Ticket to Ride

These North American cities are hubs for bikers who push the pedal not only as an alternate form of transportation, but as a lifestyle.
By Crai S. Bower for MSN Local Edition
New York caters to bike(© Jonkmanns, laif, Aurora Photos)
Over the course of a week in Montreal, one could easily tomber amoureux, or fall in love, with Bixi, the city's innovative bike share program imported from France in 2005. Bixi stations are as common as the city's bistro bars -- this is a French culture, after all -- so commutes from point to point rarely last more than ten minutes. And since the first 30 minutes are free, many Bixi users avoid fees. Montréalais and visitors see the city, run errands or just save time and money cruising on two wheels. It's not a passing infatuation. Look no further than impending Bixi launches in other well-pedaled North American cities such as Minneapolis, Boston, New York and London to understand its allure.

We've entered the "Cycle Decade," when gas prices, congestion and our desire for exercise will lead more cities like Boston and Cleveland to follow pioneering Portland, Oregon, in shifting gears from cars to bikes. Cities as diverse as Minneapolis (where commuters charge right through the infamous winters) and San Diego (long a locale of dedicated trails) have made bike commuting central to their communities.

New York
While many city residents and non-New Yorkers alike can't imagine pedaling among taxis and delivery trucks, over 100,000 people do just that every day. The 42-mile "Five Boro Bike Tour" (participants celebrate the ride's end at a festival on Staten Island) fills its 30,000-rider allotment in a single weekend. Bike New York, led by former Sports Commissioner Ken Podziba, is among the most active civic orgs in the country, scheduling seasonal rides across the tri-state area, teaching urban ride safety classes and lobbying for cyclists' rights and infrastructure at every opportunity. Look for Montréal's Bixi program to arrive in the next two years.

Ride Portland(© Jan Sonnenmair, Aurora Photos)
Portland, Ore.
Portland was riding high last year when it displaced Copenhagen as the number 2 cycling city in the world (behind Amsterdam, of course). But the bike wave is so high in North America that Bicycling Magazine recently swept the national first place position from Rose City and bestowed it to arctic Minneapolis. Regardless of rankings, what's not to love about a city with 200 miles of bike lanes, 66 miles of bike paths, 30 miles of bike boulevards and a bike-only bridge across the Willamette River that was over capacity at its opening? Portland remains the only large city in the U.S. where a candidate's position on urban cycling affects the outcome of a mayoral race.

Bixi aside, there are several other reasons why Montreal remains the continent's most cycle-centric city, including the mundane (autonomous bike lanes) to the ecstatic: Tour la Nuit, a nighttime, 12K, 14,000-rider strong trip through the streets of the city that launches a weekend long velo celebration concluding with the 50K Tour de L'ile de Montréal which averages over 35,000 participants. Cyclists should check out La Maison de Velo, a clubhouse of sorts for the two pedal crowd, that also houses Velo Quebec, a nonprofit established to improve the cycling experience, both locally or through exceptional bike tours to every corner on earth.

Bixi in Minneapolis(© Jim Mone, AP Photo)
Once the stuff of urban legend, the winter bike commuter has grown to such great numbers that Bicycling Magazine just anointed Minneapolis the premier bike city in the U.S.A., displacing perennial top dog Portland, Ore. But it isn't just the bold and cold that garners status: Minneapolis possesses the 5.7-mile Midtown Greenway, a legitimate inner loop for cyclists, as well as the country's first Midtown Bike Center, with showers, storage and repair shop. There are bike loops around most of the city's lakes, as well as an urban plan to provide bike path access to every neighborhood by 2020. Minneapolis, too, will soon add its version of the Montréal Bixi program.

San Francisco
Hills don't deter more than 40,000 people who commute to work on bikes every day. No visit to the Bay Area is complete without taking an afternoon glide from Fisherman's Wharf over the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito. Two ferry services will take you back past Alcatraz. As in Portland, cyclists wield political influence here: The San Francisco Bike Coalition endorsed all City Supervisor candidates who went on to win, and schedules the country's most successful Critical Mass community rides, which have closed Interstate 80 on occasion.

Boulder bikes(© Kevin Arnold, Getty Images)
Boulder, Colo.
In 2009, 16 percent of all trips in Boulder were made on two wheels. Long a mountain biking hub, urban touring enjoys over 150 miles of bike paths and 200 miles of bike lanes -- not bad for a city of fewer than 95,000 people. Boulder politicians understand that creating a biking community requires infrastructure (according to the City of Boulder, almost 10 percent of its residents commute to work by bike), so 15 percent of the city's transportation budget in recent years has been dedicated to traffic improvements and maintenance with this aim.

The freeway may have potholes but hardcore rider Mayor Richard M. Daley is determined to make Chi-town the most bike-friendly city in North America, via his "Bike 2015" plan. Each year, new paths join the 315-miles of bikeways, which already include the "Lakefront Trail," one of America's great biking boulevards, along Lake Michigan. The McDonald's Cycle Center at Millennium Park provides commuters and visitors alike with a snack bar, showers, lockers and indoor bike parking. Mayor Daley often leads "Bike the Drive," an annual cycling festival.

San Diego city paths(Courtesy of the San Diego CVB)
San Diego
Recently usurped by Chicago as the best million-plus cycling city, San Diego provides a climate for year round rides on 850 miles of trails, including 300-miles of new trails built in the past two years. The Bayshore Bikeway, a 24-mile ocean-facing ride, is an essential activity for the active tourist, though the more ambitious can also climb into the surrounding mountains via several designated trails. Long considered an ideal training hub, San Diego provides a velodrome and the U.S. Olympic Training Center for America's best competitive cyclists.

Davis, Calif.
It's hard to ignore Davis, which joins Amsterdam in boasting more bikes than cars among its citizens. Davis' stature is even more impressive when we consider its bike boulevard -- including a recently added 7.5 million dollar bike tunnel under I-80 -- connecting this university town with Sacramento, the state's capital, 15 miles away. Close to 20 percent of all traffic here is of the two-wheeled variety, where pedaling denizens can tune into a local "Bike Talk" radio program to talk spokes once a week.

Bike Cities of the (Near) Future
Biking Boston(© Lisa Poole, AP Photo)
Before you type that angry email, I know the Hub has a long way to go to make cycling part of the status quo, not to mention safe, but putting a designated bike lane on Commonwealth Ave. is a great way to start. Mayor Menino has also given the nod to import Montréal's Bixi bike-share program, which will change everything.

In Cleveland, a non-profit is building the first velodrome east of the Rockies, folks can ride an 80-mile converted tow path to Akron, and a new system of bike paths linking all city neighborhoods will be implemented through the decade.