Springs could lose silver bike-friendly status

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Steve Clark (center) from the League of American Bicyclists rode here with a group of local enthusiasts.

Steve Clark (center) from the League of American Bicyclists rode here with a group of local enthusiasts.

There is great bicycling in Colorado Springs, cycling enthusiasts almost universally agree. But is it enough to maintain the city’s Bicycle-Friendly Community silver status?

Internationally, there are diamond cities. The highest ranking in the United States so far is platinum, followed by gold, silver, bronze and honorable mention.

“Communities have been downgraded before,” said Steve Clark, a visiting consultant from the League of American Bicyclists, which awards the designation. “It’s not unheard of.”

Clark rode 20 miles through Colorado Springs on June 25 with cycling advocates and transportation, planning and parks officials before discussing the city’s strengths and weaknesses.

“Half the cities that apply are denied,” Clark said. “Most are bronze. You’re silver and the bar for silver is continually being raised.”

Other cities with silver rankings are installing protected bike lanes, reducing driving lanes in organized “road diets” that take pavement from vehicles and give it to pedestrians and cyclists, and they’re aggressively promoting bike sharing programs, Clark said. The percentage of the population commuting by bike has climbed an average of 85 percent in silver communities since 2000. It has fallen 24 percent in Colorado Springs during the same period. 

Clark said the League has figures showing that 0.4 percent of the Colorado Springs population commutes by bike. Kathleen Krager, the city’s transportation director, said the most recent non-motorized transportation study shows that about 1 percent of the regional population uses bicycles for transportation.

While the city has significantly higher ridership figures than the League, the city is still below the averages for other silver cities, where 3.5 percent of the population uses bicycles for transportation, Clark said. In the average bronze city, 1.2 percent of people commute by bike.

“The silver communities out there are really doing some cool stuff,” Clark said. “If a city like Colorado Springs doesn’t continue to keep up its momentum — and it seems like you stalled there for a while — yeah, it’s possible you could lose silver.”

Colorado Springs received its silver designation in 2012. The designation is good for four years, and the city must apply to renew in 2016.

“I’m very confident that we will remain a silver status,” Krager said. She said the biggest obstacle Colorado Springs faces is that the League compares it to cities with urban cores where the suburbs are extraneous.

“Here in Colorado Springs, we are our own suburb,” Krager said. “We have a very large land area. Being compared to cities that don’t have that, we will always look like we don’t have the ridership.”

Al Brody, an outspoken bicycle advocate, disagrees.

“I don’t think there’s any way to avoid a downgrade,” he said. “We’re moving ahead and we’re making progress, but we’re falling behind the rest of the Front Range.”

What’s wrong with demotion?

“Bike-friendly communities tend to be the ones that are growing,” Clark said. “Twelve of the top 15 places where people most want to live are bike-friendly communities and bike-friendly states have the highest job growth rates.”

Communities that embrace the bicycle have a focus on livability that make them magnets for creative professionals, Clark said.

Attracting a dynamic workforce that will draw new employers is important for Colorado Springs, said Joe Raso, president/CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

“I think being bicycle-friendly is probably important to young-minded talent,” Raso said. “All these designations individually — whether it’s the best place for small business or being a bicycle-friendly community — we don’t live or die by one of them. But that third-party validation is important.”

Being a designated silver-status bicycle-friendly community validates what Raso hears from business leaders who appreciate the easy access to the mountains and vast recreational opportunity in Colorado Springs. A demotion would come with some discouraging press, Brody said. It would reinforce some negative impressions.

“We refuse to move ahead like other places,” Brody said. “We’re going to make national headlines in July when the mayor refuses to sign the pride declaration — things like that and bicycle-friendly communities — I think it hurts us from a business standpoint. We’re the community that’s going to be the last to engage. We’re going to move forward — just slowly, slower than everyone else on the Front Range.” 

A downgrade probably won’t drive bike businesses away.

Companies like Sram, which employs more than 115 people at its research and development facility in Colorado Springs, will stay.

“I think Sram is here because of access to the mountains,” Brody said. “I think their employees are like me. They’ll bike anywhere. They don’t need this stuff.”

Roughly 40 percent of its employees commute to work by bike, said Cory Satela, a Sram test development engineer. 

“Most of us are part of that 1 percent who will ride no matter what,” Satela said.

They don’t need protected bike lanes or connected trail systems to feel safe. 

What can we do?

Making bicycling feel safer is what it will take to get more people doing it, Clark said.

“Colorado Springs has an amazing off-road trail network,” he said, but the on-road network needs a lot of work and it all needs more connectivity. 

Brian Shevock, the city’s new bicycle transportation coordinator, said connectivity is one of his primary objectives. The city is working on adding more bike lanes and even some road diets, like one that will shrink Colorado and Manitou avenues west of 31st Street to one lane in each direction with a turn lane, bikes lanes and sidewalks.

City Councilor Jill Gaebler said the bicycling infrastructure improvements are great, but they might not always be in the best places. For example, the city is adding bike lanes on Corona Street, “but I already feel safe riding down Corona,” Gaebler said.

The important places for new infrastructure are those conflict zones where cyclists get hurt, Clark said. Cyclists commonly refer to the area south of South Tejon Street and the I-25 off ramp as the “kill zone.” Places like that are the ones that need bike lanes, Gaebler said.

Krager said the city is working on a plan to improve bike infrastructure in that area in conjunction with a new roundabout planned for the five-way intersection at Tejon Street, Cascade Avenue and Cheyenne Boulevard near Ivywild School.

Bike-sharing programs have made big impacts in other communities. The ability to easily rent a bike for a short time has introduced new people to riding.

“Bike shops were initially really concerned about bike sharing programs,” Clark said. “Now they love them.”

It introduces new people to cycling who often fall in love with it and eventually buy bicycles of their own.

Gaebler is working to bring a bike-sharing program to Colorado Springs. She’s forming a nonprofit that will operate under the Downtown Partnership and is coordinating with B-Cycle in Denver to build the program.

Gaebler won’t have the time to run it, but hopes someone will be able to manage it and get sponsors for bicycle stations. 

“In my role, I’m just trying to start a bike-share program and do things in the community that will build awareness,” Gaebler said. “I really hope we don’t lose our silver status.” nCSBJ