by Lily Weissgold, ’20
- Why is the city implementing bike infrastructure?
- Who is opposed to bike infrastructure and why?
- How can the city ensure the continued implementation of bike infrastructure?
This was an instrumental case study; it is meant to provide a real example of abstract concepts. This study was conducted with 18 semi-structured interviews over the course of the summer of 2019. Semi-structured interviews were chosen to allow the research to best represent the different perspectives of all the stakeholders in the bike community in Colorado Springs. Interviews reached saturation and sufficiency. Interviewees included elected officials, city employees, and interested community members. In addition, city planning documents regarding bikes, news coverage of bikes, and the blogs/websites/podcasts of citizen groups were examined. After interviews were conducted and transcribed, findings were grouped by theme to form the final narrative.
While Colorado Springs has been laying cycling infrastructure since the 1970s, it has been largely disconnected and aimed at recreational use. In the early 2010s, there was a push to create connected, safe, on-street bike infrastructure for commuters as well as recreationalists. As a result, the mayor hired a bike planner, and the city began planning and laying protected on-street bike infrastructure. Much of the infrastructure has been integrated into the community without complaint. However, there were two bike lanes which provoked immense citizen ire and backlash (bikelash).
The bikelash to one lane in the northern part of the city resulted in the city removing the lane and reverting it back to a lane of traffic. The other lane which provoked ire runs through Colorado College’s campus from the Old North End Neighborhood to the Downtown Business District. There were several citizen groups who lobbied the city to not complete the road diet/ bike lane project.
One group ended up suing the city on the grounds that the city failed to have enough public participation before including the bike lane. The city won the lawsuit on the grounds that the city administrators have legal purview over traffic planning decisions. The lane was put in in the summer of 2018 and is commonly used. There are four main types of bike lane opposition in Colorado Springs. As a result of the two years of bikelash, the local newspaper convened a public forum entitled Battle of the Bike Lanes where city staff, elected officials, opposition, and advocacy groups answered acrimonious audience questions.
The four types of bike lane opposition in Colorado Springs are all under the larger umbrella of ‘conservativism.’ In other English-speaking cities throughout the world, there is a greater variety of bikelash from disparate groups including anti-gentrification activists, business owners, and in some cases, the cycling community themselves. In Colorado Springs, the cycling community and business owners are largely in favor of bike infrastructure while there is little vocal anti-gentrification organizing. Colorado Springs compensates for the lack of breadth of bikelash with depth of conservative bikelash. The bikelash in Colorado Springs was pernicious. As a result, bike infrastructure in Colorado Springs is an issue public, with many in the past city council election weighing in on the topic.
The city has continued plans to lay connected bike infrastructure throughout the downtown area. Since the lawsuit, the city has laid several new miles of bike infrastructure without much fanfare or reaction. In fact, many lanes laid before the bikelash were also not contentious. There is a possibility that, considering the rapid rise of bikelash, it may die down as another inconvenience or scandal comes to the city. To employees, this is a potential sign that the community may have accepted the infrastructure and there will be little to no response to future projects. However, waiting out the bikelash is not an option because cycling infrastructure itself seems like a fad to some city administrators. In addition, if bike lanes remain an issue public in upcoming elections, the progress on cycling infrastructure could stop entirely or even be reversed. Acknowledging this, city administrators are endeavoring to lay as much safe, connected bike infrastructure before the change in elected administration.
Their plans for future bike infrastructure are very much focused on connecting the downtown area to local trails and proximal neighborhoods. Doing this fulfills the Mayor’s commitments to creating an attractive, livable city for new highly-educated residents. That said, this cycling infrastructure will not serve the neediest communities which have, nation-wide, some of the highest levels of cycling for transportation. Seeing this, some city staff have also pushed to lay lanes connecting the poorest areas of the city to the downtown business district.
While the city planning document mentions bicycle education programs, much of the implementation is left to non-profits in the community. As a result, changes in bike culture, if they are happening at all, are difficult to track. The single bike planner has to focus much of her time and energy on laying physical infrastructure. There is a lack of changes in bike policy and culture in Colorado Springs.
Increasing Colorado Springs’ Success
In focusing only on laying hard infrastructure, the city of Colorado Springs is missing crucial social, cultural, and political changes to cycling in the community which are needed to cement bikes as an accepted, utilized form of transportation. Research shows that a transition to biking as an accepted and protected form of transportation requires changes in policies, physical infrastructure, beliefs, and cultural and social norms. While there has been an anecdotal rise in the number of people biking in Colorado Springs since the new lanes were laid, there has not been a contemporaneous shift in social or political norms.
For instance, the community views cycling as either for children or for recreation; cycling as transportation is not a widely accepted frame. In order to change this, there would need to be a marketing plan implemented by the city or advocacy groups aimed at adult riders. Political changes could include changing zoning codes to increase density and overall bike-ability. They could also include lowering speed limits and getting rid of the bicycle tax to increase safety and lower economic barriers for ridership. Finally, decriminalizing biking on the sidewalk in areas where there is no existing bike infrastructure could increase safety and ridership. There are many actions the city of Colorado Springs could take beyond increasing physical infrastructure to encourage biking.
In other cities, lack of social and political changes can be compensated for by an overarching vision. There is no such vision in Colorado Springs. Rather, elected officials and the business community state they want bike infrastructure to attract tourists and new residents while city administrators and advocacy groups want bike infrastructure to increase transportation options for current residents. These two visions should be married and articulated to the larger community to present a united front.