Pedaling through a major U.S. city is not only for daredevil bike messengers. With high gas prices and warm weather on the horizon, there's never been a better time to hope on a bicycle, especially on vacation. "It's also a way to be really local," suggests Nicole Freedman, Director of Bicycling Programs for the city of Boston, "because when you bike you can stop wherever you want, you can talk to people."
Urban areas across America are establishing bike lanes and trails at an unprecedented pace, and though U.S. cities may still be playing catch-up when it comes to bike-share programs (the Velib system in Paris, launched in 2007, already includes 18,000 bikes at 1,200 stations), many handy hop-on-hop-off systems are already functioning on this side of the pond. Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. all have successful bike shares in place, while New York City, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg are launching high-profile programs within the next few years.
Along with established or in the works bike shares, our Top 10 Cities for Cycling, all with populations over 100,000, feature an abundance of great rental shops, municipal bike racks, exciting trails, and dedicated bike lanes.
Katie Adamson of Visit Denver says that the 300,000 rides logged during the three-year (and counting) lifespan Denver's bike-share program have translated into 13.5 million burned calories, a $990,000 savings on gas and parking, and 1.1 million pounds of greenhouse gases avoided. Yep, biking is good for our health, our pocketbooks, and our planet.
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Austin is a bike lover's mecca: The city estimates that more than 6,000 people ride bikes here each day. The Lance Armstrong Bikeway connects East and West Austin with a dedicated bike path (4.6 miles of the planned 6-mile path is now complete), and the Barton Creek Greenbelt offers a 7-mile mountain biking trail right in the heart of the city. These are just two of the reasons Austin is the only city in Texas to be recognized as a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. "The city has earned this prestigious spot by excelling in bicycle education, evaluation, and enforcement," says Steve Alberts, communications manager at the Texas Convention and Visitors Bureau. Thanks to a partnership between the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop, Austin's bike share program is on track to launch in late spring or early summer 2013 with about 400 bikes located at kiosks in downtown and East Austin. For now, temporary bike-share programs are available during special events, like the annual SXSW festival. If you don't have a bike and have trouble hailing a cab after the bars close, hop onto one of the city's numerous pedicabs - drivers work for tips, and will be happy to point out the best nightspots.
155 miles of bike lanes and 170 miles of off-road, multi-use trails
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Take a spin around Lady Bird Lake (known to locals as Town Lake), a reservoir on the Colorado River that runs through downtown Austin, offering 10 miles of trails.
Not long ago, Boston was often cited as one of the worst cities for biking. Dismayed by the title, Mayor Tom Menino started the Boston Bikes initiative in 2007 headed by former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman. In the past six years, Beantown has created over 60 miles of bike lanes (up from just 60 yards), installed 2,500 bike parking spaces and 850 bike racks, and established numerous city-wide programs to promote cycling and bike safety. The city recently ranked number one in the country for safety for bikers and pedestrians by the Alliance for Biking & Walking, and carries silver-level status as a bike-friendly community from the League of American Bicyclists. The New Balance Hubway bike-share program debuted in summer 2011, garnering 100,000 rides in the first 10 weeks. In 2012, Hubway expanded into neighboring Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, and has hopes to winterize its stations by the end of 2013.
52.2 miles of bikeways
Rent a Bike
The Hubway bike-share system – with over 1,000 bikes and 100 stations – costs $5 for one day or $12 for three days. The first half-hour of your ride is free; then it’s an additional $2 for up to an hour, $6 for up to 90 minutes, and $14 for up to 2 hours of riding.
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“I think a hidden gem is Harborwalk,” says Nicole Freedman, Director of Bicycling Programs for the City of Boston. “It’s a stunning view of the city. Absolutely stunning.”
In his first year as mayor of America’s third largest metropolis, Rahm Emanuel laid out ambitious plans to “make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the country.” To that end, “Rhambo” has proposed a 645-mile network of bike paths, with at least one path within a half-mile of every Chicago resident. Today, the city already boasts over 13,000 bike racks, more than any other U.S. city, as well as one of the best dedicated urban bike paths around: The 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail. The path takes bikers through several popular parks and attractions, with sweeping skyline views around every bend. Several high-capacity bike parking areas are located throughout the city, including many of the city’s rail stations and at Millennium Park, where the state-of-the-art McDonald’s Cycle Center even offers showers and lockers. And when it comes to bike-share programs, things have never looked brighter for the Windy City: the city is in the late stages of its Bike 2015 plan, which aims to make cycling an integral part of city life by installing new bike-positive programs and policies. Chi-town also contracted with Alta Bicycle Share to make a whopping 4,000 bikes available at 400 solar-powered, self-service stations in 2013.
170 miles of on-street protected, buffered, and shared bike lanes, and dozens of miles of off-street paths (including the Lakefront Trail)
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Bike and Roll Chicago has been operating on Chicago's lakefront for 19 years at top Chicago destinations such as Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Wabash & Wacker (across from Trump Tower), North Avenue Beach, and historic Hyde Park (President Obama's neighborhood). Rates for one of their new Trek models start at $10/hour and $35/day (save $5 on the daily rate by booking online). The same company operates Chicago B-cycle, a system of seven self-service bike rental stations, with rates starting at $5/hour and increasing by $2.50 every half hour; after 4 hours, the $20/day rate applies.
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“Though a bit off the standard tourist track, the Illinois Institute of Technology has world-class architecture that definitely makes a worthwhile visit…” suggests Jeremy Rothschild, director of marketing for Chicago B-cycle. “The campus boasts several buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe, Rem Koolhaas, and Helmut Jahn.” From Grant Park, travel south along the Lakefront Trail and make a right at East 31st Street, then continue a mile to the IIT campus, home of two B-cycle bike-share stations.
“Biking is a great way to explore Denver,” says Katie Adamson, a public relations coordinator at Visit Denver. “Visitors can take a B-cycle to almost every major attraction in the city.” The B-cycle bike-share program, one of the first of its kind in the nation, provides access to the riverfront, the Denver Botanic Gardens, City Park, downtown shopping areas, and the Golden Triangle museum district. The weather is great for cycling, too, with blooming trees and flowers in the spring, community bicycle events in the summer, and abundant fall foliage (B-cycle stations are closed from December to March). Denver has the added bonus of being 30 miles from Boulder, another great bike-friendly city. Denver’s smaller, outdoor-loving neighbor has its own, more extensive B-cycle share program, plus hundreds of miles of downtown bike lanes and mountain biking trails. Even the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a two-year-old professional bike race on par with Tour de France, deems both cities excellent for biking. The seven-day race begins in southwestern Colorado, travels through several Rocky Mountain towns, including Boulder, and ends dramatically with a time-trial finish in downtown Denver. Free for spectators, the 2013 challenge will be held from August 19-25.
850 miles of off-street paved trails, plus hundreds of miles of bike lanes and dirt trails
Rent a Bike
The base day rate at Denver B-cycle bike share starts at $8, with reasonable usage fees accruing after the first 30 minutes: $1 for 30-60 minutes after checkout and $4 for each additional 30 minutes. You can pick up and drop off your B-cycle at any of the 52 stations around town.
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The Cherry Creek Bike Path, which is lined with cherry blossoms in the spring, passes through the Cherry Creek Shopping District as well as Castlewood Canyon State Park and the Cherry Creek State Recreation Area.
Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota
Minneapolis and St. Paul's emergence as a bike-friendly superstar coincided with a general plan to make the area more livable. “Fifteen years ago almost no one lived downtown,” says Bill Dossett, executive director of the Nice Ride bike-share program. Today, downtown apartments have some of the highest occupancy rates around, a light rail line connects downtown Minneapolis with the University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul, and Bicycling Magazine calls Minneapolis one of the best biking city in the country. Launched three years ago, Nice Ride had over 100,000 rides in 2010 and over 217,000 rides in 2011; rentals will start again this April. Nice Ride is adding 24 new stations to the Twin Cities in 2013, bringing the grand total to 170. The cities host bike-themed events “almost every weekend,” says Dossett, from scavenger hunts to organized rides to cycling races. A recent report found cycling and pedestrian traffic in Minneapolis and St. Paul has increased dramatically since 2007, with 56 percent more bikers and 22 percent more walkers hitting the streets. “All of these things are happening at the same time that we’ve made this great investment in the last five years,” says Dossett. “You bring all of that together and I think our future is very bright.”
92 miles of on-street bikeways and 85 miles of off-street bikeways
Rent a Bike
A 24-hour subscription to the Nice Ride bike-share program costs $6, after which you can ride for free for the first 30 minutes. Fees are $1.50 for up to an hour, $4.50 for up to 90 minutes, and $6 for each additional half hour after that.
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For visitors staying near the Convention Center, cruise down the Nicollet Mall then head over to the river and across the Stone Arch Bridge, a pedestrian- and bike-only bridge with a view of the St. Anthony Falls. “That’s just a great route to see the Old Mill District, to see the new Guthrie Theater, to see the river, and to see downtown from the Nicollet Mall,” says Dossett.
New York City
Conventional wisdom holds that biking in car-clogged New York City is a fool’s errand best personified by the plucky bike messenger weaving in and out of Midtown traffic (not always successfully). Two-wheeling it in Manhattan is a giddy experience, and riders can get their adrenaline rush safely thanks, in part, to the city’s recent bike boom. New York is home to the country’s first bike path - opened in 1894 and stretching over five miles from Prospect Park to Coney Island via Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway - but the city has long welcomed bikers with its relatively flat terrain and dense urban proximities. Since 1993, the city has created over 100 miles of car-free greenways linking parks and communities in all five boroughs, and over the past four years 260 miles of bike lanes have been added. Ridership has increased 20 percent over the last decade, with the NYC Department of Health estimating that over a half million New Yorkers now ride bikes. What’s next? An extensive bike-share system Citi Bike (operated from Alta Bicycle Share) will open this summer with 600 stations and 10,000 bikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “Once the stations and bikes are in place it's just a matter of time before the word spreads that, if used correctly, bike sharing can be the fastest, cheapest, and most fun way to get around town,” says Brogan Graham of Alta Bicycle Share. Riders will be able to walk up to any station, swipe a credit card at the solar powered terminal, and get on the go.
260 miles of bike lanes and 100+ miles of car-free greenways
Rent a Bike
Until the bike-share program kicks off, try New York's Waterfront Bicycle Shop, located in the heart of the West Village near Hudson River Park. Cruisers, hybrids, and mountain bikes can be rented at $10/hour, $40 for 24 hours, or $100 for the week. Best of all, the shop is located across the street from the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a 32-mile bike path that circles the island. Free bikes are offered to guests at many city hotels, including the Bowery Hotel, the Jane, James Hotel, the Nolitan, and the Maritime, among others.
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“I still love crossing any of the bridges over into Brooklyn,” says Graham. “The return back over is also exciting; it never gets old. Family members in Harlem always love to push the path along the West Side Highway. Calm, safe, relaxing – some days that can be the perfect pedal fix.” We also recommend participating in the city’s Summer Streets program, when nearly seven miles of streets, from Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park, are closed to automobile traffic and opened for biking and walking on three consecutive Saturdays in August.
It makes sense that Portland, a city with the highest percentage of bicycle commuters, would also be a great bike city for travelers. Serious cyclers will notice as soon as they touch down at PDX, where they'll see the on-site airport bike assembly station. More casual bikers might observe Portland drivers behave a bit differently than back home: “Everyone who visits will notice that cars will stop in the middle of the road for you,” says Todd Roll, owner of Pedal Bike Tours. Portland is one of only three cities nationwide (and the only one with a population over 200,000) to be designated at the platinum level for bike-friendly communities by the League of American Bicyclists. The city has 97 on-street bicycle parking corrals (with space for 10-20 bikes each), and numerous resources for mapping your route, both in paper form and online. Plans are moving forward for a bike-share program to launch in spring 2014. An ambitious citywide initiative will increase the bikeable network to nearly 1,000 miles of bikeways by 2030, as well as expand bike parking options, update street signs, and promote bike safety and education so that Portland continues to be as bike-friendly as possible. “We may be number one in North America, but we’re laughable compared to Europe or Asia,” says Roll.
319 miles of bikeways, including bike lanes, greenways, paved park paths, and cycle tracks, and the city plans to install another 50 miles within the next few years.
Rent a Bike
There are over a dozen shops that rent cycles, from vintage wheels to tandem bicycles to mountain bikes. Try Portland Bicycle Tours ($5 for 1 hour) or Pedal Bike Tours ($8 for 1 hour) for low-cost rentals and fun guided rides throughout the city.
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“The very first place that we send people from the shop when they rent bikes is the Eastbank Esplanade riverfront loop,” says Roll. “Those are beautiful, scenic, natural rides.”
San Francisco is one of the most popular biking cities in the country. “Biking is a great way to discover the hidden corners of the city and travel like a local,” says Kristin Smith, the Communications Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “San Francisco is a compact city, with an extensive bicycle route system, most of which avoid our famous San Francisco hills.” In fact, in the last five years the number of people biking in the city has increased by 71 percent. With over 200 miles of routes and more added all the time (25 miles of bike lanes within the last two years), plus plenty of bicycle parking racks, spaces, and garages, it’s no wonder that the bike-obsessed City by the Bay is so often explored on two wheels. What’s more, the year-round mild temperatures make for great biking weather (although watch out for winter rains). The best time for biking is on Sunday mornings for Sunday Streets events, when different neighborhood streets are closed to cars to encourage biking, walking, and free yoga and tai-chi group events. Alta Bicycle Share will also launch 700 bikes and 70 stations throughout the city and surrounding area this summer.
200+ miles of designated bike routes
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If you're unwilling to wait for the bike share launch, rent a bike from Parkwide Bike Rentals and Tours, a service similar to a bike share but with rental locations in the city parks only. Visitors can pick up a bike in one park and drop it off in another, with rates starting at $14/hour.
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Bike the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park, which has paths on both sides of the bridge and which is closed to vehicles on Sundays, leaving it completely open to bikers and pedestrians.
St. Petersburg, Florida
The Sunshine State is putting in efforts to make two-wheeled transportation easier, safer, more frequent, and more fun. St. Petersburg’s hard work is particularly notable, and as the city's Director of Transportation Joe Kubicki states, “Our relatively flat terrain, temperate climate, and great cycling infrastructure with plenty of trails and road facilities make it an excellent choice for visitors.” St. Pete is striving to make the city better for biking all the time. It has been designated a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly City by the League of American Bicyclists since 2006 and have been working to raise their status, from providing more bike parking to connecting the recreational trails and street lanes. The city is also discussing the launch of a bike sharing program that could be implemented as early as this fall, so you can enjoy the beautiful waterfront parks and beaches, as well as the popular downtown shopping areas, from the comfort of your cycle.
35 miles of bike trails and 75 miles of on-street bike lanes
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The Pinellas Trail stretches 47 miles from downtown St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. It spans an abandoned railroad corridor through parks and along coastal areas, oak glades, waterways, and tidal streams. The downtown St. Pete portion of the Pinellas passes Rail Switch Park, the Morean Arts Center for Clay (in the Historic Seaboard Train Station), and Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays.
As the first major U.S. city to implement a bike-share program, Washington, D.C. is ideal for bikers. Even politicians making the trip from Capitol Hill to the White House can opt for pedal power thanks to new bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue. In recent years, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has created nearly 56 miles of new bike lanes and installed over 2,300 bike racks throughout the metropolitan area. Whether you’re commuting from the suburbs of Maryland or Virginia, or a tourist who wants to cruise down past the Mall's cherry blossoms, the nation’s capital has a plentitude of trails and bike lanes. Capital Bikeshare, the country’s first bike-share program, is open year-round, 24 hours a day, with 175 stations and over 1,670 bikes. “Bike sharing has transformed transportation in D.C.,” says James Sebastian, Supervisory Transportation Planner at the DDOT. “People can make one-way bike trips without worrying about what to do with their bike on the next trip of their day.” For those with either their own or rented bikes, Bikestation Washington D.C., located near Union Station, offers indoor bike parking facilities, restrooms and showers, lockers, bike repair stations, easy access to public transportation, and bike rentals.
109 miles of trails, bike lanes, and cycle tracks
Rent a Bike
Visit the Capital Bikeshare website to search for bike kiosks before you travel – then pick up a bike and get going. After an initial membership fee ($7 for 24 hours or $15 for 3 days) it’s free for the first 30 minutes; rates start at $2 for one hour, and $6 for 90 minutes.
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Pick up a bike in Georgetown and then bike along the Potomac River on the C&O Canal path all the way to Great Falls, Maryland, for a glimpse at the juxtaposition of urban Georgetown and the beautiful, natural falls. Sebastian suggests Rock Creek Park, the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac River in Virginia, and bikeable neighborhoods like Shaw, Capitol Hill, and Dupont Circle.