In 2013, Portland hit a major milestone – the city made it through the entire year with zero bicycle fatalities. While this isn’t a new feat for Portland (the city was also cyclist fatality-free in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2006 and 2008), it is representative of a major trend among cities to make bicycling a safe, enjoyable transit solution for ever-growing urban populations. While many cities are still facing significant safety and political pushback on efforts to increase cycling, others have become trailblazers towards making bicycle commuting a common reality.
According to Bicycling.com’s survey of cities with a population greater than 100,000, the top-five bicycle-friendly cities in America this year are Minneapolis, MN (1), Portland, OR (2), Boulder, CO (3), Seattle, WA (4), and Eugene, OR (5). Also making the top-ten list include larger cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago. So, what makes a city bicycle-friendly? The survey used a few standard metrics such as segregated bike lanes, municipal bike racks, savvy bike shops, and commuter rails that allow bikes. But some of these cities also stand out with more innovative cycling safety programs such as indoor bike parking, free bike lights, bike-only areas at traffic signals, free bicycle shuttles around rush hour traffic and valet bicycle parking at events, malls and festivals. Another trend emerging internationally, bicycle superhighways that provide a separate thoroughfare for bike traffic through cities, could provide another way to attract cyclists to city streets. When you make biking as (or more) convenient than driving, people are much more likely to switch out a commute or two each week for the saddle.
Incorporating bicycle commuting into urban transit is rife with benefits. Besides the obvious reduction in pollution and smog by taking cars off the road, there are serious health benefits to encouraging citizens onto bikes. In a study by Danish researcher Legaard Holm, the positive health effects of cycling were more than one third larger than the potential loss of health from accidents and air pollution. Another study found that a driver switching from driving to biking for their daily three mile commute would generate overall health benefits of $1,800 per year, taking into account both the health costs and benefits of bicycling over driving.
Encouraging bicycle commuting has also been shown to provide a big boost to the local economy. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago sees a direct link between the bicycle-friendliness of his city and the attraction of new entrepreneurial startups. The city moved from tenth to fifth most bike-friendly city in the country the same year that it moved from fifteenth to tenth in worldwide startup economy. In Long Beach, CA, bicycle commuting has been shown to increase the patronage of local businesses. When residents hop on a bike instead of a car, they are more likely to stay closer to home and support small businesses. This connection is leading to the emergence of what are being called Bicycle-Friendly Business Districts, where merchants actively encourage people to bike in the area around shops and restaurants. These kind of positive externalities of encouraging cycling offer cities growing reasons to invest in ways to make cycling safe and enjoyable in their cities.
Bicycle commuting in American cities is at one of the highest levels in history. The number of bike commuters in New York City doubled from 2007-2012, and this interactive map shows that bike commuting grew substantially more in more cities than it decreased in others from 2006-2011. If this trend continues, American cities will need to put a high priority on investing in infrastructure to protect the safety of cyclists and making biking to work or school a viable and enjoyable option.
Image Credit: David Edgar via Wikimedia Commons