An honest review of four US cities after a bike ride in each of them
A Brit abroad offers knee-jerk and unscientific opinion on America's urban riding.
A Brit abroad offers knee-jerk and unscientific opinion on America's urban riding.
Before you get any further, the use of the word ‘review’ in this headline does not mean you are reading the work of my esteemed colleagues James Huang or Ronan McLaughlin, and the only similarity to the labour of the dearly departed (laid off, not dead) Dave Rome is that by the end of it you may think that I am the only tool not in his collection.
Regular listeners of the CyclingTips weekly podcast will have heard ad nauseam about my recent trip across the United States of America, where in the content desert of the off-season I schemed to combine collecting various interviews and features along with seeing some places I’d never seen before until all of the Big Bad Things started to happen and various plans quickly unravelled.
One thing that persisted, however, was my ability to ride a bike from A to B. Whilst it was not practical for me to take my own bike 3,500 miles over the Atlantic Ocean, and then another 3,000 across the country, the explosion of publicly available bicycles over the past decade has transformed how people are able to get around cities.
This year I’ve been fortunate enough to ‘Boris bike’ across London, Voi around Copenhagen and Lime bike to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Upon arriving in America, and not owning a car, I was ready to explore the various places I’d visit on my cross-country trip by bike – which is usually the best method of transportation for sightseeing and aerobic vibes anyway.
So, here are my reviews of four major US cities after only a handful of short bike rides in each of them. 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 writers mentioned above. All you will find here are the misadventures of someone who rides up Alpe d’Huez at 8km/h.
In accordance with sticking to any semblance of relevancy for this publication and its readers, we’re going to be evaluating these cities, however myopically, in terms of their bikeable-ness. More specifically, not on whether you are able to fly your as-expensive-as-a-car-racing-bike over oceans and pedal it on distant roads. The way we are going to judge these cities is how easy and enjoyable is it to walk outside and just get on a bike.
In New York, the Citi Bike scheme feels familiar to the aforementioned Boris bikes I’m used to back in London. A docked ride-share scheme sponsored by large financial institutions. On Manhattan, the proliferation of the subway system makes battling for road space with gigantic trucks and countless Ubers seem reckless when I’m not entirely sure the extent of my medical insurance over here. Similarly, when roads do have bike lanes, a delivery driver can often be spotted zooming along in the wrong direction with the help of a battery they’ve crudely affixed in order to drastically reduce the length of their delivery times.
However, if you are trying to get from Queens to Brooklyn, which for those that don’t know are neighbouring boroughs across the East River, train travel is only available by crossing back over the water down the entire length of Manhattan and then back over. It is a maddening happenstance, and I know there are plans to correct this, but for those who face this fact as part of their daily life, I don’t know how they put up with it.
So instead of making a convoluted subterranean journey I paid $4 to unlock a Citi Bike and had 30 minutes to complete it, after which point each additional minute would cost $0.23, the sort of financially punitive training that you can’t get with your regular bike.
On the journey south I saw parts of Queens and Brooklyn I likely wouldn’t ever have otherwise, which is sort of the whole point of cycling, isn’t it? Regular neighbourhoods inhabited by regular folks, people carrying groceries from cars, arriving for a friend’s birthday party.
Finding a concretely segregated bike path over the Pulaski Bridge and the novelty of waiting for the drawbridge to flatten after a boat had passed by underneath while all manner of bicycle waited patiently was an unexpected delight. Who knew bike riding in Queens could inspire such joy.
The Citi Bike also made Central Park lighter work, although the machine’s heft meant the hills were slightly tougher than usual. And no, that had nothing to do with the fact that since landing at JFK, featuring the least inviting airport arrival hall of all-time by the way, I had not stopped eating.
Overall experience of cycling in New York: Better than expected. A rating of four out of four limbs still intact.
Do say: You literally can’t buy anything for $4 in New York so getting a bike ride for that price is a great deal.
Don’t say: Hey! I’m
walking cycling here!
Personally, Chicago felt like New York except I won’t develop a major mental illness within three weeks of being there. The intensity of the unending high-rises is replaced by wider boulevards, a horizon-busting lake and all-round friendlier faces. In return for free accommodation I looked after someone’s cat via a housesitting app. The cat was a bit of a pain in the arse but the northerly-located condominium provided me with the opportunity to Divvy bike my way down Lake Shore Drive every day.
Gorgeously 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 car-free infrastructure designed especially for you. Nice one, Chicago. Throughout the rest of the city, I found Chicago drivers to be fairly impatient on the whole? But I also feel I spent more time on the roads here more than anywhere else, so take that judgement with a pinch of salt. The Divvy day pass costs $15 (the same as the Citi Bike in New York) but crucially doesn’t limit you to 30-minutes of riding at a time, instead providing three hours to explore wherever your legs can pedal you. The regular pricing is a $1 unlock fee and then $0.16 per minute – so still a monetary time trial, a race against the lightening of your pocket.
Biking in Chicago was easy, fun and felt safe, which is a good thing as it seemed like it took a minimum two buses to get anywhere and don’t get me started on the elevated railway, which spirals out of a peculiar loop system that at first glance makes little sense and is easy to get lost on.
Overall experience of cycling in Chicago: An American city where the bike is second only to the car.
Do say: Divvy bikes, deep dish, Da Bears.
Don’t say: Any of the Chicago sports team would have more hope of winning the Tour de France than their own respective league.
Coming from an adult man who only realised that ponies weren’t just baby horses well into his twenties, forgive me for thinking that California was sunny all the time. Sure, it’s a big state, but I just presumed in America you kept going west 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 unequal one.
Bay Wheels, San Francisco’s pre-eminent bike-sharing system was up there with New York in terms of how readily available bikes and docks were, and had the bonus of featuring models with paint jobs designed by various artists to spice up your ride. The ride down The Embarcadero is great fun, even if some of the bike lanes positioned between regular driving lanes (see below) are fairly nerve-jangling, especially in the wet.
Swapping out an analogue machine for an e-bike near the Golden Gate Bridge not only allowed me to get over the water before any Imp of the Perverse could kick in and also provide a less exhausting journey up the hill on the other side for breathtaking views of the city. Hilly places are generally the enemy of these heavy public bikes, designed to last rather than to perform, but having electronic assistance means you don’t even need to burn off that burrito you just devoured, it can sit there uncomfortably in your stomach all day long!
Overall experience of cycling in San Francisco: Probably better when it’s not December.
Do say: I want to see a WorldTour one-day classic in San Francisco.
Don’t say: Can I get a sandwich please but any chance you have one that costs less than $17?
I’m sorry if this upsets you but Los Angeles sucks. Plain and simple.
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 are less inviting than the prospect of being Mark Cavendish’s mechanic at the 2021 Tour de France.
After an hour-long bus to Santa Monica, and then another hour attempting and failing 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 a cost of $1.75 it was the cheapest service I’d experienced so far and the weather was finally warm enough that I had need to take my coat off and store it in the front basket. Plus, the ride through the beach was fun. I promise I’m not a completely miserable git. And I must admit I did enjoy one thing about Los Angeles: leaving.
Overall experience of cycling in Los Angeles: Riding a bike made me forget I was in Los Angeles for a moment.
Do say: At least the palm trees are…tall?
Don’t say: If I ever have to come back here I think I’ll cry.