Fort Collins is growing by leaps and bounds. This isn’t the first time that the city has seen such impressive growth. Between 1900 and 1910, the town saw 169% population growth! (It jumped from 3,053 residents to 8,210). Between 1950 and 1970, the city more than doubled once again as the population jumped from 14,937 to 43,337. During both of these population booms, the response was to expand the boundaries of the city, turning farm land into neighborhoods.

Recognizing that continued sprawl is economically untenable in the long run, Fort Collins and Larimer County agreed to a Growth Management Area in 1980. The GMA set outer boundaries for the city. Though there is still undeveloped land available, the time when it has all been built upon is coming increasingly within view. The goal is to encourage increased infill development, building upon vacant or underutilized parcels in areas where city infrastructure (roads, water and sewer pipes, etc.) is already in place. This allows for sustainable growth without overtaxing city resources.


What does all this have to do with having a bicycle culture in Fort Collins? Quite a lot, it turns out. A boundary means increasing amounts of people packed into tighter and tighter spaces… all using the same roads. With sprawl, new roads are created to accommodate continued growth. And the further a city sprawls, the more the number of road users is spread out among all of the new roads available (leading to longer commute times). The expense of new infrastructure outpaces the income produced from taxes, making this kind of growth economically unfeasible. But infill requires using a new paradigm — one that looks beyond the car as the chief means of transit.


In September 2012, in the Australian capital city of Canberra, the above photo was staged using 69 people (the number that could fit into a public Canberra bus). The same number of people were shown with 69 bicycles and then with 60 cars (the number of cars on average occupied by 69 people). Not only is the difference in amount of space used immediately evident, but this also gives a pretty good sense of the amount of wear and tear that a road will take from one bus vs. 69 bicycles vs. 60 cars. Bicycles overall connection with the road is incredibly minimal, producing much less damage, and therefore requiring less upkeep and maintenance to the road, than the other vehicles.

Having a Bicycle Culture is Practical in terms of the City’s Bottom Line

So bicycles and buses take up less space and do less physical damage to city infrastructure. That’s a win-win situation for the City’s bottom line as well as for tax paying citizens. Less money is needed to build out a bike lane or bike trail than is needed for a single car lane. And far less money is needed to resurface, sweep, or plow these areas. The more people that the City can encourage to ride a bike or take a bus, the fewer cars are on the streets and the more money stays in the City coffers.

Having a Bicycle Culture is Practical in terms of Increased Population Density and Use of Space

We’ve already decided as a community to encourage infill rather than sprawl. We value open space and nature and we believe that our quality of life will degrade if we live in an endless metropolis. There’s a reason we live here rather than in Metro Denver or Colorado Springs, after all.

But more people living within the city limits means more people traveling from point A to point B. That’s either going to lead to increasingly worsening traffic, especially during rush hour, or we need to encourage alternatives to “one person, one car” trips. Carpooling, the use of public transit, and cycling are three options that we’ll need to begin to embrace as a community if we don’t want to spend our days stuck in gridlock.

Having a Bicycle Culture is Practical in terms of Reducing the Amount of Traffic Violence on the Road

Redesigning streets to include multiple forms of transportation has been shown to cut the number of automobile collisions 70% of the time. (In other words, if 100 streets are redesigned for multi modal use, 70 of them are going to see a reduction in the overall number of crashes.) And 56% of redesigned streets showed a reduction in the number of injuries. (Smart Growth America)

Not only does this mean fewer people hurt each year in traffic violence, which is a big deal all by itself, but there’s also less money spent on police, ambulance, towing and repair services. And there’s less time lost to people being redirected around the crash site.

Having a Bicycle Culture is Practical in terms of Reducing Pollution

Whether you’re a tree hugger or just a half-hearted recycler, everyone can agree that pollution costs money. It affects health, tourism, and the overall quality of life.

Pollution creates health issues such as cardiovascular disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and diabetes. And health issues lead to a loss in overall productivity.

Pollution also hurts tourism, a big industry in our town. How many people do you know that have visited Denver because they wanted to see the brown cloud that hovers over the city? (Granted, it’s way better than when I was a kid. But you can still see it from time to time.)

And air pollution tends to settle on things, making them grungy and dirty looking. (Case in point: Detroit.) Who wants to live in a city coated with particles spewed from tailpipes and asbestos brake pads? Businesses relocate to, and stay in, our city because we have an exceptional quality of life here. We don’t want to lose that draw. Despite the growing pains of people moving to Fort Collins, it’s seriously better than the alternative. (Case in point yet again: Detroit. I’ve lived there. I know exactly how that feels. And it’s not pretty.)


Right now Fort Collins is transitioning from the car-centric culture of yesteryear that led teenagers to cruise along College Avenue all weekend long, to the more urbanized multi-modal culture of the future. The city has a growing bicycle culture not just because it’s fun, it’s healthy, and it’s a college town. We have a growing bicycle culture because it’s a practical need in an increasingly dense city.

But transitions can produce bumps in the road. There appears to be a culture war between residents who still ascribe to a car-centric lifestyle and those who have embraced the multi-modal route. One only needs to read the comments in the Coloradoan following a post about a car on bike crash and the two sides immediately stand out in stark contrast.

The car culture simply can’t continue. It’s not practical or sustainable. That’s not at all to say that we need to get rid of all cars. But we do need to allow for multiple forms of transportation and encourage choosing the form that is most appropriate in any given situation. The tide is turning. Let’s ride the wave to a better Fort Collins.


Sources for this article that weren’t linked to above

Population data for the 1800s and 1900s can be found on the Fort Collins Archives website: Fort Collins Population Trends, 1880-2000.

Image attributions
Top image created on
Growth Management Area map (pdf) from the City of Fort Collins website.
Bus vs. Bikes vs. Cars – photo from the Australian Canberra Transport Cycling Promotion Fund.
The cars on Harmony facing the light to cross College were snapped from Google Streetview.