Photo by Hannah Caproon
Photo by Hannah Caproon

Numbers can be deceiving, but in the case of human-powered transportation, there’s no question. Bikes mean business.

Recently, the city of Colorado Springs, using results from the first part of its PlanCOS community survey, determined that the outdoor lifestyle was one of the main reasons people enjoy living in the Pikes Peak region. It also determined that a modernized transportation network that included more access to public transportation and a more  walkable and bikeable city, was a priority.

In 2015, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments reported that each dollar invested in cycling infrastructure improvements directly yields between $1.80 and $2.70.

The report also stated that 0.7 percent of commuters in the Pikes Peak region (which includes substantial rural areas) travel by bicycle.

Communities with high ridership numbers reach 6 and 7 percent and include Fort Collins, Minneapolis and Portland. The report stated that increasing the regions’ commuter base even to half of those numbers could yield an estimated $81 million in annual economic returns.

Bike bennies

Economic benefits of biking range from increased home values near bike trails to the bicycle economy itself, including residents purchasing bicycle-related goods and bicycle tourism. The PPACG estimated that bicycle tourists spend between $100-$250 per day.

- Advertisement -

A 2016 report from BBC Research and Consulting in Denver showed that bicycling and walking saves Colorado alone more than $3 billion in health care costs.

And while Colorado has clinched the top spot on a recent U.S. News and World Report evaluation of state economic growth, with the population influx of 25- to 29-year-olds jumping to nearly double the national average, proportionally Colorado Springs is not attracting as much talent as Denver, and active transportation is partially to blame.

“We work frequently with companies who are trying to grow their businesses or move to this region,” said Hannah Parsons, Chief Economic Development Officer for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC. “One of the major challenges is attracting and retaining skilled talent. And one thing about focusing on walkability, bikeability or other modes of active transportation, is that it has secondary effects. It’s really important to attract talent.

“We’ve had employers attend public meetings to talk about how important this is for the community,” Parsons added. “It’s a very serious component, and we strongly support a good master plan to make sure we can attract top talent.”

Kate Brady, Colorado Springs’ first-ever senior bicycle planner, said transit options are important in recruiting workforce.

“Nationally, having choices about how to get around a community is increasingly important for young, well-educated, well-paid workers, and they will choose to live where they have those choices,” she said. “Having networks for bicycles, pedestrians and transit that work well has a direct impact on our ability to recruit and retain those workers that we need to keep our economy thriving.”

Brady, whose key role is to ensure the city “provides options for people to get around our city by bike, so our citizens can make their own decisions,” was hired last year.

Cully Radvillas, chairman of the Communications Committee for Bike Colorado Springs, a nonprofit advocacy group, added that “safe and accessible bike infrastructure is a huge draw because it allows talent to live anywhere in town, while retaining access to amenities that can’t necessarily be built, such as Garden of the Gods or Cheyenne Cañon, not to mention their workplaces and other amenities of a modern city. Feeling safe going to, from and between those places is absolutely critical.”

Planning the plan

On May 3, Colorado Springs is hosting an open house to review the in-progress Bicycle Master Plan. The goal is to educate and gather feedback from the public, as well as government officials, on the effectiveness and condition of current bicycle infrastructure. The master plan will establish a framework from which the city will implement improvements to existing bicycle infrastructure.

“Following the plan should help us become more bicycle-friendly in a deliberate, efficient fashion and includes recommendations for the city, as well as other organizations,” said Brady.

According to Allen Beauchamp, chairman of the Education and Encouragement Committee for BCS, there hasn’t been an overhaul of the master plan since 1996, aside from a slight update in 2001.

“It was woefully outdated and inaccurate,” he said. “Some of the technologies and methods we advocate for were not even in existence or being used in 1996.”

Since the PPACG report in 2015, Colorado Springs has ramped up its investment in bicycle infrastructure.

“[The city hiring Brady] shows us that they are really putting attention toward progress in this area. We’re very pleased with this,” said Parsons. “They’re trying a lot of temporary measures, including re-routes, small projects and stopgaps, after hearing feedback from the community about a lack of a continuous system. Some of those work, and some of them don’t, but I really commend them for taking the steps they need to in order to attract and retain talent.”

The PPACG reported that if the city invested $1.5 million in a cohesive bike infrastructure system, the region would see up to $4 million in direct economic benefits, making “bicycling among the most cost-effective transportation investments the region can make.

“We have a strong superuser group, drawn to and utilizing our world-class mountain biking trails, but there is what we call ‘the 60 percent.’ They’re interested but concerned users, who either don’t know where the trails are, or don’t feel safe on them,” according to Beauchamp. “Improving signage is a relatively low-cost yet highly impactful way to foster an environment that gets that 60 percent into riding. From there, we have a connection to the bicycle economy. They’ll start purchasing bikes and associated goods, but it also empowers them to explore and connect with their city and community.”

Safety in numbers

A majority of needed infrastructure is already in place. Currently, Colorado Springs has 120 miles of off-road bikeways or trails, and 100 miles of on-street bikeways.

“We have a fairly robust system of trails, and they’ve been there for years, but as a city we have not done a good job of showing people where they are, whether it’s with maps or proper signage. That’s been identified, for a number of years, as low-hanging fruit,” said Beauchamp. “I believe if we could improve signage, we would see an uptick in commuting as well as recreational cycling.”

Meanwhile, Minneapolis, with a slightly lower population but larger metro area than Colorado Springs, boasted 144 miles of off-road or protected bikeways, and 87 miles of on-road bikeways in 2015, and plans to double those numbers in three to five years.

Minnesota is ranked second on the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly States list. Colorado is sixth.

Minnesota ranks highly because of its commitment to commuter safety. Off-road, protected bikeways, or separated on-street segments are the focus in Minneapolis, and strongly supported by BCS.

“On-street separation is highly important to feeling and being safe,” said Radvillas, who moved to Colorado Springs from Chicago, where more than 30 percent of commuters travel by means other than cars. “The Colorado Springs master plan is seeking input from general users, but we’re advocating for solutions that we believe the general population would benefit from and just aren’t sure they would enjoy because they haven’t experienced it here.”