When I heard that Bicycling Magazine gave Chicago second place in its “America’s Best Bike Cities” ratings, just behind New York and two slots above Portland, I was puzzled. However, I’m starting to warm up to the idea that our city and NYC deserve credit for taking bold action to improve cycling.
Few people would argue that Chicago, where dangerous driving and torn-up pavement are commonplace, is currently a more pleasant place to cycle than Portland, which fell to fourth place from its top ranking in 2012. Plus, our bike commute mode share — the percentage of trips to work made by bicycle — is only 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey. That’s less than a quarter of the Rose City’s 6.1 percent.
New York’s 2012 mode share was even less than ours, at only one percent. Minneapolis, with a mode share of 3.8 percent, took third place this year — down a notch from second in Bicycling’s 2012 rankings. Washington, D.C., whose mode share was 3.6 percent, dropped from fourth place to fifth. Chicago was in fifth place last time.
These kinds of magazine ratings largely exist to boost newsstand sales, and Bicycling’s current rankings shake-up has already succeeded in garnering plenty of ink from other publications. One could argue that the Best Bike Cities ratings are arbitrary, and a little silly, but they do have a purpose. They create competition between the leading cities, and encourage less bike-friendly towns to improve. For example, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has made cracking Bicycling’s top-ten rankings a signature goal.
Rahm Emanuel has taken notice of the new ratings. “Chicago is a national leader in building new and improved cycling facilities, and we are setting a new standard for other cities to follow,” he said in a statement today. “This new ranking by Bicycling Magazine demonstrates that Chicago is on the right path to becoming the best cycling city in America.”
Frankly, I was a little disappointed by this relatively humble response from the mayor who bragged two years ago that he planned to take all of Seattle’s bikers and tech jobs. Since the Emerald City came in at eighth place this year, Emanuel missed a chance to razz his former deputy transportation chief Scott Kubly, who recently defected to become Seattle’s commissioner.
While Bicycling’s rankings are subjective, they do have some quantitative backbone. New York and Chicago got credit for having steadily rising rates of bike commuting. Between 2000 and 2012, Chicago’s mode share rose more than 150 percent, from 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, while Portland and Minneapolis’ mode shares have leveled off in recent years. The 2013 Census estimates, due later this month, are likely to show further improvement in Chicago and NYC.