With gas prices slowly rising and temperatures across most of the country at comfortable levels, some Americans are leaving the car in the garage and biking to work, or using their two-wheelers to hit the outdoors. It helps, too, that cities small and large are encouraging pedal power by marking new bike lanes.
According to its 2010 Benchmarking Report, the Alliance for Bicycling & Walking, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., several cities across the country are making an effort to increase biker safety through distinctly marked bike lanes. Though most cities don't allocate significant amounts of money to encourage biking — New York City spent approximately $4 million on bike facilities in Fiscal Year 09, 80 percent of which was federal funding — some have long-term plans in place to increase participation.
The cities on our list are those, according to the report, with the greatest percentage of people who ride their bikes to work. If a city has a greater percentage of bicycling commuters, it's therefore more likely to be a bike-friendly city. The Alliance defines “city” as the city proper, not a Metropolitan Statistical Area.
The results were determined using data from the 1990 and 2000 Census, as well as the 2005, 2006 and 2007 American Community Survey, also conducted by the Census Bureau, to see how communities change from year to year rather than decade to decade.
Portland, Ore., tops the list. Its neighbor, Seattle, lands in fourth place. Stephan Shier, owner of Dutch Bike Company in Seattle, says the best bike towns have a solid infrastructure in place, are flat and put a lot of effort into what he calls “traffic calming” effects, such as auto-restricted zones, cul-de-sacs and “chokers,” or longer extensions of curb which encourage drivers to slow down.
The city, he says, is “at least 10 years ahead of all other large American cities.” At several city intersections cars are directed away from bike lanes, not the other way around.
“Portland was a streetcar city,” says Tom Miller, chief of staff for the city's mayor. “We still have the footprint of the dense, walkable and thus bikable city. Many hotels offer free bikes for guests, [and] the city is changing one-car parking spaces to bike corrals that accommodate 12 bikes.”
Joining Portland and Seattle in the top five are Minneapolis, San Francisco and Tucson. The only two northeast cities that make the top 20 are Philadelphia and Boston, though Washington, D.C., comes in seventh. In total, 665,000 people bike to work everyday nationwide, or 0.5 percent of the population. The numbers have climbed slowly but steadily, from under half a million in 1990.
The city of Mesa, Ariz., No. 10, established its first official plan for improving and encouraging biking in 1997, when it had 62.4 miles of paths and over 10 miles of bike lanes. By 2002 there were 40 miles of bike lanes. An additional 10 were added in 2009, according to the city.
What's keeping these numbers from rising faster, says Shier, is that Americans have the wrong perception of biking in general.
“Everybody in the U.S. is biking on modified racing bikes,” says Shier, whose company imports urban two-wheelers built with Scandinavian simplicity and practicality. “Americans believe they need to cycle to work or participate in a weekend trek like Lance Armstrong, wearing spandex and working up a full sweat. But in Europe bikes are the vehicles of the common man. You climb on in your regular clothes and bike away.”
© 2012 Forbes.com