We're Number One?

By Josh Cohen May 19, 2010

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The League of American Bicyclists just released their annual ranking of Bicycle Friendly States and, for the third-year running, Washington is ranked number one.

The rankings are based on a 95-question survey evaluating legislation, policies and programs, infrastructure, education, evaluation, and enforcement. Washington ranked second, third, second, first, tenth, and 27th in each category, respectively.

There is no doubt that Washington deserves a high ranking on the list. Seattle's issues aside, we have great biking infrastructure—like the Mountains-to-Sound greenway trail network, which consists of more than 100 miles of off-road trails from Seattle to central Washington (though it has some significant gaps along the way). The Olympic Discovery Trail is under construction (with over 30 miles completed). Once that's finished, bicyclists will be able to ride from Port Townsend to the Pacific Ocean without riding on the side of a single road. In addition to the Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club (the largest bike club in the nation) and Bicycle Alliance of Washington, there are more than two dozen other bike advocacy groups in the state.

"I'm always delighted because it's great to be number one," said Barbara Culp, Bicycle Alliance of Washington executive director. "But I would love to see use ranked first in all categories and we have a lot of work to do to get to that point. You still have to do hard work if you're an A student."

The League of American Bicyclists is a large, well-respected national advocacy organization. Their rankings certainly carry more weight than the recent Bicycling magazine list of America's best bike cities (Seattle was, somewhat arbitrarily, listed as fourth-best). But despite all the good things about the state, it's hard to accept the ranking at face value in light of some glaring recent examples of Washington's lip service to bicycles.

The first, and worst, example is the loss of state Sen. Joe McDermott's (D-34) Vulnerable Users bill. The bill would have increased penalties against negligent drivers who killed bicyclists, pedestrians, and other "vulnerable" roadway users. In essence, "I didn't see them" would no longer be a free pass for drivers at fault. But the bill died (twice, in fact). Oregon, which ranked fifth on the League's list, passed a similar vulnerable users bill in 2007.

A second pro-bicycle bill died last session as well. Kennewick Sen. Brad Klippert's (R-8) seemingly uncontroversial bill would have increased driver education about bicycles and pedestrians in traffic school. It made it out of the House, but died in Senate rules committee, in large part because the Sen. McDermott's Vulnerable User bill was attached as an amendment in a last-ditch effort to get it passed.  Killing a bill that would better educate drivers to improve bike and pedestrian safety in order to also kill a bill that would increase penalties against drivers who negligently kill bicyclists and pedestrians doesn't exactly smack of "bicycle-friendliness."

Culp says that even when pro-bicycle legislation gets passed, Washington is bad at enforcing the laws (the state ranked 27th on enforcement, its lowest ranking). She points to laws about passing cyclists that rarely get enforced. Washington has a law mandating that cars pass cyclists at a safe distance and don't merge back until they've safely passed. Obviously, this law is difficult to enforce—the police can't be everywhere all the time—but based on the frequency with which drivers buzz by and cut off cyclists (I'd say it happens at least once per ride for me), the law could use some improvement.
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