Are Bikes the New Tour Bus?

Many travelers opt for hop-on, hop-off tour buses to get a quick primer on a new place. As silly as it can look, and it does, it’s a useful way to get oriented when you’re visiting a destination for the first time. But there’s an alternative: biking.

The world is in the throes of a bike-path revolution. And not just in Europe. Taiwan has laid 3,000 miles of bike paths in the last decade; Bogotá has become Latin America’s king of cycling; and there’s been a veritable explosion of bike friendliness in the U.S., where 19 million bikes were sold last year. Even Swakopmund, in the heart of the Namib Desert, has bike lanes.

Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, says lanes that offer a barrier between bikes and cars are not only safer but they “make cities better places to live and work, and attract people and jobs.”

But the question is, why leave it to locals to have all the fun?

Ten or 15 years ago, whenever I arrived in a new place, I’d ask where I could find the subway, a central plaza, or a DIY T-shirt shop. Nowadays — whether I’m in Ontario’s wine country or hopping off the train for a day in Denver – my first question has become “where can I get a bike?”

I don’t bike for biking’s sake. I bike because biking’s the best way to see a place. It’s more fun than public transit, quicker than walking (or horse cart, as I learned in Bagan), and cheaper than taxis or renting a car – not to mention better for the environment. What’s more, biking allows you to access sides of cities you wouldn’t otherwise see.

I had lived in New York City a decade before I took a bike up the Hudson River Park Bikeway. I saw things I didn’t know existed, like out-of-view softball fields, riverside anglers, and a little red lighthouse tucked below George Washington Bridge. What’s more, I was reminded, after years lost in Midtown skyscraper canyons, that New York down deep is a river city.

Bikes are a daily part of life in some parts of the world. While at a conference in Copenhagen, for example, I joined well-dressed, helmet-less commuters on bike lanes to see the sights. Famously, Amsterdam has more bikes than people, due to its efforts to de-emphasize car traffic in the ‘70s (this charming video tells the story).

A few months ago, I went from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., with the Millennial Trains Project, making a handful of stops along the way. Following David Byrne’s example, I brought a foldable bike (which you can check as regular luggage on most planes and trains) with me and rode straight off the platform into the city centers. It was an eye-opening experience.

In Pittsburgh, I reached the Cathedral of Learning by cycling along two of the city’s famed three rivers — and the time I spent in D.C. had never been more rewarding. As a pedestrian, the walk between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol seemed like an epic trek because everything is so spread out along the Mall. But by bike, I made leisurely stops at the various monuments honoring Jefferson, FDR, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Washington — and all within the span of an hour. The experience is easily replicated via the District’s well-organized bike-share system.

Biking just makes for better travel.

I bike because it’s double the trip — you lock onto paths often used by locals, you get exercise, and you feel like you’re cheating by getting away on your own power so quickly. Those reluctant to leave the bus tours can consider spandex. That way, you’re sure to still be pointed at as you whiz past.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.

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