The U.S. city with the most bike commuters—and what NYC can learn from them

By Alanna Schubach  | May 24, 2017 - 11:59AM

Last Friday was Bike to Work Day, and in honor of the celebration of cycling, CityLab took a look at the American cities with the highest number of residents who commute by bicycle. 

The United States' car-centric culture is evident in the fact that most Americans—86 percent—still drive to their jobs, and broadly speaking, very few of us—only 0.6 percent—opt to pedal our way to work. Even that tiny number, though, represents a significant increase in cyclists since 2000, and many large cities have undertaken projects to make their streets rider-friendly. 

It may not come as a shock to learn that as of now, the city with the most bike commuters is Portland, Oregon, a place with a rep for luring crunchy, creative types who are comfortable with taking life at the leisurely pace of a bicycle ride. There, a little over 2.32 percent of locals cycle to work, while in NYC, which ranks 21st of the top 25 largest metro areas, that number is only 0.58 percent. 

All these percentages pale in comparison to those of European cities like Copenhagen, where as many as half of all residents ride bicycles to their jobs, and urban design has accommodated cyclists since the early 20th century. It would be a tall order for metropolises in the U.S. to become more like the Danish capital, but NYC can take inspiration from the cities that are doing well by American standards. 

Portland, for instance, makes it easy for riders to cycle partway to their destinations and then travel by bus or train: They can bring bikes onto public transit or leave it them in an enclosed parking space (there are five citywide), a locker (at 14 locations), or a bike rack (at most train stations).

In NYC, by contrast, bikes are technically allowed on the subway, but good luck finding the space during busy hours (which are most hours, last time we checked). And while there are bike racks and corrals throughout the city—you can find location information here—cycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives notes that a shortage of secure bike parking is the main reason New Yorkers don't ride their bikes to work.

And while NYC has more miles of bike lanes than Portland (1,000 to 350), the Oregon city became the first in the country to mandate that all new bike lanes—and there are 50 new miles in the pipeline—must be protected ones, writes rider advocacy organization People for Bikes. This means that all new lanes will be physically separated from car traffic to keep riders safe. 

With the subway's reliability seeming to worsen by the day, more New Yorkers are likely to find themselves seeking less stressful means of getting to their jobs. To that end, Transportation Alternatives is engaged in both citywide and local campaigns to make NYC more bike-friendly. The organization's proposals include rebuilding dangerous intersections where cars and cyclists converge, installing more protected bike lanes, and additional bike parking in neighborhoods throughout the city. 

Another reason to promote bike riding (aside from the nightmare that is the subway these days)? It's a democratizing force, urban studies theorist Richard Florida writes in CityLab, in that both high and low-income people bike to work, and there's a correlation between a higher number of people opting for bikes as a means to get to work and lower economic segregation.

In a city that often feels increasingly stratified, then, cycling could serve as a counter-measure to separation. 


Alanna Schubach

Contributing writer

Contributing editor Alanna Schubach has over a decade of experience as a New York City-based freelance journalist.

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