The best way to see a city is from a bicycle, writes Paul Steely White, who names his top bike-friendly cities.
To get to know a city, you have to travel through it and feel its friction. Walking is a bit slow for my taste, and leaves you with sore feet. Driving is too fast and impersonal. To me, there's nothing as scintillating as discovering a city by bicycle: it's the perfect medium, just the right speed to take in passing glances, unexpected smells, and snippets of conversation. Experiencing a great city from the stuffy seat of a tourist bus is like licking an icecream cone through cellophane.
Some cities rise above the rest in terms of making it easy to explore by bike.
My favourite cycling cities have three things in common: varied terrain, waterfront destinations, and extensive networks of safe paths.
1. My hometown of New York City is flat as a pancake, but boasts bridges and a few good hills in the Bronx, plus a varied shoreline full of great destinations. With nearly 500km of bike lanes added in recent years, about 500,000 New Yorkers ride regularly, and our public bike-share system Citi Bike sees more than 80,000 rides on a good day. The Hudson River Greenway — the most popular bike path in the United States — is a gem in a growing network of bridge paths, protected bike lanes and car-free waterfront greenways.
2. Cape Town has it all, and like New York, enjoys a diversity of culture from its roots as a melting-pot port city. Riding through the historic, hilly and multicultural Bo Kaap, high above the city bowl, remains one of my fondest urban rides.
Cape Town has made great strides in recent years with its growing bike lane network, car-free pedestrian spaces, and lively events where you can park your bike and take a break from the threat and stink of traffic.
3. One day I hope to visit Seville, Spain, and enjoy a bike picnic on the banks of the Guadalquivir. This Andalusian capital is the poster child of what's possible when cyclists are treated like first-class citizens. It's famous for its rapid installation of 120km of bike paths that criss-cross the city and connect to the river's revitalised waterfront. Biking popularity shot up more than 10-fold in a decade and now makes up 10 per cent of all trips, proving the universal adage that if you build safe infrastructure, cyclists (and tourists) will come — and in droves.
4. Auckland absolutely ticks the boxes for varied terrain, a highly attractive waterfront, interesting destinations and historic neighbourhoods. I'm looking forward to seeing how much more bikeable it's become in the five years since my last visit, and am excited to explore the new world-class bike paths, especially Lightpath/Te Ara I Whiti, the Waterview Path and further afield.
It's great to see Auckland joining the growing international movement of cities catering for people on bikes, whether residents or visitors, and reaping the many rewards, thanks to the work of local bike advocates, elected leadership, and enlightened bureaucrats.
Before venturing forth to discover the world's great bike cities, why not rediscover your own city, and your sense of wonder, by hopping on a bike right here?
Paul Steely White is the director of Transportation Alternatives, the streets advocacy organisation reclaiming New York's streets for walking, biking, and public transport. He's giving a free public talk in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter on the evening of Thursday, July 19, on How We Win Change.