The League of American Bicyclists ranks Montana 46th out of 50 in a list of bike-friendly states. Melinda Barnes wants to change that.
As the executive director of Bike Walk Montana, an organization she helped co-found in 2012, Barnes is committed to increasing safety for bicycling and walking. That means rallying what has long been community-based groups for statewide changes in laws, education and advocacy.
“It’s important to bring a unified voice that can bring a greater influence in our state,” she said. “That helps us pass better laws and bring awareness.”
In 2011 Barnes was working with her husband at a Helena bike shop. The White Sulphur Springs native is a lifelong bike rider and was active in the local biking community when she won a scholarship to the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. It was at the summit and after learning Montana was one of only seven states without a statewide bicycling and walking organization, that the idea for Bike Walk Montana was born.
The organization sponsors the annual Montana Commuter Challenge in May encouraging workers to bike or walk to their jobs. In addition to hosting a biannual bike summit, Bike Walk also works to pass or oppose legislation at the state level and help communities improve their biking and walking infrastructure and education programs. They partner and work with state agencies as well to implement friendlier policies while offering education and safety classes.
Barnes says the best part of her job is when those efforts are successful.
“We know we’re making a positive change in the community and know we’re making a difference and seeing the momentum and higher awareness,” she said.
In working with the Montana Department of Transportation, Bike Walk helped convince road builders to narrow rumble strips along the shoulder, thus providing bike riders more room to maneuver. The organization also works closely with the Montana Department of Commerce, DPHHS and Montana State Parks.
During this Legislature, the organization has backed bills to support fees for maintenance and construction of paths and provide a safe distance when vehicles pass bicyclists. The latter died on the Senate floor last week.
Allowing bicyclists to ride two abreast rather than single file, which Barnes says will improve safety, as well as better systems showing drivers when pedestrians are using crosswalks, are changes she would like to see become law.
Montana’s rank at 46 does not phase Barnes’ optimism about achieving some of her organization’s future goals, although the work is not without challenges.
“People don’t always understand why advocacy is important, financial support can be difficult at times and there is some resistance to change out there,” she said. “Montana being ranked 46th shows we have a very long way to go.”
Barnes points out that Montana’s climate is not a limiting factor when it comes to pedaling or walking to work. Missoula often ranks in the top 10 for percentage of bikers and Boulder, Colorado, also ranks highly. Minnesota as a state is also typically near the top.
The League of American Bicyclists provides the “5 E’s” that can offer a blueprint for improvements to Montana’s biking and walking future. Those are engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation and planning.
“There are some people out there that have a low tolerance for bicycles and that’s part of a misconception for things like we don’t pay for roads and don’t follow laws,” she said, “but there are so many benefits to the economy, to health and the environment.
“We need to expand education for everyone -- drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians -- so we can all better understand the rules and enacts better safety laws and policies.”
Barnes sees education and getting into schools to teach the rules of the road as critical to improving safety as habits become harder to change into adulthood.
“As we get out more with the bike shops, talk to people about the rules, what we’re really doing is setting a culture of safety,” she said. “Our mission is to make bicycling and walking safe and accessible for everyone. This means that all roads need to safely accommodate all modes of travel, and that everyone must fully understand the rules of the road and be aware of and interact safely with others. We have a long way to go but are making good progress.”