An honest review of four American cities after a bike ride in each of them
Before you go any further, the use of the word “review” in this heading does not mean that you are reading the work of my esteemed colleagues James Huang or Ronan McLaughlin, and the only similarity to the work of the late (dismissed, not dead) Dave Rome is that by the end of it, you might think I’m the only tool not in his collection.
Regular listeners of the weekly CyclingTips podcast will have heard ad nauseam about my recent trip across the US where, in the content desert of the off-season, I planned to combine collecting various interviews and features along with seeing some places I’d never seen before all the big bad stuff began to happen and various plans quickly unfolded.
One thing that persisted, however, was my ability to cycle from A to B. While it wasn’t practical for me to take my own bike 3,500 miles across the Atlantic, and then another 3,000 across the country, the explosion of publicly accessible bikes in of the last decade has changed how people can get around cities.
This year I have been lucky enough to “cycle Boris” across London, Voi around Copenhagen and Lime cycle to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. When I arrived in America, not owning a car, I was ready to explore the various places I would visit on my cross-country trip by bike—which is usually the best mode of transportation for sightseeing and aerobic vibes anyway.
So here are my reviews of four major US cities after just a handful of short bike rides in each. Biased opinion from a sample size of data that would never stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. Again, if you’re looking for real insight, look for the bylines of the authors mentioned above. All you’ll find here are the accidents of someone riding up Alpe d’Huez at 8km/h.
In keeping with any kind of relevance to this publication and its readers, we’re going to assess these cities, however myopically, in terms of their bike-friendliness. More specifically, not if you’re able to fly your as-expensive-as-a-car racing bike over oceans and pedal it on distant roads. The way we should judge these cities is how easy and pleasant it is to go outside and just get on the bike.
In New York, the Citi Bike scheme feels familiar to the aforementioned Boris bikes I’m used to in London. An established ride-sharing scheme sponsored by major financial institutions. In Manhattan, the sprawl of the subway system makes fighting for road space with giant trucks and countless Ubers seem reckless when I’m not entirely sure about the coverage of my health insurance here. Likewise, when roads have bike lanes, a delivery driver can often be spotted zooming in the wrong direction using a battery they’ve crudely attached to drastically reduce the length of delivery time.
But if you’re trying to get from Queens to Brooklyn, which for those who don’t know are the neighboring boroughs across the East River, train travel is only available by crossing back across the water down the entire length of Manhattan and then back across . It’s a terrible coincidence and I know there are plans to fix this, but for those who face this fact as part of their daily lives, I don’t know how they can bear it.
So instead of making a tortuous underground journey, I paid $4 to unlock a Citi Bike and had 30 minutes to complete it, after which each additional minute would cost $0.23, the kind of financially punishing exercise that you can’t get with your normal bike.
On the journey south, I saw parts of Queens and Brooklyn I probably never would have otherwise, which is kind of the whole point of riding a bike, right? Ordinary neighborhoods inhabited by ordinary people, people carrying groceries from cars, coming to a friend’s birthday party.
It was an unexpected joy to find a concrete separated bike path over the Pulaski Bridge and the novelty of waiting for the drawbridge to flatten after a boat had passed underneath while all manner of bikes waited patiently. Who knew cycling in Queens could inspire such joy.
The Citi Bike also made Central Park easier work, although the weight of the machine meant the hills were a bit tougher than usual. And no, it had nothing to do with the fact that I hadn’t stopped eating since landing at JFK, with the least welcoming airport arrival hall ever.
Overall experience of cycling in New York: Better than expected. A rating of four out of four limbs still intact.
Say: You literally can’t buy anything for $4 in New York, so getting a bike ride for that price is a great deal.
Do not say: Hi! I am
go bikes here!
Personally, Chicago felt like New York, except I won’t develop a serious mental illness within three weeks of being there. The intensity of the endless high-rises is replaced by wider boulevards, a lake bubbling on the horizon and more friendly faces. In return for free accommodation, I looked after someone’s cat via a domestic helper app. The cat was a bit of a pain in the ass, but the north facing condominium gave me the opportunity to Divvy my way down Lake Shore Drive every day.
Beautifully wide, traffic-free lanes, with water so close you could plop right in if you really wanted to. The very simple joy of a bike ride in a car-free infrastructure designed especially for you. Nice, Chicago. In the rest of the city I found drivers in Chicago to be pretty impatient at all? But I also feel like I spent more time on the roads here than anywhere else, so take that judgment with a grain of salt. The Divvy day pass costs $15 (the same as Citi Bike in New York), but doesn’t limit you to 30 minutes of riding at a time, instead giving you three hours to explore wherever your legs can take you. The usual price is a $1 unlock fee and then $0.16 per minute – so still a financial time trial, a race against your pocket.
Biking in Chicago was easy, fun, and felt safe, which is a good thing, since it seemed like it took at least two buses to get anywhere and not get me started on the elevated rail, which spirals out of a peculiar loop system which at first glance makes little sense and is easy to get lost in.
Overall experience of cycling in Chicago: An American city where the bicycle is second only to the car.
Say: Divvy bikes, deep dish, Da Bears.
Do not say: Any of Chicago’s sports teams would have more hope of winning the Tour de France than their own respective league.
Coming from a grown man who just realized that ponies weren’t just baby horses we will in my twenties, forgive me for thinking that California was sunny all the time. Sure, it’s a big state, but I just assumed you continued west in America and it got sunnier and sunnier, that’s what happens in the movies and TV shows anyway.
If anything, at least the cold, rainy weather reminded me of home, and the place is definitely an interesting if not exorbitantly expensive and different one.
Bay Wheels, San Francisco’s pre-eminent bike-sharing system was up there with New York in terms of the ease of access to bikes and docks, and had the bonus of having models with paint jobs designed by various artists to spice up the ride. The ride down the Embarcadero is a lot of fun, although some of the bike lanes placed between regular lanes (see below) are quite nerve-wracking, especially in the wet.
Swapping out an analog machine for an e-bike near the Golden Gate Bridge not only allowed me to get across the water before some Imp of the Perverse could kick in, it also made for a less grueling trip up the hill on the other side for a fantastic view of the city. Hilly terrain is generally the enemy of these heavy public bikes, designed to last rather than perform, but having electronic assistance means you don’t even have to burn off that burrito you just devoured, it can sit uncomfortably in your stomach all day long!
General experience of cycling in San Francisco: Probably better when it’s not December.
Say: I want to see a WorldTour one-day classic in San Francisco.
Do not say: Can I have a sandwich, but is there any chance you have one that costs less than $17?
I’m sorry if this upsets you, but Los Angeles is bad. Easily.
This is a city where you can only get around in a car, but even then you’re stuck in traffic half the time, and when the roads are flowing they’re less inviting than the prospect of being Mark Cavendish’s mechanic at the 2021 Tour de France.
After an hour long bus ride to Santa Monica, and then another hour of trying not to download and unlock the many different bike sharing apps, I decided instead to walk the 50 minutes to Venice Beach. Upon arrival I finally found Metro Bike Share, owned and operated by the city itself – finally a glimmer of hope in this hellhole, arriving in the most unexpected medium of a publicly owned bike share scheme.
At $1.75, it was the cheapest service I had experienced so far, and the weather was finally warm enough for me to take off my coat and store it in the front basket. In addition, the walk through the beach was fun. I promise I’m not a total lousy git. And I have to admit that I liked one thing about Los Angeles: traveling.
Overall experience of cycling in Los Angeles: Riding my bike made me forget I was in Los Angeles for a moment.
Say: At least the palm trees are…tall?
Do not say: If I ever have to come back here, I think I’m going to cry.