05/18/2010 06:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bikes are a City's Indicator Species

Just as the fate of the seemingly lowly frog serves as a bellwether of the health of an ecosystem, the presence of bikes can tell you a lot about a community. First, a city with more bikes is likely safer, since people are comfortable being out on the streets. Its residents are likely healthier and more active -- even the recent White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity report to the president called for increased biking twice in its recommendations. And it's also a more green-minded metropolis, since people are of a mind to occasionally pedal for short trips instead of driving (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that as many as 40% of car trips are 2 miles or less, a distance my mom could bike -- several times a day).

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood understands the importance of biking, as he made clear in March outlining the DoT's new policy statement, an unprecedented and momentous (to those of us in the bike world, anyway) recommendation that bicycling and walking be treated as modes of transportation equal to driving. There are also dozens of mayors and many local officials who have worked hard and fast in recent years to make their cities significantly more bike-friendly with bike lanes, signs and other indications to all road users that bicyclists belong there, as Bicycling found recently when naming its top 50 Bike Friendly Cities. In #1 Minneapolis, they often plow the bikeways clear of snow before the streets in winter. On Earth Day, Denver, #12, launched the first large-scale public-use bike sharing program in the U.S., based on the successful Paris Velib model. In New York City, #8 on our list, the City is taming some avenues with protected bike lanes, which separate cyclists from traffic using a lane of parked cars -- riding in one you suddenly feel like you've left the urban jungle for a biketopia like Copenhagen, Denmark (where 40% of all trips are by bike). And even business leaders are on board: #34 Columbus, Ohio, hosted a ceremonial bike ride with 70 area CEOs to celebrate National Bike to Work Week.

According to recently released figures from the U.S. Census American Community Survey, bike commuting is up 36% since 2005. But for all the good news, and there's a lot of it, the reality is that only 0.55% of Americans regularly commute by bike. Some of the old reasons given for why the United States simply isn't as bikeable as, say, Europe still hold true: We have more rugged terrain and often much longer distances to travel. But in our cities, they are building it and the bicycle riders are coming. Within the next decade or so, it's quite possible that places like Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin, will have more than 10% of their citizens biking regularly for transportation. And if the bicyclists thrive, chances are we all will.