Not long ago, you needed a crazy streak to cycle in many cities. Outside of Denmark or Holland, planners paid little attention to bikers’ needs, and the automobile ruled. No longer. These days, cycling is gaining traction in many places, as bikers grow in numbers (and political clout) and authorities start to appreciate the environmental and social benefits.
Copenhagenize’s index of the world’s most bike-friendly cities gives a sense of how far the “renaissance” has come (and how far it still has to go). The consultancy awards 0 to 4 points across 13 categories, including facilities (e.g. bike racks), infrastructure, sharing schemes, the balance of male to female cyclists, and increase in “modal share” since 2006. It then gives bonus points for “particularly impressive efforts or results,” and massages the numbers to be out of 100 (a strange way of doing things, but still).
Amsterdam and Copenhagen are first and second, with other major European cities not far behind, including Berlin (8th), Dublin (9th), Munich, (11th), Barcelona and Paris (tied for 13th). Only one North American city makes it into the top 20–Montreal, in 11th place–and there are no U.S. cities. But several do make it to the top 40: Minneapolis, New York, Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago.
Portland, San Francisco, and New York have fallen out of the top 20 since the 2011 ranking, though that’s not necessarily because they’ve become worse places for biking. Copenhagenize expanded the ranking this time to 150 cities from 80 last time. Eight of the top 20 now didn’t appear before: Utrecht, Seville, Bordeaux, Nantes, Antwerp, Eindhoven, Malmo, Nagoya (Japan).
Still, U.S. cities are falling back in some respects, says Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen.
“The primary difference in the success of the emerging bicycle cities on the list and those American cities who didn’t make it is really down to infrastructure. Barcelona, Seville, Dublin, Bordeaux, among others, have been making progress by creating safe infrastructure for users. There were no bicycles in these cities six years ago, but now they are well on their way to double-digit modal share.”
The “safe” bit is the point. Lots of cities now have bike lanes, but frequently they are not well demarcated, or policed. There’s a big difference between fully separated bike paths, and “strange bike lanes on the left side of parked cars and painted sharrows,” Colville-Andersen says. He sees separation as “the only way forward,” though others argue that mixing can help civilize drivers.
Either way, the example of the leading cities shows if you build infrastructure people will use it, irrespective of how wide the sprawl, or how dangerous things used to be. “If you make the bicycle the fastest way from A to B, citizen cyclists will ride,” he says. “That is why people ride in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. It’s simply the quickest way to get around.”