Top 5 U.S. Cities For Bicycling

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

The relationship between bicyclists, biking, contentment, and feeling that cheerfulness you lacked before the ride is quite well known to all those who bicycle. Bike commuting is one of the most effective ways to promote general health.

People for Bikes has published the top 5 cities, perhaps happier cities than most, for bikes in the US, out of a total of 567 cities. In this third year of the annual rating, the 2020 rankings varied noticeably from the 2019 PeopleForBikes ranking. Last year’s winners were Boulder and Fort Collins, CO; Eugene, OR; Manhattan, NY; Arlington, VA. This year, here were the top 5:

San Luis Obispo, CA (3.5)
Madison, WI (3.5)
Santa Barbara, CA (3.3)
Washington, DC (3.2)
Missoula, MT (3.2)

Note that Toronto would be #3 if we were including Canada.

Why are these cities great bike cities?

PeopleForBikes used data from the American Community Survey and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System, as well as data received through each city’s participation in a PeopleForBikes City Snapshot report.

The cities were rated based on 5 factors: Ridership, Safety, Network, Reach (how far the program connects with the community), and Acceleration (how quickly the program is being adopted or improved).

Manhattan bike path. NYC had a score of 2.9 (3 stars out of 5). Image by CleanTechnica.

We’ll run through the top 5 cities in a moment, but first, for any cities, police, and decision makers not advanced as these on promoting bicycling, please consider the following video seriously. One might find it amusing if it was a parody, but it’s not. One might imagine the possibility of getting such a ticket is paranoia. I don’t. A ticket for moving out of harm’s way? Many a bicyclist has met such backward situations directly on a bicycle and otherwise.

Don’t be that cop. Don’t be that city.

San Luis Obispo, California

Starting with the top of the list, let’s look at happy San Luis Obispo, California, and the keys to its success.

“Since its early days as a California Mission town, San Luis Obispo (or SLO, for short) has worked hard to preserve a compact urban core with a greenbelt surrounding the city. ‘We’ve striven to avoid sprawl, foster a vibrant downtown and make sure that housing, jobs, schools, recreation and shopping are not too far apart from each other,’ says Adam Fukushima, SLO’s active transportation manager. The first in his role, Fukushima works solely on bicycle and pedestrian improvements in the city.”

For six years, the city has had a policy that at least 20% of its transportation expenditures must be on bicycle improvements. A university in the city, California Polytechnic State University, generally helps as well, as students will bicycle for transportation more, generally enjoying being outside and active — engaged with ideas and ideals. A critical piece of infrastructure is the city’s core bike path, reaching from north to south connecting California Polytechnic State University with downtown, as well as various residential neighborhoods.

“In contrast to many communities where you have to put your bike in the car to drive to a trail, we have many fabulous mountain biking trails and paths close to housing,” Fukushima notes. “This has been the jumping off point for many people to not only use a bike for recreation, but try it out for commuting as well.”

As an additional point of help, Cal Poly doesn’t allow first- and second-year students to drive or keep cars on campus.

Madison, Wisconsin

In second place, one finds life for the bicyclist in Madison, Wisconsin, is as in Northern Europe. Winter and snow do not slow the ridership due to infrastructure and policies to support bikes that keep the large numbers active.

“Madison invests in bike underpasses, rail-trail conversions and long-distance trail connections. As a city that sees nearly four feet of snow every winter, Madison is also heavily invested in year-round maintenance of their bike network and has designated primary routes across town that are cleared and ready-to-ride by 7 a.m. Monday-Friday.”

Another thing is the view — the scenic bike route is most often the fastest route. “With a downtown located on a narrow isthmus between two lakes, getting where you need to go on time and enjoying the beauty of your ride aren’t mutually exclusive. Several shared-use paths provide easy access throughout the city and the 936-acre University of Wisconsin campus.”

“What really makes Madison a great place to ride is that there are lots of other people out riding all year round,” says Madison’s Pedestrian Bicycle Administrator Renee Callaway. “Commuters, recreational riders, errand runners, family bikers — you’re never alone when you get out on your bike.”

Santa Barbara, California

How does Santa Barbara compare to San Luis Obispo?

It’s about DNA, according to a notable leader in the bike scene. “Bicycling is in our DNA,” says Rob Dayton, Santa Barbara’s transportation planning and parking manager. “Before automobiles were around, it was the bicycle clubs that lobbied to pave streets for bicycling.” Long before it was a term in planning schools, Santa Barbara had an integrated multimodal transportation system, the first in California. What exactly does that mean? Well, there was a bike rack on the back of the city’s mule-drawn trolley car “for turn-of-the-century cyclists to hang their big-wheel Penny Farthing bikes,” as People For Bikes put it.

The city was a leader again in the 1960s. “The city recognized how heavy vehicle congestion and traffic plagued their southern coastal neighbor Los Angeles. This prompted Santa Barbara to take action to embrace the bicycle.” The value of bicycle came into focus again in recent years when some of the two-lane roads in town were reduced to one-lane automobile roads with the other lane provided to bike travelers. Santa Barbara has proved that many will choose to bicycle if given the supporting infrastructure. After the road repaving projects and the addition of a bike lane, Santa Barbara’s bike network skyrocketed, as did bicyclists. City planners continued to encourage the clean and efficient mode of transport as well.

“The addition of bike racks throughout the downtown also helped boost the embrace of bicycles. ‘No matter where you want to go, if you ride a bike, you have a front row parking spot,’ says Dayton. The implementation of bicycle boulevards, streets with low motorized traffic volumes and speeds, designated and designed to give bicycle travel priority, have also been a key part of Santa Barbara’s embrace of bicycling.

“Thanks to the growth of California’s Active Transportation Planning grants program, Santa Barbara has invested $40 million in bike improvements across the city over the last five years, with many new projects, including a city-wide electric bike share program, on the horizon. ‘I think Santa Barbara really has something to offer everyone,’ says Sam Furtner, the city’s mobility coordinator. ‘Whether you’re learning to ride a bike or looking for world-class road rides overlooking the ocean, we’ve got you covered.’”

Washington, DC

Starting young is key to engendering strong,and safe bicyclists. Washington, D.C. has recognized the vital benefit provided by education, support, and cultivating interest and skills in bicycling amongst the youth.

“All D.C. public school second graders are required to complete a fun, interactive course about how to safely ride a bike, including a supervised ride around their local neighborhood,” says Mariam Nabizad, public affairs specialist for the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT). “In addition, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association educates kids and adults of every ability level in courses like Summer Bike Camp, Learn to Ride and Confident City Cycling.”

It is often faster, as well as more invigorating, to travel by bicycle in a dense city. Our nation’s capital is compact, dense, and biking seems more convenient at times to avoid crosstown traffic, to move more swiftly move through the city. “90 miles of bike lanes connect to 60 miles of trails, with D.C. serving as the regional hub of a 500-plus mile trail network that connects residents to jobs, neighborhoods and parks in the District, Maryland and Virginia.”

The fact is that bikesharing saves DC hundreds of millions of dollars encourages the city to do more and more. “The city was an early adopter of protected bike lanes: 12 miles have been built since 2010 and a campaign continues to add 20 miles by the end of this year. The 5,000-bike strong regional bike share program Capital Bikeshare with more than 600 stations also allows D.C. residents to easily transition between biking, walking and transit.”

Missoula, Montana

As the fireworks were set to explode nationwide, another northern city began to improve bicycling way back in 1976. College students in the town organized bicycle ride across the U.S. to celebrate the bicentennial. The motivated students came from the University of Montana and pulled in more than 4,000 people who were inspired to join the ride. The group set a standard, a way of life, and this became the first transAmerica group ride. “After the ride, several organizers stayed in town and continued to promote bicycle travel, launching the national non-profit Bikecentennial (now Adventure Cycling). Missoula has had a soft spot for biking ever since,” People For Bikes explains.

“Missoula’s successes would not be possible without a comprehensive understanding of the benefits of biking that has been reached through decades of work, slowly creating the culture,” says Ben Weiss, the city’s bicycle/pedestrian program manager. “Over this time, we’ve worked hard to build the appropriate facilities to make biking safe, comfortable and convenient for people of all ages and abilities.”

Cities, take note, even lacking the large budget of greater cities, Missoula constructed one of the first modern protected bike lanes. The safe bike lane has run through its downtown for over a decade ago. It is continually growing to connect the city’s network of bike trails.

“The backbone of the city’s bike network is their commuter trail system, which traverses town east to west, easily connecting residents to work, school and play. Recent successes include the connection of a six-block gap in one of their main bike routes, the Bitterroot Trail, which included the implementation of the state of Montana’s first designated bike traffic signal. Missoula recently adopted the city’s first Bicycle Facilities Master Plan, which includes a comprehensive vision of a connected bike network accessible by riders of all ages and abilities.”

As cities shift to more bicyclists, this is a shift towards a higher standard of health. Some of our CleanTechnica writers have been saying the same for over a decade, that bike commuters are healthier than gym goers. And, of course, bicycling has another significant advantage over many other types of exercise — you don’t have to set apart extra time for it, you simply bicycle rather than taking the car. Additionally, it can save you an enormous amount of money.

Here is a link to all the cities rated in 2020.

New York City bicycling on the greenway from East Village to West Village, CleanTechnica.

Electric bicycle sales have surged since the lockdown, in fact, they are harder to find due to demand. Now it the time for all cities to follow the examples of the top five cities, and bicycle more.

With all the revived bicyclists using bicycles following broad lockdowns, especially in urban areas, as a note of safety, I think it’s time to review the Dutch reach. Why? Because the Dutch reach can save lives.

Related Stories:

Featured image: bicyclist at park stop during ride on protected bicycle lane, by CleanTechnica.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica TV Video

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it!! So, we've decided to completely nix paywalls here at CleanTechnica. But...
Like other media companies, we need reader support! If you support us, please chip in a bit monthly to help our team write, edit, and publish 15 cleantech stories a day!
Thank you!

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Cynthia Shahan

Cynthia Shahan, started writing after previously doing research and publishing work on natural birth practices. Words can be used improperly depending on the culture you are in. (Several unrelated publications) She has a degree in Education, Anthropology, Creative Writing, and was tutored in Art as a young child thanks to her father the Doctor. Pronouns: She/Her

Cynthia Shahan has 947 posts and counting. See all posts by Cynthia Shahan