Bike-friendliness doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of grassroots advocacy and urban planning. Here’s a look at five American cities where planning and enthusiasm for bikes equals great rides for you and your family.
1. San Francisco, California. The city known for its hills is also the biggest with a League of American Bicyclists “gold” rating. About 3% of commuters bike, and bike lanes currently under construction will bring the total to 80 miles. Nine times annually, the city promotes Sunday Streets, in which a network of streets in a given neighborhood is closed to auto traffic, drawing up to 20,000 people. “That’s made people realize how fun it is to bike in the city,” says Renee Rivera, acting executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (sfbike.org). Personally, Rivera enjoys a route from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge that boasts “so many beautiful spots along the water.”
2. Portland, Oregon. This perennial biking favorite is the lone large city ranked “platinum” by the League of American Bicyclists. Compact and inherently bike-able, it’s benefited from city initiatives that created “bike boulevards,” where speed limits discourage autos. The city has more than 300 miles of on-street and off-street bikeways.In 2010, Portland’s city council passed a 20-year, $613 million plan to more than double bikeway mileage and help biking reach 25% of all trips—Amsterdam-ish levels. Rob Sadowsky, executive director of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, says it’s easy to find recreational rides like the popular Springwood Corridor Trail. It runs 21 miles east-west along Johnson Creek—right through the heart of town, but rarely losing the feel of being out in nature.
3. Minneapolis, Minnesota. The city that had a bicycling map in 1899 (!) can thank its illustrious history for such honors as being named Bicycling Magazine’s best cycling city in 2010. “Recreational trails helped create a culture of biking,” says Jay Walljasper, sustainability writer and cycling advocate.Minneapolis has 130 miles of bike lanes and paths. A new development is Nice Ride (niceridemn.org), one of the nation’s first bike-sharing programs. In its inaugural season, this nonprofit rented its 1,000 bikes out for 100,000 rides from 60 credit-card-activated kiosks, and plans to expand the program this year. For fun, Walljasper recommends his daily route on a path following Minnehaha Creek from Lake Harriet to Minnehaha Falls at the Mississippi River. “In the heart of the city, it really gets me in touch with nature,” he says.
4. Boulder, Colorado. Another of the three cities rated “platinum” by the League of American Bicyclists, Boulder has a transit plan big on buses and bikes. There are more than 70 bike/pedestrian highway underpasses, and more than 300 miles of paved bike/walking paths. “It’s all about interconnected, continuous systems that don’t just end with an eight-lane highway to cross in six seconds,” says Tim Blumenthal, president of national advocacy group Bikes Belong (bikesbelong.org). Despite 100 inches of snow annually, about 12% of Boulderites commute by bike—the highest percentage in the nation. Intermodality helps: Thanks to under-bus storage, local buses can carry up to 20 bikes. Recreational riding in the foothills of the Rockies is great, too: “The whole city is surrounded by green space,” says Blumenthal.
5. Madison, Wisconsin. Biking in Madison is largely about community, says Robbie Webber, a former city council member and now a private consultant and bicycling educator. The town of 223,000 has well over 200 miles of bike lanes, paths and marked routes. The cycling culture accommodates racers, recreational riders and commuters alike.“There’s a lot of talk about bicycling, there’s a lot of support for biking, there’s a lot of people who work in the industry,” says Webber. “Biking is just normalized.” For fun, she says, start at downtown’s Monona Terrace convention center, then follow a series of marked paths along the shores of Lake Monona. You’ll see parkland and prairie, the University of Wisconsin football stadium and more—a 20-mile Tour de Madison.