Updated November 30, 2013

Study: Best Cities for Biking

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Of all the expenses we rack up in our daily lives, there's something particularly galling about the cost of owning a car. Gas prices seem to rise all the time, and then there are those unexpected mechanical problems that can suck thousands of dollars from your bank account in a flash. While cars may seem like a necessity to many of us, in some places they don't need to be. Some cities actually make it easy to get places without a vehicle. So, here's a look at the top cities where two wheels and no gas can get you where you want to go – all while giving your wallet a break.

Study Methodology

Looking at 45 of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, we considered three factors in ranking this list:

  1. Miles of bike path and lanes per 100,000 people
  2. Percentage of workers who commute by bike
  3. Density of urban destinations

We started by looking at bike routes. Dedicated lanes and bike paths make commuting this way easier and safer; it’s clear where bikes and cars are each supposed to travel, reducing the chances of stressful interactions with fellow commuters on four wheels. The League of American Bicyclists has collected information on miles of bike paths and lanes in 100 cities and calculated the miles of dedicated bike space for each 100,000 people. On average, the cities we considered had 17 miles per 100,000 people.

Next, we checked out the percentage of workers in metro areas who commute by bicycle based on data from the U.S. Census American Communities Survey. Overall, the number of bicycle commuters is dwarfed by drivers; on average, they represent only slightly over half a percent of the population for the major cities we considered. Still, half a percent represents thousands of people in large metro areas. Keep in mind the more fellow bike commuters who exist in one location, the more advice and support riders will find, and the more aware drivers will be of bikes on the road.

Last, we considered how easy it is to get to attractive destinations, as measured by Walk Score, a company that promotes and rates “walkable” neighborhoods. It essentially checks how densely packed restaurants, stores, and other amenities are in an area — something that’s equally important if you’d rather do most or all of your traveling around a city by bike. The scale here is 1 to 100, with the cities we considered averaging 55.2 (the higher, the better).

1. Portland, OR

Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 44.3 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 2.2%
  • Walk Score: 66.3

Known for outdoor adventure, environmental awareness, and healthy living, Portland is the U.S. epicenter for bike riding. A full 2.2 percent of commuters get to and from work by bike, and the city features more than 44 miles of bike lanes and bike paths for every 100,000 people — 251 miles altogether. Portland’s transportation bureau offers a wealth of resources for cyclists on its website, including an expansive map of bike routes through the city. Portland’s Walk Score of 66.3 puts it 10th among major cities, so residents should be able to accomplish just about all their daily tasks without burning a drop of gasoline.

2. Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 32.2 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 0.8%
  • Walk Score: 69.3

Even if you don’t own a bike, you can still see this midwestern city on two wheels. A local nonprofit group, Nice Ride Minnesota, is a bit like Zipcar for cyclists, letting subscribers grab a bike from one station and return it to another. In between, there are 124 miles of bike paths and lanes to explore —32 per 100,000 people. Of course, locals also own bikes as well; 0.8 percent commute to work that way, putting the city eighth on our list for that metric. Finding places to bike to outside of work shouldn't be an issue either since the city gets a Walk Score of 69.3 percent.

3. Seattle, WA

Seattle, Washington
Seattle, Washington

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 15.6 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 1%
  • Walk Score: 73.7

Like fellow northwestern city Portland, Seattle is friendly to bikers. Despite the city’s notorious reputation for rainy days, one out of every 100 workers here manages to bike to work, the fifth-highest percentage on our list. The city’s Walk Score is the sixth highest on our list, at 73.7, which means you don’t have to brave the weather for very long to get to that gourmet coffee place. The city offers 15.6 miles of bike paths and lanes per 100,000 people, but that may actually be a low count because the local department of transportation has dramatically boosted lanes, routes, and parking spaces for bicycles in recent years through the city’s Bicycle Master Plan.

4. San Francisco, CA

San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 9.3 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 1.7%
  • Walk Score: 84.9

Aside from the financial and environmental upsides of biking, a big reason many people ride is to get in shape, and what better place to do that than the hilliest city in America? The ups and downs of riding in this beautiful city are clearly not getting to the locals, because 1.7 percent ride to work, tying the city for second on this benchmark with Sacramento. San Francisco also boasts the second-highest Walk Score of the nation’s major cities, after New York, with restaurants and stores likely to be found just over the next hill. Moreover, the city offers 9.3 miles of bike paths and lanes. A local tip: If you’re concerned about your urban biking skills in the dense urban center, check out the Street Safety Education classes offered by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

5. Sacramento, CA

Sacramento, California
Sacramento, California

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 67.2 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 1.7%
  • Walk Score: 49.3

If you’d rather bike somewhere a bit less crowded, California’s capital city puts most other communities across the country to shame with 67.2 miles of bike paths and lanes for each 100,000 people, for a whopping 313-mile biking network overall. The city ties its near-neighbor San Francisco for bike commuters at 1.7 percent of its workforce. Sacramento’s Walk Score is a bit below average for a big city, at 49.3, but the area offers some of the most attractive rides in the country for recreational cycling.

6. Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 16.8 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 0.6%
  • Walk Score: 74.1

Despite the dense urban-northeast feel of this city, more than one out of 200 Philly commuters ride a bike to work, and the city boasts an impressive 260 miles of bike lanes and paths — 16.8 miles per 100,000 people. The city’s 74.1 Walk Score is the fifth-highest in the country, which means having a bike as a sole means of transport is realistic for many residents. When it comes to more relaxing riding, the area is also home to more than 250 miles of walking and biking trails, known as The Circuit.

7. (Tie) San Jose, CA

San Jose, California
San Jose, California

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 25.2 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 1.6%
  • Walk Score: 54.5

Yes, the Bay Area tech mecca is also one of the best places to go with a simpler technology for transportation. The city’s workers are far more likely than most to bike to work, as 1.6 percent of them do it, and there are 25.5 miles of bike paths and lanes for every 100,000 workers. The city’s Walk Score is around average for the big urban areas on our list, at 54.5, but it’s still high enough to make reaching attractive destinations by bike an easy task.

7. (Tie) Washington, D.C.

Washington, DC
Washington, DC

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 16.8 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 0.6%
  • Walk Score: 73.2

To judge from Washington and San Jose’s stats, lobbyists and members of Congress may be less likely to bike to work than computer engineers, but the capital city makes up for it in its residents’ easy ability to bike to local destinations. D.C. has 100 miles of bike paths and lanes, which come to almost 17 per 100,000 residents, and its Walk Score is seventh highest in the country, at 73.2, although only 0.6 percent of workers here commute by bike.

9. San Diego, CA

San Diego, California
San Diego, California

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 29.5 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 0.7%
  • Walk Score: 55.7

Southern California’s mild, sunny weather is made for cycling, and San Diego makes it even easier with 385 total miles of bike lanes and paths, or 29.5 per 100,000 people. The city also has a bit better than average Walk Score (55.7), and 0.7 percent of its workers cycle to the job, another factor that is slightly above average. The city is also home to an active discussion board, San Diego Commuter, where cyclists share favorite routes and invite each other to local events.

10. Denver, CO

Denver, Colorado
Denver, Colorado

  • Bike Paths and Lanes per 100K: 14.4 miles
  • Bike Commuters: 0.8%
  • Walk Score: 60.4

For a city with an outdoorsy vibe, Denver offers an urban density that allows residents to do without cars. That adds up to an excellent place for bikers. It’s got 88 miles of bike paths and lanes, which equal to 14.4 miles per 100,000 people, and a respectable 0.8 percent of workers commute on their bikes. The city also gets a strong 60.4 Walk Score.

Being able to travel by bike probably isn’t the prime motivating factor encouraging many people to choose a particular place to live. Still, bikeable cities are likely to attract people who enjoy an active lifestyle and an urban way of life that doesn’t require a trip in the car to get places. And if that describes you, one of these cities will be good places to find likeminded people.

Of course, even if biking is your passion and your city supports cyclists, it may not be possible to bike to work every day. Rotten weather or a sprained ankle can curtail bike commuting, and even many people who prefer not to drive want to keep a car for temporary use. If you need to take a car now and then but want driving to be easy on your wallet, check out these CreditDonkey resources for finding credit cards that reward you when you do buy gas.

Here are the sources we used to compile this study:

Livia Gershon is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Livia Gershon at livia@creditdonkey.com

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Comments about Study: Best Cities for Biking

  • Cody Lyon from New York
    on May 1, 2013 9:09 PM said:

    hi- where is New York City....seriously

  • Charles
    on May 2, 2013 10:25 AM said:

    New York ranked #17 based on our study methodology. 6.9 bike paths and lane miles per 100k people and 0.5% commuting by bike lowered New York City's overall ranking. On the plus side, NYC had the best Walk Score.

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