Every city always has a lot of bike projects on their radar, some urgent, some expensive, some with political or community pressure. However, the resources to execute those projects are limited, making prioritization very critical. SVBC is doing research to learn more about bike plan project prioritization, tools, and criteria used. This blog is the initial findings of our on-going survey. And as a newly joined staff member, this is also one of the first projects that I am working on.
To begin with, almost every city has a bike plan. There are many consultants that help cities prepare these. Every bike plan brings forth an exhaustive list of bike projects. And then, every bike plan (generally) has a section on project prioritization, which ranks and prioritizes projects in this list.
Methodology – Understanding the process of project prioritization
I started by reading several bike plans and interviewing a few consultants to better understand. It was intriguing to realize at the end of the interviews that the approach towards project prioritization of most consultants was pretty uniform – consultants approach the city with a list of criteria, take city and community input, arrive at a final list of criteria for prioritizing, assign weights or percentages to this selected list of criteria, screen projects, and finally arrive at short-medium-long term project list based on the ranking.
The Active Transportation Tool Report 803 by Toole Design very effectively captures this process. The only distinct tool we came across for this process was the BikeAble tool by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The tool focuses on “connectivity”, and ranking of projects is based on additional percentage of connectivity each project would provide.
City input – Role of city staff in the process
Alta Planning + Design has prepared many bike plans. Their expert said that they have arrived at a more or less standard approach towards project prioritization, but it is really the city that takes the lead and decides which factors they wish to focus on. Most of the other consultants agreed. The final list of criteria is generally associated with the larger goals each city has. For example, if a city aims at Vision Zero, collision history and traffic stress become important criteria. While we speak about how cities dominate the process of project prioritization, that process ultimately depends upon how much resources cities have and how much budget a city spare to collect data to make a bike plan.
Criteria – The basis of ranking of projects
In the larger picture, each bike plan focuses on feeding into these five broader criteria – Safety, Location and Connectivity, Finance, Implementation and Community Input/Support. The interesting part was how these broader criteria are quantified using different variables to align with goals of cities and staff. For example, under the broader criteria of location and connectivity, some cities found gap closure to be an important variable, while some found connectivity to transit stations important. Under finance, some quantified this criterion using cost of project while others used cost-effectiveness! Some consultants said they prefer to have equal weightage for all criteria, but it largely depends on the client’s requirements; depending on what they would want to emphasize, some variables may have privilege over others.
The consultants also suggested that community input should not just be a criterion, but also a part of the process. While community input is a very important part of the process, cities may or may not have enough resources to conduct a robust outreach program. SVBC feels that this is a crucial component of the bike planning process, and should be included in every Bike Plan.
One of Rails-to-Trail’s BikeAble’s goals was to create a neutral and transparent tool, which is indifferent of political opinion and prioritizes projects which are genuinely needed. But as very interestingly emphasized by Nelson\Nygaard, genuine projects can take several years to see the light of day because of funding and implementation complexities. Hence, Nelson\Nygaard uses criteria like concept readiness, concurrent planning efforts, and project leveraging along with other criteria to have a more practical approach.
The above research fed us into further follow-up questions – if at all there could be a standard tool for project prioritization, what would be the criteria used, and whether a tool could be created which is not just flexible to city resources but also adaptive to city goals. Well, as we mentioned earlier, this is just a brief summary from our initial research and we plan to work further to find answers to these questions. Stay tuned! Do let us know what you think!