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The world is seeing dramatic changes. More people than ever before are cycling to work or cycling recreationally in their free time. As we all know, bikes are fun, convenient and easy to use, but in the city they can be intimidating if there’s little infrastructure to support you on two wheels.
In the USA this is especially true. The states are internationally recognised for their reliance on and relationship to their private automobiles. The states’ infamous ‘car-cities’ have a cultural significance and history, with their sprawling multi-lane highways and huge parking lots which dominate cityscapes.
However, even the USA isn’t entirely resistant to the cycling trend that we’re seeing globally. There’s been a number of prominent cities that are making significant headway when it comes to change. For so long, the car’s dominance in American cities has been almost unparalleled, but this is beginning to change, much to the joy of cyclists.
In this article, we’re going to explore whether America is bicycle friendly, before jumping into our pick of the 10 most bike-friendly cities in the States. Let’s get into it.
Is America Bicycle-Friendly?
Compared to other countries, America is probably not somewhere you would refer to as bicycle-friendly. The country conjures up images of big parking lots, huge cars, and multi-lane highways. While it isn’t known for its cycling culture, this is, thankfully, changing.
As of 2021, only about 1% of all trips taken were by bicycle, and a staggering 87% of trips were taken by car.
Compared to countries like the Netherlands, where 65% of Dutch people are on their bikes at least once a week, it’s certainly difficult to claim that America is a bicycle-friendly country. There’s enormous disparity across the country when it comes to ‘bicycle-friendliness’, however, and there are certainly cities going to greater lengths to get people out of their cars and onto two wheels.
The League of American Bicyclists has certified over 500 cities and towns across the US as bicycle-friendly, acknowledging their attempts to make cycling safer and more accessible. Now, over 90 million people in the country live in a place that is consciously trying to become more cycle-friendly.
When it comes to sustainable transportation, cycling is a game-changer. Not only does it offer a healthier and more ecological way to navigate these cities, but it can offer a sense of connection to your surroundings. In the states, this is becoming more recognized without a doubt, and we’re seeing a gradual recognition of the quiet power of the humble bicycle.
Cycling is on the Rise in the USA
Statistics show that the United States is currently experiencing an increase in bicycle usage, thanks largely to bike-friendly measures that have been implemented.
Firstly, there’s been a surge in bicycle demand. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a notable surge in the demand for bikes (predominantly for recreational purposes). People began to turn to bicycles for exercise and general recreational purposes.
There have also been efforts put into improving and implementing bicycle infrastructure. Across the country, the importance of developing safe environments for cyclists has also been recognized.
And this isn’t just painting a bike lane next to the curb of a busy road. From 1991 to 2021, paved, off-road trails have increased from just under 6,000 miles to almost 40,000. This is excellent news for the potential cyclists whose safety concerns might have otherwise kept them in their cars. Cycling is being shown as something that can be a practical and realistic alternative to driving.
One of the most interesting trends is actually that of electric bikes. Perhaps it’s their convenience that’s the driving factor, but sales of e-bikes shot up 240% between 2020-2021. E-bikes are making cycling more accessible. Their capacity to cover longer distances with less effort than their non-electric counterparts has had a worldwide appeal, but in the States, it might be part of the key to overcoming the ‘ease-of-driving’ conundrum.
Best Cycling Cities in the US (Top 10)
As we mentioned before, there’s a tremendous amount of disparity and diversity in cycling in the USA. It’s difficult to talk about the country as a whole, as trends are inconsistent throughout. There are, however, cities making tremendous efforts.
Here’s our list of the top 10 cycling cities in the US.
1. Portland, Oregon
With its extensive bike lanes, dedicated cycling paths, and bike-friendly policies, Portland has become well-known for its bike-ability. Boasting 350 miles of bike lanes and over 100 miles of multi-use paths, it has an excellent infrastructure for cyclists.
The so-called ‘city of roses’ is known for its liberal, progressive politics, so it probably comes as little surprise to most people to see it on this list. The city is widely committed to sustainability, so cycling makes a lot of sense in this context.
We see people riding bikes as an act of positive change.Pedalpalooza.org
One of the most interesting aspects of Portland’s’ cycling story is its annual bike festival, Pedalpalooza. The festival is about organizing accessible cycle trips throughout the summer months, helping to ‘support joyful advocacy’ of bikes and fostering a great sense of community.
It’s been extremely successful and is partly responsible for the bike culture in the city becoming so renowned. In fact, Portland consistently ranks as one of the best cycling cities in the US, and that’s not set to change any time soon.
2. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis is a city known for its cycling infrastructure, including a comprehensive system of bike paths and even a bike boulevard network! The city has more than 100 miles of on-street bikeways and 90 miles of off-street paths, meaning cycling in the city is extremely convenient.
By US standards, it’s a pretty flat city, so it’s got a natural topography that’s complimentary to cyclists. But they’ve also taken some unique and interesting measures to make it so cycle-friendly.
The Greenway, a 5.5-mile-long former railyard corridor turned commuter bike path, is an excellent example of how space can be repurposed to make cycling safe and user-friendly. It’s so popular that the Greenway is cleared before the roads when it snows.
They’ve also been actively taking space away from cars and giving it to bikes. It’s this radical reallocation that’s been popular in Europe, but has previously been unimaginable in the States.
Perhaps most interestingly, cycling has been used as a means of healing trauma. Following the infamous murder of George Floyd, the city has used cycling as a means of establishing community and overcoming issues around inclusion, as well as racial, economic and social inequalities.
One way this has been seen is by offering fleets of loaner bikes to kids in disadvantaged communities. These steps prove the power of bicycles when it comes to equal opportunities, where bikes aren’t just fun or convenient but have real transformative capabilities.
3. San Francisco, California
San Francisco offers a challenging yet rewarding cycling experience with its iconic hills and scenic routes. The city has created an extensive network of bikeways, bike lanes, and cycle tracks, with 464 miles of designated spaces for bike traffic as of 2021.
The city has also implemented a designated bike plan called the ‘bicycle plan’, which aims to introduce measures to improve cycling conditions in the city. This involves expanding on the existing network, as well as installing improvements to intersections and installing bike parking facilities.
There’s also been a big focus on safety. They’ve prioritized the safety of cyclists by implementing traffic calming measures, reducing the conflicts between cyclists and drivers. This, along with their popular bike sharing program ‘Bay Wheels’ helps to overcome the barriers of accessibility when it comes to cycling safely.
San Francisco also hosts various events such as the “Sunday Streets”, where certain streets are closed for car traffic. This allows people to experience the benefits of a car-free city without commiting. It’s this sort of community engagement which is a crucial part of converting a non-friendly bike city into a bike-friendly one.
4. Seattle, Washington
Seattle is another city that’s made significant improvements to promote cycling and enhance the experience of cyclists. Their comprehensive ‘bicycle master plan’ outlines strategies and initiatives to improve cycling conditions and increase the number of people opting for two wheels instead of four.
Like other cities, this master plan includes projects such as protected bike lanes and neighbourhood greenways. This is all part of their network expansion and interconnection.
Projects such as the CCBN have had enormous success in making cycling safer and more comfortable. The initial goal was to expand the network and separate vulnerable users from moving vehicles. This not only protected existing cyclists but is inspiring a younger generation of younger cyclists.
As the number of protected bike lanes increases, crashes decrease, and bike ridership increases. Truly, this is the hallmark of a bike haven.
Now, the city boasts an extensive network of over 500 miles of bike lanes and paths. This, alongside the number of scenic routes, trails, and waterfront rides, makes Seattle a truly bike-friendly city.
5. Chicago, Illinois
The Windy City is another example of a success story when it comes to cycling.
The Chicago Department of Transport released an updated ‘Cycling Strategy’ to expand the network and make bike riding a safer experience. This is a challenge considering the busy streets of the city. Despite this, there are currently 300 miles of bike lanes alongside the highly popular ‘Lakefront Trail’. Cycling, then, can be pleasurable and convenient in Chicago.
As of March 2023, they’ve envisioned the next 150 miles of bikeways, emphasizing ‘low-stress’ options to make riding as appealing and comfortable as possible. Of these, 85% are protected bike lanes or neighborhood greenways. The focus is on local trips that get people accustomed to using their bikes, even when there’s traffic nearby.
There’s also the ‘Bike the Drive’ event, where cyclists can take over the infamous Lake Shore Drive, usually reserved for motorists.
Chicago has had a rocky history regarding its relationship with cycling, such as the infamous case of 2019 where a cyclist injured after riding into a pothole had her case dismissed because the law didn’t recognize her as an “intended user” of the street.
Since then, there’s been a flurry of legislation attempting to rectify such issues. Chicago isn’t currently the bike-friendliest city on this list, but in the next few years, you might expect it to be.
6. Austin, Texas
Austin is a city known for its laid-back, vibrant cycling culture. Of course, it has a large network of dedicated bike lanes, but there’s a lot more.
The city’s commitment to cycling is exemplified by its educational programs. The Ghisallo Cycling Initiative is a non-profit that provides bicycle education and encouragement in Austin. They hold after-school bike clubs, safety clinics, learn-to-ride programs for youth, and services for older adults and seniors alike. This is succeeding in producing a new generation of cyclists.
There’s also an advocacy group called Bike Austin, a movement that represents the interests of cyclists in Austin. In this regard, they work similarly to a Bicycle Mayor, bridging current and potential cyclists and lawmakers.
For Austin, cycling is part of the broader micro mobility movement. It’s transit integrated bikeshare system sits alongside a comprehensive network of e–scooters and e-mopeds, which has proved to be very popular.
Ranked as the seventh best cycling city in America by Bicycle Magazine, it’s clear that Austin has a great reputation for cycling. The city is on track to increase ridership both among its adult population and with future generations.
7. Cambridge, Massachusetts
Home to two prestigious universities, Harvard and MIT, the student city has embraced cycling as a sustainable and practical option.
Due to its infrastructure, educational programs, and commitment to promoting cycling, it’s been recognized multiple times as the most bike-friendly city in America by the League of American Bicyclists. There’s an extensive network of bike lanes and shared-use paths that mean cycling to campus for students is extremely easy.
There’s also a fantastic bike-sharing system called Bluebikes. The appeal of a bike-sharing system in a city with so many students is clear, as not only those studying but also those visiting have an alternative to driving readily available.
The city also offers various resources and programs to educate and encourage safe cycling, such as the Bicycle Education Program, which provides free bike safety classes for residents. And if that wasn’t enough already, there are also free bike maps available to help cyclists navigate the city securely.
8. Boulder, Colorado
Nestled against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder offers perhaps the most breathtaking setting for cyclists. It’s geography lends itself well to outdoors adventures and mountain biking is one of the most popular recreational activities here by a long way.
But it’s not just the trails that make Boulder good for bikes. Within the city, the bike paths and lanes are numerous, forming a huge network that is not only convenient, but incredibly scenic as well. It’s for both of these reasons that cycling has enjoyed such popularity both in and out of the city.
In fact, Boulder has a reputation as a world-class cycling destination. Thanks to its history of renowned professional cycling events and its role as a training ground for top athletes, the city’s association with professional cycling has influenced the now cycling-friendly atmosphere that can be felt here.
Boulder is a very bike-friendly city because cycling is a part of its identity. It’s a city that has its identity in the great outdoors, and cycling is an intrinsic part of this, both for the active residents and those who come to enjoy its beautiful natural charm. It loves cycling so much, in fact, that its bike-sharing program BCycle, is free for a year for participating students. Who can argue with that?
9. Madison, Wisconsin
Madison is another example of a city recognized for its bike-friendly culture and impressive cycling infrastructure. The city has an extensive network of bike paths and lanes totaling over 60 miles, allowing residents and visitors to easily navigate the city. It’s also expanding this, with plans to add more bike lanes, boulevards, and more comprehensive parking facilities.
While it isn’t the most developed in terms of its cycling infrastructure, it does have a robust cycling culture. Many residents choose bikes to contribute to a healthy outdoor lifestyle, and the city even achieved an infamous platinum designation award in 2015 from the LAB.
The city, or rather its outskirts, also boasts the Lower Yahara River Trail, which is an incredibly popular bike route for all abilities. Its riverside views are unparallelled.
Madison is also helped by its size. Its comparatively small centre means that many trips are short and easily taken by bicycle.
10. New York City, New York
Despite its reputation as the bustling cultural center of the US, NY has made significant progress in creating a bike-friendly environment.
The cities enormous network of bike lanes and paths now totals over 1,200 miles. This network is comprised of protected bike lanes, paths and bike-friendly streets, alongside initiatives to encourage the safe operation of e-bikes.
Safety is a crucial feature of cycling in New York, as the city has a legendary reputation for being congested and car-centered. Thankfully, the NYC Department of Transport (DOT) has gone to great lengths to increase signage, calm traffic, and designate bike lanes. These are all steps in the right direction, but cycling in New York can still be scary.
No one is more aware of these limitations than Courtney Williams; NY’s own bicycle mayor. But, she’s not only advocating cyclists’ safety -as well as promoting responsible cycling- she’s also making it a more bike-friendly city for marginalised communities.
Her efforts, such as the ‘Big Fix Day’, where free bicycle repairs were given to those in need, have helped to provide cycling opportunities to people of color who have accessibility issues when it comes to cycling.
For a city to be bike-friendly, everyone must be welcome to cycle. It’s people like Williams that are leading the way when it comes to establishing such a vision.
America’s Most Improved Cycling City
While many cities have made remarkable strides in becoming more bike-friendly, one city stands out as America’s most improved cycling city: Los Angeles.
In recent years, Los Angeles has made remarkable progress in transforming itself into a more bike-friendly city. The city government has invested millions of dollars in expanding cycling infrastructure, such as the construction of new bike lanes and the implementation of safer cycling designs, resulting in a significant increase in cyclists on the road.
This infrastructure not only connects neighbourhoods in the centre, but even links LA to surrounding areas, such as Long Beach and Santa Monica, making cycling a more viable option not just for short trips but for long distance ones as well.
Probably the most significant effort made in LA is that of Vision Zero; a program that aims to eliminate all traffic related fatalities by 2025. Traffic laws are being enforced more regularly against motorists, and dangerous driving behaviours which seem to be endemic in LA are being penalised more frequently. With more than 200 people killed each year by traffic, and half of those deaths being cyclists or pedestrians, it’s clear that something has to be done.
Against all odds, LA is going to great lengths to make itself a bicycle-friendly city. Its progress serves as a model for other cities of what is capable in a reasonably short time. While it still isn’t perfect and has a long way to go compared to the UK or other European countries, increasing public involvement, governmental support and collective action are all contributing to making it a great place for cyclists.