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In America's 'Most Bikeable' Cities, Bike Lanes Rule

A cyclist rides on a bike lane on Prospect Park West, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Bike lanes of this type use parked cars to create a buffer zone from road traffic. (Getty Images)

The cyclists who participated in Friday's National Bike to Work Day likely planned their riding route with several criteria in mind, from convenience to safety. Those same concerns help determine how "bikeable" a town is, according to a new study by the Walk Score website. Among the factors: There's safety in numbers.

"The more people who are out biking, the more cars get used to seeing bikes — and also, the more drivers of cars have had the experience of biking," says Matt Lerner, co-founder of Walk Score.

As Lerner tells NPR's Melissa Block, Walk Score recently assigned a Bike Score to U.S. cities based on four criteria: the number of bike lanes and hills; the nearness of destinations; and the number of bike commuters.

Minneapolis tops the Bike Score list, followed by Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Boston.

Asked why Minneapolis is rated so highly, Lerner cites the city's trails — and its geography.

"I think it started in the age of glaciers, because the glaciers carved out these beautiful lakes," he says. "And Minneapolis built trails connecting all of those lakes."

Lerner says that despite its hilly geography, San Francisco tied with Portland on the strength of its extensive network of bike lanes.

New York made the Top 10 list primarily for its efforts to build new, and safer, bike lanes.

"For example, they have what are called parking-separated cycle tracks, where there's a barrier of parked cars between the traffic and the bikers — and that's a really great way to make bikers feel safer."

There's an easy way to tell if a town has succeeded in its approach to encouraging cyclists to ride, Lerner says.

"In bike research, they call older people and younger people 'indicator species,' " he says. "So if you see an elderly person biking, or you see a child biking, that's a good indicator that the city is doing a really good job with their bike infrastructure."

The full list of the "most bikeable" cities:

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Well, if you want a little real-life action of your own, the down-to-earth kind, maybe you've joined in National Bike to Work Day today. You might be able to tell I've left our broadcast studio. I'm in the crowded NPR bike storage room here in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BLOCK: And I'd say there are about 20 bikes here today. Washington seems like a pretty good bike-to-work town. But to find out if it is and how other cities compare, I'm going to head back upstairs to the studio to hear from Matt Lerner. He's just launched Bike Score, with rates the most bikeable cities in America.

MATT LERNER: Number one, Minneapolis; number two, Portland; number three, San Francisco; number four, Boston; number five, Madison; number six, Washington, D.C. Seven is Seattle. Eight is Tucson. Nine is New York and 10 is Chicago.

BLOCK: Why do you think Minneapolis came in at number one?

LERNER: Well, I think it started in the time of glaciers because the glaciers carved out these beautiful lakes in Minneapolis, and Minneapolis built trails connecting all of those lakes. So they're our number one city on walkscore.com for bikeability.

BLOCK: And number three, San Francisco. It has a lot of hills. I would think that might be a disqualifier, but no.

LERNER: That's right. San Francisco has the same bike score as Portland, which is a bit of a surprise because San Francisco has so many hills. But the thing San Francisco also has is one of the best networks of bike lanes in the country.

BLOCK: So it overcame the hills because of the lanes.

LERNER: That's exactly right.

BLOCK: OK, and New York number nine. I think maybe counter-intuitive, people would think wow, New York, crazy traffic, just not a good place to ride a bike.

LERNER: The amazing thing about New York is how much they have transformed biking there in the last 10 years. What you can see is they've done a great job of adding new bike lanes. And in fact, they've been doing a lot of innovative bike lanes there.

For example, they have what are called parking separated cycle tracks, where there's a barrier of parked cars between the traffic and the bikers, and that's a really great way to make bikers feel safer.

BLOCK: What are the things, what are the factors that you're looking at when you figure out is a city bikeable, does it belong in our top 10?

LERNER: There are four things that we look at with Bike Score. One are the number of bike lanes nearby; two, how hilly is the area; three, are there destinations that you can ride to; and four, how many other people in that city ride their bikes.

BLOCK: And why that fourth factor, about other bikers? Why is that significant?

LERNER: There's a lot of research in biking that shows that there is safety in numbers. So the more people who are out biking, the more cars get used to seeing bikes, and also the more drivers of cars have had the experience of biking.

BLOCK: Do you have people, Matt, who get very upset if their city doesn't make the top 10 - they may advocate for it to be on your list?

LERNER: One thing that I'm excited about with Bike Score is that it's a tool that can help planners make their cities more bikeable. So if the city wishes they were higher up in the rankings, they can build more bike infrastructure.

BLOCK: Meaning what, what kind of infrastructure?

LERNER: More bike lanes, more trails, more ways to get normal people riding their bikes. In bike research, they call older people and younger people indicator species. So if you see an elderly person biking, or you see a child biking, that's a good indicator that the city is doing a really good job with their bike infrastructure.

BLOCK: It's not just college kids?

LERNER: That's right, it's not just the fast and furious.

BLOCK: Matt Lerner, thanks so much for talking to us on National Bike To Work Day.

LERNER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Matt Lerner, co-founder of the site Walk Score, which has put together a list of the top 10 most bikeable cities in the U.S. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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