The Next Great Biking Cities

How these 5 cities are excelling at getting more people on bikes.

Photo by Kristen Steele, courtesy of Alliance for Biking and Walking

Photo by Kristen Steele, courtesy of Alliance for Biking and Walking

For years, the growth in bicycle commuting in the auto-centric United States was like a slow and steady climb up a steep, winding hill. But recently, biking to work is picking up speed, with the wind at its back, thanks to more cities becoming bicycle friendly.

Sure, the numbers are still small – less than 1 percent of all American workers arrive by bike – but from 2011 to 2012 alone, there was a 10 percent jump in the number of bicycle commuters. “Both bicycling for all trip purposes and bike commuting are increasing in the US,” confirmed Ralph Buehler, a top bike researcher and associate professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech. “We especially see these increases in bike commuting in cities that promote cycling with infrastructure and programs that encourage cycling.”

In November 2013, the League of American Bicyclists published “Where We Ride,” to highlight the cities that, in a range of different categories, are showing the strongest gains according to the American Community Survey. While Portland, OR, remains the

most notable cycling city in the US, having skyrocketed its bike commute mode share from 1 to 6 percent over the past two decades, there are many other cities getting more people traveling to work on two wheels.


If women are the indicator species for bicycle-friendly cities, Spokane Valley is evolving into a top-notch cycling region. In 2012, Spokane Valley had the highest share of female commuters at more than 67 percent. While cities nationwide are grappling with the challenge of gender parity, local advocates and officials in Spokane Valley can’t put their finger on what exactly is getting more women on wheels in their community. But a growing network of bike facilities, relatively low traffic volumes, and a new area bike map could all be contributors. “Also, the Spokane River Centennial Trail runs all the way from north Idaho through the Valley and into downtown Spokane,” said Barbara Chamberlain, the executive director of Washington Bikes. “It provides a great spine, much of it separated, that could help give women a place to ride that gets them started.”


In the San Francisco Bay Area, Palo Alto is proving that bicycling is a viable mode of transportation for all ages. With a median age of 42, the Silicon Valley hub tops the list of average oldest population cities with impressive bicycle mode share, with nearly 1 in 10 residents riding to work in 2012. “We’ve reduced the barriers to crossing major intersections, upgraded public pathways, and improved collector and local streets to encourage more ‘interested but concerned’ residents to try biking to work,” said Kathy Durham, the City’s Safe Routes

to School Coordinator. “The response has been a noticeable increase in the number of bicyclists of all ages.” And it’s not just the City that’s making a big push for bike commuting with long-standing events like Bike to Work Day: “Local and regional employers, including Stanford University as well as many Silicon Valley companies, are also active promoters of bicycle commuting,” Durham added.


With 2.3 percent of workers commuting by bike, the City of Brotherly Love has embraced bicycling in a big way – and risen to the top for cities with more than 1 million residents. In Philly, what’s happening on the pavement – innovative facilities, expanded bike parking and more – is the result of important partnerships weaving together bicycling and economic growth. “We’ve been effective at partnering with Mayor Nutter’s administration to build key bike lanes connecting neighborhoods,” said Nicholas Mirra, communications manager for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “Economic growth in the city core is also creating jobs within four miles (6.4 kilometers) of many residential neighborhoods, making bicycle commuting more attractive. And a growing network of regional trails, the Circuit, is boosting recreational riding and that may be serving as an entry point to other types of riding.”


As the former city mayor and current director of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation, Dave Cieslewicz knows that bicycling is at the heart of Madison’s culture. With more than half of arterial streets boasting bike facilities and a city crew dedicated specifically to keeping those cycling amenities clear of snow and debris, it’s no wonder Madison has risen to Gold Bicycle Friendly Community. But, according to Cieslewicz, the Wisconsin capital tops the cities with cold climates largely because of its personality. “It’s part of our progressive culture, concern for the environment and rugged, Midwest outdoorsy nature,” he said. “People in Madison take it as a challenge to stay active and outdoors even during the depths of winter. Of course, we also lead the nation in the consumption of brandy, so that helps, too!”


Congress may be in gridlock, but bicycling is speeding ahead in the US capital. Over the past two decades, the share of bicycle commuters has surged more than 440 percent, boosting the District to third place among large cities with more than 4 percent of workers traveling by bike. That growth has been propelled by a wealth of amenities for bicyclists, including the nation’s first large-scale bike sharing system, Capital Bikeshare; a growing network of innovative infrastructure like protected and buffered bike lanes, even on iconic streets like Pennsylvania Avenue; and an abundance of area trails and group rides that give new and veteran cyclists the weekend opportunities that often translate to everyday riding. And local advocates, including the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and Black Women Bike DC, are working to ensure the benefits of bicycling are accessible to more of the District’s communities.


  • Reno Rambler

    Reno is still flying under the radar as far as people being unaware of what a great bike city it is.

  • Michael Andersen

    Was going to link to the impressive Spokane Valley finding in BikePortland’s Monday Roundup but it looks like this is just statistical noise. The 2012 estimate for female bike commuters is 310, plus or minus 273; the estimate for male bike commuters is 149, plus or minus 165. Statistically meaningless, unfortunately. If you look at the more accurate 2008-2012 data, the estimated gender balance flips to 55 percent male: pretty good but still sadly familiar.

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