Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
A few ideas for less competitive but still worthwhile city superlatives.
A couple of weeks ago, Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein mentioned to us that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had set a goal for his hometown to become the bike-friendliest city in America. This was right around the time Nate Berg reported on Long Beach, California, which is awkwardly planning to do the same.
A quick Internet search reveals that this is more than just a two-town contest. Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis didn’t even realize other cities seriously thought they were in the running. Davis, California, already has the official motto on lock-down as “most bicycle friendly town in the world” (not to mention the most bicycle-friendly municipal logo). Boston is aiming for the slightly less measurable promise of becoming “the leading bike-friendly city.” Meanwhile, New Orleans also has its eye on the mantle. As do bike advocates in Buffalo, New York, Columbus, Ohio and Flagstaff, Arizona.
This is a great development for the U.S. bike scene. Nothing motivates Americans (and our elected officials) quite like the race to appear in a magazine as the “best” at something. Unfortunately, we can’t all be superlative at the exact same thing at the same time. And so as a public service to the collective imaginations of these and other cities out there, we thought we’d propose a couple of civic distinctions they could aspire to instead. In a world where it will hopefully soon no longer be so notable to befriend cyclists, who wants to fight for these titles?
1. Most Aging Baby-Boomer Friendly City in America. We imagine this would be a place where the public transit is extensive, the walkable one-bedroom housing is ample, the hospitals are superb and no one ever has to shovel the sidewalk.
2. Least Car-Friendly City. It’s one thing to embrace bikes. But are you willing to go all the way and shun cars? Jack up your meter rates, put all your downtown parking garages to more productive use and then accept the political fallout from publicly stating that your city is not meant for cars.
3. Most Solo-Friendly City. More and more Americans are living alone, and those who do don’t want to live in a place where people will look at them funny. In this city, single women don’t fear walking alone at night, there are more Trader Joe's than Costcos, and indoor stroller bans are socially acceptable.
4. Most Transparent City. This town would set national records for the fastest turn-around on FOIA requests, the deepest open-data website and the toughest protections for public access to government business.
5. Least Wasteful City. This title could be awarded to the town that produces the least trash per capita, with bonus points for the maximum use of innovative recycling.
6. Most Edible City. This would be the urban center that produces the largest share of its own food (and has the friendliest laws for doing so) – from rooftop gardens to public fruit trees to backyard chicken farms and bee hives.
7. America’s Best Prepared City for Climate Change. Obviously, the people in this city would first need to admit that climate change exists. Then they would invest actual resources and planning to make sure vulnerable infrastructure and local communities can withstand oddball weather, rising sea levels and strange migrating insects.
8. Least Unequal City. This motto would probably work better on a bumper sticker than “Most Equal City,” which we suspect would confuse folks. This is where the gulf between the highest and lowest earners (and the neighborhoods in which they live) is the smallest. It also may be where 100 percent of the people are in the 99 percent.
9. Hardest City in America To Find and Have a Smoke. We wanted to suggest a public-health honor, but "least obese city" seemed tacky. So this town is one where smokers are least welcome in public places, and where cigarettes are the most expensive to buy where you can find them.
10. America’s Safest City to Cross a Street on Foot. More than just a reflection of walkability, this superlative would also factor in degrees of locally specific aggressive driving behavior and relative ratios of car-on-pedestrian collisions.
Aspiring cities are invited to steal any of these (just please don't all reach for the same one).
Top image: The Kinzie Protected Bike Lane in Chicago. (Reuters/Jim Young)