Normally this time of year the only rankings that are important belong to college football teams. But last week, Copenhagenize released a worldwide ranking of 80 major cities and their openness to bicycles. Not surprisingly, the group ranked Amsterdam first and Copenhagen second, which prompted a discussion on whether or not they should change the name of their organization to Amsterdamnation. However, this was immediately thrown out the door because it elicited the idea that all cities not like Amsterdam should be damned. So, wanting to be friendly they included Portland (a proud [major] city barely boasting a population of 1 million) and bestowed upon it the honor of 11th place. Dizzy with their generosity of calling Portland a major city they said, “Whoa. What if we ranked Guadalajara 12th?” And so it was.
Before I get too far, Copenhagenize is an international consulting firm that hosts seminars, travels to cities to advise them in their active transportation goals, coordinates tours with honchos in the transpo biz, produce clever marketing schemes, delivers speeches. Basically, they raise the hoopla around cycling. This is all very well and very good as they are an excellent forum for discussing progressive transportation ideas. But with the recent rankings I have to say they have lost a substantial amount of credibility. Either the scores were provided by the cities, or Copenhagenize is solely interested in attracting hits to their website.
Cities were scored on a scale of 0-4 in 13 different categories. Zero being awful to non-existent and 4 being great. Cities could also receive a total of 12 bonus points for extreme effort in the categories. In the event of a tie, the city with the highest bonus point score won the tie break. The categories ranged from advocacy to infrastructure, and gender and modal split to bike culture.
Here are the categories:
Bike share program
Modal share for bicycles
Modal share increase since 2006
Perception of safety
There are many cities whose bicycle programs I haven’t a clue about on the list and so I cannot judge them. I had no idea that Dublin, Budapest, Hamburg, Rio de Janeiro and Vienna were such bikey places. They are now on my watch list. But I do know a thing or two about Portland and Guadalajara, and to see them sharing the same score to me is completely baffling. According to their website, Copenhagenize was also “…surprised to see cities like Montreal, Guadalajara…ranking so well.” Saying that Guadalajara and Portland are equal in terms of bicycling is like saying that Wonder Bread and Dave’s Killer Bread are equal. Yes, they are both bread, but one provides nutrition and deliciousness while the other provides a tasteless vessel for bologna.
Portland and Guadalajara both do a lot of wonderful things. Both have a very strong bicycle culture. But in my opinion, nothing in the world rivals the kind of bike fun that is found in Portland. And while both are doing a great job at calming streets, Guadalajara’s Via Recreactiva blows Portland’s Sunday Parkways out of the water with higher attendances, longer distances, and a weekly schedule. Guadalajara’s bike share programs (one with Bikla and the other through the city) are great. Portland doesn’t have one yet, but it was just awarded $2 million to start a program. But outside of those areas, Portland is league’s beyond Guadalajara. Our infrastructure is well-maintained and growing every year. There is a huge backlog of businesses demanding even more bike parking. And even Sunday Parkways is slowly expanding.
For fun I did my own rankings for the two cities. Disclaimer: I know a lot more about Portland than Guadalajara, but I think I still have a pretty good idea about the political situation surrounding bikes here. I didn’t include bonus points because I don’t think I can judge “effort” without backdoor knowledge. I scored Portland at 33 and Guadalajara at 27. Then I got to thinking it would be fun to open the ranking of Guadalajara to my students.
When I told each class how Guadalajara faired they all laughed and asked how much the city paid for the ranking. In each class we spent the time discussing what the different categories meant and what level Guadalajara deserved. The average of my classes was 25 points. With this score, Guadalajara wouldn’t even be in the top 25.
Of course, I’m not an expert and neither are my students. In fact, only two of them were truly knowledgable of the bicycle systems in Guadalajara. Our discussions show the lopsidedness (or potential corruption) of the study. But I’m not saying that the rankings are without merit. What’s important is not where cities are placed now, but where they’ll progress to. Hopefully the rankings will encourage cities to get more aggressive about their progressiveness. Maybe Portland will say, “Hey! We’re not doing enough.” Or maybe Guadalajara will say, “Right on! We rock!” and slow down.
The scariest part of the rankings is it shows the level of bicycling in the world. In the realm of major cities, where pollution is worst and quality transportation systems are more necessary for health and cost reasons, if a city like Guadalajara is ranked 12th then how has biking advanced? Sure, Guadalajara is much more bikey now than 5 years ago, but car use has tripled in the last decade. Highways are being expanded at a faster rate than bikeways. If bikes are to succeed they have a long way to go in a world where a city with more cars than trees and over fifty ghost bike installations since 2009 can be ranked so high. Where holes in bikeways are repaired instead of blocked with a protruding log for a warning device.
What needs to count is quality infrastructure. Having weekend events and fun rides at night is not going to grease the chain. Colored bike lanes, separated bikeways, and laws that both protect cyclists and create order for their movement are what needed. Culture should be the cherry, but right now it seems to be viewed as the entire sundae.