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How Other Countries Rank Cities for Biking

PeopleForBikes’ City Ratings program director explains how the program compares to its international counterparts — and why they’re all important to growing bicycling.

By Rebecca Davies, PeopleForBikes’ City Ratings program director

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In 1988, the Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club (ADFC), Germany’s national bike advocacy organization, launched the Fahrradklima-Test, a survey asking people about their experiences riding a bike locally. Thirty-five years later, ADFC will soon release a ranking of Germany’s cities based on the 10th Fahrradklima-Test, summarizing the results of nearly 230,000 responses from people in 1,024 cities throughout the country.

ADFC’s Fahrradklima-Test has led the way among international efforts to measure cities’ progress on bicycling, creating a model that other national bike advocacy organizations have emulated, including PeopleForBikes. In June 2022, PeopleForBikes staff had the opportunity to connect with ADFC and other advocates conducting national city rating programs at the Velo-City conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Velo-City, hosted by the European Cycling Federation, unites more than 1,000 advocates and practitioners from around the globe to share their successes and challenges.

The conference provided a unique opportunity for PeopleForBikes to compare our City Ratings program with those of national advocacy groups around Europe, including ADFC, FUB(France),  PUMA (Poland),  Fietsersbond (The Netherlands),  and Cykelframjandet (Sweden). Representatives from each organization participated in a joint conference session to describe their respective programs, learn from one another, and share lessons with an audience that included national advocacy organizations interested in creating their own city ratings program.

With the exception of PeopleForBikes’ City Ratings, the programs represented at the conference rely primarily on survey responses to rate cities. FUB’s Barometre des villes cyclables (Cycling Cities Barometer), PUMA’s Badania Klimatu Rowerowego (Cycling Climate Research),Fietsersbond’s Fietsstad (Cycling City), and Cykelfrӓmjandet’s Cyklistvelometern (Cyclist Velometer) aggregate survey responses from individuals to produce city scores, although they differ in the questions they ask, how often they field the survey, and how they score the results. The Fietsstad, for example, incorporates data on objective city design factors including speed limits, roundabouts, urban density, and route efficiency. In addition to the Cyklistvelometern, Cykelframjandet fields and rates Swedish cities based on a second survey for city governments to self-report their progress, the Kommunvelometer (City Velometer).

Like most of the rating programs, PeopleForBikes’ Community Survey is modeled on ADFC’s Fahrradklima-Test, however the Community Survey has played a smaller role in our City Ratings program, worth only 20% of a city’s overall City Ratings score in countries where we field the survey (the United States, Canada, and England). In countries where we do not field the survey, a city’s score is based entirely on its Bicycle Network Analysis.

Surveys and network analysis each have advantages and disadvantages as rating methods. Surveys offer insight into a wide range of factors that affect people’s bicycling experience and allow flexibility to add or remove survey questions over time as the bicycling landscape changes. In contrast, adding or subtracting factors in a network analysis requires having a reliable, accessible data source for that factor. For instance, if we wanted to add bike parking as a factor in the Bicycle Network Analysis, we would need to find a data source that is reasonably accurate, is available for the entire country, and can be shared publicly. We would then need to modify the network analysis calculation to include bike parking as a new variable.

In contrast, the network analysis approach has the advantage of removing some of the challenges of administering national surveys. Most national bicycling surveys, including PeopleForBikes’ Community Survey, do not survey a representative sample of the country’s population. People who respond to bicycling surveys tend to be people who already bike for fun or transportation and are people who have time to fill out the survey. If the average person in a given city does not bike, the survey may not represent their perspective on road safety very well.

Conducting surveys that accurately represent a country’s population in terms of demographics like age, income, and race is complicated and expensive, which is why most survey-based, national city ratings programs do not adjust survey results for potential bias based on who is responding. Instead, experienced organizations like ADFC generate survey responses using a mix of organic and online strategies and tap into their deep relationships with local advocacy groups and government agencies. Surveys from ADFC andCykelfrämjandet are even sponsored by their federal governments.

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"Whether people agree or disagree with a city’s rank, the ranking generates conversation and healthy competition, leading people to think critically about how their city can improve."

Given the challenges of fielding a national survey and producing network analysis results simultaneously, starting in June 2023, PeopleForBikes will remove the Community Survey from our City Ratings scores, focusing solely on results from the Bicycle Network Analysis. As our database of cities has grown, the proportion of cities with completed survey responses has dropped and the demand for high-quality bike infrastructure data has increased. The U.S. lacks a national database of bike infrastructure and has no standard way for cities to classify bike infrastructure in their data. The Bicycle Network Analysis helps fill these gaps. To further strengthen the Bicycle Network Analysis as a resource to measure progress towards building better bike networks, future City Ratings will focus on the network analysis method alone.

Regardless of the method applied, Velo-City conference session participants agreed on a few main tenets of using a national city ratings program to advance bicycling:

  • Measurement Brings Accountability. City ratings hold city leaders accountable for the outcomes of their investments in bicycling — or lack thereof.
  • Competition Generates Ambition. Whether people agree or disagree with a city’s rank, the ranking generates conversation and healthy competition, leading people to think critically about how their city can improve.
  • Storytelling Complements Data. The data is the substance of the ranking, but storytelling brings the data to life and helps people envision how they can support change in their city.

Unlike the other national ratings program, PeopleForBikes’ City Ratings rates cities outside of the U.S. The flexibility of the Bicycle Network Analysis and the underlying data from OpenStreetMap enables international comparisons, which helps illustrate how cities beyond U.S. borders are innovating to support bicycling. However, interpreting results for cities that are built differently from those in the U.S. can be challenging. In that regard, PeopleForBikes’ City Ratings program is akin to other international ratings systems that compare results between countries, such as the Copenhagenize Index.

Cities can and should use a variety of data sources to decide where and how to invest in bicycling. Much of that data will be information cities generate locally through studies and community input. A good city ratings program zooms out from that fine-grained level of detail to the national perspective, creating a formula that can be applied to any city within a country (or the world), all with the goal of accelerating collective progress toward building better cities for bikes.