On the Consent Agenda tonight is a contract for an update to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan, renamed from the previous Billings Bikeway and Trails Master Plan which was completed in 2017. The staff memo indicates these plans are meant to be updated every 5-6 years and 100% of the update cost will come from the city’s federal planning dollars. Considering last week’s City Council discussion on street conversions and bike lanes, it’s worth having a look at the soon-to-be-updated Bikeway and Trails Master Plan. 


Chapter 2: Existing Conditions details how transportation modes have changed over the years, how Billings compares to other Montana cities, and the location of existing facilities, among other things. The report highlights how the percentage of people who walk and bike to work has increased while those who drive alone to work has declined since 2010. These changes could be due to a number of factors such as younger generations preferring less car-centric travel. But it’s probably more likely due to the fact that Billings slightly added bike and pedestrian infrastructure in Billings, allowing more people to commute safely by walking or biking.

To better understand how our percentage of multimodal transportation commuters compares to other Montana cities, the study provides information from Montana’s six biggest cities. In 2014, Billings was below the national average, behind Missoula, Bozeman, and Helena, and on par with Great Falls. At least we we’re ahead of Kalispell… It will be interesting to see where the updated study puts Billings in 2023. Have city policies and investments encouraged more multimodal transportation, or has the city fallen farther behind? 

The 2017 study also indicates how much bike infrastructure has been added in prior years. With an average increase of about 1.8 miles of on-street bike lanes added annually since 2004, Billings had 24.3 miles total by 2014—almost a marathon of on-street bike lanes! However, by comparison Missoula had 37 miles of bike lanes, according to a 2015 study. And in the grand scheme of Billings transportation infrastructure, the 24.3 miles of bike lanes exist on a network of 537.8 miles of streets (2015).

Chapter 3: Needs Assessment identifies a few key points. Namely, latent demand exists, more connectivity is needed, and there is opportunity for significant improvement. Only a small portion of the population is willing to ride roads where bikers are unprotected and car speeds make travel dangerous. These “Strong & Fearless (1 – 3%) and “Enthused & Confident” (5 – 10%) bikers make up about 13% of the populace. A majority of folks fall into the category of, “Interested but Concerned Riders, who would ride but only if comfortable bicycle facilities are provided.” 

Considering there is interest and demand, why don’t more people commute by bike in Billings? As the study points out, “A bikeway and trail network is likely to attract a large portion of the population if its fundamental attribute is low-stress connectivity. In other words, a network should provide direct routes between origins and destinations that do not include links that exceed one’s tolerance for traffic stress.” Unfortunately, many of the low-stress roads in Billings are unconnected, confining a majority of riders to their neighborhoods without appropriate access to outside destinations. This is likely the reason why we don’t see more bike commuters in Billings.

While the report identified 24.3 miles of bike lanes, online input from residents indicated that only 8.3 miles are “comfortable,” and 217 miles of roads were identified as desirable for new on-street bike facilities. Online survey participants also identified the Top 3 barriers preventing people from biking and walking more often.

  • Continuity of facilities (32.5%)
  • Distances from homes to destinations (26.3%)
  • Perception of safety along busy streets (22.5%)

The problems of continuity and safety can be addressed by adding appropriate bike and pedestrian infrastructure in Billings, while the difficulty of distance may be resolved with the advent of e-bikes allowing for easier, longer-distance commuting. And the potential health, environmental, and vehicle cost benefits to Billings residents from improving bike and pedestrian transportation would be substantial, estimated to be an additional $5.6 million of benefit to residents in the mid trip growth scenario projection.

While these aren’t identified in the report, I’d be remiss to not also highlight the business benefits of adding bike lanes.

  • In NYC, Manhattan businesses along 8th & 9th avenues, where a protected bike lane was added, saw retail sales increase up to 49% post-construction while average sales in the borough were only up 3%.
  • An article published in the Journal of the American Planning Association studied the effects of a bike lane installation in Toronto, Canada that removed 136 on-street parking spaces. They found, “no negative economic impacts associated with the bike lanes: Monthly customer spending and number of customers served by merchants both increased.”
  • Closer to home in the Mountain West, Salt Lake City studied the effects of adding a protected bike lane, median islands, pedestrian crossings, planters, artwork, and colored pavement along a major downtown street. Not only had business sales along the project increased more than the rest of the city (based on state sales tax commission data), a majority (59%) of business owners were supportive or very supportive post-construction.

None of this is to definitively predict that Billings will see the same results as these other cities, but we should strongly question the suggestion that replacing a few parking spots with bike facilities will unequivocally harm businesses. In fact, the switch is likely to help our businesses. Chapter 4: Recommendations discusses the network recommendations followed by some program and policy recommendations. The map below shows the recommended additions to the Heights and Downtown areas. Notably, the proposed additions increase connectivity from the Heights to Downtown, from the Southside to Downtown, and in the long-range reconstruction (orange dotted line) of Grand, Broadwater, and Central, would connect the West End with Downtown, ultimately creating a connected network in Billings. 

In total, the 2017 study’s recommendations for on-street biking additions totals 250 additional miles of bike facilities. That’s almost half of Billings’s 500+ miles of streets with dedicated bike lanes! It’s a truly aspirational goal, and hard to imagine it becoming a reality in my lifetime. Fortunately, the study also identifies a few recommendations to help move Billings toward that long-term vision. 

Chapter 5: Implementation outlines implementation strategies to be carried out into the foreseeable future.

Complete Inexpensive “Low-Hanging Fruit”

“Projects that may be low-hanging fruit include bike lanes that require striping only to complete, wayfinding installation, and the bicycle boulevard network.”

Leverage Resurfacing Projects

“Each chip seal, or mill and overlay project, should include a review of this Plan to determine if a bikeway can be integrated into the scheduled roadway resurfacing project.”

Leverage Other Roadway Projects

“As major reconstruction projects are planned and designed, the Plan’s recommendations should be reviewed and integrated.”

Pursue Visionary Projects

“While some projects included in this Plan represent long-term visions, the community should think boldly about how to fund and implement all projects.”

Establish Dedicated Local Funding

“To provide additional revenue streams to implement the plan’s recommendations, dedicated local funding sources should be established.” 


Obviously, we want to know how much progress Billings has made since the current plan was released in 2017. For instance, how many more miles of on-street bike lanes and multi-use trails have been added? How do we currently compare with other Montana cities? What neighborhoods have benefited because the connectivity barrier was addressed, allowing people to safely navigate Billings streets from neighborhood to destination?

Additionally, what implementation strategies worked best? Is Billings plucking all the low-hanging fruit it can? Or is a lack of federal and dedicated local funding metaphorically mashing the brakes?

How does our spending on bikeways and trails compare to car-only transportation spending? Importantly, this should be compared in dollars, or distance, rather than a tally of projects. The recently drafted Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) Executive Summary provides a graphic suggesting transit, bike, pedestrian, safe routes to schools, and trail projects are getting the lion’s share of attention when it comes to transportation projects—they account for 62% of the 416 projects identified in the plan! But the reality is that all of the transit, bike, pedestrian, safe routes to schools, and trail projects combined will only receive 11.6% of committed funding dollars.

While the argument can be made—and the 2017 Bikeways and Trails Master Plan calls for—new funding sources, the fact is local government has A LOT of money to spend on transportation. The FY23-27 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) identifies $105 million for transportation projects over a five year period. While many of those funds come with certain requirements, the “low-hanging fruit” in the Bikeway and Trails Master Plan is relatively inexpensive. If we use the estimate from the Plan (somewhat out of date now) that a mile of bike lane striping costs $10k, Billings’s 500 miles of roads could be striped for bike lanes for a grand total of $5 million. Admittedly, this is oversimplified since not all roads may accommodate the additional bike lanes, or are necessarily suited for them. And accounting for inflation the estimated total would now be over $6 million. The point is, the low-hanging fruit is very inexpensive considering what we spend on transportation.

All that to say, the updated study should provide a better picture of how much of the money the city already spends could be redirected toward active transportation to improve citizens’ health, reduce emissions, reduce vehicle costs, and provide better benefit to our businesses. If you’ve got ideas about what should be included in a study update, please let us know! 


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