People for Bikes, a bike-industry sponsored advocacy group, just released their annual Places for Bikes City Rating results. And Madison made second place, up from ninth in 2019! Any rating system is going to have strengths and weaknesses, but I like the the Places for Bikes data-driven approach. Let’s explore in more detail what the subcategories measure and how well Madison scores in each of them. The maximum score for each category is 5.
This category combines data about all traffic crashes, crashes involving injuring or killing people on bikes, as well as community perceptions of safety. Why include perceptions rather than just hard numbers on crashes? Because no matter how objectively safe a given piece of infrastructure is, if it feels unsafe, people won’t bike there. And crash data also won’t tell you anything about places that are so unsafe that people biking will just avoid them completely. Madison does very well when it comes to bike injuries and crashes, scoring 4.0 points, with overall crashes and perceptions of safety being somewhat lower (3.0 and 3.1). According to official crash data, in 2019 there were 13 serious injuries and 2 fatalities involving someone on a bike in all of Dane County (and no fatalities in the City of Madison). Of course we need to continue to work on eliminating all serious injuries and fatalities, but it’s also important to remind ourselves that overall biking is a pretty safe activity in Madison.
The ridership score is calculated from three different measure of how many people actually bike how often in a community. The American Community Survey by the US Census provides numbers on how many people regularly bike to work. As commute trips only account for a small share of people’s overall trips, data from two other, smaller surveys provide additional information on ridership, including recreational riding. Our overall score in this category is 3.0, placing us in 11th place nationwide.
This is a measure on how quickly biking is improving in a city. Based on data submitted by the city itself, for example on the growth in miles of bike lanes, racks, bike parks, or attendees at events like Madison Bike Week, and by respondents to the Community Survey, a score is calculated. Madison gets a 3.2 based on the city data and 3.5 based on community perceptions.
The “Bicycle Network Analysis” (BNA) is one key piece of the work that Places for Bikes has been doing: For each city, they take every street and assign it a bicycle traffic level of stress score based on the characteristics of a street, for example whether it is a residential street or an arterial, what the speed limit is, and whether it has bike facilities or not. All the streets and paths rated as low-stress then make up a city’s low-stress network, and in a second step, the analysis looks at how well that network connects people with where they need to bike to, for example libraries, shops, or centers of employment. Madison’s BNA score is 49.8, with the top US city having a score of 88. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the cities that scores higher than us is Sun Prairie…
A smaller proportion of the overall network score is based on survey results about people’s perception of the bike network quality. Taken together, Madison gets a network score of 3.1.
Madison’s lowest is in the Reach category. Reach is a measure of “how well the the bike network serves everyone equally.” It is measured in two ways: One looks at the gender split in bike commuting, as measured by the American Community Survey. If as many or more women than men bike, this is seen as an indicator of a high-quality, comfortable biking city. Madison gets 3.0 points in this category, as about 6% of men and 3.5% of women regularly bike to work.
The other Reach measure looks at Census blocks that have a higher concentration of traditionally underserved populations, for example a large proportion of people of color or low-income residents. The quality of the low-stress bike network in those areas is then compared with the rest of the city’s network. This is the category where Madison does worst, with only 2.2 points. If you look at the BNA map, you see that there are still many areas of the city that have low scores. And some of those areas are those where underserved populations live, for example on the North Side around Northport Drive, or along Park St. More work is to be done to provide safe and comfortable bike access equitably.
So is Madison truly the second best biking city?
I’m sure one could make good arguments for and against any specific score and sub-score. But what is indisputable is that Madison is indeed one of the best biking cities in the US. Let’s celebrate that, and then get back to the hard work of making it better faster and for more people. There is a lot of room for growth in each of the categories.