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Biking in downtown Denver.

[This article was commissioned by SRAM Corporation, a bike components manufacture headquartered in Chicago, for their Urban Products catalogue.]

This is an amazing time to be an urban bicycle commuter in the United States. According to the American Community Survey, over the last decade the percentage of citizens who frequently pedal to work rose 63% in the 70 largest cities. Sure, even U.S. cycling Meccas like Portland, Oregon, only have a fraction of the mode share of Northern European towns like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. But stateside cycling is definitely on a roll, and we seem to be approaching critical mass.

There are lots of reasons for this bike boom. In gridlocked cities, bicycling is often the fastest, most efficient way to get around. It’s a great way to add physical activity to your routine without having to spend extra time and money at a gym. In a sluggish economy with rising gas prices, not having to spend cash at the pump or on parking is definitely a plus. Cycling instead of driving is an easy way to help out the environment. And, last but not least, navigating a metropolis by bike can be incredibly fun.

But not everybody feels comfortable cycling in a big city. That’s why towns from cost to coast are investing in new infrastructure to make riding safer, more convenient and more enjoyable, from off-street paths and on-street bike lanes, to parking racks and commuter stations that provide secure places to stash your ride at the end of the trip.

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55th Street protected bike lane in Hyde Park, Chicago.

Bike activists and advocacy groups are pushing for even more improvements, including European-style “protected” bike lanes that separate bikes from motorized traffic with physical barriers – a great way to make newbies feel at ease on city streets. As a result, new protected lanes are popping up in towns from New York to San Francisco. And the best thing is, as more people ride bikes in a town, motorists learn to watch out for cyclists, so there’s safety in numbers.

America’s best cities for cycling promise to get even better. Portland, with the highest bike mode share of any major U.S. city, about six percent of all trips to work, has long been considered the nation’s cycling capital. It boasts 79 miles of bike paths, 180 miles of lanes, plenty of “neighborhood greenways” – traffic-calmed, bike-priority side streets – and a diverse, vibrant cycling culture. Local bike writer Elly Blue, who blogs at TakingTheLane.com, takes inspiration from the constant stream of commuters outside her window. “From my desk I can see one of the highest-traffic bike routes in the city,” she says. “You see enough smiling people on bikes in one day and you start to believe that anything is possible.”

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Elly Blue. Photo by Jonathan Maus, BikePortland.org.

Further down the West Coast, auto-centric Los Angeles is turning into an unlikely cycling hotspot that has seen ridership on some bike lanes double within the last five years. There’s also burgeoning cycling scene with an emphasis on sleek, single-speed road bikes. “So many improvements are taking shape here every day to make bicycling safer and more convenient,” says Martin Lopez-Iu from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. “The city is planning to implement forty-plus miles of bicycle lanes each year. And programs like CicLAvia, the nation’s largest car-free, open-streets event, are changing attitudes towards bicycling as a viable and fun form of transportation.”

In the Midwest, despite challenging winters Chicago is also turning into a terrific place to ride. There are already over 130 miles of bike lanes and a scenic, 18.5 mile path along the Lake Michigan shoreline, plus more bike racks than any other U.S. city. And the city has pledged to build 100 miles of new protected bike lanes by 2015, plus the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway. Oboi Reed, founder of The Pioneers bike club, says his favorite aspect of Chicago commuting is riding on the Lakefront Trail early in the morning. “The sun is peeking out over the clouds, you’re looking at the blue sky and what appears to be this infinite water,” he says. “And you’re seeing beautiful people working out, exercising, smiling and saying hello to each other.”

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Oboi Reed.

Meanwhile on the East Coast, New York City has also been taking bold steps to become a great bike town. Hundreds of miles of bike lanes have been striped, including several miles of protected bike lanes. And on three Sundays a year, almost seven miles of Manhattan streets are closed for the Summer Streets events, creating a safe space for hundreds of thousands of residents to bike, walk, run and hang out. “There are so many more miles of lanes in New York nowadays that traveling by bike has become much easier,” says Brendan Brogan, who wrenches for the nonprofit shop Recycle-A-Bicycle. “And the sheer volume of people riding has made everyone more conscientious – bicyclists, drivers and pedestrians.”

Hopefully reading about these up-and-coming U.S. cycling cities has got you raring to hit the streets. In case you’re new to urban commuting, here are a few tips to get you started. Check out the books and web resources below for additional info.

Choosing a bicycle-friendly route can make the difference between your commute being a stressful ordeal or a mellow cruise. Most major cities offer bike maps with recommendations for good routes, available online or for free at shops. These will show you the locations of paths, lanes and other recommended routes, as well as bike parking, shops and other amenities. Google Maps and RideTheCity.com are also good sources for route recommendations. If you’re new to pedaling in city traffic, seek out off-street paths, protected bike lanes and quiet, residential streets to make your ride as relaxing as possible.

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Let’s Go Ride a Bike blogger Dottie Brackett. Image courtesy of LGRAB.

Following the rules of the road will make your urban commute much safer and keep you from annoying other road users. In a nutshell, act like a vehicle. Most towns prohibit adults from biking on the sidewalk, and drivers aren’t expecting you there so it can lead to crashes. Ride in the street, in the direction of traffic, as far to the right as practical, unless you’re keeping up with the speed of motorized traffic. To avoid getting “doored” by drivers leaving their vehicles, ride at least four feel away from parked cars, so if you’re in a bike lane, keep to the left side of the lane. And respect stoplights – they’re there for your protection, so don’t just recklessly blow through them.

Bicycle theft is a big issue in most American cities, so when you get to your destination park your bike securely if you want it to be there for the ride home. Never leave your steed outside unattended, even if you’re just running into a shop for a minute. Always secure it with a good-quality U-lock and/or chain, preferably both, to something that can’t easily be cut or pulled out of the ground – municipal bike racks and parking meters are good choices. Secure or remove all quick-release parts like the wheels and seat.

If you’ve never used a bicycle to get around a city before, you might assume you’d need to stock up on Lycra Spandex cycling attire, but nowadays more Americans are finding you can bike commute in whatever you’d be wearing if you were using any other transportation mode. The trick is to choose a bike and accessories that will accommodate street clothes so you don’t show up at work or a date with chain grease on your right leg and a stripe of mud up your back.

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Fancy fenders. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

Of course, just about any kind of bicycle will work for getting around town, and if you enjoy zooming to the office in your racing kit on a carbon fiber road bike and changing when you get there, more power to you. However, touring bikes, hybrids and European-style city bikes are all good choices for commuting in regular clothes because they offer a more relaxed riding posture and the option to add useful accessories that will help keep you safe and clean and allow you to carry cargo. Some city bikes even come fully equipped with everything you need for your commute.

A white front light and a red rear reflector or light are essential if you’re going to be riding after dark or in poor visibility, and they’re required by law in most places. In a well-lit city, their purpose is to help drivers see you, so bike lights that blink on and off will make you more conspicuous. Generator lights are great for commuter bikes because you never have to worry about replacing batteries. Besides lights, a bike bell is another good way to make your presence known to other cyclists and pedestrians.

Carrying your stuff on your back in a waterproof messenger bag can be convenient, but for a sweat-free commute, consider adding a cargo rack or basket to the front of your bike, and/or a rear carrying rack. With a rear rack you can zip-tie a milk crate on top as a cheap way to carry your backpack or purse. To haul more cargo, consider investing in one or two waterproof panniers (saddlebags) that attach to the sides of the rack.

To keep rain and mud from splashing off the wheels and onto your clothes, add full-length fenders to your ride. Installing fenders and racks is much easier if you buy a bike with eyelets on the frame for the accessories to screw into. A chainguard is a great way to help keep grease off your clothes without having to worry about rolling up your pants leg or using a pants strap. And many Euro-style bikes even come with the drivetrain fully enclosed in a chain case, so there’s no possibility of dirty chain lube on your pants.

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A fully enclosed chain will ensure your pants leg stays grease-free. Photo by Pippypippy.

Chainguards and chain cases work best on one-speeds or bikes equipped with an internally geared rear hub. This means the gear-changing mechanism is located inside the hub rather than having a rear derailleur. Other reasons an internally geared hub is a great option for commuter bikes are because the shifting mechanism is totally protected from the elements, and there’s less possibility of it being damaged if the bike falls over. And if you’re choosing an internally geared hub, or any other components for your commuter bike, consider products made by SRAM Corporation, Chicago’s hometown bike parts company, which supports advocacy efforts around the world through World Bicycle Relief and the SRAM Cycling Fund.

Great books about urban bike commuting:

Cool and useful websites to check out:

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  • Pingback: Move It! A Guide to Getting Around Big Cities by Bike | Grid Chicago | Bicycle News Gator

  • Adam Herstein

    Slow news day? :-)

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks for the feedback. From our mission statement: “Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture” – this piece fits in the latter category. It’s getting pretty good play on Twitter so it looks like people are finding it useful.

      We’re always looking for guest contributors, so let us know if you have any ideas for news stories.

      • Adam Herstein

        I was just kidding. :-) I understand the usefulness of posts like these – not everyone who reads this blog is a weathered urban cyclist.

        Maybe something about the new Clark Street buffered bike lane in Lake View?

        • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

          What aspect of the new Clark lane were you thinking? Do you love it, do you find it useless, or somewhere in between?

  • Ace Mann

    Thanks John. Always like great stories about biking in the city.Gives a great overview for people just starting out in bike commuting.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Sure thing Ace.