Six surprisingly bike-friendly cities

From the region famous for fast Italian cars to a remote Alaskan town by the forest, the range of communities passionate about cycling as a form of urban transport is varied and often times surprising. Whether they be newcomers, small-scale, steady-improvers or simply flying in the face of stereotype, here are six cities whose commitment to bike-friendliness just may have eluded you.

Bogotá, Colombia
The World Health Organisation attributes one in twenty deaths in Bogotá to outdoor air pollution. It’s considered one of the most air polluted urban centres in Latin America. One day a week, however, 120 km of roads in Bogotá are closed to cars from 7 am to 2 pm for its beloved Ciclovía. It began as a grass roots movement in the 1970s – with cycling activists protesting the dominance of cars – and has grown with time. Participation estimates range from 600 000 to nearly 2 million and the results are impressive: over 100 cities worldwide have implemented similar events, 2 000 plus jobs are generated each Sunday in association, and organisers have tracked a correlation between Ciclovía investment and reduced medical costs due to increase physical activity.

Bogotá, Colombia

While the city has not yet resolved its air quality issue, implementing bike-friendliness was part of Bogotá’s attempt to revamp urban living by reducing crime and congestion and offering improved services to poorer residents. A key player in these efforts was Gil Peñalosa in his role as Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation. Starting in the late 1990s, he oversaw not only the updating of the Ciclovía but also the creation of 200 new parks, nearly 300 km of sheltered bikeways and the introduction of Bogotá’s annual Car Free Day. As Peñalosa himself has commented: the bike, with its lower purchase price and running costs, has come to represent urban democracy.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
By 2030 Dubai expects to boast 850 km of bike lanes. The city wants to set the global pace for both cycle paths and the promotion of non-mechanical mobility. Infrastructure investment to date has been significant: the current 316 km of bike lanes include a converted former camel track and purpose-built paths that wind through sand dunes and past five star resorts. Not bad for a city whose longest running bike shop opened in 2002.

Cyclists ride past Dubai skyline

Safety is a dominant and recurrent theme: helmets are mandatory, sun-sense is taken seriously and reflective clothing and lights are encouraged. Known for top-notch roads and the large, fast cars that travel along them, the current approach to traffic management is to keep cyclists and vehicles separate. With recreational biking well taken care of, the city plans to link its neighbourhoods and surrounds with a commuting-friendly network of cycle paths. Dubai has high recorded rates of obesity and diabetes and the health and fitness benefits of cycling are one factor driving the city’s push for bike-friendliness. It will be interesting to watch how Dubai’s residents react to their increasingly plentiful and high-quality cycling infrastructure.

Ferrara, Italy
Ferrara is nestled within the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, an area renown for the production of high-end cars including Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. Often dubbed – and signposted – as `the city of bicycles`, Ferrara is a member of the European Cities for Cyclists network and its stylish riders, vintage bikes and bicycle infrastructure have long caught the eye of urban biking commentators. Perhaps not the most surprising city on the list, Ferrara deserves a mention for highlighting that a love of cars can co-exist with a passion for cycling.

Cyclist in Ferrara's Piazza Trento

The city is also noteworthy for the fact that its cyclists truly represent a cross-section of society, including the elderly. Biking simply makes sense in Ferrara: it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose city centre is compact, relatively flat and has car usage restrictions in place. When American public policy think tank the German Marshall Fund studied sustainability in small urban spaces, Ferrara was one of the cities looked to by author and city planner Christine Grimando. The city continues to nurture its bike culture: cycle tourism boosts the economy and participation in the CycleLogistics European Project will encourage the transportation of goods by cargo bikes and bicycles.

New York City, The United States of America
Pro- and anti-bike lane clashes made national headlines when New York City started getting bike-friendly under the 12-year reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Prospect Park bike lane in Brooklyn provides a case in point: it attracted hundreds of protestors, a description by The Brooklyn Paper as “the most controversial slab of cement outside the Gaza Strip”, and a fight for its removal which reached the state’s supreme court. The lane stayed. In fact, around 650 km of bike lanes were added during 2002-2013 when Bloomberg was in office.

Early morning commuter bikes across Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan

In a city of 8.62 million inhabitants – and 60 million plus annual tourists – there’s bound to be differences of opinion. Despite some high-profile and highly vocal opposition, New York City saw a 156 per cent growth in daily cycling between 2006-2016. Citi Bike, whose launch provoked fears of noise, nuisance and visual disturbance, now consists of 12 000 bikes, 750 stations and 16.3 million trips in 2017 alone. Perhaps there is some merit to the theory that New York’s bike backlash was not bike-specific but triggered by the government’s larger plan for sustainable streets and an aversion to change.

Perth, Australia
The urban sprawl of Western Australia’s capital is a far cry from compact European cities traditionally considered bike-friendly. Perth is one of the least densely populated developed cities, one of the most isolated capital cities and among the top three windiest cites worldwide. Not exactly the stuff biking utopias are commonly assumed to be made of. It has, however, a serious bike culture that defies its geography: hard-core cyclists tackle long-distance commutes, `bike-friendly cafes` not only exist but are plentiful, and membership benefits of advocacy group Bicycling Western Australia include personal and third-party liability insurance and legal advice.

Cyclist rides along Perth's Swan River

Perth’s steps towards improving urban cycling are not radical, but they have been consistent and practical for decades: the long-running `Cycle Instead` campaign was launched in 1999, the Public Transport Authority has a Cycling Integration Manager, and a team of representatives flew to the Netherlands in 2014 to learn why Dutch cities get cycling so right. Bikes feature strongly in Perth’s strategic 2050 vision for transport and proposals are in place for new bike and pedestrian bridges that cut across the Swan River to better link the city’s metropolitan area.

Sitka, Alaska
Located on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska, Sitka is a remote town of 9 000 bordered by snow-capped mountains to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West. Nestled within the Tongass National Forest – the world’s largest temperature rainforest – the town is accessible only by air or sea and, given its geography and climate, not the most obvious choice for bike-friendliness. That said, Sitka is a fantastic example of what can be achieved when a community rallies for change. Back in 2007 the inaugural Sitka Health Summit set the goal of becoming a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly community. Since then the town has been awarded silver level in The League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Community ranking, which gives nod to communities promoting biking for transport and recreation. In just over a decade Sitka has repaved its main roads to include wider shoulders or adjacent multi-use pathways, updated its systems of bike trails, hosts multiple community biking events throughout the year, and routinely considers cyclists when planning public spaces and public movement.

Sitka's waterfront overlooked by Alaska's mountains
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