A decade ago, riding a bike in Washington, D.C., could be a lonely experience. "One of the things we hear from our long-time members and bike commuters is they remember pulling up to the traffic signal and being the only person on a bike," says Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. "There may not have been a bike lane. There certainly weren't any other people nearby. That's just not the case anymore."
Since 2005, the percentage of bike commuters in D.C. has more than tripled, to 4%. It now ranks second in a ranking of the big cities where people bike the most, according to a new benchmarking report from the Alliance for Biking and Walking. For "active transportation" in general, including people who walk to work, it ranks first, tied with Boston at 16.7%.
San Francisco follows, then Seattle, Portland, New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Baltimore.
D.C.'s success didn't happen by chance. Ten years ago, when the city had 17 miles of bike lanes, it made a master plan calling for 60 miles of completed lanes by 2015. Last year, the 69th mile was built. Capital Bikeshare, one of the country's most successful bike share programs, started running in 2010. That same year, a bike lane was built down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, in view of the White House.
The culture has shifted, too. "Everybody from your employer to the place where you live is starting to really think about how to make biking possible, and every year we see more people doing it," says Billing.
It's something that's also happening in other cities, as better infrastructure makes it safer to ride and fewer city dwellers have cars. Walking to work—at least in the biggest cities—is also slowly increasing, from an average of 4.4% in 2005 to 5% in 2013. (In places such as Alaska, where more people walk to work than in New York state, pedestrian rates are high not because of better infrastructure but because many people can't afford to drive).
In states where people are more actively commuting, the report found that they're also more likely to be a little healthier—fewer people have diabetes, fewer have hypertension, and fewer are obese.
"It really just requires 22 minutes a day of walking to really increase the health benefits of being active," says Christy Kwan, interim executive director for the Alliance for Biking and Walking. "It's not a huge commitment. Those who walk and bike to work are getting that physical activity."
In D.C., more people are expected to switch to active transportation as infrastructure continues to grow. Right now, the city's rate of cycling is about 12 times smaller than in a city such as Copenhagen. "We still have decades of work to do to build out a full low-stress protected bike lane network," says Billing. "But every year the bike lanes and projects that do get put in just encourage that many more people to ride."