Published July 25, 2013
America's 19 best city bike paths
America's 19 best city bike paths
Although they lag behind their European counterparts, American cities are becoming more and more bike-friendly. A growing number are launching bike sharing schemes—New York and Chicago being the latest—and bike lanes continue to grow in mileage nationwide.
While bike lanes are nice (when they’re not blocked by double-parked cars, that is), nothing quite puts cycling on par with driving like a dedicated bike path. A great path can make city cycling a truly different experience: you can skip traffic, commune with nature and see the city from a new angle. In some cases, paths can even get you out of town as fast as you can pedal.
Some bike paths, naturally, stand out for truly elevating the quality of life in their cities. The 19 we found—some of which we’ve ridden ourselves—ought to be celebrated and emulated, and even built upon and improved.
To determine which ones meet this standard, though, we first had to ask what makes a great bike path.
For starters, many on our list are important commuting arteries that give cyclists direct access to business districts while avoiding city traffic and making few street crossings. A few, like Boston’s Minuteman Bikeway or Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail, were even designed, in part, to bring commuters in from the suburbs where they’d otherwise be out of reach of mass transit.
Almost all are paved, and those that aren’t are well surfaced with finely crushed rock and graded for ease of riding.
Most importantly, though, a great bike path is separate from traffic for all or most of its length. Our selections, for the most part, are rail trails, which are former railway lines that have been paved over and converted for non-motorized use. With one exception that was too good to leave out—San Francisco’s Embarcadero, in case you’re wondering—these paths are only occasionally broken by segments where cyclists have to share the road with cars. (All but one are multi-use, though, meaning they’re open to pedestrians, inline skaters, and, in some cases, horses.)
They also happen to be exceptionally beautiful. All but three of these bike paths run alongside a body of water, and almost all are bounded by parkland, giving cyclists a decidedly non-urban respite from the stress of city riding.
We also looked at other factors: Does the path offer exceptional views of, and access to, the city? Is it good for recreational riders and tourists? Does the city take pride in it?
While there’s no objective way to say one bike path is the best, we will say these are all strong contenders and there are doubtless many more we missed. Let us know in the comments.
Bayshore Bikeway—San Diego
How many bike paths end with a boat ride? An ambitious project conceived in the 1970s and only just now nearing completion, the Bayshore Bikeway is a 25-mile loop encircling San Diego Bay, the last portion of which is a ferry connection between Coronado and San Diego. The majority of the palm tree-lined path is separate from traffic—in its current state, just under half of the bikeway uses bike lanes on city streets—and planners hope it may one day prove to be a faster way for many people to commute between cities than the freeway. For now, the path mostly serves recreational purposes.
Marvin Braude Bike Trail—Greater Los Angeles
The car is king in Los Angeles, but if you want to skip the highways and surface streets, there’s always 22 miles of beachfront riding on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail. It begins at Will Rogers State Beach in the Pacific Palisades and passes through Santa Monica, Venice and other beachside cities all the way to Torrance—rarely out of sight of shore.
The Loop/Rillito River Path—Tucson, Ariz.
While not yet complete, this ambitious 55-mile multi-use loop around metro Tucson will connect several existing greenways into a single continuous path that passes within a mile of 60 percent of the region’s population, county administrator C.H. Huckleberry told a local news station. One of those greenways, the Rillito River Path runs along both sides of the (mostly dry) river of the same name and is mostly paved for its 12 miles, skirting the Catalina Foothills in the north of the city. Well used by cyclists, joggers and horseback riders alike, the popular trail showcases the desert scenery in this bike-friendly city.
Lake Monona Bike Path—Madison, Wisc.
The 13-mile paved loop around Lake Monona isn’t separated from traffic for its entire length, but it will take you through downtown Madison, one of the most bikeable cities in the country. Because there are relatively few hills, you can take in the entire lake in only an hour to an hour and a half, during which you’ll get plenty of views of the Capitol and pass by a popular picnic spot, the University Arboretum, and other paths in Madison’s extensive network.
Mount Vernon Trail—Northern Virginia
While not technically in the District of Columbia, this 17-mile paved path starts a footbridge away from Washington’s Theodore Roosevelt Island and gives a panoramic view of the city’s monuments from just across the Potomac. Before ending at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate, the trail grazes Reagan National Airport and Arlington National Cemetery, and passes through the city of Alexandria. The southern part takes cyclists through a wooded, marshy nature preserve, so riders can fill up on peace and quiet before heading back and taking one of the connecting paths into the capital.
The Embarcadero and Golden Gate Bridge—San Francisco
If you’ve ever wondered how this famously hilly city consistently ends up on lists of most bikeable cities, look no further than its network of low ground-seeking bike lanes and paths. The city’s most scenic bike route also follows this pattern, tracing the shoreline along the Embarcadero for just over two miles—beware, this section is only a bike lane—before feeding into SF Bike Route 2 (yes, there are numbered bike routes here) and then eventually, the Golden Gate Bridge, the west sidewalk of which is for bikes only. Not only does this path circumscribe a generous portion of the city, but it showcases the best of San Francisco: you’ll pass Fisherman’s Wharf, the sea lions at Pier 39, and Telegraph Hill, all while taking in gorgeous views of the bay.
Schuylkill River Trail—Philadelphia
Called the best bike path in Philly by Philadelphia Weekly, the 23-mile Schuylkill River Trail is a boon to commuters entering the city from Montgomery County, residents looking for a scenic shortcut through parts of downtown, and recreational cyclists making a weekend escape. The path winds unbroken, except for two short segments, all the way to Valley Forge National Historical Park.
American River Bike Trail—Sacramento
A paved 32-mile route from downtown Sacramento to neighboring Folsom, this wide, multi-use path traces the American River through parks, scenic bends, wildlife areas, and even over a functional small-scale replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. With few road crossings, flat terrain (at least on the Sacramento end), and mile markers, this trail is a favorite for commuters and those looking to escape the city on a weekend ride.
Willamette River Trail—Eugene, Ore.
It’s no mistake that Nike’s hometown has miles upon miles of trails dedicated to running and biking. This outdoors-loving home of the University of Oregon is one of two cities on this list to feature a Willamette River-centric path. Running for a combined 12 miles on both sides of the river (there are four crossings), this paved path has quarter-mile markers and gives access to parks, the university and a mall. It's also within blocks of several of the city’s famed breweries.
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