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How Biking Can Support Economic Development

Updated: May 24

Water steps and riverfront bike path in Pittsburgh. Photo: Urban Design Associates.

Over the past several years, a significant trend has emerged with young adults choosing to live in urban areas over suburban locales. According to Nielsen, "62% of millennials indicate they prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants and offices." This preference for urban areas has not gone unnoticed by employers who are also moving or relocating to the urban core. Recently, in Chicago alone, Motorola, ConAgra, GE Healthcare, Archer Daniels Midland, Kraft-Heinz and now McDonald's have moved or announced a move to walkable neighborhoods and downtowns.

​While there are many factors at work, what's remarkable is the role that biking and bike-friendly communities play in this shift. Smart Growth America just released a report called Amazing Place: Six Cities Using the New Recipes for Economic Development that examines these trends.

A New Model for Economic Development

Smart Growth America is a national non-profit that offers advocacy and research to help communities grow ways that support local economies, improve equity, and protect the environment. . Their efforts support outcomes in social equity.

The Amazing Place report builds on an important trend in economic development: the shift from using tax subsides to attract larger employers towards creating great places where people and companies want to locate. Case studies in the report include efforts underway at a diverse set of urban areas: Boise, ID; Denver, CO; Greenville, SC; Minneapolis, MN; Nashville, TN; and Pittsburgh, PA.

The report is packed with great information on the strategies these urban areas are using to revitalize their communities including numerous bike initiatives. According to Smart Growth America's Communications Director, Alex Dodds, "these six cities are representative of efforts underway in many communities."

When I asked if anything surprised her about the report, she mentioned how innovative these cites have been in thinking about opportunities to create livable places. For instance she cited Boise, ID creating a whitewater park, rather than just installing a dam to control the flow of the local river. They thought creatively about how to enhance their assets and now attract tourists and international competitions as a result.

Boise River Park Master Plan. Photo courtesy City of Boise.

The Amazing Place report is part of a series of three reports from Smart Growth America over the past year. The first, Core Values looked at why so many companies want to be located in downtowns and walkable areas. According to that report, an amazing quality of neighborhood helps these companies attract and retain talented workers. The second report, Rebuilding Downtown outlined what strategies communities can use to create these types of neighborhoods.

Trends in Urban Bike Planning

The most recent report, Amazing Place, looks at cities putting these strategies into action and includes information on signature biking initiatives. For instance providing multiple options for people to get to work each day including the development of a robust public transit network and safe and convenient bike commuting. Master plans to integrate bike commuting into the transportation planning process. Making more beautiful and livable places including riverfront parks and bike trails with access to nature within urban settings.

One strategy that has appeared in multiple cities is a Complete Streets approach to street design. Per Smart Growth America, Complete Streets are "designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Complete Streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work."

These approach promotes safety and convenience for everyone using a street as well as serving more people by more diverse modes. Who are the people living and working in the area and how do they need to use the street?

Protected bike lane initiave in Minneapolis. Photos courtesy of Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.

Bike sharing is another signature activity growing across these communities. Nationwide. there are a total of 2,655 bike share stations in 65 cities. (U.S Dept. of Transportation, April 2016). For one of the communities featured in the report, Pittsburgh, we interviewed the bike share operator to understand what's involved in supporting one of these initiatives. For more information, check out our article on Behind the Scenes Look at Bike Sharing.

Support Bike-Friendly Efforts

For readers that want to get more involved there are couple of options.

  1. Subscribe to the Smart Growth America newsletter to get news about economic development and complete streets.

  2. Register your voice. For the first time ever, the Dept. of Transportation is considering a way to measure traffic congestion across states and metro areas.. However, the proposed rule prioritizes driving fast as the ultimately goal of a transportation system. According to Alex, "the rule as it is currently written fails to consider people taking transit, carpooling, walking, and biking. It would also penalize communities where people live close to work, or travel shorter distances at slower speeds." ​Smart Growth America has drafted a petition that asks the DOT to change the language. Here's your opportunity to make a difference.

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