Why You Should Explore Cities by Bike

Cycling through a new city is an experience for all of your senses as you happen upon all of the intricacies of the local urban culture.

Photo by  Lig Ynnek

Photo by Lig Ynnek

There is something inexplicably thrilling about using a bicycle to explore a strange new city, its streets pulsating with life. The glass and steel of buildings shimmer with a certain magic, street life seems more vibrant and the smells and sounds of a metropolis at full tilt threaten to overwhelm your senses. When you’re on a bicycle, you can’t help but feel completely alive and immersed in the moment. Instead of merely gazing passively through window glass, you experience and interact with a place in an immediate way.

On a bike, you’re privy to the slight inclines of city streets, you can smell restaurants before you see them, and you can hear the different languages that are spoken in different neighborhoods. Cities provide fascinating opportunities to explore new cultures and ideas, and what better way to make these new discoveries than by bicycle?

Since we began traveling by bicycle, we’ve spent considerable portions of that time in cities. We’ve visited and explored many urban centers by bike, including Portland, OR; Tucson, AZ; Austin, TX; and most recently, Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand. Every time we enter a city, we’re filled with excitement about seeing what it’s “really like.” When you drive through a city, you often experience only the start and end destinations. The joy of riding a bike through a city is that you realize it’s not a homogenous place; it’s an intricately connected tapestry of neighborhoods, businesses, open spaces and people.

Have Food, Will Travel

As we’ve traveled by bicycle, there have been dozens of times where we’ve stopped in our tracks after catching the aroma of kebabs cooking on a grill, freshly roasted coffee or the distinct smell of brewing beer. When you’re traveling on a bicycle, you simply must stop to eat, which is when it’s nice to be traveling in a city, because your choices are endless.

We’re a little embarrassed to admit it, but on our last big bicycle tour around the US, we would often detour from our route to hit the restaurants and diners we saw on the Food Network. Watching those shows was how we stumbled upon the “Texas BBQ Trail” and ended up on an Odyssean quest for the best barbecue. From Llano to Lockhart (the self-proclaimed barbecue capital of Texas), we sampled ribs and brisket, standing in long lines in hallowed and smoke-filled eateries, and inevitably starting up a conversation with fellow barbecue lovers seated next to us at the communal tables. Sometimes, the best way to find good eats (and make a new friend) is to ask. One such conversation in Terlingua Ghost Town led us to the small pink food cart that is Kathy’s Kosmic Kowgirl Kafe. Another conversation led us to Julio’s, a local institution in Austin, TX, known for amazing roasted chickens.

Exploring food culture, of course, doesn’t necessarily have to mean eating. As you cycle through a city, you can stop for a cooking lesson or a wine tasting. We were invited to join some folks for a bicycle ride and coffee cupping in Durham, NC, and spent an hour learning how to pick out the subtle flavors and smells in a simple cup of coffee. In Bend, OR, after taking a spin around town we pedaled to the Deschutes brewery where we signed up for a brewery tour. The staff was friendly and let us park our bikes inside the conference room. We got to taste the raw materials that made beer, see where their beer was bottled and, of course, got to sample some of the finished product.

Art on Wheels

Believe it or not, cycling through a city is a great way to experience some of its art. Whether it’s a museum, neighborhood or sculpture on the street, there are great opportunities to feed your creative side. And getting there by bicycle means you can get there faster without having to find parking. You can ride from one area to another. When you find something interesting, you can simply dismount and take a closer look.

Portland is not only rich with bicycle culture, but also with incredible (and often interactive) public art. You can take a trip to the world’s smallest park, which is a scant two feet in diameter. Or watch the strange egg beater sculpture as it sways in the wind in the middle of a triangular traffic island by Powell’s Books.

In Tucson, AZ, you can actually ride your bike on some public art, for example, a bicycle bridge shaped like a giant rattlesnake. As you ride through the snake’s mouth, the bridge makes a rattling sound. Or pedal to the more serious and somber “Bike Church.” Painted white and made from bicycle parts, the bike church resembles a steampunk gazebo and was erected as a memorial to fallen cyclists.

We often gravitate towards art districts when we explore cities by bike. Neighborhoods with a concentration of cafes, pubs, galleries and younger people are often bicycle-friendly. Long Beach, CA, boasts five distinct “bicycle-friendly business districts” – areas of the city that are trying to accommodate cyclists by providing bike parking and offering select discounts. Retro Row on 4th Street features two community institutions where you can always strike up a conversation and hear some good live music: Portfolio Coffeehouse and Open Bookstore.

Visiting a city by bicycle doesn’t have to be about spending money or gorging yourself on food. Often, a great adventure can be had by simply seeking out a city’s bike paths. Cities often construct bike paths to show off the best of the city and demonstrate civic pride. Pedaling your way down one of these paths can take you through some of the most notable parts of a city, often complemented by beautiful public art and historic plaques. One of our favorite such paths follows the river in Chattanooga, TN. Not only do you have gorgeous natural scenery to admire, you’re also treated to dozens of unique sculptures that were commissioned by the city.

In Wellington, NZ, the waterfront has a shared-use path that winds around the coastline along a seawall. As you ride you’ll pass several cafes, small sandy beaches with people swimming, the Te Papa cultural museum and public art inspired by local Maori culture. In one afternoon you can see some of a city’s highlights, grab a bite to eat and get some fresh air – all on a bike.

Bike Shop Bingo

One of our favorite things to do when we visit a city is to stop by the local bicycle shops. While it sounds like a geeky endeavor, bike shops are great destinations if you’re visiting from out of town because they will often know the best bike routes and are knowledgeable about places to explore with your bike. Many cities now offer cycling maps, which highlight cyclist-friendly roads around town, and local bike shops often have copies on hand. Joining a local bike ride can be a great way to spend an evening and make new friends, especially if there’s a slower-paced social ride. Ask the shop employees about any community rides – sometimes you’ll luck out and hear about a once-in-a-lifetime local cycling event.

If you didn’t bring a bike with you, many bike shops also rent out bikes by the hour or day. The Bike Center, a new bike parking and service station located in the heart of Santa Monica, CA, rents out a variety of bikes. You can rent a hybrid-style bike for a leisurely cruise down the beach path or a drop bar road bike to tackle the local hills (they also have maps of great local rides available). Pedal Bike Tours in Portland, OR, runs many guided, themed bicycle tours. They provide the bicycle and guide, you provide the pedal power. You can do a “Historic Downtown” tour to learn about the architecture; a “Bites by Bike” tour where you sample artisan coffee, breads and cheeses; and, of course, a “Brewery Tour” where you visit some of the 40 different nearby breweries.

If you’re going to be in a city for a few weeks, you could always buy a bike. Craigslist and community bike shops are a good source for “extended rental” bikes. When you’re done, you can either donate the bike back to the bike co-op or sell it online!

Is It Safe?

A big concern about riding in a new city is safety. Unfamiliar traffic in a new place can be quite intimidating. Each city has two sets of traffic rules: the stated ones and the unspoken rules. It behooves you to be aware of both! If the city has a bike advocacy group, they will usually have information regarding laws about riding bikes in their city. Many cities have strict laws against riding on the sidewalk. Some cities have bus lanes that are also shared by bikes. Some cities expect you to ride on the left side of a one-way street, others on the right.

The unspoken rules of traffic are more interesting and take closer observation to discern. To get a sense of how traffic moves and interacts with bicycles, sometimes we will walk a few blocks in the city center and just observe. Are drivers generally aware of pedestrians and bikes? Which streets seem to have the most bike traffic (generally a good indicator of what streets to ride)? By taking a short walk on the sidewalk you can gradually become acclimatized to the new traffic environment, instead of trying to make sense of it while dodging car doors.

In our recent adventure in New Zealand, we spent a few weeks in Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand’s largest cities. New Zealand is one of the few countries where people drive on the left side of the road. Our brains were so used to riding our bikes on the right side of the road that we experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance. It seemed completely improbable to ride on the left and every time we ventured on the street, we kept half expecting to meet a car head-on! For the first few days in the country we did a lot more walking than riding, making sense of the traffic patterns and signs, watching how other cyclists rode and what streets they took. After about a week, we were confident navigating the streets, riding around roundabouts and making tricky right turns.

It seems counter-intuitive, but we have found that when traffic is at its worst in cities, bicycling actually feels safer. Traffic speeds are slower and you can easily keep up with gridlocked cars. That’s not to say it is always pleasant. The noise and fumes are nauseating, but you have the time to look at all the buildings and neighborhoods you are riding past. When traffic has come to an unbearable standstill, we will often become pedestrians and just walk on the sidewalk. That is another supreme advantage of riding a bicycle in a city: if you want to walk around, you can simply leave traffic at a moment’s notice, and do so without circling endlessly to find a place to park.

One thing to be keenly aware of, however, is bike theft. Nothing can end and ruin a bicycle trip quite like getting your bike and belongings stolen while you’re doing a quick run to the grocery store or grabbing a coffee. If you’re traveling with a partner, it’s often good practice to take turns going into shops. It’s wise to carry a small U-lock if you plan to leave your bike unattended for any period of time. If you happen to have forgotten yours, some bike shops may be willing to loan or rent you a lock. You might also consider using theft-deterring security skewers for your wheels and saddle. If you’re staying at a motel or hotel, bring your bike with you into your room if possible. Some forward-thinking hotels are even going the extra step and offering rental bikes for guests to use, so you can leave yours at home.

New Urban Frontiers

The new generation of urban cyclists knows that the best way to experience a place is on two wheels. As more people discover the love of bicycling in their own cities, it is a natural progression to want to explore other cities by bicycle as well. Whether you are traveling on business or on vacation, there are more options than ever before to experience your final destination by bicycle. You can bring your own bike or rent one when you get there. You can ride to find the best hamburger in town or ride to take in some local culture and sights. You can ride with a tour group or explore by yourself. Just because you’re going to a strange new city doesn’t mean you have to hang up the helmet. If anything, it’s a unique opportunity to experience a city in a way that will leave you with a deeper sensory impression. Pedal on!

Russ Roca and Laura Crawford sold all their possessions to travel the world by bicycle in 2009 and started PathLessPedaled.com. Traveling on their tiny Bromptons, they’ve explored bicycle cultures and bicycle advocacy groups in various cities.

2 Comments

  • Linda Coburn

    Great article here. I’d like to add that electric bikes are a fantastic way to extend the bicycle sightseeing option to those who are unable (or just unwilling) to pedal for any length of time. There are more than 50 Pedego Electric Bike stores throughout the US that rent electric bikes and many offer self-guided or guided tours to local area attractions.

  • Felipe Lavalle

    Thought it might be of interest to your riders that there’s a new bike tour start-up out of Brooklyn NYC called Get Up and Ride. They organize small group guided tours of Brooklyn’s trendy waterfront neighborhoods. Much of what you talk about in the article is exactly what our guide stressed throughout the tour, that cycling is the really the best was to experience a city. The tour really felt like a casual bike ride with friends and they showcased authentic parts of Brooklyn that you’d never get to see otherwise. I recommend you check it out! http://www.getupandride.com

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