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Cover Story

The bike boom (+video)

Americans are using bicycles for transportation and recreation in record numbers as the fitness and green movements, as well as high energy costs, spur a two-wheel revolution.

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Certainly he won't get an argument from many urban planners and big-city mayors. Across the country, municipal leaders are promoting bicycle use to reduce traffic congestion, cut oil consumption, clean up skies, and slim down a flabby populace.

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More practically, urban leaders view bikes as an inexpensive way to move people around in an era when it is getting harder and harder to convince taxpayers to fund anything – subways, roads, or even pothole repair – as well as pry money out of Washington. Since bike lanes take up only a fraction of the space needed for cars, it's appealing to promote commuting by bicycle rather than trying to garner funds for more blacktop.

"Our principal job is to make sure that people and goods can move through the city," says Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for Portland, Ore. "If all the new residents coming into Portland drive at current rates, nobody is going to be moving."

Some of the burgeoning interest in pedal power is generational. Biking appeals to many of the nation's younger mayors, such as Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, N.C., the newly appointed head of the US Department of Transportation. 

"There is a new class of mayors who understand urban systems better," says Shin-pei Tsay, who follows cities and transportation for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York. "They are asking what is the most efficient way to move people."

States are pushing alternative forms of transportation, too. In 2006, California passed a "sustainable communities" law that requires every metro area to come up with ways to reduce greenhouse gases related to travel. It is forcing cities to consider both more pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

"There will be way more investment in bikes than in the past," predicts Bill Fulton, vice president at Smart Growth America, a coalition of groups that advocate for less urban sprawl.

In some cases, biking is just part of the local ethos. Take Portland, probably America's premier cycling city. Bicycling magazine recently voted it – once again – the most "bike-friendly" city in America as part of a ranking it does every two years. Portland lost out last time around to Minneapolis.

According to the US Census Bureau, more than 6 percent of Portland's commuters (17,000 people) go to work on two wheels – 12 times the national average. Portland knows precisely how many of them ride each day over the Hawthorne Bridge, a main artery, since it installed a digital counter donated by a nonprofit group. Officials use the information to help plot bike routes and plan facilities.

It doesn't hurt, either, to know the numbers for bragging rights. Not long after Portland installed its counter, Seattle put in one of its own on the Fremont Bridge. Portland likes to note that it has more cyclists crossing the Hawthorne than Seattle does its span. (What's next in the great green rivalry of the Northwest – a bike path up the Space Needle?)

Part of the reason biking has boomed in Portland is simply geography. Compared with Seattle and San Francisco, the Oregon city is relatively flat. The weather, despite its reputation for being sodden, is bike-friendly, too. "It's pretty temperate year round," says Will Vanlue of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, which promotes cycling statewide.

The city has also installed almost 400 miles of bikeways and added 5,000 bike racks. And then there is Portland's bohemian culture, which celebrates biking in its own wacky way.

Tall-bike jousting contests are held each summer in Col. Summers Park, where riders square off and try to lance one another using what look like giant cotton swabs. Groups organize dozens of rides annually celebrating everything from the worst weather day (in February) to biking in various stages of undress (mercifully, in June).

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