinguish between locations where separate facilities may be appropriate and those where they are not.

BFC gives very little emphasis to training for competent bicycle operation in traffic.  The overemphasis on facilities at the expense of education propagates the misinformation that cycling on roadways is dangerous and therefore that segregated facilities are needed.  This misinformation encourages harassment from motorists and police and it marginalizes cycling for transportation.  The emphasis on facilities — any facilities — with no consideration of safety, often results in Bicycle Blunders.

Perhaps the most inexcusable aspect is that BFC does not try to discourage even the worst safety problems in bicycle facilities.  There seems to be the assumption that unsafe facilities are “bicycle friendly.”

The BFC program was extensively revised in 2002.  While there were some improvements over the original program, serious problems remain and some of these have become much worse.  These problems occur in the most important areas:  (1) Failing to educate society about bicycle operation; (2) Encouraging unsafe bicycle facilities; (3) Granting awards to cities that deny cyclists’ the right to use the roadway; and (4) Giving only lip service to safe bicycle driving practices.  It is apparent that this project did not have significant input from the League’s cycling instructors.

The BFC program rewards things that are visible and easy to count (miles of bikelanes and paths) with a shameful disregard for whether these are safe (i.e. sidewalk-type bike paths, doorzone bikelanes, and bikelanes or paths with other safety defects are uncritically counted as “good” things).  We view this as corrupt.

The bicycle industry’s vigorous funding of this program could have been a great opportunity.  Instead, it’s been a great disappointment.  The industry funders could look at the program criteria and ask, “Which of these have been abused in previous awards?  What areas allienate the most experienced cyclists?  What changes should be made to ensure that all cyclists benefit from the measures taken to earn the awards?” That would be a step forward.  But the industry money just goes to “do more of what you’ve been doing” making the problems worse.

The name of this program, “Bicycle Friendly” is symptomatic of the problem.  It’s not bicycles that need friends; it’s cyclists.  Here’s a discussion of a better way: Imagine … a different kind of friendliness.

Hidden Agendas and Unbalanced Priorities

The BFC rating criteria, the applications submitted and LAB’s feedback are kept secret from LAB members.  If LAB revealed this information, we could easily see the overwhelming emphasis of the BFC program on segregated bikeways and the lack of concern for safety and fairness to cyclists.  However, we can infer these problems by looking at what is asked on the application and by examining the communities getting the award

If the BFC evaluation process were equally divided between the five areas (engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement/adjudication, and evaluation/planning), then “engineering” (which mostly has involved building segregated facilities) could produce only 20 percent of the score.  In addition, at least half of the engineering score should go towards non-bikeway facilities (e.g., pavement surface maintenance, roadway traffic signal actuation, bike parking, public transit access, ‘single track’ trails, recreational facilities (e.g., velodromes or BMX tracks), and even winter maintenance of shared-use paths).

In other words, even ignoring the serious safety problems that might remain in a “balanced” BFC evaluation process, segregated bikeways should count for no more than 10 percent of the total score.  However, we know of NO communities that without segregated facilites that have gotten this award.  It’s obvious that BFC rewards segregation.

The main motivations behind those running the program seem to be (1) fear and hatred of auto traffic; (2) a fanatic belief that bicycles will save the world from the evil automobile; (3) the belief that bicycle facilities help sell bikes.  While the first two goals above may be worthwhile (without the fanaticism) and we have no objection to the selling bikes, this extreme form of advocacy coupled with a zealous “ends justify the means” approach, can be deadly and harmful to the cause.

For another perspective about why this program should be shunned by good governments, see Bike Lanes, Bureaucrats and Bicycle Friendly Communities.

The BFC program claims to have five areas of emphasis:  Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement and Evaluation.  An article in the LAB magazine suggested a sixth E, “Equality” (perhaps better called “Equity”).  With the way BFC has been promoted, we need yet another E, “Ethics”, which has been missing from the BFC program.  In the sections to follow we will look at each of the existing 5 E’s.
1. Engineering:Winking at Safety  vs.  Better Ideas
2. Mis-education:Perpetuating Cycle of Misinformation  vs.  Emphasizing Best Practices
3. Encouragement:Cheerleading for Bicycle Use  vs.  Useful Encouragement
4. Enforcement:What About Fair Laws?  vs.  Law Reform and Equitable Enforcement
5. Evaluation:Detrimental Program  vs.  How to Make BFC Ethical

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© Copyright 2003-2017 Fred Oswald and LAB Reform.  May be copied with attribution.
Some materials may have been reproduced under fair use guidelines or with permission of the original author.
The author is a Professional Engineer in Ohio and a certified bicycling safety instructor.
Minor update Apr. 2017