The disappointment was audible in Mary Lou Crenshaw’s voice on Friday.
Crenshaw, coordinator for bicycling and pedestrian programs at the Alabama Department of Transportation, had just listened to a reporter’s question about the state’s dead-last standing in a national group ranking of bicycle-friendly states.
“The department has instituted a couple of things to try to help cyclists,” Crenshaw said by phone Friday from Montgomery. “It’s just not enough. We continue to do what we can.”
In results made public Thursday, Alabama was ranked as the least bicycle-friendly state in the country by the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group that publishes the list annually. Alabama was 49th in 2013, and has risen no higher than 47th since 2008.
State coordinators like Crenshaw and leaders of state advocacy groups fill out surveys from the league, which uses the answers to rate states on bicycle-related laws, policies, infrastructure, education and planning. Alabama received the lowest rating of 1 in three of those categories. The state scored a 2 on the five-point scale in policies and programs as well as education and encouragement.
Just as audible as Crenshaw’s disappointment was the skepticism in Stan Palla’s voice. Palla is the executive director of the Alabama Bicycle Coalition, which has a membership of about 1,000 across the state.
“I’ve ridden in most of the states that rank above us,” Palla said. “When you’re out on the road, I don’t notice that much difference.”
Palla spent much of the early part of this year working for passage of a law that could have improved the state’s ranking. Senate Bill 9 would have mandated that motorists passing cyclists on Alabama roads leave at least 3 feet between their cars and bikes. The bill passed the House, but like many bills, it was awaiting Senate approval when the Legislature adjourned abruptly amid disagreement among Republican leaders over a pay raise for teachers.
“A safe-passing law would have helped us tremendously,” said Palla, who believes the measure will have the votes to become law when the Legislature reconvenes in 2015.
Palla was complimentary of Crenshaw and the staff at ALDOT, who he said are working to improve Alabama’s standing in the rankings. One recent improvement, he said, is a change in state policy for rumble strips, the grooves along the shoulder of state highways that alert drivers they’re near the edge of the road. The state now stipulates the grooves be narrower and closer to highways’ white stripes, leaving wider shoulders for cyclists to ride in.
Palla said his group also has plans that could improve the state’s ranking, including hosting a state bicycle summit in Montgomery during next year’s legislative session and awards programs for Alabama cities and towns that make positive changes for cyclists, like local safe-passing laws.
Anniston is one city hoping to make itself more welcoming to cyclists. The City Council on Monday approved an application for a $400,000 federal grant to add bike lanes and signs in parts of downtown to make the city easier to bike in. The city would kick in $100,000 for the project. Leaders could learn early this summer if the city wins the grant, according to Toby Bennington, the city planner. The city is also working to expand the Chief Ladiga and Coldwater Mountain trails to attract more cyclists, he said.
Bennington said the public should understand that cycling and walking are modes of transportation, and that bikes and pedestrians “have just as much a right to the street as cars, motorcycles and buses.”
Infrastructure like the bike lanes and signs Anniston plans are expensive, Crenshaw said, and not something the state government can afford to do on its own. She said Alabama may be limited in how far it can climb in the Bike League's rankings by how much it can spend.
“We don’t really have any state money we can dedicate,” she said.
Last year’s last-place state, North Dakota, may provide a counterexample, though. It rose to 35th place in this year’s rankings. Ben Kubischta, transportation enhancement coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, is Crenshaw’s counterpart there. He said the state didn’t spend any more money than it has in the past, but spent more time focusing on its answers to the Bike League’s survey questions, describing its law enforcement and education programs. The state Transportation Department made some effort to set up bicycle safety Web pages and put together public service announcements to encourage safe cycling, he said.
“What we found were some small steps that jumped us up,” he said by phone Friday.
2014 Bicycle Friendly State rankings
Top 5 states
Bottom 5 states
47 South Carolina
Source: League of American Bicyclists, http://bikeleague.org