I’ve recently moved from the ’burbs to Brooklyn, from car culture to bike culture, and now I realize what a fast, easy, and efficient mode of transportation biking is. Plus, I get some exercise while pedaling around town. My neighborhood is just starting to put in better bike paths around Prospect Park, but these other international cities have been cycling paradises for decades.
5. Portland, Oregon: Bike Safety Is Our Goal
General population: 533,492
Biking population: In a country where only 0.4 percent of commuters use a bike, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 American Community Survey, Portland ranks number one on the top ten list of most bike commuters per city, with 3.5 percent of residents cycling to work. In some neighborhoods in this city, according to Virgin-Vacations.com’s list of the most bike-friendly cities worldwide, 9 percent of residents are on bikes.
Bike-friendliness: Portland’s bicycle network has grown from 60 to 250 miles since the early 1990s. In that time, bicycle use has quadrupled, with no increase in bike crashes. This astonishing statistic is probably due to Portland’s strong bike culture and, beginning in 2000, the Create a Commuter Program. The program, which helps qualifying low-income adults view cycling as an inexpensive and reliable mode of transportation and provides five hours of instruction in bike maintenance and safety skills, along with a fully outfitted commuter bicycle—lights, lock, helmet, pump, tool kit, map, and even rain gear—for free to participants.
Reasons to look up from the handlebars: Pedaling through Portland, aka the River City, you can see more than sixty LEED-certified green buildings; go pub crawling in the city with the most microbreweries per capita in the world (though beer and biking don’t really go together); cross the city’s many bridges; visit the International Rose Test Garden, the oldest playground in Oregon; and observe an amazing variety of plant species, which bloom all over the city, thanks to Portland’s volcanic soil.
4. Barcelona, Spain: Take a Bike, Leave a Bike
General population: 1.6 million
Biking population: More than thirty thousand Barcelonese commute by bicycle.
Bike-friendliness: The Bicing Service, which began in 2007, allows residents and tourists of Barcelona to apply for a card that allows them to take a bicycle from any of the one hundred stations spread throughout the metropolitan area, use it within the city limits, and return it to another station. There’s also a “green ring” bike path surrounding the city proper, and 3,250 parking spaces for bicycles at street level. (The city is in the process of building a large bicycle garage underground.) There are two weeks devoted to the bicycle in Barcelona: Sustainable and Safe Mobility Week in September, which features Car-Free Day, and Bike Week in May, featuring the Festival of the Bicycle. Bikers in the city also enjoy designated street lanes and independent bike paths year-round.
Reasons to look up from the handlebars: The Raval District, the Gothic Quarter, and—of course—the modernist Eixample district with all that Gaudí architecture.
3. Davis, California: Even the Climate Loves Bikers
General population: 65,000
Biking population: Seventeen percent of residents commute by bicycle.
Bike-friendliness: Davis, one of the first U.S. cities to actively start planning for and incorporating bikes into its transportation architecture, according to Virgin-Vacations.com, features one hundred miles of designated bike lanes and paths. It earned platinum status in Bicycle Friendly Community’s list of top cities; the city’s logo is even a bicycle. Because the University of California, Davis, bans almost all street traffic on its property and city residents voted to get rid of public school buses, bicycle commuting is big in the city. And most people don’t mind hopping on their bikes, as the flat terrain and temperate climate make it fun to be a pedal pusher.
Reasons to look up from the handlebars: More than a dozen historic landmarks and architecture from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
2. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: “Bike Capital of the World”
General population: 750,000
Biking population: Forty percent of all traffic in Amsterdam is bike traffic.
Bike-friendliness: Amsterdam, known to many as the bike capital of the world, offers 249 miles (400 kilometers) of fietspaden, designated bike lanes and paths, most of which have their own traffic lights and many of which sport signs that read: “Uitgezonderd” (“except”) to indicate that bikes and scooters are excepted from traffic rules. The city of Amsterdam is also in the process of building a ten-thousand-bike parking garage at the main train station, Amsterdam Centraal.
Reasons to look up from the handlebars: Wooden drawbridges; canals with houseboats; the Museumsplein, with the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum; Dam Square, with the Royal Palace and war museum; the Red Light district, with Nieuw Market, the fashion district, and, um, everything else in the Red Light district; Vondel Park; the Anne Frank house; and the Jordaan district, the old working-class part of town.
1. Copenhagen, Denmark: “City of Bikes”
General population: 1.8 million
Biking population: Thirty-two percent of workers commute by bicycle in Copenhagen.
Bike-friendliness: The city with the sixth-highest quality of life in the world also boasts the most bikers. Coincidence? Probably not. In this “City of Bikes,” nearly every resident owns one. The city offers free public bicycles and designated bike paths with separate signal systems. One neighborhood, the Christiana commune, is completely car-free. And Copenhagen officials plan to double spending on bicycle infrastructure over the next three years, so the best will only get better.
Reasons to look up from the handlebars: Historical and contemporary architecture; Old City Square; Castle Island; Christiansborg Palace; Nyhavn; the Royal Palace; the Little Mermaid; the Citadel; Rosenborg Castle; and the Cathedral of Copenhagen, with sculptures by Bertel Thorvaldsen.
Put Your Pedal to the Medal
Now that I’ve got my cyclist sea legs, I’m eager to try biking around a city renowned for its bike-friendliness. Portland, Barcelona, Davis, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen not only are safe and easy places to pedal around town but offer unique sightseeing by bike as well. How bad could a workday be if it starts with a heart-pumping commute past Christiansborg Palace or Gaudí’s architecture?