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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In Pictures Urban biking: the wheel story
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Still, Portland may not want to get too complacent about its position as bike capital of America – plenty of other cities are trying to establish themselves as citadels of spokes, too. Start with Long Beach, in the heart of the southern California car culture.
On a sun-kissed day, Allan Crawford, a Long Beach "mobility coordinator," takes a visitor on a tour of some of the city's investments in two-wheeled transportation. As he pedals down tidy streets of manicured lawns with hedges that grace humble but well-appointed California bungalows, Mr. Crawford pauses at a traffic light until street sensors register the bike's metal frame. Cross traffic gets a red light. He pedals forward.
Around town, the city has hung huge canvas advertisements featuring the faces of local residents to promote the virtues of biking. Crawford points to another transformation about to ensue as well: a signed contract with Bike Nation, a firm that offers rental bikes in kiosks.
Like many cities across the country, Long Beach is setting up a network of rental stations that will allow riders to use bikes for short, one-way commutes. The first station will go in by the end of the year, followed by 250 others, a dense enough web that riders should be able to pedal anywhere they want and drop off a bike within 1-1/2 blocks of their destination.
One hope is that a more bike-oriented culture will boost downtown business. "For 20 years, we had one bike rack outside, and it was only used sporadically," says Kerstine Kansteiner, who owns two downtown coffee boutiques. "Now we have six, and they are jammed at all hours."
That's not surprising to April Economides of Green Octopus Consulting, who works with cities on bike-friendly business districts. She says one reason biking is good for small businesses is because cyclists travel at speeds that allow them to notice the world around them – meaning those window displays of brioche and boutique furniture. Studies show that people who take their bikes shopping usually stay within two miles of their house, a boon to neighborhood businesses, and shop more frequently.
"We see a business we would not have noticed if we were whizzing by in a car," says Ms. Economides. "We see people we know, and we connect with them and have a conversation."
Yet the biking invasion can lead to tensions with local businesses as well. San Francisco recently proposed establishing a bike lane on a busy road that runs through the Russian Hill neighborhood. When residents and merchants of Russian Hill heard that the lane could mean the removal of dozens of parking spaces, about 400 turned out at a meeting with representatives of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA). The agency is now redrawing its plans to soothe area residents.
The pushback was relatively unusual for a city that views cycling as an alternative to the street car and pines to have more residents on bikes than Portland or Seattle. In the past five years, SFMTA reports that bike ridership in San Francisco has jumped by 71 percent. Currently 3.5 percent of all trips in the city occur on bikes. SFMTA hopes to more than double ridership by 2018, and the Board of Supervisors wants bikes to make up 20 percent of all trips by 2020.
To get there, the city is adding cycling lanes at a brisk pace – it now has 72 miles of them – and tilting traffic flow more toward riders: Some intersections have lights just for cyclists, while others feature lights synchronized for 13 miles per hour, closer to a bike's cruising speed. Yet the city admits that carving out enough space for riders is an uphill battle – literally.