Cycling is one of the primary forms of transportation in the world. As America and particularly her suburbs has infamously been built for the automobile since the end of World War II, cycling is not as widespread in much of the United States as it is in Europe. However, with time, particularly in the more compact city areas, cycling is becoming popular in the United States as well.
|“||Suddenly the nickel-clad horse takes the bit in its mouth and goes slanting for the curbstone defying all prayers and all your powers to change its mind — your heart stands still, your breath hangs fire, your legs forget to work.||”|
Cycling in the United States, especially in cities, can vary from downright awful to very good but it never quite reaches the levels of comfortable and fun you'd find in the Netherlands or Denmark. Car culture is very strong, but encouraging cycling has asserted itself as a political idea for environmental and health reasons. Therefore, cycling in the United States can often be seen in the form of a recreational activity rather than being a method of transportation. The large number of parks and open areas in more rural parts of the country means that, in local parks and along country roads, cycling is popular.
However, if you want to cycle extensively in the United States, you must first consider its size. While in the smaller European countries, you might consider going across the country by cycling, in the United States doing so is more difficult. Many European countries are only a few hundred miles across, but United States is a massive 2,000 mi (3,200 km) from east to west and about 1,000 mi (1,600 km) from north to south, excluding offshore islands and the state of Alaska, which alone is hundreds of miles across. This makes cycling a better idea as a supplement to using other modes of transportation rather than trying to get around the country on a bicycle. However, with planning and dedication a coast to coast bike trip can be the adventure of a lifetime. Just plan several months for it instead of few weeks of vacation.
The history of cycling in the US is an interesting and checkered one, that even many current bike activists don't know all that much about. Bikes became the first widely available method of private transportation faster than walking (horses were prohibitively expensive for day to day personal transport) by the end of the 19th century and a bike lobby emerged during that era calling for "good roads" and bikes being given equal or better access to intercity roads than coaches. By the 1920s however, while bikes were established in the cityscape a new competition had arisen, which would not only nearly wipe out "utility cycling" but make most Americans forget there ever was a time people biked to work and leisure activities or to meet friends and loved ones. The automobile lobby would take over the "good roads" movement and co-opt it for its own goals. Some former bike manufacturers even became car producers and switched their political activism accordingly. Cycling entered a long slumber and was seen as nothing more than a children's toy until the invention of gears and suspension that made bikes viable even on barely existent forest trails gave rise to the "mountain bike" craze that spread from the US through the First World. Still, cycling remained mostly seen as a sport and even the immense success of Lance Armstrong (later his trophies were almost all withdrawn due to doping) could not largely change the image of biking. But with gas prices on the rise in the 21st century and political polarization leaving most cities strongly in the hands of the political left, a new push towards bikes as an everyday means of transportation is taking place. Cities like New York City have city government willing to at least pay lip service to bike infrastructure whereas cities like Detroit have vocal and active bottom up bicycle activism with stuff like "Critical Mass" rides as a new form of protest and activism and just a way to have fun on a bike once more emerging in the US.
The U.S. is a huge country, with extremely varied terrains, and a strong leisure and sports cycling movement. Dedicated bike trails, as they are called in the States, are a growing leisure phenomenon. "Utility cycling" (i.e. cycling primarily to get to a certain place), though still a niche phenomenon in many places, is increasingly common, especially in college towns and large cities.
Portland and Minneapolis are the biggest cycling cities, and Los Angeles has a sizeable number of cycle paths. Chicago, Seattle, and Boston are also good for city cycling. For good bicycle related facilities, good destinations are college towns like Fort Collins or Auburn.
Some major destinations like New York are improving their cycling facilities and culture but suffer from traffic problems which might put off visitors. A Manhattan Waterfront Greenway encircles most of Manhattan. Washington has growing commuter bike usage, a bike share scheme and some long bike trails. Detroit is famously "motor city" but with a population of less than half its 1950s peak and a ridiculously overbuilt road network, there is space for bikes by happenstance which local activists are putting to use, especially since the city is still economically hard hit and public transit in Detroit is below even the standards of many similar U.S. cities.
Cycling between cities is also possible, but bicycles are banned on the limited-access Interstate highway system, so long-distance cyclists must stick to older federal, state and county roads and should be particularly careful on country roads where motorists drive fast and there is no shoulder on the road.
If cycling between cities just isn't your thing, both Amtrak and the major intercity bus operators allow bicycles on their vehicles, usually requiring some extra fee or reservation. However, do inquire in advance as to the current policy and what you have to keep in mind on the particular route you are traveling on. Special storage boxes or other requirements as well as handling or reservation fees may all apply, depending on where you go and which company takes you there. Many local bus systems in the U.S. equip their buses with racks on the front to hold bikes, allowing you to take a city bus for part of your trip and bike the rest of the way, or bike one direction and take the bus back.
- See also: Urban cycling
Increasingly, cities are adopting bike-share programs, that are often open to tourists as well as locals. In essence you can rent a bike at a number of stations and return it at another station in the system once you're done. Coverage and prices vary from city to city and thus far there has been little consolidation in the market with most systems being city-run or city-sponsored, so a membership in one city is often not good for a discount in another city.
The U.S. has 41,420 mi of (unmarked) national routes planned and put together by Adventure Cycling Association. The routes use the most bike-friendly facilities available, including dedicated cycle trails, old railway lines and quiet roads. They link up the major population centers and tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon and national parks. Some are focused on historic events.
Maps and supported tours are available.
- East Coast Greenway — 3,000 mi, quarter complete
- Great Divide Trail — 2,493 mi
- Lewis & Clark Trail — 3,252 mi
- Mississippi River Trail — 2,000 mi
- Pacific Coast Route — 1,853 mi
- Trans-America Trail — 4,262 mi
- Underground Railroad — 2,000 mi
Official marked US and state routes are included on OpenCycleMap. There is an effort to create a full official marked US cycle network: the first few routes have been designated, based on the ACA's network of routes.
There are of course many, many more state and local bike trails which are not as long as the trails listed above.