City Ratings for Biking Tells Us How to Improve Our Cities

Provincetown wins by a mile, Davis follows, and then there are surprises.

 Cabaret performer Lip-Schtick bicycles through downtown Provincetown
Cabaret performer Lip-Schtick bicycles through downtown Provincetown.

Paul Marotta / Getty Images

People for Bikes, an advocacy group with the mission of getting people riding bikes more often, issued its 6th annual North American City Ratings, which it calls "a data driven program to evaluate, identify, and compare the best cities and towns for bicycling." After evaluating more than 1,000 cities and towns, Provincetown, Massachusetts, came up on top with a whopping score of 81— anything over 50 is considered a great place to bike.

The city rating is created using People for Bikes' Bicycle Network Analysis score (BNA), which measures the quality of the bicycle network and makes up 80% of the rating grade, and a Community Survey Score, which is based on an online survey and makes up 20% of the rating.

When writing recently about the Economist Intelligence Unit's criteria for the most livable cities, I complained its criteria didn't include the quality of cycling infrastructure. Although this report just covers the U.S. and Canada, it has BNA data for cities around the world. However, there are questions about the criteria used by People for Bikes as well.

The BNA score rates streets as high or low stress, and whether people can bike from homes to jobs, stores, or schools on low-stress routes, and comes up with a score between 1 and 100. Provincetown is apparently really low-stress; you can get almost everywhere on a bike except for transit hubs.

Provincetown Community Survey
The community score of Provincetown, MA.

People For Bikes

Yet when you scroll down to see the community score, what riders say seems to differ a bit in terms of stress, with the question of how safe people feel riding in the city getting only 35 out of 100.

When you look at the results from the top large American cities—the press release doesn't include Canadian cities—Brooklyn has an overall score of 63, with significantly lower access in every category except transit hubs and significantly lower retail access.

Brooklyn Community Score
The community score of Brooklyn.

People for Bikes

When you scroll down to the community score based on surveys, riders give safety a significantly higher rating than they did in the top-rated Provincetown—and I can attest that riding a bike in Brooklyn is not for the faint-hearted. There seems to be a real split between the hard data on stress-free routes calculated from maps in the BNA score and the more subjective Community Survey Score.

Separated bike lane in residential area, montreal
Separated bike lane in a residential area in Montreal, Canada.

Lloyd Alter

The press release listed the top 5 large cities and scores: Brooklyn (63), San Francisco (61), Seattle (59), Queens (56), and Portland (54). But there is an interesting story being told by looking at all the North American large cities, where five of the top 10 are in Canada, with Montreal coming first with a score of 65. Four out of the five Canadian cities are really cold, including Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, and Quebec City; only Vancouver could be considered temperate.

Community survey Score
The community score of Montreal.

People For Bikes

Once again, the Community Survey Score surprises. Montreal has an extensive network of fully separated bike lanes, yet still, riders give it a lower score for safety than you get in Brooklyn, which must be full of very hardy and brave riders.

Even in the city where I live—Toronto with its dismal 45 score overall where we risk our lives every time we get on a bike—the community score for safety is 45, higher than Provincetown.

There are some interesting anomalies and questions that come out of this. As far as I can tell, the study doesn't measure other factors like climate or terrain that would significantly affect how a city works for riders. So, comfortable Davis, California, has the second-highest rating overall at 72, and according to data from the American Community Survey, 17.48% of the people there commute by bike, which is by far the highest in the country. The top-rated big city, Montreal, has a score just slightly lower at 65, and according to the Canadian census, 7.2% of people commute. Seattle, with a score of 59 and a spot in the top 5 American big cities, has a commuting rate of only 3.8% according to, likely because of terrain.

From a policy point of view, excluding terrain or weather makes sense; cycle activists can't flatten Seattle or make Calgary as warm as Davis—although the Alberta government is certainly trying with the oil sands. The People for Bikes city ratings tell us what we can and should do to fix our cities, to make them better and less stressful for people on bikes. It will tell you which cities have the best bike networks, but it won't tell you which is the most comfortable city in which to ride with a friend on Valentine's Day. Perhaps I am asking too much of it.

View Article Sources
  1. Foersterling, Jack. "2022's Top-Ranking U.S. Cities for Bicycling." People for Bikes: City Ratings. Press release.