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Great American cities for cycling

Courtesy City of Chicago/GRC

Chicago -- America's third largest metropolis -- has 117 miles of on-street bike lanes, more than 30 miles of marked shared lanes and dozens of miles of off-street paths.

Pedaling through a major U.S. city is not just the province of daredevil bike messengers. With warmer weather and rising gas prices, there’s never been a better time to hop on a bicycle, especially while you’re on vacation. "It’s also a way to really be local,” suggests Nicole Freedman, director of bicycling programs for the City of Boston, “because when you bike you can stop wherever you want, you can talk to people.”


Urban areas across America are establishing dedicated bike lanes and trails at an unprecedented pace, and though U.S. cities may still be playing catch-up when it comes to bike-share programs (the Vélib’ system in Paris, launched in 2005, already includes 20,000 bikes at 1,800 stations), it may surprise you how many of the handy hop-on-hop-off systems are already functioning on this side of the pond: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. all have successful bike shares in place, while New York City, San Francisco and St. Petersburg are launching high-profile programs this year. Jeremy Rothschild, director of marketing for B-cycle, a bike-sharing outfit in Chicago, sums up the two-wheel appeal: “It’s magic…a bike that’s there when you need it and gone when you don’t.”

Along with established or in-the-works bike shares, our Top 10 Cities for Cycling, all with populations over 100,000, feature an abundance of great rental shops, municipal bike racks, exciting trails, and dedicated bike lanes.

Katie Adamson of Visit Denver says that the 300,000 rides logged during the two-year (and counting) lifespan of Denver’s bike-share program have translated into 13.5 million burned calories, a $990,000 savings on gas and parking, and 1.1 million pounds of greenhouse gases avoided. Yep, biking is good for our health, our pocketbooks and our planet. And as you’ll see, it actually looks like fun.

1. Austin

Home to seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, Austin is a bike lover’s mecca: The city estimates that more than 6,000 people ride bikes here each day. The Lance Armstrong Bikeway will soon connect East and West Austin with a dedicated bike path for the first time (4.6 miles of the planned 6-mile path is now complete), and the Barton Creek Greenbelt offers a 7-mile mountain biking trail right in the heart of the city. These are just two of the reasons Austin is recognized as a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. “The city has earned this prestigious spot by excelling in bicycle education, evaluation and enforcement,” says Steve Alberts, communications manager at the Texas Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Austin is the only city in Texas to earn this recognition.” Thanks to a recent partnership between the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and Armstrong’s Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop, Austin’s bike-share program will launch in 2013 with 450 bikes located at kiosks in downtown and East Austin. For now, temporary bike-share programs are available during special events like the annual SXSW festival in March. And if you don’t have a bike and have trouble hailing a cab after the bars close, hop onto one of the city’s numerous pedicabs. “Drivers work for tips, and can point out the coolest nightspots,” says Alberts.

Bikeable Miles
155 miles of bike lanes and 170 miles of off-road, multi-use trails

Rent a Bike
Austin offers a slew of savvy bike shops, including Mellow Johnny’s (rates start at $20 for four hours) or Barton Springs Bike Rental (rates start at $7.50 per hour), which also offers bike tours of Austin ($35 for two hours).

Try this Route
Take a spin around Lady Bird Lake (known to locals as Town Lake), a reservoir on the Colorado River that runs through downtown Austin, offering 10 miles of trails.

2. Boston

Not long ago, Beantown was often cited as one of the worst cities for biking. Dismayed by the unsavory title, Mayor Tom Menino started the Boston Bikes initiative in 2007 headed by former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman. In the past five years, Boston has created over 50 miles of bike lanes (up from just 60 yards), installed 2,500 bike parking spaces and 850 bike racks, and established numerous city-wide programs to promote cycling and bike safety. The city recently ranked number one in the country for safety for bikers and pedestrians by the Alliance for Biking & Walking, and carries silver-level status as a bike-friendly community from the League of American Bicyclists. The New Balance Hubway bike-share program debuted in summer 2011, garnering 100,000 rides in the first 10 weeks. In 2012, Hubway plans to expand into neighboring Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline, and hopes to add even more stations in Boston proper.

Bikeable Miles
52.2 miles of bikeways

Rent a Bike
The Hubway bike-share system – with over 600 bikes and 61 stations – costs $5 for one day or $12 for three days. The first half-hour of your ride is free; then it’s an additional $2 for up to an hour, $6 for up to 90 minutes and $14 for up to 2 hours of riding.

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“I think a hidden gem is Harborwalk,” says Nicole Freedman, director of bicycling programs for the City of Boston. “It’s a stunning view of the city. Absolutely stunning.”

3. Chicago

In his first year as mayor of America’s third largest metropolis, Rahm Emanuel laid out ambitious plans to “make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the country.” To that end, “Rahmbo” has proposed a 500-mile network of bike paths, with at least one path within a half-mile of every Chicago resident. In the meantime, the city already boasts over 12,000 bike racks, more than any other U.S. city, and one of the best dedicated urban bike paths around: The 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail takes bikers through several popular parks and attractions, with sweeping skyline views around every bend. Several high-capacity bike parking areas are located throughout the city, including many of the city’s rail stations and at Millennium Park, where the state-of-the-art McDonald’s Cycle Center even offers showers and lockers. And when it comes to bike-share programs, things have never looked brighter for the Windy City: A system launched in 2010 by Chicago B-cycle consists of seven self-service bike rental stations at several popular Lakefront locations, and the city recently contracted with Alta Bicycle Share to make a whopping 3,000 bikes available at 300 solar-powered, self-service stations this year.

Bikeable Miles
117 miles of on-street bike lanes, more than 30 miles of marked shared lanes, and dozens of miles of off-street paths (including the Lakefront Trail)

Rent a Bike
Bike and Roll Chicago has been operating on Chicago's lakefront for 19 years at top Chicago destinations such as Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Wabash & Wacker (across from Trump Tower), North Avenue Beach and historic Hyde Park (President Obama's neighborhood). Rates for one of their new Trek models start at $10/hour and $35/day (save $5 on the daily rate by booking online). The same company operates Chicago B-cycle, with rates starting at $5/hour and increasing by $2.50 every half hour; after 4 hours, the $20/day rate applies.

Try this Route
“Though a bit off the standard tourist track, the Illinois Institute of Technology has world-class architecture that definitely makes a worthwhile visit…,” suggests Jeremy Rothschild, director of marketing for Chicago B-cycle. “The campus boasts several buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe, Rem Koolhaas and Helmut Jahn.” From Grant Park, travel south along the Lakefront Trail and make a right at East 31st Street, then continue a mile to the IIT campus, home of two B-cycle bike-share stations.

4. Denver

“Biking is a great way to explore Denver,” says Katie Adamson, a public relations coordinator at Visit Denver. “Visitors can take a B-cycle to almost every major attraction in the city.” The B-cycle bike-share program, one of the first of its kind in the nation, provides access to the riverfront, the Denver Botanic Gardens, City Park, downtown shopping areas and the Golden Triangle museum district. The weather is great for cycling, too, with blooming trees and flowers in the spring, community bicycle events in the summer (www.bikedenver.org; www.denvercruiserride.com), and abundant fall foliage (B-cycle stations are closed from December to March). Denver has the added bonus of being 30 miles from Boulder, another great bike-friendly city. Denver’s smaller, outdoor-loving neighbor has its own, more extensive B-cycle share program and hundreds of miles of downtown bike lanes and mountain biking trails. Even the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a year-old professional bike race on par with Tour de France, deems both cities excellent for biking. The seven-day race begins in southwestern Colorado, travels through several Rocky Mountain towns, including Boulder, and ends dramatically with a time-trial finish in downtown Denver. Free for spectators, the 2012 challenge will be held from August 20-26.

Bikeable Miles
850 miles of off-street paved trails, plus hundreds of miles of bike lanes and dirt trails

Rent a Bike
The base day rate at Denver B-cycle bike share starts at $8, with reasonable usage fees accruing after the first 30 minutes: $1 for 30-60 minutes after checkout and $4 for each additional 30 minutes. You can pick up and drop off your B-cycle at any of the 52 stations around town (denver.bcycle.com).

Try this Route
The Cherry Creek Bike Path, which is lined with cherry blossoms in the spring and includes the Cherry Creek Shopping District as well as Castlewood Canyon State Park and the Cherry Creek State Recreation Area (www.denver.org).

5. Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.

The Twin Cities emergence as a bike-friendly superstar coincided with a general plan to make the area more livable. “Fifteen years ago almost no one lived downtown,” says Bill Dossett, executive director of the Nice Ride bike-share program. Now, downtown apartments have some of the highest occupancy rates around, a new light rail line will connect downtown Minneapolis with the University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul, and Bicycling Magazine calls Minneapolis the best biking city in the country. Launched two years ago, Nice Ride had over 100,000 rides in 2010 and over 217,000 rides in 2011; rentals will start again for 2012 sometime in the spring. Currently there are 116 stations and 1,200 bicycles, with plans to add 30 new stations – mostly in downtown St. Paul – and 128 more bikes this year. The cities host bike-themed events “almost every weekend,” says Dossett, from scavenger hunts to organized rides to cycling races. In 2011 alone, Minneapolis added 37 miles of bikeways, installed hundreds of bike-specific street signs and created a citywide bike map for the first time. “All of these things are happening at the same time that we’ve made this great investment in the last five years,” says Dossett. “You bring all of that together and I think our future is very bright.”

Bikeable Miles
81 miles of on-street bikeways and 85 miles of off-street bikeways

Rent a Bike
A 24-hour subscription to the Nice Ride bike-share program costs $6, after which you can ride for free for the first 30 minutes. Fees are $1.50 for up to an hour, $4.50 for up to 90 minutes, and $6 for each additional half hour after that (www.niceridemn.org).

Try This Route
For visitors staying near the Convention Center, cruise down the Nicollet Mall then head over to the river and across the Stone Arch Bridge, a pedestrian- and bike-only bridge with a view of the St. Anthony Falls. “That’s just a great route to see the Old Mill District, to see the new Guthrie Theater, to see the river, and to see downtown from the Nicollet Mall,” says Dossett.

Slideshow: See the rest of the list of great cities for cycling

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