London announced a plan to spend a billion dollars on bike highways and cycling infrastructure late last year. Oslo wants to transform its downtown into a car-free zone by 2019. German cities are testing out bike-based cargo delivery services. And bike-friendly policies have made Copenhagen and Amsterdam cycling havens.
When it comes to designing cities for cycling, the United States can often seem painfully behind other countries, a toddler in training wheels beside sleek, sophisticated riders on custom road bikes. Our reputation reflects our roadways: The U.S. boasts 4 million miles of roads, but fewer than 200 miles of protected bike lanes.
But while our car-friendly country may have plenty of ground to make up, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. While the latest statistics from the Census Bureau show an overall dip in the numbers of Americans commuting to work by bike, in cities prioritizing cycle-friendly streets and funding better infrastructure, biking is on the upswing.
Policies do make a difference: In 43 of the 70 largest cities across the country, cycling rates are rising, and a number of ambitious plans show cities embracing the health, environmental, and social benefits of cycling.
Curbed reached out to transportation and planning experts—including Alex Dodds from Smart Growth America, Alex Engel from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and Jeffrey Wood from the Overhead Wire—to find out which cities have recently enacted some of the more progressive pro-bike policies and plans.
None of these cities are perfect, and perhaps haven’t built out as much biking infrastructure as, say, New York—some are being highlighted for championing ideas in the planning-and-construction phase. But the projects showcased demonstrate new and different ways to reshape multimodal transportation, build more complete streets, and, more importantly, respond to demands for healthier, safer transportation.
Atlanta: The Beltline (and a billion dollars) is changing how the city moves
There’s no question that Atlanta, like many Southern and Sun Belt metros, is still a car-first culture (look at the doom-and-gloom responses to the recent I-85 highway collapse).
But due to a biking-infrastructure boom, cycling suddenly has a much brighter future in Georgia’s capital. The single most significant change—the ongoing construction of the Beltline, 22 miles of urban rail being rebuilt as a transformative pedestrian and biking loop—is taking shape, sparking real estate speculation and civic pride while helping locals reimagine how they traverse their city.
More than a million people have traveled through the completed two-mile Eastside section of the Beltline, and the expected opening of the three-mile Westside section this summer will add 14 more entry points (the Eastside will also be extended later this year). With nearby cities such as Alpharetta and Decatur adding their own bike loops, trails, and links to the line, the network effect continues to grow.
Capitalizing on the momentum, the Atlanta Regional Commission announced last year that it would commit $1 billion toward an ambitious “Walk. Bike. Thrive!” campaign to build additional bike infrastructure over the next 25 years. A transportation system built around sprawl won’t change overnight, but this is a healthy start.
Chicago: Creating dedicated downtown biking routes
For cyclists, the City of Broad Shoulders is also a city of wide streets and, oftentimes, meager protection and insignificant lane markings.
But at least in the Loop, the city’s downtown business district, bikers will be able to breathe a little easier with the completion of a network of protected cycling lanes, the first in a major U.S. city. Part of the larger Loop Link transit upgrade, the new, safer system will help riders avoid some of the dangers of rush-hour traffic in a congested neighborhood. Even with the addition of new lanes this spring, there’s still a ways to go. But the groundwork is laid to start untying the city’s congested commuter traffic with dedicated lanes.
“Pairing bus lanes with protected bike lanes creates a safer, more predictable environment for everyone,” says Engel. “In addition, several innovative features were added that are serving as a model nationwide, including the use of protected intersections on the corridor.”
Baltimore: Electrifying bike share for equity’s sake
Like many cities looking to build a bike-share program, Baltimore has had trouble raising enough funds for launch, increasing local government engagement, and finding the right vendor.
But after a few false starts, a new push put bike share on Baltimore streets this past October with a plan that addresses an issue that isn’t always part of the discussion: equity.
While it’s no San Francisco, Baltimore’s occasionally hilly terrain can be a deterrent for elderly or otherwise physically impaired riders, groups that also have limited range and less utility with bike-share systems. Baltimore’s new system will eventually include 200 bikes with electric pedal assistance, known as “pedelec” systems, making it the largest public electric bike-share fleet in both North and South America (look for the rides with white lightning bolt icons on the back fender). Making steep climbs simpler and boosting the distance riders can cover in a single trip is a simple way to help meet the promise of providing more freedom for riders.
Portland: A people’s bridge prioritizes car-free travel
In a city bisected by waterways and nicknamed Bridgetown, it makes sense that a new crossing would quickly become a symbol. Portland’s Tilikum Crossing, a 1,720-foot-long cable-stayed bridge across the Willamette River, gives bikers, pedestrians, and public-transit riders a new way to get across town.
The first major bridge in the country specifically designed to exclude vehicular traffic (its name is a Chinook word meaning “people, tribe, or family”), the bridge provides a model for multimodal transport, separate paths for walkers and cyclists, designated places to stop and chat, and a new means to extend the city’s light-rail and streetcar lines.
It’s also an aesthetically pleasing model for a new type of car-free infrastructure, with a slim profile (no cars means fewer lanes) and an interactive light display that reacts to the speed and depth of the river. In the process of connecting two innovative and growing neighborhoods—a science and health center on the west side and a crafts-and-makers hub on the east bank—the Crossing also lays down a vision of the city’s transportation future.
Philadelphia: Building a better bike share for everybody
Despite being open for just under two years, Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share system has boasted significant growth, both in rides and, more impressively, reach. A third of its shared bikes are docked in low-income neighborhoods, signaling an admirable commitment to serving communities of color that remains unmatched even by many larger systems.
The program also opened up payment options, adding a cash option to broaden the program’s reach to low-income residents, as well as a discount membership plan open to those who qualify for food assistance programs. It has proven to be a big success, adding hundreds of new riders.
With plans to create 16 more stations and 27 more miles of protected bike lanes to the system, Philadelphia bike share isn’t just adding more places to go, but putting more people on the road.
Seattle: A beautiful bikeway without compromises
Plenty of new bike lanes and trails opened last year, but the Westlake Avenue protected bike trail in Seattle offered concrete proof that better bike infrastructure is possible.
According to the PeopleForBikes foundation—which named the trail the best bike lane of the year—the city stuck to the most sensible route, creating a much-needed connection between the North Side and downtown that replaced a much hillier, less-direct trail. This was achieved despite pressure from locals and landowners to compromise—the mayor even arranged for a meeting with planners and residents to clear the air and help arrive at a final resolution. Now, cyclists have a safe and direct route from the Ship Canal to the city center. And while it took lots of advocacy and action—the Seattle planning process can be lengthy—it’s finally a reality.
Austin: Lakeside lanes, and policies that look out for all riders
Austin has made great strides in supporting two-wheeled transportation recently, from opening the new 1,100-foot-long bike bridge over Barton Creek to updating city-planning standards to support more inclusive design, guaranteeing that new trails and paths support rides of all abilities.
But one the brightest developments was the public’s approval of a transportation bond measure in November that, among other things, set aside $20 million specifically for bike lanes. The new funds should give the fast-growing city more tools to fight increased gridlock and build upon its existing bicycling plan and urban trails expansion.
Detroit: Taking advantage of ample street space to build places to ride
Many cities struggle to find space for new transportation projects and public spaces. In many ways, Detroit has the opposite problem: too much empty, blighted, or disinvested space near its biggest neighborhoods and downtown.
But a new transportation plan—as well as new bikeways and pedestrian paths, such as the Dequindre Cut—are turning a downside into the backbone of an intra-city transport system. The route will eventually connect with the Inner Circle Greenway, a planned 20-mile system of paths throughout Detroit.
Another former urban railway turned park-and-passageway, the Dequindre Cut was extended last year, and now forms the most explicit example of the city’s new embrace of non-motorized transit. Newly opened and proposed bicycle lanes—along East Jefferson and Livernois, lining the celebrated RiverWalk park, even, in the far-off future, over the Gordie Howe Bridge into Canada—are forming the hubs and spokes of a citywide biking system.
Minneapolis: Mainstreaming cycling (despite the weather)
The Twin Cities get so cold that local leaders built a skyway system downtown to link buildings and spare pedestrians exposure to the frigid winter weather. But, despite the climate, the city continues to be a superstar when it comes to cycling.
Not surprisingly, prudent, long-term commitments have paid off: A 51-mile ring of bike-only freeways, the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, built in the ’90s and 2000s, circles the city; progressive laws, such as one requiring office buildings to have bike storage, break down barriers to biking; and the city was an early supporter of bike share with its Nice Ride system, which debuted in 2010.
And the city hasn’t rested on its laurels. A city-sponsored Safe Routes to School program promotes student cycling, and dozens of miles of biking boulevards and bike lanes have been built or are under construction. Today, a full 5 percent of the city’s commuters use biking as their primary form of transportation, a staggering figure for a country where a scant 0.6 percent of commuters bike to work every day.
Broward County, Florida: Promoting safety on cycle-averse streets
Roadways in the Sunshine State have a bad track record when it comes to protecting cyclists and pedestrians. According a 2017 Smart Growth America report on street safety and design, nine of the 15 most dangerous cities for walkers are in Florida, a sad testament to the state’s lack of pedestrian infrastructure. That backdrop makes the work of the Broward County Metropolitan Transportation Organization (MPO) more impressive.
With the help of a Centers for Disease Control grant, planners developed, adopted, and promoted a set of Complete Streets guidelines that gives cities a robust encyclopedia of options for safer, more pedestrian-friendly roadways. And, thanks to a $11.4 million transportation grant from the federal government, the MPO has five complete streets projects in the works. It even held a Safe Streets Summit to organize around the issue of pedestrian safety. It’s no biking mecca, but it’s diagnosed a problem and shown how similar areas can start shifting their planning mindset. “It's particularly admirable that Broward is pushing forward the way it is,” says Dodds.