Biddle-Warren Bicycle Company, located on 4th Ave N. circa 1912
When the League of American Bicyclists ranked states according to bicycle friendliness, Alabama scored dead last. Birmingham in particular was listed as one of the worst cities for cycling by Bicyclist Magazine. Similarly, Birmingham fails to even show up on the radar of a list of 140 Bicycle Friendly Communities.
Birmingham must be awful for cycling then huh? Except that it’s not. I’ve lived in two cities that get alot of press for being cycling havens (#4 Seattle and # 11 Austin, respectively), but I first started cycling in Birmingham. While Seattle definitely has the edge on Birmingham in terms of culture and infrastructure support, I’d say Birmingham easily beats Austin on several grounds.
Let me start off by talking about why I like Birmingham for cycling so much. First, downtown Birmingham has wide streets and low traffic volume. It also has a pretty nice grid, allowing for multiple routes to get from place to place. University Ave is a drag on a bike, but go one block North and it’s a breeze. Birmingham is also relatively flat when you take Red Mountain out of the equation, and in the event you have to scale it, then shift your gears or walk up the hill. I never understand why it became such a crime to walk up a short climb like Red Mountain at 20th Street. Another nice thing about biking in Birmingham is that the weather is never absurdly hot or cold or rainy. When I first got to Austin a friend described biking in summer (which lasts about six months) as similar to having a blowdryer six inches from your face. That’s about right. The last thing that made Birmingham a great place to bike for me is that it’s interesting. Somewhat subjective, sure, but I found the character of the city really opened up at the pace of a bike ride in a way that Austin and even Seattle don’t. Also, the new pavement downtown is really nice (I’m jealous is wasn’t around when I lived there).
Maybe it’s some of those qualities that kept the people biking in the picture above, taken in front of Biddle-Warren Bicycle Company in 1912. That’s right, downtown has it’s own bike shop way before Cahaba Cycles or Bob’s Bikes. Here’s a nice shot of the interior:
While Birmingham’s newer areas (Hoover, Vestavia, Trussville, etc) are generally bad for biking, is this really any different than most cities in the sunbelt? in the US as a whole? Even with all the infrastructure that Seattle has put into place in the form of bike lanes and such, its newer development also tends to be too spread out to be as efficient for cycling.
Birmingham scores poorly on cycling rankings because it lacks an organized and institutional approach to how it accomodates cycling, but is that a good measure of cycling quality? The bike lanes touted in Austin are regularly used as parking spots for cars, throwing cyclists back into the lane that motorists are even more certain cyclists don’t belong in. After all, there’s now a lane for “them”, so motorists should get their lane “back”. And the occasional antagonistic behavior that I felt in Birmingham from motorists (including one guy who followed me from the place where we had a confrontation all the way back to my house yelling out of his window at me) is just as pronounced in Austin (anecdotally speaking). Seattle is certainly nice and all, but I’m not going to pretend that month after month of drizzle and resulting road grime, changing clothes, extreme hills etc didn’t make me take the car or bus more than I would have otherwise.
For me, Birmingham was an excellent place to learn how to bike and to bike on a daily basis. It could certainly be better. For instance, grade-separated bikeways on arterial roads that don’t have a good alternative road or alternative greenspace routes (280, greensprings, and Highway 11 come to mind). Better education of police, motorists, AND other cyclists about what constitutes safe and legal cycling practices would also be helpful. Programs to encourage those new to cycling like bike maintenance classes and route maps are also fantastic (great work is being done on this front by Bici Coop).
Planners and bike activists often set up the cycling issue as something that requires specialized, custom solutions designed only for cyclists. But while that’s certainly true for some things, many of the things that make for an effective cycling environment are the same things that make for a good urbanism in general (slower moving traffic, pedestrian friendly street networks, building orientations, etc). Similar to the idea that “we need more people who ride bikes and fewer cyclists“, I would argue that we need more people worrying about good urbanism in general and fewer worrying just about bike facilities.
By that logic, the compact layout, wide and well-connected streets, and accommodating weather are much more meaningful indicators of how Birmingham fares as Bike City USA than the number of miles of bike lanes it contains.Tags: austin, biking, comparisons to other cities, seattle